Thursday, October 7, 2010

This Just In: John Ashbery More Accessible than Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser and the subject of poetic "accessibility" have gone hand in hand for a long time. The Poetry Foundation reports, for example, that the former U.S. Poet Laureate (pictured here avec chiens) "is known for his honest, accessible verse." James H. Billington of the Library of Congress has praised Kooser's ability "to touch on universal themes in accessible ways." A reader posting a comment on Amazon admires Kooser "for writing poetry that is accessible, inviting, familiar and ordinary in a most extraordinary way." Even Kooser thinks about himself in this manner; asked in the recent (October/November 2010) issue of The Writer's Chronicle to account for the ongoing sales of his book Delights & Shadows, he explains, "My poems are accessible to a broad general audience."

Here at the P&PC Home Office, we suspect that accessibility is most often measured in the way that Justice Potter Stewart once measured obscenity (i.e., we know it when we see it). But curious nonetheless about the popularity of this yardstick, we decided to put Kooser's accessibility to the test and determine, once and for all, just how accessible his poetry is. So, using the online calculator available here, we subjected the five sample Kooser poems presented alongside his interview in The Writer's Chronicle to three common readability tests: the Flesch Reading Ease Test, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test, and the Gunning fog index.

All three tests measure "reada- bility" by using mathe- matical formulae taking into consi- deration word count, sentence length, and word complexity. On the Flesch Reading Ease Test (and according to Wikipedia), a score of 90-100 indicates a text is "accessible" to the average 11 year-old student; a 60-70 suggests a text is understandable by 13-15 year-old students; and a 0-30 score indicates a text best understood by university graduates. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test articulates the Reading Ease Test in terms of specific grade levels, as does the Gunning fog index. All three tests, while incomplete or limited in design, have social imperatives; if the average newspaper is supposed to be written at the literacy level of an 8th grader, for example, tests like these are supposed to be able to help make news and information available—er, accessible—to as many people as possible.

So you're no doubt wondering by now, how did Kooser's poetry fare when plugged into these tests? Well, it turns out that Kooser is a fairly accessible poet but—in receiving grade-level scores that range from 5th grade through advanced graduate school—the poems are not nearly, completely, or constantly as accessible as Kooser himself and others would have us believe (not based on the results of our limited 5-poem set at least). Here are the scores for the five pieces:

"The Very Old"
Reading Ease Score: 73.7
Grade Level: 8.1
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 11.2

"After My Grandmother's Funeral"
Reading Ease: 72.6
Grade Level: 11.1
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 15

"Flying at Night"
Reading Ease: 80.2
Grade Level: 5.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 7

"There is Always a Little Wind"
Reading Ease: 72.1
Grade Level: 12.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 15.9

"Porch Swing in September"
Reading Ease: 54.9
Grade Level: 19.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 22.7

As you can see, the Gunning Fog test consistently places Kooser's poems at a higher grade level than the Flesch-Kincaid index. Even so, one can't discount the fact that the Flesch-Kincaid test places three of Kooser's poems at, near, or above, twelfth-grade level. That is, Kooser's poems are accessible, but not as accessible as a regular newspaper would be. "Flying at Night" stands out as being especially accessible—a newspaper-level poem—and "Porch Swing in September" stands out as being particularly inaccessible. Go read "Porch Swing in September" and check for yourself; it might be hard to imagine how Kooser could take the topic of a country swing and turn it into a poem that places at the Ph.D. level in both Grade Level metrics, but that's just what he's managed to do.

After studying Kooser via these readability tests, we started to hanker after a larger frame of reference. How would other poets fare when subjected to the same battery of tests? How would Kooser fare in comparison to those poets? What might we learn about American poetry and "accessibility" if we expanded our study to consider a wider segment of the poetry-writing world, and especially poets who are considered to be as inaccessible or as downright obscure as Kooser is considered to be accessible and familiar? So, in search of some answers, we plugged John Ashbery (pictured here) into the three tests, and we were shocked by what we learned.

John Ashbery is more accessible than Ted Kooser.

Hands down.

It's not even close.

To keep things as fair or constant as possible, we ran five Ashbery poems— "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape," "The New Higher," "Syringa," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," and "For John Clare"—through the Flesch, Flesch-Kincaid, and Gunning Fog machines. And the data was, to put it mildly, very surprising, as Ashbery not only scored as more accessible more consistently than Kooser did, but consistently scored below a 9th-grade reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Test as well!

Here are the scores for Ashbery's poems:

"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape"
Reading Ease: 78.5
Grade Level: 6.2
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 9.4

"The New Higher"
Reading Ease: 92.2
Grade Level: 3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 6.4

Reading Ease: 75.4
Grade Level: 7.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 10.5

"Daffy Duck in Hollywood"
Reading Ease: 67.7
Grade Level: 8.4
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 12.1

"For John Clare"
Reading Ease: 83.3
Grade Level: 6.3
Gunning Fog Grade Level: 9.5

This Kooser/ Ashbery experiment is, we imagine, just the start of a new method of assessing and measuring contemporary American poetry via the concept of "accessibility" and according to metrics that other spheres of academia have used for some time. The P&PC Office is thrilled about what lies in store—how we might help to reveal the obscurity of heretofore "accessible" poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and also shed light on the accessibility of "obscure" poets like Charles Bernstein and Jorie Graham. We thank you for your support as we move forward with this endeavor.