Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Depth and Accessibility

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.

Me -

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


  1. Well, you’ve read my poetry so you know pretty much where I stand. I’m big on accessibility. That doesn’t mean my poems lack any depth but I like the fact that people can enjoy the surface without feeling the need to plunge headfirst into them. Or they can just sit on the bank and cool their feet. I am a clever person but I’ve always hated the fact that that’s distanced me from people. I remember one bloke approaching my last wife saying he’d like to be friends with me but he found me too intimidating to approach directly and could she could help him out. That really upset me. The strange thing is that having been born in Scotland to Lancashire parents I’ve been surrounded by plain speakers all my life. But I can’t hide my intelligence no matter how hard I try. I don’t like talking down to people though and it is so easy to do. That’s not why I write the way I do. I just think that most things can be said quite simply if you only spend a little time thinking before you speak. I had, as you know, a deeply religious upbringing and one of the things I took away was how simply very deep things can be put—I even have a poem called ‘Proverb’. This is why I don’t like Beckett’s early poetry because it’s too clever for its own good. What’s the point writing something that only a handful of academics are going to appreciate? Now, that doesn’t mean I won’t slip in something a wee bit esoteric from time to time—use a word someone has to look up—but that’s a bit of fun. No one minds looking up one word (that’s how we learn stuff); looking up one per sentence gets a bit wearisome and I suspect that’s why I gave up on Ulysses after the first few pages. I’m not big on companion notes although I’ve seen a couple of people use them. If a poem needs notes then, to my mind, it’s a bad poem. Talking a bit about the background to the poem’s always interesting and I don’t mind doing that.

  2. "I am a clever person but ..." - one of the joys of working where I do is that peers and students are cleverer than I am. It's getting rather like that at home too. Psychologically I prefer it that way round.

    "What’s the point writing something that only a handful of academics are going to appreciate?" - because only they (and a few poets) will be reading it anyway, so one might as well write with them in mind. That's how I sometime think anyway.