Bin Ramke - Tendril - Accessibility & Difficulty
Bin Ramke’s ninth book of poetry is coming out in a few weeks. It’s called Tendril, published by Omnidawn, which has a growing list of excellent books (check them out here: http://www.omnidawn.com/), and it’s available for preorder at amazon.com .
I’ve always wondered why Ramke’s poetry hasn’t gotten more attention than it has. Its movements are large (as is his thinking about poetry in and about poems) and should be indispensable to all interested in poetry.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from an interview conducted by Sandra Meek, published a few years ago is the Writer’s Chronicle.
Sandra Meek: Let me take this in a slightly different direction for a moment—the kind of dizzying openness you mention seems an important aspect of that contemporary poetry we consider "postmodern." The resistance to closure evident in your recent poetry, and in the language poets, and in poets such as Ann Lauterbach, John Ashbery, and Jorie Graham, has itself met with much resistance in the American (U.S.) poetic community, which is perhaps as divided as it has ever been regarding ideas about what poetry should be and do. I've heard several poet-professors whose work is more "accessible," more linear-narratively, lyrically-lament the "takeover" of their creative writing programs, and contemporary poetry in general, by "language poets"—a term by which they often mean to indicate not just the language poets but really all those poets who see language as opaque rather than transparent, and who find that inspiring rather than something to resist. In fact, one well-known poet and editor lamented to me that your particular artistic development has been a kind of disappointing turn to the dark side—as he said, you used to be “a lyric poet in the Stevens’s vein” (which brings up a whole other set of questions we’ll have to come back to!), but now he just “doesn't get” what you are doing. Do you think this division in the poetic community is inevitable? Is there a way to reach across this divide, or should bridging the gap even be a goal? In other words, do you feel “accessible poetry” can have value for those who work with the opacity of language, and can “difficult poetry” ever make a connection to the larger, “mainstream” poetry audience?
Bin Ramke: How intriguing. I am pleased that there is someone out there who is so aware of my poetry at all, of it having an earlier manifestation that could be considered violated by the later work. But I know you want the question to be larger than me, just my own work. I think there are many divisions, many oppositions in whatever community is aware of poetry, makers and readers and publishers of it. There has been for some time this unfortunate division as to “accessibility.” But it seems to me art, and science for that matter, has always been roughly divided between a kind that saw itself needing to connect to a broader community, needing to do work out there in the world in a direct sort of way—painters doing commissions in the Renaissance and in the present, scientists trying to solve medical or engineering problems, and writers who were aware of what large numbers of readers want and who try to find ways to provide it. Some of these are great artists, scientists, and poets. Robert Frost is a major poet, and I do not claim he only tried to satisfy a market, but that he did try to make work which responded to what readers expected, then he would carry those expectations further, or even subvert them.
But simultaneously with Frost, there was Stevens. It is interesting that Stevens can now be seen as a lyric poet who, presumably, is “accessible.” The New York Times review of the second publication of Harmonium condemned it utterly, saying the work won’t last because it isn’t serious. I am not trying to use the cheap consolatory stance of “If they don’t understand me it is because I am destined to be seen as Great in the Future.” Quite the contrary, I AM disturbed by the fact that even after publishing seven books of poems my books make no real mark in the world. Since the publication last fall of Airs, Waters, Places, there has appeared only a single review, a small one in the Village Voice which was quite laudatory, but also needed to point out that my work is “difficult.” This idea of “difficulty” needs to be examined: I have to say I make my own poems as clear and easily accessed as possible. But what I seem to be working with is material so ambiguous and multivalenced that in the end, when I have finished listening to how the words were speaking to each other, letting them all have their say, the final piece may take some getting used to.
But let me approach this question differently, and more problematically. Richard Howard is a poet whose work has mattered to me since I first began writing, and it still does. No one is more aware of language as language than Richard, no one has a more nuanced ear—a line of his that I keep going back to is, “What a relief, to find it in the language at last.” His work is a search in language for, well, whatever we are all searching for I suppose. Salvation? Pleasure? Consolation? Community? And then there is Jorie Graham, who writes an often convoluted, always elegant form of poetry which is in fact clear, straightforward in many ways, often with gorgeous references to art and culture, work which reverberates with language, a sort of lushness that is available because Jorie is essentially trilingual, being at home in Italian and French as much as English. Both of these writers SEE language, deal with its opacity and bring an esthetic of language to bear—and yet are seen by some, perhaps even each other, as incompatible. If we actually look at what James Tate writes, and put it alongside the work of John Ashbery, we find they are after rather similar (at times) effects—and both can be quite funny. And yet Tate is considered accessible and Ashbery famously difficult.
Rae Armantrout has a little moment from a poem called “Writing”: “If I were lying in a hospital bed, would I get pencil and paper to jot down passing thoughts? Not likely. I, myself, was always a forwarding address.” Now, what's that? Is it “accessible”? Yes, indeed—but then what. You’ve accessed it and now you still have a problem—the language looks obvious, but it keeps complicating itself. I think that passage (as I recall it’s a poem in prose, but I will look it up) has a light-handed density which is most remarkable. Then there’s Mark Strand, whose work has always been important to me, who has always found ways to teach me, and in fact I myself can point out moments and passages in my own poems where his influence is clear. Yet Michael Palmer—another from whom I have learned much, and whose work I even quote directly in several poems—might well be considered diametrically opposed to Strand, and while I have no idea whether they are friends or not, I suspect they tend to be seen standing across that divide you speak of.
My point is that when we get down to individual cases, poets, and poems, there seems no clear demarcation we can count on, no certain set of characteristics that account for the existence of warring camps. I mean, take Susan Howe for instance: her project is complex, difficult, at times absolutely exasperating to the reader, and yet it is so clear that the work needs to be the way it is, what it is, that she may be the most difficult poet to read who is the most easily defended. Language is a social construct, and it can be manipulated in various ways to push back at the society that constructed it—all poetry does this. The more self-conscious the poet is about the extractable, reducible “meaning” of her poems, the less that poet is open to the random exuberances and the accidental grandeur that the language makes available to us. It is a trade off, and some negotiation is always possible.
To get, finally, to the very specific questions at the end of your question: “do you feel ‘accessible poetry’ can have value for those who work with the opacity of language?” Yes, absolutely, depending upon what is accessible and what is not and why. To deliberately obfuscate is pointless, but to use words the way a painter might use color—not to pretend to trick us into thinking we are where we are not, but to make us look at color and maybe enjoy it, or to make us hear how the words sound and enjoy it—this is a kind of accessibility anyway. It is only confusing if we believe the work is doing something it isn’t trying to do. (Anyway, we all need to go back and read some John Donne when we start accusing each other of being inaccessible: I know, I know, the accusation isn’t about being necessarily convoluted and complex, but is against being random, “indeterminate.” Still, there is work to be done in reading any seriously good poem.) “Can ‘difficult poetry’ ever make a connection to the larger, ‘mainstream’ poetic audience?” No. This is a misleading answer, but I think it unlikely the audience for, let us say, Billy Collins (and his work is essentially intended, I believe, for performance, with all the complexities of how audience response builds through the performance and how the social bonds become associated with the wit and the amiability of the performer), is being trained by listening to his work not to pay the other, different kind of attention the work of Elizabeth Willis, Cole Swensen, or Paul Hoover requires.
It is possible some of this poetry—and by difficult at the moment I am just thinking about work that requires us to simultaneously let go and attend closely, this is the real trick—that some of this poetry will, with time, acquire a kind of familiarity and not seem so threatening. Picasso’s work no longer threatens anyone in the museum—except, of course, those who actually pay attention. The other possibility is something I personally do try for: to make the work “beautiful” enough to attract the esthetic attention, and let whatever else is happening happen. I don’t know quite what the word “beautiful” is supposed to mean, and the whole question is certainly interestingly vexed at the moment—the return of the esthetic? the politics of the beautiful? But my own personal interest is in work that has less political agenda about it and more openness to the grandeur, delicacy, even decorum, than mere display of preconceived idea.