Date: Tue, 28 Jan 2003
Subject: poetry and reading levels

Perhaps somewhat in the spirit of Juliana Spahr's post about Cybergraphia, the on-line symposium on the pedagogy of teaching contemporary poetry (more colloquially put in her announcement): a thought that's been pre-occupying me lately, ---although I still don't have it in any well-articulated form. Would be curious about others' impressions.

I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading Jordan Davis' much talked-about Million Poems Journal, which I look forward to,--- but it was upon recently re-reading the Davis poems in the 1998 Talisman Anthology of New (American) Poets that this thought dawned on me and has been sticking since, as a sort of odd, new template I keep reading poetry though.

Reading Davis' poems there, I was struck by the simplicity of the vocabulary. It seemed, upon first impression, that, except for gerunds ("-ing" words) or plurals or "-ed" words, it was almost all one- or two-syllable words.

That's not entirely true, on further inspection. There are in fact a little more than a hundred polysyllables in the six pages of poetry. (I've learned afterwards that in [on-line] reading level material, it's only three-syllable words or longer that are to be called "polysyllables", in the context that follows.) What may have lent to that impression was the somewhat childhood-oriented, nursery rhyme themes of the poems ("foxes steal gold mice", "shining bar of soap", "The ice cream barking all night the piano running past", "A Little Gold Book", etc). At any rate, ---and I do not mean this as a condemnation or condescension toward Davis' poetry--- I was left with the feeling that this was an entirely different reading experience than reading, say, Drew Gardner's Sugar Pill, with its penchant for science textbook terminology, to name only one strain, or, certainly, Kevin Davies' Comp. ("The entire panoply of minimalist histrionics"). I had the sense that, aside from the "difficulties" (new reading dissonances) that the disjunctiveness and other Modernist/post-modernist techniques introduce, a child would have no trouble reading most of it ("My old love ripped off of me like an apple / I am dying to see you / To carry you like an age into wood / . . . / Rain off the bridge / Searching with a bell"). (There is, of course, some more "adult" vocabulary that requires a different level of education/information, such as "milltowns" [which I interpret to be the Valley of the Dolls tranquilizer], "tagalog", "magnums", etc.)

I was left wondering if (1) we assume about the cognitive-interpretive dissonances which disjunction, parataxis, etc., instill that they are basically equal in their effect and the same whether you're 25 or 45, or, in this case, 25 or 15, then (2), aside from that "difficulty," the differences between any two poets may additionally come down to what reading level of challenge they present.

(I in fact do not believe in assumption (1), and feel that, the more acculturated one becomes to such poetry, the different effects of different tropes is essential to the pleasure of the reading. For a good while, though, or in poetry of overload, these more subtle distinctions can blur together and assumption (1) may be accurate in some basic way.)

In comparison, think of the vocabulary in, say, John Ashbery's "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" (yes, unfortunately, one must keep circling back to Ashbery, . . . the way '50s painters couldn't get away from Picasso), where "La Celestina", "Amadigi di Gaula", "Escritoire", "déconfit", "the Princesse de Cleves", "borborygmic", "Aglavaine" and "Sélysette">, etc., involve a binge of nose-bleed stratosphere ultra-sophistication that would keep the best Norton annotator or graduate student flipping reference works and dictionary pages. The notorious Ashbery "difficulty", then, becomes a sort of double difficulty, of not only adjusting to his poetic ellipticism but to the high-brow New York Review of Books mentality that not so coyly peeps through that primary dissonance. An uninitiated reader has to acclimatize her-/himself not only to the new "challenge" of how contemporary experimental poetry functions, but to the level of education the text speaks to, even if it could be rearranged and ironed out into a normalized, conjunct rather than disjunct discursivity.

The different audiences that poets attract might be in line with these inequalities, too. Ashbery's reputation was, to some extent, pushed forward toward such unparalleled proportions by how that secondary level of post-doctoral sensibility in his writing excited critics who aspire toward that very breed of cosmopolitan erudition. Davis, meanwhile, at least from the Buffalo Poetics List reports, is enjoying a rather rapid and lively appreciation that, the educational level of the List notwithstanding, sounds like a sort of "populism" responding. (I do not know how Million Journal Poems continues this streak or supplants it, and his poems were largely just the catalyst for these thoughts rather than their prime example. At a skim, it's moot how much his millionpoems.blogspot writing deviates from this. On the face of things, "Then pop! / There's nothing wrong with your rain / Hat on lifted ass. / The subject looks around the car. Rock and roll" doesn't especially upgrade the secondary level of challenge.)

In some sense, to their credit, then, perhaps work like these poems of Davis' allow a more "pure", interference-free experience of disjunctive dissonance. There is no special degree of unfamiliarity with the content, otherwise, so there's the potential of a more "clean" effect, as far as the reverberations that come off of "parataxis."

I find it interesting, though, the possibility that there might be contemporary work like this very immediately suited to a readership of high school or grade school students, since we tend to think of ourselves as all so beyond that.

Without having checked, I would think that the popularity of, say, a W.S. Merwin (or a Michael Palmer) has much to do with this fundamental reading level of vocabulary.

The remainder of this post gets number-fussy and may be ignored off as a sort of crankier footnote.

An interesting rabbit hole I fell down in pursuing this idea was the whole question of what constitutes "reading level" altogether. I used the Idiot's Guide approach and checked the Internet.

There's something called the "SMOG reading level" or Readability Test. It's all about those three-syllable or more- words. (I do not know what "SMOG" stands for.)

The formula is to take 30 sentences from the beginning of a text, 30 from the end, and count up the number of polysyllables. The formula itself then goes off into rather arcane calculations involving square root,--- but there's a simpler version, which treats the sheer count as indicative in and of itself. The simplified SMOG conversion table appears at the bottom of

It's surprising and sort of disappointing that SMOG recognizes polysyllables only in and of themselves and does not distinguish between the reading level differences between household, substantive polysyllables like <"(air) conditioner", "marigolds", "underground", "magazines", "rubber-stamped", "Jack-o-lanterns" (sic)> (all Davis', AAoN(A)P, p. 30) versus ones like <"credulity", "excommunication", "perdition", "internal", "derangement">. (all Gardner's, p. 50f), the way it levels the playing field of educational differences that result from information (cultural capital). Obviously, a more "advanced" lesson plan or cultural-intellectual attainment would be required for the latter.

It's somewhat free rein how to apply the SMOG to poetry, which, unpunctuated and run-on, may not even be comprised of "sentences". Should you count up 30 lines, instead? Should it just be applied to the total text?--- But, regardless, the three shorter of Davis' poems there each contain 8, 5, and 5 polysyllables. That places them on a 6th or 5th grade reading level, basically. The long poem, "A Little Golden Book" (my counting mania set in) contains about 52 polysyllables, which, over all, might be a 10th grade reading level (although that's something of a misapplication of the SMOG rule. The 12 and 9 polysyllables in the poem's first and last 30 lines would be an 8th grade reading level (still high)). The poem of Davis' that David Shapiro chose for the Boston Review (see on-line version), which was basically a broader audience's first introduction to his poetry, is about the same numbers, 46 total for a 10th grade reading level, or a beginning/ending 6 and 4 for a 6th grade reading level.

There may be a metrical-musical side to this. Polysyllables seem to come in waves, in this limited sample of Davis poems: whereas there may be a roughly even distribution across "A Little Gold Book" (almost never two in one line, but sometimes clumped up in a peak distribution, like the 10 polysyllables in the last six lines on AAoN(A)P, p. 32), he's also prone to sizeable stretches withholding any at all, such as the range of fifteen lines that straddle from p. 30 into p. 31, the ten lines at the top of p. 33, etc. The Boston Review poems can be read similarly with whole sequences of stanzas going polysyllable-free.

This may also not be atypical. Or, it may be typical of the age demographic that AAoN(A)P chose. The seven Gardner poems in the same anthology (3, 20, 5, 12, 6, 14, and 5 polysyllables each) SMOG-clock in with four poems at a 5th grade reading level, one at a 6th, and two at a 7th. Clearly (at the risk of betraying bias here), some subsequent differentation would have to be made between the supplementary educational-conceptual levels of vocabulary like <"bewilderment", "salamander", "opposition", "coinciding", "subjectivity", "unconsciously", "perceptible", "individual", "absolute", "disaffected", "intentions"> (Gardner), versus vocabulary like <"photography", "employers", "pyramid", "meteors", "museum", "surgery", "zinnias", "helicopters", "basketballs", "propellor", "lullabyes", "mosquito"> (Davis).


This doesn't have to do
With truth value or even
Meaningful probability

Whether true or false

--- Jordan Davis, "When I Was The Subject"