No One Would Ever Say That

Posted by @ 10:43 am on March 18th, 2010

[Much thanks this morning to Elisa Gabbert, who sends thoughts on plainspokenness. – BB]

Over at the new Ploughshares blog (I wrote for it back when it was a humble blogspot), Peter B. Hyland is talking about accessibility and the closely related (in poetry at least) matter of “plainspokenness,” as “plainspoken” poets (such as Billy Collins, he offers) are less intimidating and considered “more convivial.”

It’s a familiar idea that poetry should sound like speech. But Hyland doesn’t claim this; instead, he suggests that “maybe there’s no such thing as plainspoken poetry,” using “The Red Wheelbarrow” as an example of a seemingly plainspoken poem that doesn’t really sound like how people talk.

This reminded me of a post I read years ago (in 2007) on Jonathan Mayhew’s blog:

I learned something quite significant from this. I learned that C Dale Young and I do not speak the same language, poetically speaking. I searched through a recent poetic sequence of mine, The Thelonious Monk Fake Book, to see whether I use words like dark, sadness, chest, hands, water, rain, body, silence. Generally, I don’t use these words very much if at all. Where my vocabulary coincided the most with his was in an Ira Gershwin lyric I happened to be quoting at one point. “Holding hands at midnight , ‘neath the moonlit sky.” I did use “blue” a lot, but that was quoting the titles of Monk tunes, mostly.

It’s no criticism of C Dale’s excellent book of poetry of course to say that I simply couldn’t bring myself use words like that (very much). To me they are *poetry words.* In other words they might correspond to what the average person expects to find in a poem. I don’t like depending on an identifiably poetic tone. On the other hand I’m sure my own *poetry words* would be just as embarrassing, if I knew what they were… If I did know I’m sure I would be obliged to ban them, viewing them as crutches that I was better off without…

And in a comment he added:

They are “poemy” words used as such:

“There is light and there is dark,
the man’s face and the man’s face in water.
His eyes were pools of grief, bottomless

and dangerous… ”

That’s six of your favorite hundred words right there so this is a good example. The diction is simple yet elevated in tone. Pools and grief are both simple words, but nobody would actually say “pools of grief” unless writing a poem.

I’ll remember this post forever because it inspired a short poem containing the phrase “pool of grief.” It struck me because I both agree strongly (I hate poemy word choices, like “stone” over “rock”) and disagree with the implication that if “nobody would actually say” something, it’s annoying in a poem. (I’m not sure he means that, but it is implied.)

So there’s two opposing viewpoints here: 1) Poems should be plainspoken and 2) Poems are never truly plainspoken. I fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum. I do think poems can be plainspoken and sound like speech—take this poem (in its entirety) by Chris Tonelli:


    I fucking love
    the lily on the window sill.
    It’s yellow.

I’m pretty sure that’s something he would say. So I wouldn’t argue that poems never are or shouldn’t be plainspoken as a rule.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s something to aim for. I think poetry should be an expression of thought; some poets think the way they talk, others don’t. What’s important to me is not whether a poet can translate his/her thoughts into plain speech, but whether his/her thoughts are interesting in the first place. (And, I guess, if your thoughts aren’t interesting, can you do something formally or “craft”-wise that at least elevates them, or any base material, to a worthwhile piece of writing.)

Another question is whether plainspokenness necessarily entails accessibility, and vice versa. Are there irrational or nonsensical poems, or poems with broken/complex syntax, that are nonetheless considered easily accessible? (Nursery rhymes come to mind.) Are there superficially plainspoken poems that are actually difficult or intimidating?

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