Monday, June 11, 2012

If it ain't a pleasure...


Q. John Kinsella wrote, "I do not want my poems to give pleasure. I don't want them to be comfortable... I want my poems to suggest and to bother - to irritate and to instigate." Why do you think poems ought to alienate people? And what do you say to people who argue that such approaches will only shrink poetry's already small audience?

A. I don’t think poems ought necessarily to alienate people. I don’t think they’re obliged to go down easy, either. The question poses a false dichotomy. A given poem does whatever it does, either well or badly on its own terms; each poem arises from its own particular set of circumstances. So I don’t quite agree with John here, though I respect and admire what he’s saying. If a poem instigates, that can be a very valuable accomplishment. At the same time, William Carlos Williams used to say that if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem. The point again is that it’s not useful to generalize. Some poems are pleasures. Others are meant to be excruciating, or didactic, or haunting, or satirical. Some poems easily communicate with people, and others are experiments or provocations. I’m not worried in the slightest about what Charles Bernstein amusingly calls “The Attack of the Difficult Poem.” And I don’t think the work of poets or artists is obliged to be “user-friendly.” There’s a lot of poetry around, and plenty of people who read it. The anxiety about shrinking poetry’s audience is misplaced.

- From an interview with me in the new issue of Magma Poetry; most of the piece is about how John Davies of Hereford (1563?-1618) is a presiding spirit of mine.