December 9, 2013

On accessibility in poetry


David Orr, photographed by Tom McGhee

David Orr

In a recent piece for the New York Times, David Orr investigates “Points of Entry” in poetry. In contrast to the usual argument on accessibility, Orr builds his by beginning with the problem itself, of dichotomies between expert and novice with a dash of commercial jealousy thrown in:

Every activity generates experts, and experts typically have little time for novices. This is no less true of poetry folk than of photographers or pastry chefs.

Yet there’s something slightly different about poetry. Professional cooks may disdain Rachael Ray, but no one views her commercial success as an existential threat to the art of food preparation. The American poetry world, however, is often troubled at the mere thought of anyone courting popularity.

Accessibility, Orr points out—whether put-down, praise, or seed for argument—is a discourse that neglects a basic fact of its setting; namely, that

almost everyone in the American poetry world works in the university system, which is essentially a multibillion-dollar access-granting machine. If you spend your life talking about “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” in front of bored 19-year-olds, then you are poorly positioned to argue that the experience of poetry is, or should be, beyond the reach of general readers. If poems were cookies, you’d be a Keebler elf.

At its heart, Orr’s piece is a review of Robert Pinsky‘s newest, Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. Pinsky, “perhaps impatien[t] with formalized poetic learning and its attendant orthodoxies,” argues for independence in learning poetry; as he writes in the book, “no curriculum or official canon will suffice.” Orr acknowledges both how this is odd and how he can understand it:

After all, it’s difficult to imagine an eminent scholar of philosophy or linguistics urging readers to sashay right on by the “curriculum or official canon.” (Step aside, David Hume; it’s Ayn Rand time!) . . .

This is obviously unlike the way in which we think about, say, electrical engineering. But then, readers have a very different connection with poetry than engineers have with AC potentiometers. The relationship people have with poems is much closer to the relationship they have with other people. Like people, poems don’t have inner cores that permit perfect understanding, meaning they are the sum of thousands of impressions, some weightier than others, but none weightless.

After all, Orr acknowledges, “innocence has a value in poetry that it can never have in bridge building. It’s why so many poetry readers read poetry to begin with.” Any person could be equipped, because no one can be sure exactly what is necessary; poetry is nebulous enough that its understanding can only be more so. Even its writers, even its experts, may not be its best readers in every case.

Orr does not argue for accessibility as simplification, or even that reading should be easy. He appreciates reading, particularly reading poetry, as it is: it is for whomever it wants to be.

And yet there’s a sense in which the concept of accessibility does matter to poetry. When we say art ought to be accessible, after all, we mean it should be accessible to someone; art is never simply “accessible” in the way most front doors are “rectangular.”

The apertures widen, but only sometimes. It will leave, but it will come back.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.