Friday, July 10, 2009

The Surface Roughness of Poetry

Before I went on vacation, I was working with my teammates at work on finalizing a paper for the upcoming Materials and Processes for Medical Devices conference sponsored by ASM International. It has since occurred to me, perhaps as side-effect of eight days of brain purge plus a rapid reimmersion into the business of engineering, that a technical conference is not a bad analog for understanding the idea of "accessibility" in poetry (and the powerful opinions people have about it. Stay with me for a bit.

The argument for accessibility is captured most famously, I think, in Billy Collins' introduction to the Best America Poetry 2006 (which is discussed at some length in this post at Silliman's Blog). There are many arguments made in that post and its comments, but Ron's premise is twofold: "Accessibility" is really just an oversimplification of "understanding in context", and any selection of poems claiming to be representative of American Poetry which only includes poems whose Accessibility Quotient* (thesis complexity x rereading loops**) is toward the low end exclude a great deal of people who otherwise should fit under that title. It focuses on an audience less likely to choose to invest the time in understanding more than the topmost of any number of layers of understanding.

But here's the deal: that applies to any writer in any field.

Here's why this occurred to me now, in the context of writing a technical paper: Without giving too much away before the conference, I can say that one of the core ideas of my team's paper can be described in at least two ways: "changing the texture of a plastic part" and "selecting and validating a means for imparting a surface of controlled and reliable roughness and designing a method for characterizing that surface." You can read the abstract for more details, but trust me, both statements are accurate. You ask: who cares?

Well, one statement is understandable immediately without and need of deep understanding of surface engineering. The other doesn't necessarily say a lot more, but what it says it says with precision and a level of insight that is more meaningful to one skilled in the practice of surface engineering or interested enough to want to acquire that additional meaning. The abstract (link above) and the paper (which you'll have to attend the conference or purchase the proceedings to see!) are increasingly precise and convey additional understanding.

Let's flip that around. If I were to provide the complete paper to someone with no interest in understanding surface engineering, that would be pointless - for me and for them. We wrote that paper for an audience with that particular interest. That doesn't imply that other presentations of the subject are simpler or that we expect a different experience or education level in some potential readers - just that we expect that the conference attendees and other readers are willing to put the effort into getting the most out of what we wrote.

But to present a universal collection of treatises on surface engineering, if one's purpose were not just to introduce the subject, neither just to advance its leading edges, I think it would be necessary to anticipate a range of audiences possible and makes sure there were entry points across that entire range.

This, of course, is the problem with collections of poems, technical papers, baseball cards, or anything else. They are not universal, and to claim that they are is foolishness. It is more foolish still to dismiss ranges of practice outside the scope of one's own collection. From the perspective of the skilled practitioners, it runs the risk of causing potential followers to lose interest for lack of a way to latch on; for the entry-level user, it conveys a sort of willful ignorance - an attitude of "what I don't understand is unimportant".

Now, you may accuse me of just committing another elaborate riff on my old position that every act of writing assumes something about a potential audience (explicitly or implicitly), and that's fair to a point. But when you're making categorizing declarations about writing, in an act of explanation, teaching, or preserving, it's much more difficult to claim ignorance of the need for a target student, current or future.

Which brings me back to "accessibility". It's not so much "simplicity" as it is a set of assumptions about the ambition of the potential audience. Did that take me too long to say?

What, therefore, have I assumed about you?

* - yes, I just made that up.
** - the number of times that later context enhances an earlier word or phrase and makes you want to go back up in the poem.

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