Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Accessibilty or Crass Commercialism?

Thelonious Monk, circa 1969

I’m still thinking about Ashbery and jazz. Now I'm thinking about the whole accessibility issue.

I was reading the other day about Thelonious Monk’s last (I think?) album for Columbia, Monk’s Blues. I really hate it, as does most everyone who likes Monk, I believe. It was the songs of Thelonious Monk arranged for studio big band, with Monk playing along. It was called crass commercialism, by many. The thought behind it (some say) was that the big band would make Monk more accessible to general audiences.

Accessible. How I hate and loathe that word, when applied to art. The most presumptuous and condescending thing one can write about art, or, closer to my heart, a book of poetry, is that it is “accessible.” Imagine saying such a thing about any other art, or, indeed, any other facet of your life:

1.Easily approached or entered.
2.Easily obtained.
3.Easy to talk to or get along with.
4.Easily influenced or swayed.

“Accessible” is something we should all hope for with public buildings, true, but when talking about art, people should be run out of town for saying it, and people should be embarrassed to have someone say it about their work. One works hard (hopefully) at one’s art. And any reader should be furious at the condescending nature of someone writing of a book that it is “accessible.” “Don’t worry,” it’s saying, “even YOU can get it!” One person’s “accessible” is another’s “crass commercialism.”

Doesn’t it make you even a little uncomfortable that the word “accessible” has become a positive value judgment? And then, that “inaccessible” has become such a denunciation? “Inaccessible” means something is not easily approached or entered. What should that be the death-blow to art?

When one is hiking, one often wants a pleasurable little accessible walk. A stroll. But at other times, one might well want something inaccessible: scale a cliff perhaps. Perhaps bike down a gorge.

When we talk about “accessibility” what are we really meaning? As long as we’re not talking about building access, “accessibility” is metaphorical and fairly abstract, as one can only know if something is “accessible” by attempting to access it. And what doesn’t mean to be accessed?

I’ve never met a poet yet, no matter how “difficult” his or her work, who doesn’t want people to read it. We all intend to connect to readers. I certainly do. I can’t imagine a poet who would be eager to deliver a public reading who doesn’t want a public to be there.

What people are really saying when they talk about work as accessible, is that it won’t be making many (if any) demands upon the reader. And by “demands,” I believe it is understood that the poems will not do something the reader hasn’t encountered many times before. I can see that such a thing might be nice for some people, especially if a book is also tagged by a subject (accessible poems about the dissolution of a marriage, say, or about the death or illness of a loved one), even though it wouldn’t be nice for me.

I can feel myself starting to talk in circles. Suffice it to say I understand the desire on the side of the “accessibles,” but I deny them this term. It’s a terrible way to talk about art. It’s meaningless at the very same time that it’s aggressive to everything it’s not. If “accessible” is valued positively, then there must be those things that are “inaccessible” that are valued negatively. “Accessible” becomes a version of “normal” and therefore “good,” while other poems therefore become “deviant” or “abnormal” and, of course, “bad.” This is why poets that would be termed in this economy “inaccessible” point to “accessible” poets as retrograde, or socially conservative, no matter what the subject matter of their “accessible” poems. All of these hot potatoes would be avoided if we were able to talk about these things differently. One way to attempt to do so, is to replace the word “accessible” with the word “clear.” It wins the Nice Try award, as it has to misuse the definition of “clear” to mean something more like “culturally transparent,” and that, no matter how you put it in a sentence, isn’t going to get someone to buy a book. Or a jazz album.

Words like “accessible” don’t work for poets (and other artists) that I like. I think of Ashbery. I want nothing from an Ashbery poem but the experience of the poem unfolding. And that experience is more than just a tone, the experience of the play of meaning (play in the sense of the play of light across a landscape). Is it accessible? I don’t know. Is grass accessible? Are the trees? How about walking through a crowd?

Poets like Ashbery force us to take our metaphors seriously. Or, to say it another way: To say things like "This work is accessible," pre-supposes we all read poetry in the same way.


At 6/16/2009 9:25 PM, Anonymous Dana said...

Sharon Bryan said one of my favorite things on this subject:

"Accessibility wasn’t one of the virtues I learned coming up. Great poems are rough, crude, loud, gnarled, hermetic. They are thinking great ideas but they aren’t talking to you about it."

At 6/17/2009 4:46 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And then something happened about te or so years ago. Perhaps a backlash against the Ellipticism or Third Way or Post Avant generation? Whatever it is, I'm hearing it a lot.

To place it up front in talking about creating art is going to do terrible things. It's going to get some bad tapes playing in people's heads.

I agree that art (poetry) should not resist the intelligence completely (Paraphrase of Stevens alert!), but neither should it pander. And I think that's what happens when "accessibility" is put forward as a value. It encourages writers to pander.

At 6/17/2009 5:09 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...

I must really piss you off at times. This is from my blog post I wrote yesterday:

"I am not one of those poets who submerge themselves completely beneath the English language. Maybe that's my problem. I admire those poets. Please don't take this as criticism. I would sometimes like to hold my breath and go under in order to write a poem or two, or an entire book. Unfortunately (an perhaps to my regret) I always find it aesthetically pleasing to float on the surface of the language, or stay close enough to shore to be able to stand and walk back to shore.

There. I feel much better now. I feel better than James Brown. How do you feel?

I can finally say this as closely as I ever have that my choices often keep me out of places I'd like to appear. So many journals out there demand more than I am willing to give. I have spoken of my lack of irony in my first manuscript---how I am ready to slap the next editor who tels me it lacks irony, but this is a much broader issue than my first manuscript. Most of my writing stays close to shore. Most of what I write is straight forward, direct in a way which makes reading an uncertain thing. Not uncertain when the reader has to follow other poets beneath the surface of language, but uncertain in the sense of not seeing the craft of a poem.

And I will be the first to admit I am not a master of crafting a poem. I write, employ assonance, alliteration, metaphor and simile, but I rarely set forth trying to write in a certain meter or set structure. I have no idea what my poems will look like, and I don't try to compensate by sliding beneath the waters to mine for dark language. I like my poems to be simple and direct. I like to say what I mean to say the first time around."

Right now I am lucky that you will find it very difficult to locate my house on Google Earth, making it even more of a task to come to where I live and burn it to the ground.

p.s. It was Monk who said: "Hey, I lay it down. You gotta pick it up."

At 6/17/2009 5:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, you can try to piss me off, but it won't work, my friend.

I'll put it this way: A lot of people find the work of William Carlos Williams inaccessible. His image-simplicity reveals a thinking complexity, or a world complexity, that leaves a reader having to co-create. That's a no-no to accessibility. I think?

Lacking irony? Hmm. What does that mean, really? They think you're too earnest or something? Seriously, I think some people have really gone over the ironic cliff.

Unless they meant it ironically?

At 6/17/2009 6:41 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...


Great post. What say you to those of us working on creating a poetry that is accessible like a building? That is to say, we're building multiple entrances into the volume or album or whatnot (through different kinds of poems) so that different kinds of readers can find entry. Once they're in there, of course, they find a shitload of hallways and rooms and corridors, some of which are not going to be familiar at all. I'd like to think that's a slightly different form of accessible than the one you're talking about here. It's also pretty darn rare.

Verification word: exurs, noun, a militant alien species with whom Superman once had tea in a particularly anticlimactic issue of the comic

At 6/17/2009 7:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hey JeFF. Sounds fun to me. I'd like to hear or see more.

Here's an analogue, perhaps: Neil Young. OK OK, I know, I talk about Neil Young a lot. But if you think about it, the idea of "accessibility" in the kind of reduced way it's used these days, fits a lot of his commercial hits: "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," for instance.

But then, once you buy the album (Harvest, in this case), you find songs like "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Words." Still, they are not the most "difficult" of Neil Young's songs, but if you would buy another record of his, say After the Gold Rush or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, you're suddenly dealing with a much more layered or nuanced thing. (And then, Rust Never Sleeps, and you're off to the races... but often circling back again to very "accessible" things.)

The problem with all of this is it ends up often becoming scattershot. If one is trying all sorts of things all the time one ends up in the parable of the elephant and the blind men, or something like that. Maybe? At least, that would be the danger.

At 6/17/2009 11:21 AM, Anonymous Dana said...

"His image-simplicity reveals a thinking complexity, or a world complexity, that leaves a reader having to co-create."

Yes. Co-creation is a great term to describe the reader participation that is necessary in many poems. I love a poem that makes me work, that is open enough to let me in and allow me to create my own associations. I love texts that I can spend a lot of time with and step through in many different ways.

I was at my MFA residency a couple of weeks ago, and there was a strong push toward accessible poetry. The remarks several students made about my work was that they enjoyed it but that my poems "took a lot of work" to read and they "had to spend a lot of time" on each poem. Those comments were not meant as compliments.

At 6/17/2009 11:44 AM, Blogger Justin Evans said...


I love that you brought up Neil Young.

In fact, I owe Neil Young's Decade for the structure of my first book of poems. Without that book I don't think my first manuscript would have gotten off the ground. People hear his repetition or his one chord solos and they jump on the "simple train" when his music, like you said about Williams, opens up to a whole word of complexities.

Take "Cowgirl in the Sand" for example. Simple lyrics, simple melody, but a whole world of possibilities in that song for the listener to consider. In his straight-forward delivery lies an entire subtext which is thought provoking and somewhat disturbing all at once.

Where someone else might find in Decade a mere compilation of hits and personal favorites, I find an entire narrative waiting, wanting to tell a story.

At 6/17/2009 11:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I always love the "I liked it but..." statements. If you really like it, why the big but? If it rewards reading, what's the complaint?

This is not to say all poems reward reading. Some poems fail. Probably most poems fail.

What is the real work that a "difficult" poem is asking of someone? Really, it's just sitting there. As with most things in life, the more you bring to it (no matter the level of "difficulty" [well, there are some "accessible" poems that really don't ask for much attention, that's true - but some do) the more there is to find. As in a painting that is "difficult." YOu can enjoy it for color and for the fact that it is somethign to look at - but you can also bring all sorts of theories to it. It's really up to you, or whomever.

The same people who complain about "working hard" for a poem will spend endless hours at SCRABBLE or SUDUKO or something. You know? Or, my favorite example, my father, who thinks poems are pretty silly wastes of time, wll sit for, literally, days watching football games. He has all sorts of theories and ideas about what's going to happen and what should happen, etc.

He doesn't consider that a waste of time at all.

At 6/17/2009 12:03 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Don't get me started on Neil Young! He's a wonderful contradtion. Full of these "accessible" moments and then wildly, well, "difficult" moments. All the more reason why all this talk of what is "accessible" is really worthless. It masks a much more interesting and important conversation. I think.

Just compare the acoustic songs "Heart of Gold" to "Ambulance Blues," for example. He's an interesting model for questions of accessibility. His vocal delivery. His lyrics. His electric guitar style.

DECADE was a great album. I've had it for nearly 30 years now.

At 6/18/2009 10:22 PM, Anonymous Rosiewritesapoem said...

I agree with you that accessability has become a moot, meaningliess phrase because it assigns value judgements to art based on it's relationship to the masses, but I'm torn. I don't know that one creates art to be specifically accessible but is accessible art a bad thing? Is lableing art "accessible" inherently a bad thing, both physically and mentally? Can artists mix "accessible" art with more challenging stuff in an attempt to draw people and then light up the synapses (much like a band who does some cover songs, some origional)? What exposure to art, even when it's labeled "accessible" is bad exposure? This statement forces us to either accept and then reject the critic's judgement of "accessible" or concede that everyone's judgement is different and what may be accessible for one may not be for others. I guess I see "accessible" art as an entrance to a more enlightened view. If art isn't accessible somewhere than art labeled "inaccessible" is denied from the masses without the training to understand it. I get the frustration but there must be a starting point and it shouldn't have to be Creative Writing: Poetry in Colden.

At 6/19/2009 5:09 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

This is a difficult question. It could easily be the opening question to a very long book.

At any rate the “gateway” art argument has its merits. I mean, we all have to start somewhere. So it would seem to makes sense that one might start reading poetry with something considered highly “accessible,” and then work one’s way up to something “inaccessible.” There might even be some truth to that sort of argument.

Here’s me guessing:

But for me, if I were Poetry King, I would banish that as a way of talking about poetry altogether. It causes us to focus on a way of getting to an art, rather than the relative value of what one experiences through the art.

Does anyone talk about sculpture, say, as accessible? Say you have a little statue on your bookshelf. Is it OK just to like it? And to buy it and have it? Or are you supposed to know all about what it stands for and its history, etc? Of course, one can have whatever relationship one wants with it. (Dirty jokes aside.)

Similarly with painting and dance and music. We (I’m being overly general here, I know) tend to go with our gut. But when we approach poetry and fiction and nonfiction, the rules seem to shift, because language is now involved as the only way to enter the art, and language brings with it all sorts of cultural assumptions and etc., and ways for people to feel superior or inferior to others. It starts to look like school to people. And then we get all sorts of “democratic” and “for the people” impulses that we don’t think about (or at least if we do, it’s MUCH less) in the other arts (unless it’s highly conceptual art, like performance art [but that’s another parallel conversation, I think]).

I’m not saying poetry is “better” or “superior” the any other art. And I’m also not saying, at its core, that some of the poetry people term “accessible” isn’t wonderful. What I think is going on, is that there’s a cultural war going on, one that’s been going on awhile now, and it’s not just a war about what is good or not, or who should win awards or not, but also one over how to frame the conversation.

Put it this way. One person says “accessible,” and another says “conventional,” meaning the same thing, from rival perspectives, and the flip words, “inaccessible” and “unconventional” are equally telling. So for me, all I’m really saying is that “accessible” is a code word. In the way that I heard many people talk about “Elegy” as Mary Jo bang’s “most accessible” book. I love that book. It’s a great book. But this conversation about “accessibility” tends to make—in this case—her other boos seem scary. “Accessibility” tends to demonize or lionize something on very subjective, metaphorical grounds.

I have no problem at all “accessing” the work of John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, etc. But I’m also reading them knowing there are different things there than I would find in a poem by Rita Dove or Ted Kooser or Billy Collins, or Tony Hoagland, or Kim Addonizio, or somesuch. So maybe if someone is taking about “accessibility” they should extend the metaphor. Rita Dove’s work is accessible by plane and John Ashbery’s work is accessible by helicopter.

At 6/19/2009 5:11 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Which is, saying things like "This work is accessible," pre-supposes we all read in the same way.

At 6/19/2009 7:47 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...


I haven’t read much poetry lately.
After all, I have to write it.
I can’t be unduly influenced
or misdirected. And damn!
I’m just now shaking off
Shakespeare and Poe,
Cummings and Frost,
just now releasing the howl
and its cost,
that tyger burning bright
and the dying of the light.

But I’ve read all of the dead ones
and most of those living
but I don’t resonate
with these new ones.
They don’t make sense to me.
I don’t get it!
Oh, I get the point, all right,
I just can’t find the poetry.

Copyright 2009 – Ponds and Lawns, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 6/19/2009 8:03 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

(advice to budding poets)

Make one. Then disguise it.
Make them all try
to figure it out.
Be witty and clever
and erudite.
Make sure they get
too frustrated
in the searching
to really get it.

Many references, too.
Some obscure, so they appear
to reflect a cultured mind.
Be scholarly and ever
more unclear.
Offer a gift but hide it,
something they will never find.
Tie it much too tight
to unwrap. Lock it,
without a key,
behind a door.

To the sad word-bound
this will be a joy…
another literary puzzle
to struggle with and pass empty
time, but to the rest of us
such a bore.

Copyright 2008 – Tall Grass & High Waves, Gary B. Fitzgerald

At 6/19/2009 8:05 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Sorry, John. Just having a little poetic fun.

At 6/19/2009 8:09 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...


Sorry for taking a couple days to get back to you. Received proof copy of my latest chapbook (a collaborative volume with my friend Crystal - order for your Intro classes now! :-P) and have been dividing my time between that and dissertation.

There aren't a whole lot of examples of accessible-like-a-building volumes. Most folks find a particular voice and stick with it, at least for a book, and most often for a lifetime. A few possibilities:

EE Cummings. I know Cummings gets a bad rap among serious poets for some reason, but one of the reasons he gets so widely read by younger readers and writers is that he's got multiple entry points. If you're a traditionalist, he's got sonnets and other formal poetry. If you want narrative, there's Olaf glad and big. If you want abstract concretism, there's the grasshopper poem and others like it. If you want lyric, unrhymed, there's in-just Spring. And within these forms, some are pretty straightforward (Olaf, she being brand, etc), and some play with language and syntax to a degree the post-avants would be quite familiar with. Grab a collected poems of Cummings, and you'll find that A) he doesn't necessarily improve over time, but B) there's a lot of varied and fertile ground.

Next possibility, one of my favorites of the latter half of the 20th C - Ed Dorn's Languedoc Variorum (part of my dissertation concentrates on this, so I bring it up a lot). Top third of each page is free verse narrative. Middle third is prose footnotes. Bottom third is a "NAZDAK" containing items like "EERIE THEORY UP AN EIGHTH - DREARY THEORY UP A QUARTER - LEERY THEORY UP A HALF - QUEERI UP A QUARTER - DUMP IT QUICK"... Although the top third of the page usually draws our primary attention simply because of how we're taught to read, the bottom third is boldface and therefore also something our eye is attracted to. We have to negotiate, as readers, among the sections, and each offers a different interpretive need.

Lastly, I'd point to the performance work of Flying Words (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rm0WOZqItHg), who will do things like having both members on stage, the hearing member talking about one thing, the deaf member signing another, and all the time the audience has sheets of paper with translations for ASL on them. If you read, you end up missing some signs. If you pay attention to the signs, you'll have to miss some of the spoken words. Etc. So you have to make choices about which part of the poem you'll enter into. Not all their work is intentionally so frustrating - some just does amazing things with a combination of spoken and signed words - check out the video.

Verification word: semizin, adjective, the way a highway looks under a hot sun (e.g. "the road outside Albuquerque was semizin by mid-morning")

At 6/19/2009 9:04 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ha! You've gotten the gist of it, I think. That's certainly how it's pitched by a lot of people, though. But do you really believe it? That poets would approach the writing of poetry in that cynical of a manner? What would be the pay-off? It seems like that would be such a waste of time, for such little reward.

One of the things I would do, my second act as King of Poetry, would be to force those who write poetry to address this perception. And on the other side? What is the joke poem how-to about "accessible" poets?

At 6/19/2009 9:11 AM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Was that Billy Collins' 'Introduction to Poetry'?

At 6/19/2009 7:15 PM, Anonymous Rosiewritesapoem said...

OK King, let me be the Fool.
One of the central flaws about the visual art vs. linguistic art accessiblity arguement is that not everyone utilizes visual art all the time. We do utilize language and we are very quick to corner and annihilate abiguity. It can keep us employed or in a relationship. While that isn't much fun for the poets it makes complete sense in the "grown up world" we're supposed to live in. I'm not suggesting that poetry doesn't, shouldn't and can't exist in this world, but there must be some entre' into the world for our minds to stretch and grow. This is why top 40 artists produce more than singles for the radio.
On to perception of poetry and poets. As a young poet I learned very quickly that pointless obtuseness is a learning step and we all should, as poets, be shaken from it. There is though, a perception that poets are obtuse purposefully. Many things have been trying to change that perception but most of us got little out of Shakespere in our formative years except the plot. Our introduction to poetry did not include the wit of Shakespere, the inuendo of Chaucer or even irony of Poe. We learned morality from Mother Goose in language that was easy for us to access. We were scared of poetry in it's newest(newer)forms.
Poets tend to fancy themselves as deep thinkers, able to string together words, break
them in
such a way
and convince an audience
to get deeper
meaning out of poems
that the poet didn't even know existed.
How can you ask Joe Public to create meaning when they're looking for plot and moral?
To be fair, most poets I know are fantastic thinkers and about as humble as they can be (living off their day jobs and all). But poets who argue against any accessibility in their art, while using a universal medium, are shooting themselves in the foot. It's uppity, snide and rude.
On a more practical note:
What poet doesn't want a NEA grant to persue their art? Does a New York Times review calling you accessible mean you're insulted when asked to be the featured artist at MLA? Does the perception of "accessible" which draws new readers become something we must strive against? To grow we must first be born. Death is the only inevitible after that.

At 6/20/2009 4:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

It looks to e more like I'm The Fool in his economy!

All your points are well taken. I can think of little to add to them or take away from them.

You write:

"How can you ask Joe Public to create meaning when they're looking for plot and moral?
To be fair, most poets I know are fantastic thinkers and about as humble as they can be (living off their day jobs and all). But poets who argue against any accessibility in their art, while using a universal medium, are shooting themselves in the foot. It's uppity, snide and rude."

I've no answer to the first question. I think if someone comes to a poem looking for "plot" and "moral" then, yes, it would seem "uppity, snide, and rude" not to give it to them. I wish we were in a world where people had not been told they should come to a poem for "plot" and "moral." In the way that we've never been told to go to songs for that (well, maybe in Country music!). Why do people expect such things?

When I came to poetry, I didn't expect anything. I wasn't an Englidh major, and had very little experience in High School of poetry... it just seemed weird and fun (the poets I then admired, like cummings, Stevens, etc), while Frost just seemed kind of boring to me.

I would also argue that all media are universal, as they approach the senses. It's our decision how we're going to take it. I hope not to sound elitist or snide (I promise I'm not) when I write about the term "accessibility." It's a fine word. I just think it's misused when talking about poetry, and masks a political agenda.

At 6/20/2009 5:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I've been thinking a bit more over a bowl of cereal. Maybe I could put it this way:

I think there's a big difference in saying something is "understandable" versus saying something is "accessible."

I think the poetry of John Ashbery is understandable, though it has been called inaccessible.

What's interesting about this is that a college education isn't what it took to find Ashbery understandable. In fact, a lot of my college professors are the very ones talking against Ashbery . . . this regular Joe has been hard for me to find!

At 6/20/2009 6:06 AM, Blogger Pris said...

Maybe it's time to chuck the term 'accessible', which is fast becoming a dirty word to some and 'inaccessible' a dirty word to others. Maybe we just need to start talking about what poems move us, speak to us, what poems we want to read again. Over time, of course, that will change. The first time I heard 'Take Five' I didn't like it. Now I do. I didn't like poems that I like now. When I was 14, The Highwayman' was my favorite poem. I have to admit the romantic in me still loves the gallant Highwayman riding to see his love, but again, I've changed. Time, growth, change...it all affects what we like.

Good, thought provoking post.

At 6/20/2009 6:19 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You just said it much better than I could. For me, it was Mingus that I resisted, and now "get." I still don't see much in Ezra Pound, though . . .

At 6/20/2009 6:58 PM, Anonymous John Goldsby said...

John, this is my first time visiting your blog and I am enjoying your posts very much.

Being a jazz musician, I find it imperative that I be true to myself and the music I am playing. However, musicians in the course of daily gigs, recordings and work make agreements — spoken and unspoken — about how music should be played. If a band leader or producer asks for a certain type of interpretation, feeling or performance, then that is what they get from me, within the limits of my judgment and ability. My influence on the musical direction varies depending on whether I am the band leader or a sideman.

Pandering to audiences in an effort to be accessible is a bad idea, but on the other hand it's not good to play with a forced artistic seriousness either. Music should be a natural thing - as natural as walking down the street. Some people walk down the street with an affected, uncomfortable gait, and some just seem to have a very hip, natural stride. Music should give the same type of relaxed impression — a natural walk, or strut, or dance.

I have seen and heard far too many musicians who seem to be trying hard to please by playing down to their audience. They shape their music with the commercial end result in mind. Wide accessibility for a jazz musician means that they might sell a few more downloads, but then they are maybe not taken as seriously by fellow musicians.

Or the music suffers - as you note in your comments about the Monk recording.

If a musician "hears and feels" their music in a commercial way, then that is of course the way they should play. They should not try to force the image of a complicated, high-brow, egghead musician when that is not really who they are. And on the flip side, jazz musicians who are on the cutting edge, no matter how grating to the rest of us, should keep moving forward and following their vision.

Real jazz fans can hear when a musician is playing from the wallet and not from the heart.

At 6/20/2009 7:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course poems should be accessible. This is simple logic, which has not existed in poetry since the insanity of the moderns. The nuttiness here is the same as that ridiculous phrase 'make it new.' Make WHAT new? If 'it' is new, then why should we 'make' it new, and if 'it' is old, then 'new' simply becomes another word for 'make' and the command collapses into 'make new' and finally into the absurdity of 'make.' The error here is the assumption that when we say 'it' should be accessible, or inaccessible, that we know what 'it' is. 'It' is inaccessible as a matter of course. So why are we complaining that it is accessible? Once anything becomes accessible, the whole notion of accessibility or inaccessibility fades away as we experience the thing and it becomes accessible. Another reason we err is by assuming that the accessible is shallow and the inaccessible is deep. In fact, the opposite is true: accessibility allows us to go in, inaccessibility does not. A cliche is inaccessible because it holds nothing--there is nothing to go into. The inaccessible is always flat and shallow, like an Ashbery poem-- which typically lacks a unity of effect; this lack is a sprawl, a flatness; it has no depth. It is inaccessible. The inability to understand this is precisely the reason that Ashbery is able to trick so many contemporary poet-tasters and fools into a certain admiration of his 'depth' and 'inaccessibility.' For the fool, the inaccessible has a real existence, when, in fact, by its very definition, it has none.

At 6/20/2009 11:50 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

A definition for poetry might even be language that makes the inaccessible accessible. It takes us to places we long for when our legs are too short, or the air too thin

I agree with Anonymous about Ashberry. Working from my definition, Ashberry makes the inaccessible accessible, and of course that's a con because by definition you can't get there from here and, even if you could, you can't get in. It's inaccessible after all, it's not open or all filled in!

So who would go there?

Sometimes the inaccessible that poetry makes accessible is very difficult, so it's still hard, but if you hang in there with it you can still get in. Other times the inaccessible that poetry makes accessible is too simple, too familiar, too close to seem worth the effort, and poetry makes that accessible too by putting a little distance or shine on it, or placing a candle in the door. Indeed, that's what some of my favorite poems do.

Just at the moment it's Seamus Heaney's "A Daylight Art."

At 6/21/2009 12:50 AM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

Let me go a step further on that, John, having just reread your fine essay yet again.

Every word of Shakespeare is accessible. Most words of John Ashberry are not.

In creative writing programs it's not really fair to model great accessible poetry like Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney, because to write it you've got to have a verbal intelligence, integrity, and scope of heart very few students possess. And that's not a reflection on the students as much as it is on the art--because as it is an art of the accessible you've got to have a lot to access before you can tap it.

So instead we teach an inaccessible art wherein it doesn't really matter what you know or who you are---just write it as if you were, and then you're called a poet.

And because you know your own poetry is only accessible because your colleagues and your mentors say it's so, you feel that that's o.k. So you buy their books, a lot of them, and when your time comes you too will make it on the list.

A poet to be understood by Monday.

What comes out of that charade is where we're at in America, and to a lesser extent the U.K. In the rest of the world there are just enough real poets to be read.

At 6/21/2009 5:39 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Our disagreement will be long on this one, and we'll nost likely not make much headway with each other, but I will agree with you strongly on this point: accessibility and depth are two very different subjects. And then rith away disagree with you again, when you say one way of thinking about writing inherently has more depth.

I believe any way of writing could potentially bring one to depth (if depth is what one wants to be brought to), from Flarf to Ted Kooser to whomever.

I've no idea what a poet-taster is, but I'm guessing you're talking bad about someone in the way that Neil Young fans say HOGTT, meaning "Heart of Gold" Toe Tapper, someone who only likes the big hits by Neil Young, and knows nothign about the rest of his large body of work. A dabbler?

We can disagree and talk about all the ways a poem works, but it wold be more productive without the smoke-screen of "accessibility." That's all I'm really saying.

At 6/21/2009 5:53 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Thanks for stopping by. It looks like we're on the opposite sides of several things here.

I don't have much to say about Shakespeare or Heaney. For me, I think Shakespeare is accessible mostly in hindsight, and Heaney, I don't follow much. People keep telling me to read his work, but when I do, by and large, I don't get a lot out of it. I was never much for Enlish classes through High School or college, and once to college, I started at a visual art program, before turning to journalism. (And then creative writing, because it was more fun)

When you say this:

"And because you know your own poetry is only accessible because your colleagues and your mentors say it's so, you feel that that's o.k. So you buy their books, a lot of them, and when your time comes you too will make it on the list."

I find it contrary to my experience. Most of my teachers found my work very ellusive, and kept telling me to write about what I know, and to write stories from my childhood, etc. But what I liked to read, what I personally found, I guess, "accessible" were those Modernists (Stevens most of all), and then Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout, Charles Wright, Anne Carson, etc, and I was off . . .

That way of working with an idea, a more "tag and associate" method, seemed more fun and more suggestive toward the ever-ellusive reality of "meaning" for me (in my conceptualization) than poets who seemed to work more (auto)biographically or paraphrasably toward an epiphany.

At 6/21/2009 5:49 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

Thank you for that detailed reply, John--and I believe you,

That's actually a high compliment because so often when writers say what you've just said it comes out of a solidarity they feel with their movement, and not from their hearts.

3 things I find particularly hard to grasp in terms of my own reading experience. Presumably you are talking about a prose writing class when you say your teachers dismissed your work as too "elusive" and encouraged you to "write about what you know." For one thing, I can't imagine what sort of writing teacher wouldn't understand that what we "know" is for any human being the most elusive source of not only understanding but information of all, and that almost all art is trying to take what we "know" and make it more accessible. If what you "know" is hard to grasp, i.e. deep and full of feeling, then your story will probably be elusive as well--and may even have a title like "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love!"

So I'm just wondering what sort of writing teacher you had.

Secondly, I'm surprised at the list of writers you, a reader who couldn't get his mind around Seamus Heaney, liked to read. Odd one--but I'll leave that observation up to you.

Finally, that Shakespeare is only accessible "by hindsight." By hindsight? Do you mean that he wasn't accessible before? Or that he isn't accessible to anyone who hasn't studied him first, or who hasn't learned to read that level of language, or hasn't had the experiences he describes?

You really lose me there, because if Shakespeare isn't accessible why is he still everywhere today, indeed the heart and soul of our whole language? And why are we wasting our time with this old guy still right here between us?

So those are mysteries for me, but you've certainly got me thinking.

Many thanks, and I'll be back.


At 6/21/2009 6:14 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

May I be so bold as to come back one more time?

It occurred to me that right from the start in your writing class you may have given the impression you were writing about something you didn't know about because your language and/or your images didn't ring quite true. Now this is something else altogether, and indeed is one of the most common faults of young writers who are trying to sound deep. I went through that at the beginning too--indeed, I abandoned writing poetry altogether at the age of 20, and I mean for 30 years, because I was so bedeviled by the tricks and deliberately misleading sleights I packed in every poem I wrote.

Perhaps I could have been a great post-modern way back in the 50s, and threw away a great career. Unfortunately for me I still had a conscience.

So there's an object lesson if there ever was one!


At 6/21/2009 7:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Be as bold as you want!

You know, the thing with me, I think, when I was a very young writer (and here I'm mostly guessing, as I don't trust my memory), was that I was flighty, just saying whatever came into my mind. It was all kind of without purpose. There are some that say I haven't changed a bit, but hopefully I have. I've never tried to hide a meaning though, or to be tricky. Some people see that tendency in some poets, but I don't, at least not in the poets I admire.

At 6/21/2009 8:37 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

It's not about "hiding a meaning," John, it's much worse than that. It's about placing a higher value on the sound of one's own voice than the meaning, as if just saying "I'm a poet!" were the credential, not what I write---"hey, just look at my CV!"
Indeed, such a trickster should be locked in the stocks, mocked ferociously, and the key thrown away with the garbage.

Yet we publish it.

Worse still, we teach it.

Then we give it a chair!


At 6/22/2009 4:53 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'll reply to the second comment here, as I don't have much time. I'm taking my young son to the dentist down in Kansas City this morning, which is quite a distance away.

I'm sure there must be people who write as you say, but I can't get my mind around who they might be or why they would bother writing that way. I can't tell just looking at the poems what the motivations and strategies were in the composing process. So I'll file the thought away, and keep it there for further thought. I hope it's not true. Hiding meanings away, is such a weird thing to want to do. I mean that. First, it supposes there are meanings . . . if which there really are so few.

I'm sure there are people out there who just seem to be going through the motions. You know. Just kind of writing poems in some cookie-cutter fashion in the way they were taught. But even these poets, I doubt, would hide meanings. I would think they would be really excited to have one and would want to carry it around?

At 6/22/2009 8:34 AM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

"First, it supposes there are meanings . . . if which there really are so few... "

That's really cryptic, John---and if you mean it I think maybe that's the key to the disjunct between us.

It's like Carl Sagan's 'Contact'---that's the name of the film with Jodie Foster, I don't remember the name of the novel. It's like accepting the celestial hum as a stream of messages, and therefore being unable even to conceive of one delicate intention carried home high and dry on the great wave of noise.

Intention is the key.

At 6/22/2009 11:07 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Oh, I don't know if I mean it or not. Maybe that's just me being reactionary. Most of the time I hear someone talk about "meaning" in a poem, and then I go there looking for this "meaning" it just turns out to be something like, "I feel bad about my dad," or something equally vague. Which isn't such a bad thing, meanings are often pretty vague things in art . . . that's why I said there are so few. It would be just as accurate to say there are an endless number of meanings. Shades of meaning.

But then again I find meaning sitting in a chair looking at my lawn, so maybe I'm not a good one to talk about meaning.

But I DO want to know something is going on in a piece of art, that there's something to connect me to it. Every poet has an off day (or many), and the poets I admire, when they have off days, tend to write things that I feel nothing going on. Maybe that's what you mean by meaning?

At 6/22/2009 7:39 PM, Anonymous rosiewritesapoem said...

I take issue with Christopher's post. "Meaning" is cliche' in art. Who's to describe what the true meaning of art is? Is that not part of the value of any art? True, some pieces are easier to interpret than others, in poetry it may be language or common rhyme structure. In art it may be landscape instead of spatter. The interpretation ease is not due to lack of "meaning" but to familiarity that allows one to explore within some safety of knowledge schema.
Also, why does art (any art) have to have a predefined meaning that we are supposed to get? Pleasing art can exist and be valued on it's own. Someone can write a poem or choreograph a dance with no motive except artistic expression. Meaning does not have to factor in.
To keep within this topic, inaccessibility and accessibility have little to do with meaning unless you're writing morality poems in my opinion.

At 6/22/2009 9:13 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

So then you have to deal with the word "expression" too, if "meaning" is too wooly. You can even go farther than that and talk about "artistic expression"--as opposed, I guess, to inartistic expression, "expression" that does not have enough "art" in it to be worth your while.

Oh dear.

I think the image I suggested from Carl Sagan's 'Contact' is quite a good one, the contrast between the huge hum that fills outer space and the idiosyncratic sound that detaches itself from all that and becomes something else, something relevant, significant, communicative, helpful one hopes of course, lifesize and hopeful---like a friend. We human beings can hear that message over the meaningless hum because it resonates in a way that random noise doesn't, and arouses in us the urge to look toward something other than ourselves that still comes toward us with what we call for want of a better word, meaning.

I think the ending of the film is truly extraordinary if you've ever seen it. Because after the huge centrifuge begins whirling and the person in the pod disintegrates in cosmic light, distance and staggering wonder she arrives upon an ordinary beach and in the silvery silence meets another simple person face to face.

John Ashbery disintegrates in cosmic light and wonder but for me rarely steps upon that beach. Of course I love the light show and the music but for me that's not enough--I want the real encounter.


At 6/23/2009 5:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Christopher and Rosie Writes a Poem,

Well, this has ended up in a radically different place than "accessibility." But, I also like your metaphor of "Contact." The word "contact" is a better one for me than "meaning" and "expression," etc.. But, as is the problem with metaphors, I see it as a good description of how the poetry I like operates, while not describing very well at all how most contemporary American poetry operates.

There is very little dispersing into cosmic light going on. Most poetry, instead would say something like, "And as I sat in the machine, I rememberd all the jobs my family has had, and how my mother would sit by the window, looking down the road, dreaming of jobs" or something like that.

At 6/23/2009 5:10 AM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

I keep worrying that when you go to a poem looking for the "meaning" you find something like "I feel bad about my dad." Indeed, that's the sure sign of the paucity of our expectations today, sort of as if who we are has all been told already in a short story or a novel.

Well why write poetry if this is so? Why do we need another art when narrative is quite enough?

What do you find in a poem like this one, anyone? Or is that too hard because it asks so much of you? Is that too hard because it's simply too accessible, too wide to enter?

A Daylight Art

On the day he was to take the poison

Socrates told his friends he had been writing:

putting Aesop’s fables into verse.

And this was not because Socrates loved wisdom

and advocated the examined life.

The reason was that he had had a dream.

Caesar, now, or Herod or Constantine

or any number of Shakespearean kings

bursting at the end like dams

where original panoramas lie submerged

which have to rise again before the death scenes - 

you can believe in their believing dreams.

But hardly Socrates. Until, that is,

he tells his friends the dream had kept recurring

all his life, repeating one instruction:

Practise the art, which art until that moment

he always took to mean philosophy.

Happy the man, therefore, with a natural gift

for practising the right one from the start –

poetry, say, or fishing; whose nights are dreamless;

whose deep-sunk panoramas rise and pass

like daylight through the rod’s eye or the nib’s eye.

..................................................Seamus Heaney

At 6/23/2009 5:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I have no argument with Heaney, and you've caught me at a very busy time, so I can't go too deeply. Apologies.

I don't understand what you mean by "so hard." I find nothing "hard" about this poem. That is not to say there should or should not be "hard" things in poems. Different poems, different means to ends. I'm on the side of Socrates, dreaming of fish.

At 6/23/2009 5:30 PM, Anonymous Christopher Woodman said...

I'm sorry, John, I misunderstood what you said earlier about Heaney, that people kept telling you to read him but when you did you"didn't get a lot out of it." Also you said in the same post that you were "never much for English classes," so I assumed you meant that there was a kind of poetry that you associate with English classes that doesn't speak to you.

I don't think "A Daylight Art" is hard at all, which is why I phrased the question as I did. But I think that it's a poem you coud read every day of your life with great pleasure and profit, yet never be able to say what it meant. That's what I meant by meaning as I used the word in my 'Contact' posts.

It's also a poem that is entirely accessible while remaining forever elusive.


At 6/24/2009 8:31 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

John, I don't want to re-interrupt the good conversation going here, so I've taken the building model over to my own blog.

Verification word: suene, noun, a particularly limp suede

At 6/25/2009 2:51 PM, Blogger Jeannine said...

I don't know, John. I have students who have gotten angry - angry! - when I assign anything more challenging that Billy Collins. They don't want academic. They don't want what they term "difficult."
I also have worked with high school kids, who I have found to be very open to a wide range of poetry. However, I like to present them with poems they can get "up front" at first - simply because I don't want them to feel frustrated, or cut off from poetry.
If you're trying to get poetry to a wider audience - and I unabashedly say that I am - then you have to draw for the audience from a variety of kinds of poems, of poets. Not all of them will latch on to every kind. But Billy Collins is an entertainer as much as he is a poet. Crowds see him, they sigh and laugh, they feel better about themselves because they've been to a poetry reading they actually enjoyed.
Who am I to say that's a bad thing?
Garrison Keillor gets a lot of bad press, too, but he gets my father to listen to poetry on Writer's Almanac. So I say, yay to that.
I don't want all poetry to be simple, or easy. But what the problem if some of it is?
Poetry should be a big enough tent that people from different schools should not need to throw rocks at each other.

At 6/29/2009 4:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Apologies. I’ve been traveling, and have been disconnected. But to reply to Jeannine:

I completely agree with you. My beef is not with the poetry itself (as much as I don’t care for Collins’s work, that doesn’t mean I’m against someone else caring for it) as much as I’m against putting things like “accessibility” forward as a value statement when talking about poetry. That poetry might be “easy” or whatever is a characteristic, not a value, in my estimation, and does not bear directly upon the heart of the poem. I personally think art should be equal to the world, and depending upon the amount of world in the poem, each poem would seem to need to be differently approached. Or something like that. Poems like “In a Station of the Metro” or “Locust Tree in Flower” (if I’m remembering the titles correctly!) are differently approached than other poems by Pound or WCW . . . but we all know that already. I’m saying nothing new.

Students! Well, first off, I kind of agree with them. I can understand how a student who isn’t already interested in art, who is there in class to get out of the class and do something else, is going to be uncomfortable with the amount of ambiguity that “difficult” art brings. They’re going to want something that allows them to get in and get a quick tone or emotion, and then get out. The poems I like best don’t ever really let one out again. Ashbery is a fecund swamp. I love camping there. When I teach Intro to Literature (which I do very rarely), I only bring in a couple poems from Ashbery, and then only a couple other really “difficult” things, though I don’t pitch them as “difficult” so much as “coming from a different place” and “what might these pieces of art be expecting and getting at that is different from the others we looked at” . . .

I’m a little worried now about mentioning my other big gag button in talking about poetry: courage. It seems that people always want to talk about the “courage” of poets, as if they were all standing in front of tanks or something. I’ll probably post on that at some point! But not today! Yikes!


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