Thursday, April 13, 2006

John Kinsella and Pleasure

In a recent edition (95:4) of Poetry Review , John Kinsella wrote:

My poetry is a direct result of my politics and ethics, and form for me is a box to be pushed against; to be used pragmatically at times, but ultimately to be tested at every opportunity. I do not want my poems to give pleasure, I don’t want them to be comfortable, and I don’t want them to “tell”. I want my poems to suggest and to bother – to irritate and to instigate.

The rest of the essay (on linebreaks) can be read from the Poetry Review link above. It does make interesting reading even if you don't agree with it.

In the latest edition (96:1), William Oxley responds:

John Kinsella has precisely articulated why scarcely any contemporary poetry sells and reaches a large audience, if most of its practitioners share his aim.

He goes on to liken Kinsella’s attitude to that of:

a celebratory (sic) chef insisting all his meals be made of putrid ingredients.

I wonder whether poetry readers do primarily seek pleasure. Perhaps many have a masochistic tendency. Perhaps they want to be “bothered”, shaken out of a complacency they see in the world.
That’s clearly a minority pursuit, but what’s preferable? To have a small group of irritated people reading contemporary poetry as it is, or to have a large group guffawing their way through poems that are liable to sell in large quantities. Think what sells – Berlusconi-style game shows, reality TV, Mills and Boon romance. Should we advocate and promote the poetic equivalent? That would seem absurd to me.

On the other hand, poets who write with a contempt for their potential audience have no grounds for complaint if their work is met with similar contempt. If a poem gives no pleasure, I’d go and read another one that does. But if that new poem both uses form and pushes against it, if it suggests, bothers, irritates, and does so with a brilliance of language, then all of that, oddly, stands a chance of becoming part of the pleasure. So Kinsella’s argument is more subtle than Oxley gives it credit for.

However, I find Kinsella’s statement that his poetry “is a direct result of [his] politics and ethics” disturbing in itself. I don’t trust poetry when it’s put to the service of a program – political, ethical or otherwise. Surely the program is there to be pushed against and resisted as much as anything else, and a good poem may even call its author’s values into question.

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