Friday, April 08, 2005

Alice in Wonderland Meets Ted Kooser

No, this is not about Terry Gross as Alice (although that would be an interesting idea), but I have been thinking about some comments people have made about Ted Kooser’s recent interview on NPR by Terry Gross. He seemed to press a lot of people’s buttons when he talked about the “accessibility” of his poems, as if he were implying in his humble tone that he’s the most accessible dog on the block and you’d better watch out. I didn't hear it that way myself—he seemed very genuine. I like his poems though I don't love them and I doubt they’ll ever make my Top 10 or even Top 40 list.

I think it was J.P. Dancing Bear who recently quoted Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves …”) as an example of what might be called the slithiness of accessibility. I thought Bear made an awfully good point that “Jabberwocky” is one of the most beloved poems in the world despite the fact that “the mome raths outgrabe” is not exactly a model of accessibility.

While Ted Kooser writes poems about subjects that are “common as dishwater” (one of his poems is called “Dishwater”), I don't think it’s true that “ordinary people” want to read only about dishwater. The Da Vinci Code, after all, may not be great literature, but it's chock full of incredibly esoteric (dare one say “academic”) details (and, OK, dead bodies), but just happens to have sold a gazillion copies. It asks readers not only to learn about Fibonacci numbers, the “golden ratio” (1.6180339, more or less), and the 12th century sect of the Cathars, but also to know what the hell a jacquard bathrobe is.

Well, my point is not that the world needs more poems like The Da Vinci Code, or even that any writer should care about what other people want to read. But “ordinary people” are interested in a lot more than dishwater!

And yet … I’m not sure what I want to say. Cheryl and I went back to Pennsylvania last year to spend Thanksgiving with her family, and we visited the site where Flight 93 went down on September 11. The National Park Service has to haul off truckloads of memorabilia for safekeeping in an undisclosed location because there are so many makeshift memorials of hardhats, stuffed animals, photographs, and flowers, and so many are taken by visitors as “souvenirs” if they’re not locked up.

To get to the site, you drive through a strip-mined landscape and small towns that may once have had a “healthy” economy from coal mining, and there’s something unbearable about the juxtaposition of the memorial and the strip-mined hills. I’m pretty sure I’m not capable of writing a poem that would capture that, and I have no idea whether Ted Kooser or, say, Lyn Hejinian would be more likely to be able to, but I sure wish someone would.

No comments: