On Eratosphere's Musing on Mastery forum last year there was an interesting discussion on "Depth and Accessibility". Here are some extracts -
Alder Ellis -
- It might be interesting to survey the history of criticism to see when "depth" became the main denotation of scale or extra dimension of meaningfulness. It seems to me it used to be "height" - i.e., "sublimity."
- In a rationalizing context (characteristic of criticism) the only difference between "depth" and "surface" is the time or effort it takes to achieve an understanding of it. Once the "depths" are understood, they are no longer depths, they too are surfaces. But of course the poems we value most highly (or deeply) are rarely if ever poems we fully understand.
Chris Childers -
- In general, I tend to find 'depth' in surfaces that are initially a little opaque, that demand a little more work but invite one in under the surface.
- As opposed to sublimity, "depth" is a largely subjective notion; Alder Ellis associates it aptly with a "psychologizing bias." Another way of putting it is that "depth" is internal while "sublimity" is external; depth leads down into our own abysses while sublimity scales the heights of the human spirit.
- In my view, psychological depth is the proper opposite of sublimity. However, poetic depth has to do with the construction of a poem: aspects that pull the reader out of the temporal main stream of the verse, under its surface, or beyond it, and invite her to contemplations of another sort.
I like to think I write for the intelligent layperson: doctors, solicitors, etc - people who give Tate Modern, art-house film, or the latest highbrow novel a chance. I try to be reader-friendly. If I can, I offer fall-back options when I use allusions, or I spell things out. However, there are problems with both of these strategies.
- If one offers a non-allusive alternative, readers (even those who might have got the allusion) might only see the most obvious interpretation. They might feel that they "understand" sufficiently to continue reading, unimpressive though the phrase may seem. If they'd been puzzled they might have googled (or read the notes). The friendly surface obscures the allusive "depth"
- Another problem is that the elegance of the poem may be compromised for the sake of those who'd miss the allusions. I don't want to have to put "Mars (the Roman god of war)" in a poem.
After years of publishing in small mags I realised that only other writers (if that) are likely to read my stuff, so why risk compromises? Nowadays, I often don't, rationalising thus
- Just because I'm uncompromising in some poems, it doesn't mean I can't be more accommodating in others
- Not all a poem's allusions need to be understood. I think the writers of the Frasier TV series were happy to slip in jokes that only a minority would get - not all sitcoms work that way though
- It's easy nowadays to put companion notes on a website