Thankfully, Bill Knott has resurrected his blog, where he has been posting links to those of his collections that he is making available through his storefront at Lulu.com (both as bound volumes and as free PDF downloads). He’s also reposting some good material from his old blog. This one is especially rich, not least because it contains this admission: “There are poets I read for delight and poets I read for duty: Collins is among the former; Ashbery, the latter.”
It makes sense, of course, that those of us who write poetry (or literary criticism) would feel a professional obligation to cast our reading net widely, hauling into our little boats even those poets who don’t delight us. Besides, there’s as much, if not more, to be learned from poetry we dislike than from poetry we like; in fact, the former is probably less dangerous to one’s own voice. Roethke never wrote so poorly as when he went to school on Yeats, a poet he loved. Bill Knott, if I remember his old blog correctly, learned a lot from the minor Renaissance poet Michael Drayton; how much his own delightful quatorzains might have suffered had taken Shakespeare as his model!
Of course, not all readers of poetry are poets or critics. (Or are they? Nota: Subject for a future post….) And for the life of me I can’t find a good reason why non-professional readers should bother reading any poet who doesn’t delight them. In “January Morning,” William Carlos Williams (rather condescendingly) addresses his wife:
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard—
The value of a poem, Williams implies, is not that it makes the reader try hard, but that it rewards the effort—and that the effort enhances the reward. This is as good an argument as one can find for reading difficult poetry.
But when difficulty in poetry ultimately defeats delight, I say—let it go. No readers need to crack their skulls against The Rock-Drill Cantos; or assemble the jigsaw of Ashbery’s “Europe”; or swallow the latest distillation from Jorie Graham’s overheated alembic. Let those who find delight in such things, of course, have at it. But no one should pretend that only such delights are the only worthwhile ones—the only valid ones.
The larger implication here is that there is no monolithic audience for poetry per se; one reader’s delight is another’s jaw-grinding frustration. There is, in other words, no reason to reject openness by seeking to install a permanent Canon, a quasi-religious hierarchy patrolled by guardians of the Good such as we find in Blake’s Garden of Love—those “priests in black gowns […] walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires.” It doesn’t matter if the priests are agents of Harold Bloom or Ron Silliman, they need to be kept out of the Garden. The delights of poetry, like those of sexuality, should always be joyous and guilt-free.