Saturday, May 7, 2011

A little less meaning, please, Johnson, or, Why nobody reads poetry

A poet asked MetaFilter why many ardent readers choose not to read poetry. A selection of the responses:
  • "When I read poetry, I feel like I really have to concentrate and pay attention to each word."
  • "Poetry can seem very pretentious"
  • "Another problem I find is that I have met so many insufferable poets"
  • "Reading poetry takes more of an effort, and seems more like work"
  • "I enjoy discovering, exploring and understanding new things through reading fiction and nonfiction. Poetry--it seems to me--will only bring greater understanding of one particular person's inner thoughts and feelings: the poet."
  • "I read fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy, because I want to think about new ideas. The stories I really love are the ones that show me something that's never occurred to me ... Without pointing any fingers or insulting anyone's craft, poetry just hasn't done that for me."
  • "Digging through the bad poetry to find the good stuff, is certainly not a good use of time. I devoured all the books by Terry Pratchett. They were fun. What poetry is fun like that?"
  • "This is going to sound stupid, but I think part of it for me it's the columnar format/line breaking of most poetry. If you could take a poem and put it in paragraph form, I would be more likely to attempt to read it. I guess though at that point it becomes prose."
  • "I find it too dense with meaning and associations."
  • "I read mostly nonfiction because I think when I read, I want to sit down and learn something - what life is like in North Korea or how to become more productive."
  • "I have a strong sense that it is contrived."
  • "I usually have to read it three times just to figure out how to emphasize the right words so it rhymes. And then rearrange some of the sentences to form actual understandable English, and then ponder out what all the metaphors and similies and symbolisms are supposed to mean"
  • "Why should I spend some of my precious leisure time trying to crack a bit of meaning from language deliberately crafted to be a kind of puzzle?"
  • "Poetry always feels like it's about the poet; good prose is about the story."
  • "Mostly, the insufferable introspection, the navel-gazing, the disregard for meter or rhythm, the sticky-poignant high-school girl quality of it, and the fact that I just don't plain like the word 'poetry.'"
  • "Poetry is too self indulgent, too obsessed with the minutiae"
  • "It's the rare poem which feels whole and bright but also edgy, revealing, tender, and vulnerable. When that happens- God Damn! Poetry is amazing. But I really don't find it that much, though I would love to find more of it."
The first statement and the last (in this list, not the full thread) are the only ones that ring true. Poetry does require more concentration than prose, and you do have to read every word. And yes, most of it fails. Everything else is a rationalization. (Poetry is not only about the poet's feelings any more than music is only about the musician's feelings; poetry is not a puzzle you need to translate into English any more than music is a puzzle you need to translate into English; TV is strongly contrived; good poetry is full of ideas, etc.) Most people don't read poetry for the same reason they don't read art books or listen to classical music: because they would have no idea where to start. In other words, most people don't read poetry because most people don't read poetry. We live in a prose culture; poetry is hopelessly sub-.

P.S. After writing this I see that one bloke (I can call him a bloke because he uses the word "whilst") did answer thus: "It's because I don't know where to start."


  1. Yup, that's me alright. I could read your poetry, but can't imagine enjoying that more than reading your blog; your experience without structure.

    That's the good stuff.

  2. All perfectly valid criticisms of certain poets/poetry. Every poet should print off this list and pin it above their desk. A checklist to connecting with the average reader perhaps.

    I work in a bookshop, with intelligent, voracious readers, and most of them still claim they don't understand poetry. I don't know if it's the same over there, but here in the UK, I've always felt that there's the perception of a 'trick' to poetry, and that once you've been taught that, you'll suddenly 'get it'. Nonsense! I think people who have had poetry forced on them in school think that they have to look for all these references/allusions etc, and that if they don't understand them all then they've failed as a reader(which is untrue-it's the poem that's failed). They've had the simple pleasure of a personal connection with the text conditioned out of them.

    Take from poetry what you will. As for the 'puzzle' element, it depends on whether you see time spent with a poem to be a chore or a savouring.

    Is there a divide between the poetry readers and the 'normal people' (as one poet recently put it at a reading I attended)? Pablo Neruda would read to audiences of thousands. When was the last time that happened?

  3. But Paul, what if connecting with the "average" reader isn't a goal for the poet? Why should poets try to connect to an "average reader" if the average reader has no desire to read poetry? Why would I write for an audience that will never read what I write?

    Does food need to be "accessible"? Should chefs cook for the average eater?

  4. And you really think "Poetry is too dense with meaning and associations" is a valid criticism? I can think of few higher compliments than "dense with meaning."

  5. I think there is a trick to "getting" poetry. Not exactly a trick, like something you consciously employ, but something like a switch that gets flipped in your brain without your trying. But the only way that switch gets flipped is by reading, and reading, and reading. It took me years. Nearly all the poetry I love today, I would have had zero interest in ten years ago. When I was 19 I could have said, "These poets are confusing. I won't read them until they write less confusingly." But instead I said, okay, let me read some more of this. And eventually the appeal just sort of "dawned on me." It doesn't mean I like everything, but if I like 10% of what I read now, that's at least 9% more than what it would be if I had never given it a chance.

    In other words, readers have to meet writers halfway. And if you go halfway and find that it still isn't for you, then that's fine. Maybe it isn't for you. I've watched entire soccer games with the best of intentions, but in the end all I saw was grass growing. It's not for me. No big deal. I have baseball.

  6. I agree. It's unreasonable for readers to expect that poetry is going to make sense to them right away if they haven't read a lot of poetry. That would be like picking up the NYT Sunday crossword and getting pissed that it's not more accessible. "You have to work up to that."

  7. Yes but I think part of the problem is that people generally don't know where to start. I agree with Paul that there's some need to disenchant poetry -- this task is probably easier in Britain because there's a tradition of relatively accessible, nearly contemporary writers like Larkin and R.S. Thomas and Don Paterson -- so that people aren't looking for the wrong things and failing to find them. The sheer _difficulty_ of contemporary American poetry in this regard -- from, say, Bishop onwards -- is probably underappreciated, virtually all of it is like the Sunday crossword and one doesn't really know where to suggest that people "work up" from.

  8. hello
    all good points. I suppose it depends on your aspirations as a poet. I don’t really mind if nobody reads my poems, but it’s nice if they do. Personally, I put accessibility quite high on my priorities list because I want to give any readers the best chance I can of understanding what I’m trying to say. To continue your analogy – I doubt you’ll find any chefs making omelettes with woodchips and sump oil and wondering why they don’t get any repeat custom. They all want their food to be palatable.

    I’m sure we’re all familiar with the baggage that comes with the term ‘average reader’, so let’s avoid that debate.

    There’s nothing wrong with being ‘dense with meaning’. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? The issue arises when it is TOO dense with meaning, to the point of putting off the reader (of course, I’m assuming were talking about academic allusion here – it’s impossible to be too dense with spiritual allusion). It’s when the academicism of the poem gets in the way of even the first surface reading that it’s a problem. I believe you should be able to read a poem straight through first time and understand it at face value without the need for extensive background research, and that simply isn’t the case for some poets.
    Take Tennyson’s Ulysses as an example. Awesome poem. You can read that straight off, completely uneducated re: mythology, and identify with all the human desires it communicates. Then, once you learn who Ulysses is/was, whole new dimensions of meaning open up. This is the right way round to do things (I’m ignoring the little hiccup where he briefly mentions Achilles. Please forgive).
    Perhaps I’m just bitter from years of showing people poems, both my own and those of poets i love, and having them handed back to me with a response of “I don’t get it”.
    Sorry this became a bit of an essay!

  9. Sarang, when I teach poetry, part of my job is to give the students somewhere to start. Usually it works. What I'm objecting to is a layperson, who doesn't know where to start, blaming poetry itself for his/her own failings to understand it or find it instantly navigable.

    I think the best approach is to have people start with contemporary or near-contemporary poetry, not the "classics" or the canon. Then travel back from there once you figure out what you like. It doesn't make sense to start with the most difficult stuff. And yes, I think older stuff is usually more difficult because you're essentially reading in dialect.

  10. Also, I really don't think all American poetry being written right now, or from the past 30 years, is especially difficult. The James Tate/Zach Schomburg school of poetry, for example, requires absolutely no schooling or outside reference to enjoy, and I've seen plenty of non-poets read them and get a lot out of them. Jen Knox and Dottie Lasky are also quite accessible, to the point that I hear people say stuff like "I don't like poetry but I do like so and so."

  11. Shafer Hall is another "non-poet's poet."

  12. You've taught the stuff so you're better qualified to judge "accessibility" than I am -- I'm surprised that there are people who dislike poetry but like Lasky. Perhaps it is almost entirely "dense" writing that people object to? (Though I've also known people to respond to poems with, "that was interesting but what was it _about_?") It's difficult to judge the accessibility of something when you know what you're looking for, of course... how self-selected are the classes you've taught?

    Re laypersons, I do think it should be possible for an interested person to find out where to start without taking a class! After all we don't teach crosswords. The poetry shelves of bookshops are relatively forbidding in my experience, the chances of stumbling upon accessible writing are slim, and it isn't entirely fair to blame people for attributing to all contemporary poetry the features they find in most of it. Maybe there's a need for better, more targeted anthologies...

  13. I actually think someone can pick up one of any number of popular anthologies and find at least one or two poets they enjoy, and branch out from there. Like the Poulin anthology I bought in college.

    If someone came to me asking for good poetry to start with, I'd recommend Frank O'Hara, James Tate and David Berman (Actual Air). And maybe Maggie Nelson's Bluets, though that's arguably lyric essay rather than poetry. Oddly, it's easier for me to think of "accessible" men. My favorite women poets are writing more difficult stuff.

  14. I guess I agree it's possible to find _one or two_ poets one likes in any popular anthology if one combs through the entire thing. It's just that, for my hypothetical curious-but-not-passionate sort of person, that seems like a bit of work. Perhaps this is an unsolvable problem but if finding poetry-you-like is a needle-in-a-haystack problem then very few people will do it.

    It is interesting how subjective "accessibility" is. I personally found O'Hara and that lot the _least_ accessible of poets, much harder than (say) Adrienne Rich or W.S. Merwin. It was hard to get past the so-what reflex.

  15. The great thing about poetry books, though, is that you DON'T have to read every single poem, top to bottom, front to back. You can skip around, reading a few lines here and there, going by title, etc., until you find something that grabs you. I don't really think it's all that hard/unreasonable.

    Personally, I think reading poetry is an intellectual activity and I don't expect most people to do it. It's like going to museums or out to hear live chamber music. (Or caring about perfume!) Not everyone is interested, fine. I just don't understand why those people have to act like it's poetry's *fault* that they don't like it. You know?

  16. Great post. This topic hits home in a big way--I'm consciously thinking about accessibility each time I put together an issue of Sixth Finch. Each time I teach a poetry class, I'm trying to find the right balance, too. Luckily, there are plenty of poets out there right now who know how to have fun without sacrificing craft.

    I'd love to see Schomburg and Lasky on more syllabi, and not just in college courses. More 9th graders would love poetry if they were reading the right stuff. My students (high school seniors) typically start with poets like Tate, and by the end of the term, they're reading poets like Heather Christle and Ben Lerner. If they can develop an appreciation for work that's a little tougher, then there's hope for the "average reader," right?

  17. I suspect the average MeatFilter [sic -- thx!] person would act like it was museums' and chamber music's fault that they didn't like those things too. "What bothers me about chamber music is all the fucking violins."

  18. Rob, I love me some Ben Lerner. I think he's pretty difficult, I'm glad to hear your students get along with him.

    Sarang, you really think so? Maybe I'm overestimating MeatFilter, but I thought its users were a little more culturally savvy.

  19. Great discussion. First thing I notice is that the question, as posed in MetaFilter (or MeatFilter), seems to target a specific group of people: "This is a question for people who read widely, but don't choose to read poetry. What are you're [sic] reasons for not reading the stuff?"

    It led me to wonder what sort of responses there would have been if an opposite question had been asked. For instance, "This is a question for people who read a lot of poetry, but don't read much other writing. What are your reasons for reading only (or mostly) poetry?"

    I agree with a lot of the above comments. To complain that with poetry you have to concentrate and pay attention to each word is like complaining that with food that's prepared well you have to concentrate and pay attention to each flavor. You know, why eat bread that's baked from scratch when you could just buy a loaf of Wonder bread?

    Muriel Rukeyser in her book The Life of Poetry said (and I'm paraphrasing slightly here) that the essential difference between art and entertainment is that art tries to get you to concentrate on what it's bringing to you, and entertainment tries to distract you from what it's not bringing to you.

    I don't insist on this as a hard and fast distinction, but I like it as a description of general tendencies.

    I agree that readers should be prepared to meet poetry halfway, to make at least some effort and patience with it. Anything can seem difficult at first, if it's unfamiliar, and finding it boring or impenetrable might be an easy knee-jerk response. A baseball game, or a cricket match, can seem highly confusing if you've never seen one before.

    There is, for sure, a lot of poetry that seems -- to me -- to have been written intentionally to be as difficult and obscure as possible, as though the poet had no interest whatsoever in being read, or understood, by anyone outside a close circle of friends. There is, for sure, some poetry that just hasn't spoken to me, this even after writing and reading the stuff for more than 40 years. Nobody likes everything.

    I haven't taught poetry except for once very briefly to sixth graders many years ago. I routinely talk with people who don't read much (or any poetry), or who say they don't understand it.

    Often what I'll do is show people a poem or two by any of various poets -- Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Judy Grahn, Miroslav Holub, Joy Harjo, Thomas McGrath, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Audre Lorde, Gary Snyder, Yosano Akiko, Tu Fu (or Du Fu), to name a few -- and, while it may not turn them into poetry readers instantly, I've found that with the right poem they usually will find something of value in it.

  20. haha I like last quote :D :D
    I am made about poetry.

  21. I like the Muriel Rukeyser quote!

  22. I like that Rukeyser quotation a lot as well. It reminds me a little bit of how Michael Ventura says that entertainment isn’t an escape from reality but an escape from values.

    And I like the idea of having “people start with contemporary or near-contemporary poetry, not the "classics" or the canon,” EG, but I don’t agree, necessarily, that starting in the past is equivalent to starting with the “most difficult” stuff. A lot of old poetry can be very “accessible” depending how it’s approached. I’ve taught three sections of Reading Poetry here at DePaul this quarter, which requires me to cover the English/American tradition from about 1500 (when authorship became a Thing) to the present, and I’ve found that if you do a New Historical approach and give a lot of biographical, historical, and cultural information about the poets and the time periods (all the way up to the present day) in combination with a sort of New Critical intense close reading approach to the poems themselves, students end up liking and “getting” poems from all eras without buying into the myth that only certain people with specialized knowledge can unlock the mysterious secrets of poems. Students seem to appreciate the history since it gives them a narrative of sorts, and a sense that something more is at stake than a bunch of pretty/difficult words, and even students who say they didn’t like poetry at all before end up liking it (or at least not being intimidated and/or bored by it) afterwards.

  23. I think when you're taking a class with a good teacher you can appreciate almost anything, however difficult (see Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, &c.) -- and of course a good teacher can help you better appreciate stuff that's prima facie accessible too. Unfortunately most people are first exposed to poetry by teachers who don't like poetry themselves.

  24. Yes, bad/unenthusiastic/ignorant teachers of any subject can do that subject serious, maybe irreparable damage for sure.

    A great essay on all this--difficulty/accessibility, obscurity/clarity is "The Obscurity of the Poet" by Randall Jarrell. I can send it to you if you want (and haven't read it already).

    I like the points he makes in it, including: "One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — that non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: "Our poems are too hard for him." But so, too, are Treasure Island,Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever."

    And also this one, about how terms like "difficulty" and "accessibility" are not finite and vary across time and circumstances: "The reviewers of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' even those who admired it most, found it almost impossible to understand; that it was hopelessly obscure seemed to them self-evident. Today, when college girls find it exactly as easy, exactly as hard, as 'The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's,' one is able to understand these critics' despairing or denunciatory misunderstanding only by remembering that the first generation of critics spoke of Browning's poem in just the terms that were later applied to Eliot's. How long it takes the world to catch up!"

  25. Kathy, we have that essay in our collection, I will read it soon! Thanks!