How Accessible Should Your Poetry Be?

It happened again — writers critiquing my work told me they didn’t see a clear picture of what I was representing. I didn’t leave enough clues, they said, to help them understand who and what I was talking about.

Right there — my biggest dilemma. Had they told me the poem was vague, I’d have been able to work with that.

Do not enterI was almost flattered by the lack of praise because, in my opinion, my poetry shouldn’t be so accessible. I love when I discover the meaning of something by experiencing the words and rhythms. Isn’t that really the essence of poetry — ambiguity, which we’ve talked about before, and the journey we take in order to uncover the meaning or find our own.

Accessibility is going to depend on your audience. For instance, you’re not going to write a poem for children that they can’t understand. Likewise, you may not want to write a poem for adults that’s too simple. Part of the joy of poetry is seeing how a poet interprets a thought, idea or word.

How much do we owe the reader then? That’s a question that, in my opinion, is going to have a different answer depending on who you are. So how can we resolve the issue of getting our thoughts out without skipping the details or inserting too many?

I use these methods:

Write it all out first. My first drafts are often brain dumps. Every detail goes in. If it’s a poem about that kid from the playground in third grade, I describe him, name him, show every detail of the scene, describe my feelings, you name it. It’s like brainstorming with direction.

Cut strategically. Once I get it all on paper, I cut. I start with the adjectives and articles — my worst offense is “that” so I try to cut all but the most necessary instances. Then I look at the descriptions and scenes to see what is truly relevant to the story.

Whittle down descriptions. I then go back and look at the descriptions. I write down three excellent words that could be used in place of a long sentence or two. Then I decide which one, if any, would best convey the essence of that person/place/time/experience. If none of them do, I try again.

Lose the modifiers. Not all modifiers will disappear, but a good portion of them should. In fact, there’s a good example from William Carlos Williams in which he had taken his poem, “Young Woman at a Window” and sliced it down to the most economical of details. Not only did he change the way it read, he altered the way the reader responds. Here’s the original version:

While she sits

there 

 

With tears on

her cheek

 

her cheek on

her hand

 

this little child

who robs her

 

knows nothing of

his theft

 

but rubs

his nose

His modified version:

She sits with

tears on

 

her cheek 

her cheek on

 

her hand 

the child 

 

in her lap

his nose

 

pressed 

to the glass

Poets, how do you test for ambiguity?

How do you address objections that your poetry is inaccessible?

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2 thoughts on “How Accessible Should Your Poetry Be?

  1. I like the original version so much more. In the creative writing I do at my fav writing prompt site, I love when readers have their own interpretation on what I’ve written. Sometimes I purposely leave the ending ambiguous so readers can put their own spin on it. I guess I wouldn’t do well with your writers. 😉

  2. Oh Cathy, I think poetry is such a personal thing. Your liking the first one is okay by me!

    I think I struggle with the ambiguity because I’m not sure if I’m messing it up or if the readers I’m getting critiques from don’t like ambiguous poems. 🙂

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