Saturday, April 07, 2007

Standards of Excellence: Accessibility?

Jeff Koons, Mound of Flowers
Standards of excellence?

Written about Paul Zimmer:

“Who else writes poems as accessible and conveys our common stumbling with such understanding and forgiveness?” (Brendan Galvin)

Now, I don’t have anything against Zimmer or Galvin, but I’m still wondering why the first thing a lot of people are writing in blurbs these days is “accessible.”

Why is “accessible” this great word to help sell a book?

And what does it mean, really? Who is and who is not accessible?

I think about this a lot when looking at, thinking about art. Is Rothko accessible? “Like television for Zen Buddhists,” is how it’s been described. I suppose the answer is no.

Is Jeff Koons’ work accessible?

http://www.xs4all.nl/~exadega/koons/madeinheaven.html

(WARNING: most of the images in the above series are pornographic. Mound of Flowers, is not representative, except metaphorically. Ahem.)

Well, yes, in its way. If revealing all is the same as accessibility. If kitsch and pornography is accessible. But doesn’t accessibility contain its own questions? Like “why is this being depicted?” Like “Why am I being told these things?” Is there anything that is really accessible, then?

I think the notion of accessibility is a fabrication. And it seems particularly suited to discussions of poetry. I wish we’d stop talking like this.

In other thoughts. It seems to me so odd and interesting that in the art world, some of the biggest names, and most expensive works, are the most transgressive, while in poetry it seems just the opposite is the case.

Oh well. (As I’m really not much of a transgressive sort anyway, and I rather dislike Koons’ work, except metaphorically.)

8 Comments:

At 4/07/2007 1:35 PM, Blogger louise said...

Jeff Koons is accessible, but it's self consciously accessible, so then, on another level, it's not really accessible at all. Like you say, why are we being shown this and what are we to make of it?(Frankly when it comes to the porn stuff I can't see the point-- especially since Staller is/was an actual porn star-- so what is the difference btwn this and actual porn? And isn't actual porn more fun and better? yeah i know that's probably what we are supposed to be asking. but anyway,Michael Jackson and Bubbles, okay, I get that--

But when one uses "accessible" in poetry, I think it means something different. I think it means not self-conscious of itself as art in some sense

a lack of artiface

anyway, it's a quality, but i'm not sure a selling point (or why it would be?). Some very very good poetry is "accessible" say, Jack Gilbert, but so is some very "difficult" poetry.

 
At 4/07/2007 3:31 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Louise!

What are you up to these days?

And then:

Is there "difficult" poetry that's also "accessible" poetry?

I've always thought "accessible" was some sort of code in blurbs, for not being "difficult." For not pressing against language or experience in ways not already "sanctioned."

I don't think they'd ever call WCW "accessible," even now, for example.

Gilbert is a good example. One might talk about it as welcoming in some way, but it doesn't seem to me the sort of thing that they'd write "accessible" on the back of.

Of course I could be wrong.

I suppose the idea behind Koons being self-conscious is that makes a problem of the banal. But it's still the banal. Problematized banality is still banality. It's like multiplication with zero.

 
At 4/07/2007 7:04 PM, Blogger Reginald Shepherd said...

Hey John,

I agree with you that "accessible" tends to mean "not difficult." It means, "This work will make no demands of you, will question nothing, will not cause you even the mildest or most momentary discomfort. It will be completely recognizable in every way." I suppose that can sometimes be what one wants (though it sounds kind of boring), but I usually don't look to poems for that kind of comfort or consolation. And the things I do turn to that for, mostly music, tend to be rather idiosyncratic: I take comfort in certain music because I have a personal relationship to it, I have personal associations with it, more than because it's inherently "easy" or "accessible" (if there is such a thing as intrinsic accessibility). I once told a (now former) colleague what I read to relax--history and natural history (especially paleontology)--and she asked, "But what do you read for _fun_?"

I don't think of Jack Gilbert as "accessible" in that sense. His poems may not be syntactically or semantically challenging, but they are complex and deep, and not to be taken in all at once. The tone of his poems isn't particularly "welcoming." And there is certainly no lack of artifice or self-consciousness in Gilbert's work.

Several years ago I sat in on an introductory poetry writing class taught by Ted Kooser in which, after praising a poem for containing no unusual or striking language and thus maintaining full "accessibility," he told a student who had written a flawed but intriguingly mysterious poem that readers don’t like to be even momentarily baffled, but instead prefer to be led by the hand through a poem. I had to interject that as a reader I hated being so patronized, as if I were incapable of making my way through a poem on my own.

As for your comment about Jeff Koons, I think of Yvor Winters' notion of the fallacy of imitative form: a work about boredom that's boring, a work about banality that's banal. And being ironic, or pseudo-ironic, about being banal is still being banal.

Take good care, and stay warm in this nasty cold snap.

all best,

Reginald

 
At 4/07/2007 7:25 PM, Blogger louise said...

well, yeah, I can see the point about Jack Gilbert and artiface/self consciousness. He's very aware of the poem as object. But he's not difficult to understand. He's meditative, and yes, you want to sit with the poems for some time, but he's far from difficult (at least from my perspective).

So yeah, I think "accessible" is generally speaking code for "your mom will understand it".

 
At 4/08/2007 12:49 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

What I wish is that "accessible" weren't used as a code word for either "good" or "bad." (Hello, Dana Gioia, hello Ron Silliman.) As it is, I think the word has been battered beyond any use, which is unfortunate, because there is work that is accessible, in the sense of being available to the average reader, that is excellent and deep and exciting work, just as there is work that is accessible and also does as you all say and offers no depth or mystery, and is banal and useless. I think we need to burn this word down and find another one on which we can have a worthwhile discussion about the intersections between "accessible" and good/bad poetry.

 
At 4/08/2007 10:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This is quite a wonderful little topic. I wish I could have the lot of you over for dinner.

For the second course, I would suggest "brave" be also considered off-limits from blurbs and reviews, for much the same reasons as "accessible."

 
At 4/08/2007 10:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

In a side-note, Reginald, you're right. "Welcoming" was not a good word for me to choose for Gilbert.

Good thing I'm not doing blurbs . . . !

 
At 5/01/2007 6:47 PM, Blogger J. R. Leuthold said...

Glad I stumbled onto this "now dead" discussion.

I think I'd have to agree with you that both "accessible" and "brave" should be struck from the blurb-writer's vocabulary. First of all, accessible means different things to different people. To me accessible seems to imply a kind of Dean Koontz/Stephen King mainstream acceptability. I know, not poets, but the only poetry-related writing I could think of were the accessibility of the Hallmark-style poetry, which is definitely not up to par with the poets being mentioned among the rest of the commenters here. I guess if I were to dub something accessible it would mean, "You might like it, but I don't". And that's fine if it's what someone wants to be labeled, but personally I'd stay away from it. I like my meanings to come at me sideways, to be just a little tricky, and I agree with Reginald Shepherd's statement: don't patronize me by holding my hand through your poem.

And "brave". Now there's a subjective thing if I've ever seen it. One person's brave could easily be another's stupidity or, in writing, attempt at the ever-elusive "shock". Saying something is "brave" is typically an attempt at saying that the work "says things that other people wouldn't say", which are things that are typically done for an attempt at shock-value (though not always). Personally, I'm not fragile or naive enough to be shocked by much of anything.

This is the problem with "blurb-writing" in general. How do you write a blurb about something that doesn't sound contrived? There're only so many combinations of adjectives that can be used in a blurb, and a lot of them become over-used very quickly. I can't tell you how many times I've heard completely different spectrums of work called the same exact thing. Just like the word "brilliant". Brilliance would seem to imply that it would be hard to find another work as great as this work, but then why can I find six other works in my local bookstore that each have the word "brilliant" in their blurb?

I'll stop here because I could probably rant for hours, but all-in-all a damn good discussion.

And yes you can have me over for dinner, but you're cooking.

 

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