Accessible Poetry and Poets
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our second column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
In last month's column I tried to make a case for writing accessible poems —poems that the ordinary, non-poetry-reader in your life would understand. Not everyone may agree this is desirable. In fact some may contend that "accessible poetry" is an oxymoron and the attempt to write too accessibly is a violation of what poetry is all about.
I am not unsympathetic. And because I fear I may have left the impression that you need to dumb-down your poems in every way to connect with readers, I want to start this month's column by admitting that poetry has some innate characteristics that make it hard to understand.
Poetry's essence implies some things that make it inaccessible. As a poet, you don't want to compromise on what makes your writing a poem as opposed to a greeting card verse, or anecdote, essay or joke with line breaks. There are at least five attributes of poetry you'll want to retain in your work. Unfortunately these are also obstacles to accessibility.
Poetry's essential nature
Look at some definitions of poetry:
"Poetry is the literature of depths." Robert Hirsch1
"Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason." Tomasco Ceva (Baroque Jesuit poet)2
"Poetry is the human wish to reach into the sea of common language and extract from it the rich, dark, beautiful words that could be arranged in such a way that the unsayable might be said." Carol Shields.3
What is accessible about the literature of depths, dreams in the presence of reason, saying the unsayable? It's enough to scare off even the keen, let alone reluctant reader.
In her book, How to Write a Poem, Mary Ryan tells writers: "When you distill a poem you purify it, extracting the essence of your experience. The challenge is always to capture that essence in the fewest possible words."4
The poem that has gone through this distillation process may be harder to understand than one with more words. The poet may have left out details about the setting, back-story and characters. Punctuation and connecting words (articles and conjunctions) may be missing. A story served up as a shot of poetry may not be as accessible as a ten-ounce glass of fiction.
Poetry looks different from prose. Lines don't necessarily start at the left margin and often end before the right one. Sometimes poems are centered. At other times the poem's shape on the page itself becomes a metaphor (as when a poet writes a poem about the crucifixion in the shape of a cross).
The reader unfamiliar with poetry may find this baffling. How is a poem presented as two parallel columns down the page meant to be read? Down? Across? If a poem's shape looks too intimidating, readers may give up before they read a single word.
Those of us who memorized poems as children know the spell a rhythmic poem casts when recited aloud. Even though the everyday-speech rhythms in free verse are a lot more subtle, it still has rhythms.
Sometimes those rhythms—the stops and starts that add to understanding—are lost when we read poetry silently. Would the casual reader bother to read a poem aloud to discover them? Probably not.
Robert Frost says the chief thing about poetry is "…it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another."5 In order for readers to enjoy the poem, they must join the poet in thinking through the relation of unlike things. When they do this, they achieve a kind of intimacy with the poet.
Conversely when readers don't understand the metaphors in the poem or the metaphorical meaning of the poem as a whole, they'll feel alienated and probably determine not to put themselves into that frustrating situation again.
Combine all the things we've mentioned and the likelihood unmotivated readers will read your poems is small indeed.
There are poets whose works are popular despite all of poetry's innate inaccessibilities. Let's take a look at three of them to discover why they're popular and what makes their poems accessible.
• Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver worked for years as an instructor at various colleges in the U.S. She has published numerous books of poetry and prose and presently has four books in the top six of the Nielsen BookScan contemporary poetry best seller list.6 Her readings have become so popular that on a recent tour she sold out the 2500-seat Benaroya Hall in Seattle as well as a 2700-seat auditorium in Portland Oregon. What's her appeal?
Oliver is first and foremost a nature poet, and known for her unadorned language and accessible themes. She writes as if talking to us, asking questions and inviting us into the awe of her discoveries. In the poem "Peonies," for example, after describing these gorgeous flowers she asks,
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
(Read all of "Peonies.")
She helps us shift our focus from our hurry-world, to nature and its saner, more peaceful pace. In "The Summer Day," after describing how she spent a day outdoors contemplating natural things she asks,
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
(Read all of "The Summer Day.")
Oliver's poems also contain many allusions to spiritual subjects—the soul, prayer, and worship. These, however, are framed subtly so that the reader comes away with lessons about the divine from nature, rather than an invitation to worship it per se. See, for example "Landscape."
• Ted Kooser
For most of his working life this Midwesterner worked as an insurance executive, while he wrote and published poems on the side. In 2004 he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States and served till 2006. In 2005 his book, Delights and Shadows, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Though his appearances don't create the stampede for tickets that Mary Oliver's do, his readings have charmed thousands around the U.S.
For him accessibility is intentional. He would often take a newly written poem to work to show his non-poetry-reading secretary (he got up at 4 a.m., worked at his poetry for several hours and then left for the office). If she couldn't understand it, he'd rewrite. In his own words, "I'm always revising away from difficulty toward clarity."7
Kooser's poems are usually short and capture the illuminated moment. They typically look uncomplicated on the page with regular punctuation and capitalization, and no puzzling shapes.
Called the "people's poet," he writes in ordinary language about ordinary things and people—but in a way that helps us see them in a new light. In "A Birthday Poem," he compares the rising sun to a cow waiting to be milked and extends the farm metaphor into the whole day. He captures moments of grace—one on the ice with a figure skater ("Skater") and another in the waiting room of a cancer clinic ("At the Cancer Clinic"). You can also find sly humor in his poems. "Father" begins:
Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic
an ancient fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter…"
(Read all of "Father.")
"Abandoned Farmhouse" is an example of another strength of his—attention to detail:
He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back…
(Read all of "Abandoned Farmhouse.")
• Billy Collins
Billy Collins held the title of U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. He has spent over 30 years as a professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx but his poetry isn't at all academic. A 2003 CBS news article called Collins the most popular American poet since Robert Frost. He draws bigger crowds (standing-room-only audiences, people of all ages and backgrounds), gets larger advances and sells more books than any other contemporary American poet.8
Like Kooser, Collins is reader-conscious: "I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and whom I am talking to, and I want to make sure that I don't talk too fast or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."9
Perhaps that is why his poetry is known for drawing the reader in. "The Revenant" begins:
I am the dog you put to sleep
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing
I never liked you—not one bit.
(Read all of "The Revenant.")
Like Kooser's, Collins' poetry is known for its ordinary subject matter. His 2005 book, The Trouble with Poetry, includes poems about Monday, coffee shop waitresses, a blown-apart building, glasses, a gift he made his mother at camp (read it), and so on.
Collins' poetry is full of humor (he's been compared to Bob Newhart and Charles Schultz). Especially amusing are the poems he writes about poets, poking fun at how seriously they take themselves:
The trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.
(From "The Trouble with Poetry.")
But Collins calls his use of humor "a door to the serious"—and that's where many of his poems end up, contemplating insignificance and isolation, giving in to the tug of love, ever aware of the inevitability of death.
What we learn from Oliver, Kooser, and Collins
Write about ordinary subjects. All three of these accessible poets write about common, ordinary things. Oliver's love for nature is especially fortunate in this time when so many people are attuned to natural things and welcome a peaceful, interlude, even if it's only through a poem.
Use ordinary language. All three of these poets are known for poems stripped of showoffy words yet written with efficiency, clarity of meaning and an ear for sound.
Deep subjects are okay. Oliver's poetry is popular for its spiritual themes. Kooser and Collins take us to some surprisingly somber destinations.
Don't get too innovative or clever with the shape of your poem on the page or use/non-use of capitals, punctuation etc. All three of these poets write poems that look like we'd expect poems to look.
Write first lines with care. Entice the reader into your poem with things like Collins' intriguing settings or Oliver's camaraderie and enthusiasm.
Include lots of detail, such as we find in Kooser and Oliver. Details give your poems sensual interest as well as honesty and authenticity.
Humor is always welcome. Being able to laugh at yourself like Collins does is especially appealing.
Be reader-conscious. Both Kooser and Collins would attest that reader consciousness makes a difference.
I hope this brief introduction to these popular and accessible poets will inspire you to analyze your poems for accessibility. Then I encourage you to enhance the poetic magic that is already in them by editing for clarity and reader understanding. Let Oliver, Kooser and Collins light your way.
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Copyright ©2008 by Violet Nesdoly
 Robert Hirsch, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry. (Durham, North Carolina: DoubleTake Books,1999), 9.
 Tomasco Ceva, quoted in Hirsch, 27.
 Carol Shields, quoted (from the novel Swann) in Mary Ryan, How to Write a Poem. (Danbury Connecticut: Franklin Watts, 1996), 22.
 Ryan, 154,5
 Hirsch, 13.
 (As of August 14, 2008) Contemporary Best Sellers
 Ted Kooser interviewed by Jeffrey Brown. "Pulitzer Winner Ted Kooser" Online NewsHour —PBS on April 4, 2005
 Charlie Rose, "Billy Collins: America's Poet," CBS News, July 2, 2003
 Billy Collins (1941 - ) Archive—Poetry Foundation