Accessibility versus Engagement

I was thinking tonight about art.

Specifically, I was thinking about how art is art because it creates a response in the viewer—isn't this the fundamental definition of what we consider art? That it makes us think, feel, reconsider, review, etc? Also, I think, art is sometimes art because it is presented in the context of "being art," which changes the way it is consumed.

But I'm already starting to digress. I then wandered over to thinking about the long-standing po-blog debate about the level of "accessibility" in poetry. Many poets turn up their nose at poetry they deem to be overly "accessible," which I take to mean poetry they feel is pandering to an unindoctrinated audience, or trying to please the "general public," who may or may not care about poetry as an artform to being with.

I think accessibility is becoming a dangerous term. I don't say this because I aspire to write poems that are accessible. (But that's an easy out. Maybe I do.) When people describe poems that are accessible, I feel they are really commenting on a given's piece ability to engage a wide audience in its meaning or methods.

I thought, then, of something Claudia Rankine wrote in an interview soon to be published in the next issue of Marginalia. To poorly paraphrase her, she said something along the lines of how sometimes people see a film and it has no impact on them. Other times, the work engages them. It creates a response within them. Whether or not the film fits into the limitations of accessibility is irrelevant in this case. Take for example, Yoko Ono's film "The Fly," in which the entire film consists of a static image of a fly running across bare human skin in extreme close-up. All the while, the fly giggles. Although this film isn't "accessible," I would say it is able to engage an audience and spur a response. They may not like it, but they respond to it. Therefore, under my parameters, it must be art.

People often cite people like Mary Oliver as a poet of access. Mary's poems often seem simple and plain—of nature or basic human experience, without much hooha or fanfare in the language. Mary's books sell like hotcakes. She had, like, five books on the 2006 poetry bestseller list. Clearly, her work engages people and spurs a response, but positive and negative. It must be art.

Accessibility is linked (in its negative usages) with dumbing-down, with ease, lacking complications or excess, perhaps even a lack of intelligence or craft involved in creation. But engagement operates on different terms. America's Next Top Model engages many people, including me, and yet, I trouble myself to consider it art. But under the terms I set forth, it must be art.

If something that is less "artful" is still "engaging," perhaps accessibility, then, is also about high art/low art—that other troubling dichotomy. And here we get into all sorts of poetic judgments. I'll reveal something to you. I consider Dr. Seuss to be a genius. His books still provide me a kind of enjoyment in adulthood that I found in childhood. But he is not High Art. (Not yet, at least—time is generally the hobgoblin of what is high and low in the world of Art.) I would argue that many people feel Mary Oliver's poetry is more pedestrian ("lower") than someone like, say, Gertrude Stein or Lyn Hejinian or others. In our little world, difficulty denies access, denies some with engagement, although I, too, argue that any response—even confusion—is still a form of engagement. Therefore, Stein and Hejinian are art.

And take, too, Claudia Rankine's amazing book Don't Let Me Be Lonely. An uncomplicated book in many ways: clear, concise, direct. It has exceptional levels of both engagement and accessibility and personally I think it is one of the most artful books I have read. Rankine's other books were less "accessible" to me, but I still took from them a level of engagement. And what engages has value. Therefore, it must be art.

What do we succeed in doing by isolating the "accessible" from the "non-accessible"? Creating a culture of non-access seems to me to devalue participation by a wider audience. It creates a sort of "You over there/Us over here" split that only isolates poetry further and limits its readership. But here I expose one of my main values about poetry: that it can and should be read.

I don't offer solutions here. I don't have answers, just thoughts and observations that struck me while walking from campus to the car. Some people in poetry want to limit access to those who are indoctrinated. This doesn't mean that no one outside of poets should read poetry, but that access to poetry is something to be cultivated and earned. Those aren't bad values to have. Aren't all good things earned over time? People rarely value what is handed to them without hard work.

But: engagement. Think about it.


  1. I've argued this point a number of times on my own blog. With many poets joining the "new formalist" movement, there does seem to be a whole bunch of writers out there (Jorie G. is one) who poo-poo "accessible" poetry. Of course, Billy, Ted and Mary have all been accused of dumbing down the "art". I'll say it again, if it moves you...it works. We really should stop caring so much about what other poets think and writer for a broader audience. That's my goal.

  2. Charlie: do you believe that art must be accessible in order to be resonant?

  3. Brent, good question. I don't. Art can create a visceral response that isn't necessarily understood from a logical perspective. I think of Bruce Connor's A Movie, which is essentially a non-narrative montage of elements. I don't think it's necessarily "accessible" because it's toying with ideas of collage and collion, film theory, spectator theory, etc, but any viewer can take away some response from this film because images have resonance for us.

    I believe the existing argument creates an "accessible/non-accessible" dichotomy, but terms of "engagement" allow for multiple levels/depths of engagement to exist for various viewers.

  4. Engagement does seem a good middle ground... sometimes, it even leads to marriage. I enjoyed your contribution to an ever-ongoing discussion, Charles.

  5. LOL. Yes, that's true, Brian. You know, I've always thought the term "engaged" was very strange when it describes someone getting married. I always think of a bomb ready to detonate.

  6. Even "difficult" poetry has to engage the reader somehow—has to provide some sort of opening to let the reader in. For that matter, even clear, straightforward, "accessible" poetry has to provide some sort of resistance to be fully engaging. The difficult must provide a bit of access; the accessible must provide a bit of difficulty. Without both elements—no engagement!