05 February 2006

Respecting intelligence

Joseph Parisi responds to the question, "Do you think there is a place for poetry in the American culture we know now?"
The question presumes a kind of necessity. In the marketplace of ideas, I would say no. The question really is: what is its purpose? Well, there isn’t any. It’s like asking what’s the purpose of Mozart? If one is looking for a utilitarian use for such things, you probably won’t find one. In a society like ours, the elective activities available are quite vast. The competition is fierce. Unless the poets themselves become educators, there will never be a larger audience for poetry. Poetry requires a sophisticated level of learning. To get the nuances of poetry requires not only a high level of language learning, but also cultural learning. A few readers of my new book I spoke with recently seemed surprised that they could like poetry. When I was editor of Poetry, I wanted my readers to feel welcome as non-specialists. I wanted to reach as many readers as I could. If you give people something of value, something that respects their intelligence, they will respond.
I was happily reading along (more or less) until I got to this last bit. How do you respect someone's intelligence if you're trying to make sure that no one feels alienated? Was this the beginning of Poetry's current preoccupation with mass appeal? As Dan Green asked,
What is a "specialist" reader? Someone who reads poetry? What's a "nonspecialist" reader? Someone who can take it or leave it? Why would poets want to appeal to such a reader?
Perhaps a "nonspecialist reader" is someone who hasn't studied poetry at the university level. Yet this line of reasoning still doesn't make any sense. I was 16 when I fell in love with Eliot, Cummings, Yeats, Rilke, Neruda, Plath, Roethke, Dickinson, and others. I didn't love them because I completely understood them. Yet it seems that this trend toward "accessibility" is working against one of poetry's main charms--its incomprehensibility. It takes effort to become on speaking terms with a poem. But God forbid that we make people think. (I've gone off on this subject before.)

On a related note, I'm reminded of Stephen Mitchelmore's response to John Carey:
He thinks that authors write the real thing in order to exclude "the masses" whoever they are (so why didn't Proust and Eliot and Woolf write in Latin?). [...]

Luckily I didn't have a guide like Carey to prevent me from reading all sorts of apparently unenjoyable books without shame (e.g. Proust at 15). The books were in English. How much more accessible do you need to be? As a result, my life wasn't dominated by embedded ideas such as the opposition of utility and pleasure. I couldn't tell the difference. My life wasn't too bad, but there was so much more.
P.S. A long-lost package that was sent in October finally made it to me in January. Inside was a lovely new copy of James Longenbach's The Resistance to Poetry. Pure happiness.


Anne said...

This is all very interesting. I've been thinking about this, too, via Richard Poirier, whose "Venerable Complications: Why Literature is a Little Hard to Read" I've been reading today. Poirier is smart about those who sought to make reading difficult and he makes a great distinction between difficulty and density:

"The Dead" is Joyce being dense--you think you get it, but it turns out to be richer than you thought; *Ulysses* is Joyce being difficult and dense; Shakespeare, for Poirier, is almost always dense but not difficult.

I am thinking about this and thinking of adding it to my repertoire of surprisingly useful non-technical terms.



amcorrea said...

That makes a lot of sense (sounds like something I should read!). But whenever I hear a writer labeled "difficult," I get a negative connotation--as if they were doing it on purpose to annoy people (kind of like when a child is being "difficult"). Yet how much of it is actually intentional?

I've always taken writerly "difficulty" to indicate the level of intellectual engagement the writer enjoys. In other words, what seems tough for me is natural for them. Isn't it more a choice made because that's what engaged them at a particular moment rather than an intentional effort to be obtuse?

Or perhaps this is another way of distinguishing between difficulty and density?