I just received an e-mail with this picture of a Cornell alum at a ceremony yesterday at the University of South Carolina granting Billy Collins the Cooper Award. He wished I could have joined them, and so do I. Since we talked a little about Billy Collins today and we’ve read one poem from him (and will certainly read some more), I thought I’d share it:
Generally, I will stay off of the blog–this is a student forum for you to discuss whatever you want. But we’ve started to get some interesting threads on here, so I thought I’d keep it going. And the picture in general made me think of one of our discussions today. We started discussing the question of accessibility, and Em made an excellent point when she said that Billy Collins prefers the idea of a “hospitable” poem rather than accessible. I think it’s an excellent distinction. On the other hand, it potentially just kicks the can down the road a little ways. So here is a thought experiment for you (as someone said to one of my points today, “well, that’s extreme and wouldn’t happen.” True, but sometimes we need to go to the extreme to consider if there are lines we might productively draw and then perhaps more effectively discuss where those lines might be). So, take the word accessible or hospitable and try to imagine a poem that would truly qualify as either term for everyone. Remember how many people don’t like to read or don’t want to read at all–let alone poetry; would far rather watch mixed martial arts than have anything to do with a poetry event of any kind (I don’t say this as a judgement, simply an observation). Remember how many people want nothing to do with the arts of any kind nor have any background that would invite them into an appreciation of poetry. The question, then, is to imagine a poem that would be accessible or hospitable to everyone and imagine what that poem would look like. As someone who is inclined to read a poem, do you think there’s any chance it would be a poem that would move you? Again, it’s a question not an argument. But if you can’t really imagine such a poem, then we have to think not of a poem as accessible or not, but ask accessible to whom. Or another way to think about it: should a poet necessarily try to be hospitable to an audience that will probably never be interested in poetry? Should a poet try to win converts or simply write the poems that she needs to write as best as she can?