A Deaf Rough Trade: Defending Poetry to ‘regular people’

By | 1 May 2019

In his essay ‘Why I Write Poetry,’ Robert Wood talks lucidly about his history of loving and writing poems in solitude: ‘For years I laboured under the misapprehension that poetry was an isolated thing. I also laboured with the view that poetry and its ideas don’t matter, that writing doesn’t matter, and for that reason I felt a deep and abiding shame in my work.’1

Wood’s reference to shame doesn’t feel at all hyperbolic to me. There is something acutely embarrassing about loving poetry. Why invest so much in something so apparently inconsequential, especially during our particular end of the world? And isn’t there something ridiculous about working so hard for at an occupation so unlikely to result in monetary gain or any other recognisable achievement – what Dorothy Porter describes in her poem ‘Lucky’ as ‘some deaf rough trade’? In the lines after this one, Porter gives us the blunt truth about the path we’ve chosen:

So many poets
in the cold faery spaces
between their frost-bitten ears.2

But there is a reason for these ‘cold faery spaces’. It often feels safer to retreat. To close ranks and write, create and talk about poetry only with others who already understand. This way we are not confusing anyone. We are not asking anyone to appreciate work that appears at best fanciful, at worst difficult and useless.

The absurd twist, of course, is that by retreating, we reinforce the belief that a life including poetry is somehow exclusive. We become trapped in a familiar but sparsely populated world. We begin to feel lonely.

On another day, I send the friend who is still waiting for me to explain the meaning behind 37 the following lines from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets:

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? – No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink – Here you are again, it says, and so am I.3

Apparently, this one connects. ‘Love that,’ comes his reply. Granted it’s only a brief moment of connection between poem and reader – poem and regular person – but it is satisfying. It sweeps away the shame and solitude. It reminds me that poetry can be for everyone.

At this point, you might think I am about to argue in favour of the ‘accessible’ poem – the poem with immediate impact – over the poem that demands work in order to be appreciated. That is certainly a reasonable assumption. At times, I have been tempted to make this case.

Since May 2016 I have been talking to poets about their work to create the podcast Poetry Says. These discussions so often circle the theme of accessibility. Poets, particularly when the microphone is switched off, will admit to their preference for poetry that is direct and clear. This admission comes with its own side of shame, as if we know we should have time for ‘difficult’ poetry, the same way we should have time for daily exercise and weekly phone calls to our mothers.

What also surfaces in these off-mic conversations is the fact that each poet’s definitions of ‘difficult’ and ‘accessible’ are different. We each have our own threshold — one that depends on hundreds of factors — past which our brain glazes over. The more often I have these conversations, the less stable my own definitions become. I realise that it is meaningless to argue in favour of either, because of course, every poem exists along a spectrum, or more accurately within a matrix, of clarity and complexity. The division does not stand up to scrutiny.

Yet even if we leave this unanswerable question of accessibility aside for a moment, that still leaves us with the problem of the disinterested colleagues, the confused friends, the apologetic mothers. If, as Wood says in another essay, ‘to lead a poetic life means advocating for poetry,’4 then these conversations are part of a poet’s work. As Wood also recognises repeatedly in his writing, support for this work comes from community.

In 2012, I participated in The University of Pennsylvania’s first venture into the world of online learning. Modern & Contemporary American Poetry or ‘ModPo’ is a course run via the Coursera platform under the enthusiastic guidance of UPenn’s Kelly Professor of English, Al Filreis. Even in its first year, ModPo gathered an international community of thousands of participants who posted daily contributions to collaborative close readings. We tackled poems like Gertrude Stein’s ‘A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass’, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ and Robert Creeley’s ‘I Know a Man’. We were about as far from exclusivity and solitude as it is possible for those leading a poetic life to be. When a poem felt in danger of slipping beyond the group’s understanding, Al would do what he described as ‘cheerleading’ for its place in the syllabus.

As our confidence grew, we learned to expand the available meaning inside each poem, line and word with every new interpretation added to our message boards. Rather than seeking clarity above all, we followed association, memory, pattern and sound. We quickly understood that being ‘correct’ was so much less important than unsettling our own interpretations by listening to those around us. This collaborative process — along with occasional cheerleading sessions — meant no poem felt beyond our collective grasp.

  1. Robert Wood, ‘Why I Write Poetry’, History and the Poet, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017, pg 135.
  2. Dorothy Porter, ‘Lucky’, The Best Australian Poems 2007, Black Inc., 2007, pg 81.
  3. Maggie Nelson, Bluets, Jonathan Cape, 2009, pg 28.
  4. Robert Wood, ‘A Poetic Life’, History and the Poet, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2017, pg 132
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