Accessible poetry? Part 3. (And no closure whatsoever.)

accidental green lights

Here, have a weird photo while you read about difficult art…

As I was thinking about the idea of accessibility in poetry, I came across this. Harold Bloom breaking down the types of difficulty:

“Hart Crane is a difficult great poet, but very good, even great, poetry need not be overtly difficult. A. E. Housman is a clear instance, and there are many others. There are also difficult poets who at first look easy, but are not. Walt Whitman proclaims his accessibility, but his best poems are subtle, evasive, Hermetic, and call for a heightened awareness of the nuances of figuration.

Difficulty in great poetry can be of several, very different, kinds. Sustained allusiveness, as in the learned poetry of John Milton and Thomas Gray, demands a very high level of reader’s literacy. Cognitive originality, the particular mark of Shakespeare and of Emily Dickinson, requires enormous intellectual agility as the reader’s share. Personal mythmaking, as in William Blake and William Butler Yeats, at first can seem obscure, but the coherence of Blakean and Yeatsian myth yields to familiarity.

I think that poetry at its greatest – in Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake – has one broad and essential difficulty: it is the true mode for expanding our consciousness. This it accomplishes by what I have learned to call strangeness. Owen Barfield was one of several critics to bring forth strangeness as a poetic criterion. For him, as for Walter Pater before him, the Romantic added strangeness to beauty: Wallace Stevens, a part of this tradition, has a Paterian figure cry out: “And there I found myself more truly and more strange.” Barfield says: “It must be a strangeness of meaning“… ”

from “The Art of Reading Poetry” in The Best Poems of the English Language (emphasis Bloom’s)

I hope you’ll forgive me for relying on these quotes of Bloom’s and Keillor’s, but they do synopsize well, as two ends of the spectrum. And it’s not a coincidence that Bloom is writing from inside the academy whereas Keillor is a humorist, radio host and popular author.

Here’s the thing: I agree with both of them. I wonder what they would have to say to each other if they were in a room together. I would like it if they would both show up and have a great big intellectual throw-down in my comments section.

Portrait of the critic as a young woman

Until then, happy writing.

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