Poetic revolutions are revolutions in diction. That’s why the troublemakers responsible for such linguistic shake-ups — Wordsworth, Whitman, Lowell — base them on a return to ordinary speech. In every case, however, renewing contact with the “real language of men” didn’t stop poets from composing poems that spoke over the heads of those men. Getting back to basics, in other words, had nothing to do with making poems accessible. It was an intervention: an idiom battling a decadence addiction was rescued before it was too late. The “breakthrough into life” that produced Life Studies, after all, was a solution to a technical problem (“I felt my old poems hid what they were really about,” Lowell explained in a letter).
The point here is that aesthetic change is an elite activity, done out of professional boredom. Poets who say different, who claim to heed the wishes of the common reader out of populist duty, are lazy bastards. Lazy bastardism kowtows to the convenience of see-Jane-run simple-mindedness because, by gosh, that’s what most people want from their poetry. Lazy bastardism is the only way to explain the existence of phrases like “the roaring juggernaut of time” or “the once gurgling fountain of creativity” (both plucked from Billy Collins’s The Trouble with Poetry). Lazy bastardism will never come clean and tell you that poetry is an acquired taste, that the pleasure of reading it is assembled over years from smaller, slow-to-learn skills. Lazy bastardism will never insist that you should read a lot of poems, old and new, and try to keep them in your head to help train and trust your ear. And lazy bastardism will certainly never stress that you need to love poetry’s artificial and formal aspects.
It is, of course, trivial to think that “amateurs” don’t have the taste for this. Those who protect the common reader from difficult poetry—promoting plain-speaking and conversational directness as having greater relation to real things and real problems — have an odd idea of who this reader is. Accessibility is far more complex, and readers far wiser, than our current theories are willing to accept. The audience-wisdom that helped establish the worth of certain key poets in our tradition —Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost — did so precisely because of the loveliness of their writing, and not just its meaning. But readers can be lazy bastards as well. Faced with a poet who has taken the pains, some would rather not take the trouble. They don’t have to, of course. And as far as I’m concerned, better they don’t. But let’s not let the many who don’t sell short the few who do.
- Carmine Starnino, in his essay "Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook" in the January 2010 issue of Poetry.