Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What is and is not "accessible?"

Nobody in the poetry world seems to have been upset much by this passing comment by Jonathan Segura, Deputy Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly, on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, containing his "Good Reads" recommendations:

"truth be told, i don't really read poetry so don't have anything to recommend there."

Only one comment expressed surprise that someone responsible for book reviewing at PW, the publishing industry's most important information source, doesn't really read poetry. A reply to that comment suggested that slack be cut on the grounds that PW has a knowledgeable staffer in the form of Craig Morgan Teicher. True enough, but I do feel surprised that a Deputy Reviews Editor doesn't, as the first comment puts it, need to be more well-read or what they used to call "well-rounded." It certainly illustrates the self-fulfilling prophecy in the pub biz that poetry books are beneath notice.


Alfred Corn: "Luckily, here in these United States, we don’t have to depend entirely on the big trade-book houses for new literature. We have the university presses and the small presses, both publishing poetry and fiction. And anyone who has the least grasp of what’s what realizes that these presses must be taken just as seriously (more seriously?) than the for-profit publishers."

* * *

John Ashbery: "Well, the pantoum or the sestina, which we all use occasionally, are forms which take the poem really out of the hands of the poet in attempting to satisfy the constraints that are the trademark of these forms. Therefore one can allow one’s unconscious mind to go about forming the poem in a way that is even more effective than what the Surrealists practice, called "unconscious writing," which I don’t think ever gets that far from consciousness. Having to accomplish a task that is almost mechanical is a far more effective way of liberating one’s unconscious mind to write the poem."


Helen Vendler, quoted by David Lehman in a discussion of Ashbery: "'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world."


Guernica: "In a recent poetry interview on this site, Robert Pinsky says he hates poetry that is "dumbed down." In an earlier interview with Billy Collins, Collins emphasizes almost the opposite stance, criticizing difficult poetry as self-indulgent and perhaps hiding something. Is either of them right? Are they both right? What do you say to someone who tells you that many readers are just used to a more linear thought process than your poems convey?"

John Ashbery: "I guess I would have to side with Pinsky. I came of age in the mid-twentieth century when modernism was at its height. It was more or less expected that great literature (Joyce, Pound, Proust, Stein) would be hard to read, and people seemed actually to look forward to that. I remember how excited I was when my tutor at Harvard assigned me James's Wings of the Dove, perhaps his most difficult book. My feeling was, "Gosh, this is really hard to read, but I'm sure I'll have learned something by the time I finish." And I did. Though it would be impossible to summarize in a few sentences. Somehow the word "accessible" never turned up in discussions of poetry in that era."


Charles Bernstein: "Cultural miscegenation (the mixing of types) is in dialectical relation to assimilation. Miscegenation, insofar as it is marked by difference, resists assimilation. But miscegenation is also assimilation by means of absorption—call it the syncretic. Conceptualized as a function, assimilation has as its utopian upper limit Emersonian moral perfectionism, whose horizon is the new or invented, in the sense of emergent or not yet realized (possibly not realizable). The dystopian lower limit is absorption into the dominant culture without a trace of the constituent parts, the fantasy of the total dissolution of otherness into the mirage of the preexisting—call it the final solution by other means."

[The latter from a very fine and valuable essay, "Objectivist Blues: Scoring Speech in Second-Wave Modernist Poetry and Lyrics."]


Jennifer S. Flescher said...

Thanks for this! As usual your eye is much appreciated.

Did you see yesterday's CLMP thread about journals whose top viewed page was guidelines with no one reading the issues... sometimes it seems like even poets don't read poems...

Last year I tried to pitch a show to BUR which dealt with poetry for a mainstream audience. They weren't interested...

anyway -- thanks so much for this!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

It's pretty easy to consume a slim volume of verse now & then, really it is.