“Richard Siken’s Crush…represents a common and very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry that treats as incidental both the lay reader and the world beyond the poem.”
-Michael Hansen from Speakeasy Poetry Series
This is an argument about contemporary poetry that annoys the crap out of me. The quote above is taken from the reviews section of the website for an important and popular NYC reading series. Siken, to whom the quote refers, is the most recent Yale winner. Never mind that I love his book. Never mind the fact that it seems pretty straightforward to me—it’s about the self-consciousness and inner isolation that comes, very naturally, with being misunderstood by other people—in the case of Siken’s speakers, the cause of misunderstanding is often homosexuality, but the feeling of being misunderstood portrayed in the book applies broadly—and which can be fostered by language. What is the root of this notion that poetry, or literature in general (see Ban Marcus’s recent article in Harper’s in which he, albeit unfairly, trashes Jonathan Franzen for advocating only accessible literature), should be careful not to alienate anyone by being challenging? One of the best things about contemporary poetry, because it has proliferated in so many different directions, is that it caters to a wide variety of tastes and needs, from those who want poetry that neatly and obviously refers to the world at hand, to those who want poetry that requires intimate and esoteric knowledge of the culture of poetry before it makes any sense. To call Siken’s book representative of a “very dangerous strain in contemporary poetry” (and let me stress that I think this is a misreading of Siken’s book in particular—it’s not that weird) is to confess a fear of difficulty in general. We don’t come to poetry for the same pleasures we expect from TV and Sci-Fi novels. We come to it for a challenge, for its capacity to portray less familiar emotional states, and for empathy with our own experiences of those unfamiliar, but no less real, emotional states. To deny that in favor of poetry that is easily accessible to “the lay reader” is to miss the point entirely. We should work hard to understand some things—poetry is an exclusive club, but we each have the capacity to initiate ourselves through patient apprenticeship. Most of us spent our high school and college years in our rooms curled up with books gratefully struggling for understanding. Certainly, for me, those years paid off.