Tired Old Wheel


Is it possible that our current U.S. Poet Laureate is still promoting this simple-minded worldview:

“‘I detest elitism of any kind,’ [Kooser] says. ‘There’s been this assumption along with modernism that the reader should come halfway to the work. I frankly don’t believe readers should be expected to make an effort to learn something in order to understand a poem. I’ve never met readers like that, although I’m sure there are some, particularly on campuses. I’m not saying it’s not all right to write challenging poetry. But the sort of reader I’m interested in is the average person on the street.’”

Key here is that he doesn’t “believe readers should be expected to make an effort” as though “reading” is not a verb (i.e. an action one engages in). Should reading simply be a tube through which the message gets poured into the reader receptacle? And worse, Kooser pretends it’s okay to write challenging poetry through his insincere double negative qualifier, but really, that complex stuff isn’t accessible by the “average person on the street.”

This strain of anti-intellectualism has promoted the academic versus everyman divide for far too long now. What really is the point? I mean, everyone acknowledges that the world of art is far and wide, ranging from the complex to the cartoon. Many heralded artists have not had formal educations and vice versa. The art world doesn’t live by the code that one must have an education to produce difficult, worthwhile work. How is it that this nation’s Poet Laureate still sees the world of poetry in such a debased way? Simple verse for simple, non-academic minds. Academic verse for the “elite.” And so the mythology goes …

Charles Bernstein responded to this dumbing-down sometime ago:

“National Poetry Month is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that uses its mainstream status to exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and “otherstream” poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry …

Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art.’ National Poetry month professes to an undifferentiated promotion for ‘all’ poetry, as if supporting all poetry, any more than supporting all politics, you could support any.

National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally ‘positive.’ The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an ‘easy listening’ station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. ‘Accessibility’ has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.”

Bernstein goes on to discuss the agenda of this call for “accessibility”: to sell books under the ruse of “good for you,” pat-on-the-back-you-exist kind of poetry. In this way, the possibilities of the poet as cultural worker, as a critical dissector of the world we create and inhabit are severely limited. One cannot produce affirmative flowery verse AND point out how culture might manipulate or push us towards specific beliefs. This limited poet cannot produce verse that reflects an existence unlike her readers either. If she is to affirm the masses, how can she divulge atypical details and unusual ways of seeing that digress from society-at-large?

Instead of saying that only simple poetry is for everyone, it would be nice if the “head poet” would, for a change, use some real marketing ploy and put a new spin on the sell. For instance, Hey! There are so many poetries available now that one’s been designed especially for you! Now get off your soft potato and clean out The Strand! Or your local bookstore ..

Of course, I’m just a simple-minded idealist too.

In other news & notes, this post touches on my nightmares regarding listserv etiquette.

And surpassing the “gay cowboy movie” label, this post has miraculously renewed my interest in seeing “Brokeback Mountian.”

Oh, here are those candles I mentioned yesterday. Check ‘em out.

Didi made a portrait of me. I look hot – yay!

I’m going stir crazy. And out into the rain now.

4 Responses to “Tired Old Wheel”

  1. patry Says:
    January 12th, 2006 at 3:14 am eMaybe Kooser should check out Silliman’s blog where I’ve been introduced to wonderful
    new poets of all stripes. Great post, Amy.
  2. Jough Dempsey Says:
    January 12th, 2006 at 6:39 am eI don’t know about this post, Amy. I think I’m with Kooser on this one. A lot of people who don’t read poetry say that they don’t read it because they don’t think they can understand it, and I tell them that’s baloney and give them some great poems to read and they tend to understand them perfectly.

    However, every day I read submissions by poets who seem to follow that imagined “poetry is really hard to understand” aesthetic where you not only need to have a mastery of 18th Century Turkish literature, but also need to know the poet personally to decipher the cryptic hash that they’ve constructed. No thanks. I have better things to read. Why would I waste my time trudging through the intentionally obtuse when there is still some Shakespeare I haven’t read? I mean, Cymbeline ain’t gonna read itself.

    Maybe it’s just the terminology. Instead of “accessibility” how about “not being pretentious and convoluted”? I doubt Kooser really wants “the average person on the street” as a reader, because the average person on the street isn’t a reader. The average person on the street thinks that the sitcom is the acme of human creative achievment.

    Surely, though, you can appreciate that most poetry readers (many of whom are students or other poets) are impatient and will likely not stick around after a few lines to work through your magnum opus. Why should poetry be a chore to read instead of a pleasure? What is the advantage of willful obfuscation?

    It’s easy to chortle at a well-recognised poet’s idea of writing for a large audience, since obviously that technique hasn’t garnered Kooser a spot on the NYT Best Seller list either, but what’s the point of railing against someone who uses simple language and clear, direct imagery? Are you annoyed because he’s more successful than you are and may come off as a little smug in interviews?

  3. l.trent Says:
    January 12th, 2006 at 1:20 pm eIs this Amy King who wrote the chapbook “The People Instruments”? I just got this book from Pavement Saw and am loving it.

    About Kooser– It’s fine for him to make statements about how much he likes poetry to be on the bumper-sticker level of intellect, but what really pisses me off is his claim that “everyday people” don’t like things that are challenging or difficult. Who are these everyday people? “everyday people” do things like crossword puzzles, chess, video games, watch complicated movies with twisted plots, etc. I resent how much Kooser patronizes his intended audience.

  4. kari Says:
    January 13th, 2006 at 2:50 am ecommon sense for the common good is the lowest of common denominators, the majority is never right… !!!!…there is no over-all good, or over all common person on the street… that generalized statement is at least insensitive, if not blind… that kind of idealism is all about burying into a sort of corporate commercialism, a big mac for all… neatly package and prepared to be eaten one mouth full at a time…
  5. Greg Says:
    January 13th, 2006 at 7:02 am eWith Gregg Loew’s permission, I’m posting an excerpt from an email he sent — he raises an interesting point on accessibility:

    “In the FT.com article he cites Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow poem as a model of an accessible poem. He doesn’t mention that it was first published in 1923–83 years ago–and that the average American reader of that time would have been completely bewildered by it and not even acknowledged it as poetry. Mr. Kooser seems to be nostalgic for a world that never existed.”

  6. Ossian Says:
    January 14th, 2006 at 9:39 am eI have a hell of a time with Dickinson, but what a pay off!

    Not work? He works; he reads. We disagree only on acceptible degree. Accesible reading requires effort. Obfuscation works when weilded well, and a little thought never hurt anyone. Ford, then automatic rifles (few laboring to relieve many). But careful or you’ll sound like No Dada for you, Baba. But-but Reading Philip Jenks marks my turn from fearing poetry to seeking vitality. My hand was held through Whitman and Dickinson. Now a computer provokes thoughts.

    Kooser speaks of promotion. To mention some thing as a transition to its dismissal is low-humor. Artifically distinguishing poetry for readers from poetry for writers ignores Poetry. Promoting simplemindedness and narrow spectrums does just that. Asserting simplemindedness denies.

    I heard a story: An elite friend of mine was sitting at an elite table of elite scholars at an elite luncheon. Marjorie Perloff had just mentioned in a lecture that she was impressed by an apparent abundance of “regular people” tackling massive Modern works such as Ulysses, and speculated somewhat on what this meant to contemporary literature. A woman at the table (who is said to be in elite charge of the elite money that all these elite scholors were elitely after) called Perloff’s comments anti-intellectual.

    Kooser faults a Modernist idea that regular people needn’t rise to a Modern level; he’s called anti-intellectual. Regular people do rise. Perloff notes this; Perloff is called anti-intellectual.

    Few people read what isn’t interesting to them. Kooser speaks of inclusion, promotion. Bernstein speaks of inclusion, promotion. Make things interesting. Make interesting things. They look like this

  7. Kyle Foley Says:
    January 15th, 2006 at 9:59 pm eaccessibility has become a king of moral imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but safe poetry. as if poetry will turn people off to poetry.

    i agree! we poets need to accept the harsh reality that we in general are viper-scorned and outcast to the steaming bolgias, our thoughts, contemplations, desires, proclivities, inherencies and topography never to be fully understood unless that person as well plunges into the complex megaplex, immerses himself in foam and then truly extracts from the chaotic plasma a though, emotion or perspective of their own with which to combat the snarling fracas!

  8. Satellite Heart » Blog Archive » Carnival of Speculum Issue 1 Says:
    January 17th, 2006 at 4:05 pm e[…] k out some of his writings on law and politics. He’s on point. – Amy King goes head to head with U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and breaks him off somethin’ somethin’. You see, Ted t […]


AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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