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The Question of Accessibility

By Rahul Singh


When Mary Oliver’s death was announced on 17th January, I got reminded of the book of her I had read. It was not a book of poetry but a book on poetry and coincidently it was only few days ago that I read a couple of her poems, enjoyed it thoroughly and moved on. I did not know that I will come back to her and that too because of her death. This news flooded my social media feed on both Twitter and Facebook and one of the articles I happened to read was the one written by Maggie Smith titled ‘Mary Oliver did something rare: she made poetry accessible’. She argues that Mary Oliver’s poems were as accessible as they are beautiful.


Accessible. I got stuck on this word because it reminded me of the ever-pervading excuse of poetry being inaccessible. Should it be ‘easy’ enough for ‘normal’ people to understand? The old argument of poets themselves being responsible for making the art of poetry unpopular because they purposely write difficult poetry to sound artistic came up and I was left wondering if this is true. Poets like Mary Oliver, who are as accessible as they are brilliant, further reinforce this argument. You connect with her when she says:


Every day I see or hear Something That more or less Kills me With delight, That leaves me Like a needle In the haystack Of light.


This is poetry at its accessible best. It invokes an image that leaves you mesmerised even if you have not noticed the rhyme delight/light. The beautiful rhythm of two stresses per line till delight and one stress per line after that. To produce such an effect that is noticed by everyone is a skill that takes years of practice. The metaphor of being a needle in a haystack is so popular that it cuts across languages (in Hindi also we have a similar metaphor) and time (you get reference to the same metaphor in poems of eighteenth century as well). But to call this metaphor clichéd would be wrong because of the way it is deployed and of course because of the next line — ‘of light’. This is the genius of a poet who had a profound understanding of the way imagery works and how to turn a clichéd metaphor into something as fresh as the lines above.


Coming back to accessibility. Recently, a friend of mine, while describing a not-so-good poem, said that people liked it because it is accessible. Accessible, of course, was a euphemism for bad or poor or (wait for it!) easy. It probably was not difficult-to-comprehend enough to be called good.


If you have watched Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and the answer to Bordon’s question ‘are you watching closely’ is yes for you then you must have noticed what Bordon says responding to Robert Angier’s remark of his trick ‘The Transported Man’ being simple and easy — ‘Simple yes. But not easy’. This teaches us a very important lesson — there is a difference between simple and easy. This basic difference will help us define the term accessible in the context of poetry. Accessible poems are simple. Simple in the use of words, poetic techniques, subject matter or anything a poem constitutes but most importantly, in the effect they create. Poets like Mary Oliver, Shel Silverstein, Arun Kolatkar, Kunwar Narayan, Gulzar, Kedarnath Singh and many more fall in this category for me. Take these lines of Gulzar for example:


दिन कुछ ऐसे गुज़ारता है कोई जैसे एहसान उतारता है कोई

आइना देख कर तसल्ली हुई हमको इस घर में जानता है कोई


This does not mean that it was easy for them to write or they were not ‘artistic’ enough to have produced complex imagery so to speak. On the contrary, this might imply that they have done extra hard work to consciously make their poems create simple but magical effects. But I don’t know this for sure. Sometimes, I doubt whether poets themselves think in terms of accessibility at all.


Any article on social media is incomplete without a discussion of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ so here’s the ‘should’ of this article — should poets try (consciously) to make their poetry accessible? I wish there was a simple yes or no answer to this question but all it has is the most MBA-like answer ever — it depends. It depends upon the purpose of that poet to write poetry. What makes him/her to (metaphorically) pick up his/her pen and paper to ‘pour out his emotions’.


The experience of reading a complex poem is similar to that of attending a classical music concert where the musicians are engaging with their art, and audience is merely a spectator, basking in the light of their mastery uttering ‘waahs!’ and ‘kya baat hai’s!’. While reading an accessible poem one feels like attending a rock band performance in a club where the performer engages with the audience and makes them a part of his performance. Both experiences are enriching, equally or not I do not know as there can be no comparison between the two. What Salman Rushdie said about different cultures is equally valid for these two analogies — they leak into each other. Because accessibility is subjective.

So, should poets be mindful of this while writing? I don’t know. Should they care about accessibility? I don’t know. All I know is that Mirza Ghalib didn’t as he openly proclaimed — haan mai mushkil kehta hun (Yes, I write difficult poems, deal with it). I don’t know about poets but as readers we should try to make most of the poems as accessible for us as possible and it takes a lot of reading. Poems demand attention and care. The more we serve them, the more they serve us. And, of course, there is nothing called ‘doing enough’ in matters of the heart and poetry seems to be a matter of heart for all the poets I have read. There is always a scope of reading more poems, discovering new poets to watch them do wonders with language.


If we are ready to do so much for them, should they change their style for us? Are we that important? Should poets be held responsible for our incomprehension? My answer lies in this line written by Kunwar Narayan. What he says about life is equally valid for poetry:


जीवन तुम तुच्छ नहीं, मेरी दृष्टि छोटी है

You’re not damned O life (poetry), It’s my vision that sees you so.

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