Friday, March 19, 2010

Accessibility and Plainspokenness in Poetry, Redux

As just noted in a comment, I feel irritated that everyone is focusing on an aside I made about a personal preference, as though it were the whole point of my post and I was trying to make prescriptive rules for what's allowed and what's not in poetry.

Because everyone is leaping to the defense of the word "stone," no one is responding to the part that I thought was interesting: the conflation of plainspokenness with accessibility, and whether they're actually separate qualities.

I have two questions, gentle readers:
  1. Anyone have any thoughts on this matter?
  2. Do y'all seriously think I would ban the word "stone"?

40 comments:

  1. i liked your post--so much so, i couldn't think of anything to add. i mostly only like to talk about what i disagree with.

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  2. Ha, that could be in the manifesto of the commenter. Don't bother unless you disagree!

    I tend to digress a lot when I write, I realize. And talk. I guess it's inevitable that people will sometimes focus on a digression.

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  3. It's a little strange that so few people picked up on the fact that you "admit" you wrote a poem using "pools of grief" after reading Mayhew's post. That seems like clear evidence you're not advocating that any words, including "stone," be banned from poetry forever.

    I found the comments about using the moon in poems fascinating.

    Also, if you ever do decide to start banning words in poetry, I vote for "akimbo," especially when people stand with their "arms akimbo." Seriously. That irks me immensely.

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  4. I haven't seen "akimbo" in many poems, but I saw it a lot in YA books.

    The thing I hate is when people grin in books. Wipe that grin off your face, smug-ass character.

    John doesn't like when poems feature herons. I think it's probably harder to pull of a heron (without seeming hopelessly poemy) than the moon.

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  5. "standing with arms akimbo" is the only way to use akimbo! (well, maybe it could also be done with legs, but that's a stretch...(get it? stretch? wocka wocka wocka).)

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  7. what would you use in place of grin? it seems like the most basic word for what it describes...like rock!

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  8. The heron thing is another MFA workshop affectation. When I took workshops with Carolyn Forché at GMU, she passed out this handout of rules for poetry that advocating always using a specific noun in place of a general one.

    So a tree becomes a birch a flower becomes a daisy a bird becomes a heron. Apparently, that will make your poem instantly better.

    Which is not to say that I don't like specific detail. I do. I just like it to make sense/have a purpose.

    In Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen uses the phrase "arms akimbo" three times. It almost ruined the entire book for me.

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  9. Hmm ... "that advocating" should be "that advocated," obviously.

    That's what I get for posting comments at work when I'm supposed to be teaching the children.

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  10. Now I have to backtrack again. 1% of the time, "grin" is used the way it's meant to be used. The rest of the time it's just really lazy writing used to suggest that a character is being facetious or that what they are saying is meant to be funny, when it actually isn't, e.g.:

    "I thought you said you wanted an adventure," Todd said, and shot her a sly grin.

    In other words, it only adds meaning because the dialogue sucks so bad.

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  11. see, there, i think the problem is more the shot/sly combo. the whole phrase makes it seem lame, and i know what you mean.

    sounds like you're just reading too many bad books! :)

    i think this is a good use of grin:

    "Finch looked at him for several moments. Then he grinned. 'You son-of-a-bitch,' he said cheerfully. 'We'd better see Lomax now.' He opened the door, beckoned, and Lomax came into the room."

    --Stoner, by John Williams

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  12. Yes. I approve of that usage. It actually conveys information.

    Once I see a sloppy use of "grin" I put the book down (see The Emperor's Children). But I'm mostly remembering it from shitty YA books I read as a kid, and the time I reviewed a chick lit book.

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  13. i'm impressed that you were able to recognize YA books as shitty when you yourself were a YA. i used to love all the star trek books. only recently did i look at them again and find out the writing is really terrible. #disappointmentofalifetime

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  14. I didn't think they were that shitty at the time. I read Christopher Pike and everything. I just recognize it now when I look back and remember all the pointless grinning that went on. I don't really care if YA books are written that way, but when I see the same tactics being used in a book supposedly meant for adults, I get pissy.

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  15. I use stone because my use of language in my poems is more soft than sharp. When I am wanting that particular line, especially in a prose poem, to have a moan feel to it, I use stone. Sometimes I use this to contrast against the position the rock/stone is taking, as in "i tripped over a small black stone." But I'm all about dampening everything in my writing anyway.

    Besides, stone rhymes with poem.

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  16. Clearly, y'all really do think the rock vs. stone thing is the most interesting part of the post. :)

    See, I think that line is a little "precious." It makes me think you live in Poemland, where there are no rocks, only small black stones.

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  17. There are also lots of cicadas in Poemland. Or maybe that's Fictionland. Cicadas, and it's twilight, when the stones are luminous. When I was (a little) younger, all my stories were in twilight and populated by loud insects.

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  18. Ah yes, twilight ... when the last starlings have wheeled and luminous/numinous stars begin to twinkle.

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  19. Yes matt, you're absolutely right. In my Poemland, slant rhymes are real rhymes. Sometimes I forget that not everyone lives in my Poemland.

    And Elisa, the stone thing isn't necessarily the most important part of the post, just a tangible point people can easily react to. Glad you think that line's a little precious, it from a poem about Poemland, for realz.

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  20. speaking of twilight, gloaming rhymes with poeming.

    (just having a little fun here folks.)

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  21. One problem, maybe, is that you've allowed a certain kind of crummy poem to dictate what defines for you a "poemy" word. A quick perusal of a few volumes on the shelf next to my desk reveals that Bruce Andrews, J.H. Prynne, Ron Silliman and Lisa Robertson have used the word "stone" in their poems --and not one of these poets, I think, could be accused of writing "poemy" poems. Just a thought.

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  22. When I was very young, my parents had a dog who would only exercise if they took her out on a country road, dropped her off, and drove away. The dog would chase them back and, being too panicked to slow down lest it get left behind, would defecate while chasing them. They called her "Turds Akimbo."

    Oh, and I don't equate plainspeak and accessibility. Most accessible plainspoken poets are deadly boring to me, though.

    I think of stone as a substance and rock as an object.

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  23. Not Lon: But I was talking specifically about the "poemy" usage, when I said I hated it (note: words betraying bias and preference). The problem seems to be that everyone thinks I'm trying to ban the word "stone" from poetry. I never said that anywhere.

    SDS: Wow. Awesome.

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  24. Also, it seems natural to use a crummy poem to dictate what defines "poemy," because "poemy" means it reminds you of crummy poems.

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  25. Sure, it's natural to use crummy poems to define what is "poemy". My point is that said usage doesn't exhaust the poetic possibilities of a word like "stone". Retiring a word because crummy poets like it grants them vastly more power than they deserve, imo.

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  26. That's why you have to admit that I never suggested it should be retired. Never ever. Admit it. Admit it or I'll stone you!

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  27. It occurs to me I don't mind being rocked.

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  28. Has anyone mentioned yet that rock and stone aren't synonyms? I'm too lazy to look through all the comments.

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  29. Ha ha, Dax FTW. I like SS's comment that a rock is an object and stone is a material. Though clearly a stone can be an object (skipping stone, stepping stone), I would never question the use of stone as a mass noun.

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  30. Yeah, the substance/object thing is tenuous since they can both be both. Oh well, I do use them that way.

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  31. Elisa, thanks so much for generating such an interesting and useful conversation. I think you're absolutely right to question the conflation of plainspokenness and accessibility. I don't believe there's an inherent connection there. What constitutes "plain" is wholly dependent on cultural/historical circumstance. And familiar vocabulary/syntax doesn't guarantee that meaning will be conveyed with ease. I wonder if it would be helpful to flip the notion around slightly. How accessible is the reader? Some are as inaccessible as the most convoluted, strained, or condescending poem. I don't mean this in regard to a reader's education, familiarity with poetic traditions, etc., but more in the sense of a willingness to be placed in a position of struggle, where one has to work his or her way through language. The poem and the reader bear equal responsibility, at least when it comes to attempting to engage each other. A reader shouldn't automatically shy away from the unfamiliar, any more than a poet should make his language unfamiliar just to sound more "poetic."

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  32. Thanks so much for your comment, Peter! I really enjoyed your post, and love the idea of the "inaccessible reader." I feel frustrated when people seem unwilling to accept a poem on its own terms or meet it halfway, but have never thought to formulate it in that way.

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  33. I agree that plainspokenness and accessibility aren't identical.

    Robert Creeley is an example of a poet whose work seems to me to resemble common speech (maybe a difficult hesitant version of it) and is at the same time not easily accessible a lot of the time.

    Charles Olson is another example, in his case a kind of speech that interrupts itself frequently, changes direction, digression upon digression. I've found (with Olson's poetry) that it's easier to hear this if I read the poems out loud than if I read them silently. Again I find his poetry very difficult at first, though sometimes his poems will start to open for me if I can hear the speech in them.

    *

    legs akimbo
    the heron grins
    at the moon

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  34. I find Olson very intimidating.

    Good poem!

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  35. Test case: Gertrude Stein invariably uses the simplest words in English.

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  36. Elisa, I really liked your html post. It's interesting + important to think about, this stuff. In some contexts poemy words or theory-speak are more highly valued, in some affectless plain-spokenness makes you hip, but who cares really, right? Write what's in your head. I think students often reach for "poemy" words because they're shorthand to the mind to switch tracks: you're reading a "serious poem" now. They're not so much words as signposts, amulets. There's a lot of baggage to "stone" and maybe you want to call up that baggage, lyrically or cynically or whatever. As an ESL poet, I often reach for the "simple" words because they give me a venue to mess with the American reader who's all like, oh, here's a magical furriner showing us how to speak Simply and Purely again, and then I hit them with some emoticons or some Actual Beauty or whatever. (Or so I hope). Also, I do love the liberating Zen camp of "stone" and "soul" and "bone" and I think as ESL I have a permission slip to use them more often maybe, so I do. (So does anyone.)

    But I really do think that plain-speak is just as hard to pull off right as complex-speak in poems and, yes, it has nothing to do with the poems' actual complexity. Apparent artlessness is also a style. Billy Collins has a style, I doubt he's as ruddy-faced as he comes across in his Lightverse (TM). Or, you mention Stevens every now and then, so how about Domination of Black? http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/domination-of-black/ Repetitive plainness, with hemlocks and peacocks calling up some haute baggage, but overall this is "simple" shit, yet it gives me the creeps, and tells me so much about nonsense and lyricism and Yeats and modernism that I'm feeling sick.

    Viva Elisa for writing about this stuff.

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  38. "arms akimbo"
    sounds like something
    on a menu

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