Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Accessibility in Poetry

Quite a few weeks ago, I e-mailed my friend, Tanis MacDonald, to let her know that I had posted here about her latest collection of poetry, Rue the Day, and I shared some of my thoughts about the book: It seems fair to say that this book is much less accessible to "the average reader" than your earlier two -- care to comment? (and let me know if you'd prefer not to be publicly quoted) -- not only is it much more indeterminate (oh do my students have trouble with this concept!) but it's much more richly allusive -- and puzzlingly so, literally and I suspect deliberately, given the several references to the Sphinx. Any comments about your ideal reader for this book? Or comments about how you'd begin to help, say, 1st-year students respond to such poems, to untangle them -- would you even try? I tend to stay with the more concrete, introducing indeterminacy in small doses, I guess.

Tanis was gracious enough to take time from her busy teaching-and-writing schedule to send me the following response which she's kindly allowing me to post here:

On accessibility in Rue The Day:
I prefer not to think of poetry that challenges conventions of reading, syntax, punctuation, lineation, and expectations of any kind, as “inaccessible,” although I understand that many people do experience it as such. I have often heard readers call this kind of challenging poetry “gibberish,” or “nonsense,” which is rather a limited view. While it is certainly true that such poetry is not an easy read, I don’t think that every piece of literature ought to be easy. Certainly there is pleasure to be found in reading, and one form of reading pleasure is the ability to pick up a book, and get the instant pleasure of understanding.

But of course, that is only one kind of pleasure. A different pleasure in reading comes from engaging with the book’s challenges to conventions of language, something that is particularly true for poetry. While such a pleasure is undeniably an acquired taste, and while universities often teach such texts, I am resistant to believing that this happens only in formal scholarly study. Plenty of people pursue this kind of engagement with a text entirely free of the influence of the academy, but rather because they have become interested in interrogating language.

I feel that I cannot present my work as a good example of “radical” writing; for this, see Daphne Marlatt, Erin MourĂ©, or any poet associated with the Kootenay School of Writing. To the extent that I do break with conventions and ask for the reader to work a bit to understand the poetry, I encourage readers to look for a different way to access the poetry, one that doesn’t rely on narrative understanding or the syntax of a sentence.

After all, to argue for ease of reading in every piece of literature is like arguing for ease of motion for every physical task. Running a marathon is neither as easy nor as accessible as walking two blocks is; nor should it be. While involving some of the same muscles, they are different tasks with different aims. You would never train for months to walk to the store to get milk, just as you would never attempt to buy milk in the middle of a marathon. Each task has a specific value and purpose that cannot be served by the other. So, too, with poetry: the ordered form of a sonnet is not supposed to have the same aims of a contemporary prose poem, nor should we be reading them in the same ways.

Tanis's response forcefully acknowledges those many readers outside the academy who read poetry. Rather than dismissing those who don't know what to make of some poetry's difficulties, she draws analogies to help readers understand and accept the different purposes and values of poems that offer resistance to our first readings. When she says that she "encourage[s] readers to look for a different way to access the poetry, one that doesn't rely on narrative understanding or the syntax of a sentence," she reminds me of what I tell my students. Often we find a kind of access at the very places that pose difficulty -- it all depends how you define "access"; to me, it happens at any point of engagement, whether that be a single image, a concatenation of words, or simply a frustration that continues to resonate. Many of us are schooled to feel that we have to work until we "get" the poem, and finding that impossible, we reject the text that frustrates us. But our engagement with poetry can offer so many pleasures beyond the satisfaction of determinate meaning -- I'd love to see us all with at least one poem in our life at any moment -- perhaps two, one we feel we "get" and one whose frustrations and satisfactions thorougly engage us as we struggle for meaning. What poems are currently engaging you, my readers?

Personally, I'm working through Randall Maggs' Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. This is a collection of poems, many of them longer poems (and the shorter ones are generally arranged in suites), offering a biography of sorts of the hockey goalie Terry Sawchuk (who died in 1970). I am so far from being a hockey fan as to make Pater guffaw at the very notion, yet I'm finding this collection gripping. I began it hoping to find some hockey poems that might grab the attention of the Junior A players who often constitute part of my 1st-year Lit classes. I've found one or two of those (brief excerpt below), but the book really deserves to be read as a whole, and it goes far beyond the interests of a hockey fan. It encompasses social history and lyrical, yet muscular, descriptions of Canadian winters -- the sketches of Maritime open-ice games are particularly compelling. As well, it exposes and interrogates 1950s-60s masculinity, codes of the athlete, class and labour in professional hockey's early days when exploitation was the norm. For me, much of the text might be considered inaccessible because there are so many references outside my ken. Yet the power of what I do "get" invites me to learn more, opening an access point. I'm so pleased that I brought this book home after serendipitously discovering it in a bookstore, and glad to be able to spend time with these Sawchuk poems. I'll leave you with a little taste, a stanza from "Rough Calculations" a 3-part poem about the forces a goalie faces in the form of the oncoming puck:

Press one flat against your face,
even in summer, you feel its winterness.
Toss it up and down, its edges hit bone, a puck
seems leaden in the hand, a dead weight, nothing
like the subtle baseball with its endlessness,
its pendulous invitation, its pair of eights
that curl together in a perfect sphere.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your very thoughtful words about Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs.

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