Into the Depths: On Lang Leav, Accessible Literature, and the Function of Reading

This post is written as a response to a colleague’s blog. Read her wonderfully-written defense for context.

First things first, this is not a post to make judgments whether or not Lang Leav’s poetry is to be considered good or bad—although personally, from what little knowledge I know about the elements of poetry and her body of work, I don’t find her as good as a poet. The discussion on Ms. Leav’s poetry, as you can read above, is bifurcated into two segments: quality and accessibility. Allow me to talk about the latter first before the former in an attempt to drive my point further.

On accessibility

The first poem I can recall being in love with was back in first year college: Pag-ibig by Jose Corazon de Jesus. I remember my teacher reading it in front of class only as a supplement to another de Jesus poem we read prior. I was so enchanted by it, spellbound by the images, that I went home and posted it on my Tumblr (which in turn acquired for me 300+ followers in one night). Since then, I went into looking at Heights, my college’s literary folio, for more literature of this kind, and remembered being drawn to particular works (the most memorable ones are Isabela Cuerva’s echoing… poem and Joven Flordelis’s Sabay Kung Gumuho ang Lahat). I dabbled with fiction and poetry soon after that (my technical know-hows were near to zero, but back then I liked what I wrote; not so much when I look at it in retrospect). By third year, I joined Heights, got into the workshop, had my work published for the first time later that year, and the rest, one could say with a breath of cliche, is history.

Whenever people ask me when I started writing or liking poetry, I always say it was in third year when I started to write, but it was in the first year college when I started liking it. Compare this to my other writer-friends, who could trace their literary influences back in their high school days. I always tell them how I regret not getting into literature back in high school (I do recall being impressed with a short story I wrote back in fourth year, with similar rave responses from my classmates). But the brief time I had in college to develop my love and skill for literature was fruitful and real, nevertheless. It was a love affair that bloomed only a little too late.

It was not a question of why I wasn’t into literature back in high school. It was a question on why our school never had that rich literary culture compared to my writer-friends’. I remember only a few stories I have liked a lot—one Tagore, Poe’s Amontillado, and a lot of Filipino stories like Abueg and Edroza-Matute. But most of these we never really discussed in class; it was read on my own volition. I took time to bring my textbooks home when my classmates won’t and read them before or after doing my homework (I also remember reading Noli the summer before third year). If my high school education have influenced me in any way to be the writer I am now, the influence was only to the extent of the books they have provided for me and nothing more. Not that I was ungrateful for the education, but I wish they could have had a better literature-centered curriculum.

In a way, this incident is what lead me to my current career as a Filipino-English teacher. More than teaching proper grammar and usage, I want to show the students as early as Grade 5 how wonderful literature is, more particularly poetry, a form I never even had the chance to know with the familiarity and intimacy of a friend up until college.

I had discussed Frost’s The Road Not Taken to my students and attempted to relate it deeply to their lives. While I never got around into discussing Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (I got sick and I wasn’t able to do it, to my dismay), I made the students look for a poem to analyze while I was out sick. The day I got back to work, their analyses were waiting on my desk. And skimming through, I saw the poems they have sampled—Yeats, Wordsworth, Neruda, and some Levithan on a more contemporary side, even some of these poems possessing layered metaphors and broken syntax. I worry that they might not be able to analyze them properly.

But they did. Most of their analysis papers were spot on. They got their metaphors right, their symbols correct, with some even supplying lines that support their claim. This was something I could have never done if I was their age. I only learned poetry analysis in college—and even with the formal education, I was initially terrible at it.

These poems that they analyzed are not two-liners with a one-to-one symbolic correspondence of concrete and abstract ideas, with the conceit stretched only far enough for it to be called “metaphorical.” These kids were capable of reading slightly complex poetry. They are smart, and they are well-read.

That is to say, in an intellectual level, these kids have access to slightly complicated poetry. Their education makes it so. Their exposure to great books is immense; their means to acquire them are multiple. This is not an issue therefore of whether or not they can understand “deep” poetry; at least in the case of my students, they can.

But poetry as far as I’m concerned is not just about whether you know what it means. The register of most poetry, even the densest ones I’ve read, is on an emotional level, whether you feel it. I cannot account for my students whether or not they felt what they have analyzed. How do you gauge emotional response, anyway?

When my students had their quarterly test, they had to analyze St. Vincent Millay’s And you as well must die… The following meeting, they talked to me about how sad and depressing the test was, especially the poem part. I was greatly pleased, not as some Schadenfreude-esque sentiment, but because to me it seemed that they felt the poem and not just understood it. And I’d like to think St. Vincent Millay’s poem was quite heavily-layered for their age. To feel that message it was trying to convey is a point made by a poem in an equal ground as to comprehend what it was trying to say.

That is not to say everyone got the analysis and the message correctly. There were a couple of missed answers. Nevertheless, the question of whether a poem is accessible or not to a person is subjective in nature, first as the nature of the person and second as the nature of the poem itself. While I find Pag-ibig to register quickly, other people might not find it so. In another way, its accessibility can be divided into the intellectual and emotional register. You may feel the poem first without understanding why, or understand what it is trying to say first before feeling what it meant.

And so, to my point: I think Lang Leav’s poems are accessible because of the way it was written—short, simple words, with a thin veil of metaphor occasionally thrown in a poem or two, something that one could dig through with little to no effort. With that, its intellectual register is quick, almost brainless; thus the emotional effect is sharp, quick, a straight-to-the-bone sincerity that most people would admire. A straightforward shot-to-the-heart sentiment without beating around the bush; cutting straight to the chase, unlike what most people think conventional poetry does. To them, this is “poetry” unlike the poem they have come to know: dense, archaic language, with playful syntax and forced rhyme. Although the poetry I have come to know is not the case, but I don’t blame others for thinking that way. Poetry has had a long history of miseducation.

With that, I have to give Ms. Leav the credit on making poetry a popular thing nowadays; popular in the same way “young adult novels” and “feminism” is popular now: widely-known and admired with some detractors here and there. Or in the way Filipino Wattpad novels or Filipino-dubbed movies are popular.

In the same way a lot of people use the argument for accessibility as a way to defend Lang Leav’s “basic” poetry, I’d like to think the same way goes for the sudden wave of Filipino Wattpad and young adult novels. To shun these things in its wholeness just because an aspect of it offends our tastes is elitist in nature. While I personally dislike Wattpad novels the same way I dislike Lang Leav, to call them holistically horrible is a disservice to its credit as accessible literature. Whatever keeps the people reading, is what I always say. And these works had people reading.

But does it have to stop there? Is accessibility enough to make a literary work “legitimate”?

On quality

High school saw me as a rising bookworm. Because my parents were never really big fans of literature (they saw my books as clutter even up to today), my only access to books were either from the library or from my friends. I read my first Harry Potter book when I was second year high school (in a non-chronological order, a long story). I saw myself reading Mitch Albom back then (a cute and juvenile novel, in retrospect), and also, in an attempt to be in the loop, Twilight.

The first book bored me, and it would be a chore to finish the book if it weren’t a quick read. I immediately shut off the possibility of reading the subsequent books (my sister supplemented my Twilight knowledge, one of little practical use except when I’m talking to other people who’ve read them).

Rather than killing my interest for books, I’ve hungered for better ones. I started rummaging through book sales (where I got John Connoly’s The Book of Lost Things and a rare copy of Stephen King’s Carrie) and the then-occasional bookstore acquisition (one of them was Salinger’s Cather in the Rye, which I read partly because of my interest in it, and partly because of my love interest’s interest in it). College had me stocking up on my personal library—Heights issues, Mark Haddon, a ton of Murakami, a bunch of other classics, with some spiritual books thrown in as well (not mine). My library grew and grew, and so did my taste. I bought my first poetry books soon after (Ma’am Beni Santos’s Kuwadro Numero Uno and UP Press’s Love Poems) and a couple more after that: suggestions from my new-found writer-friends and personal research. I am always careful of the books I buy, not wanting to waste money on unmemorable works. That doesn’t mean I liked every book I bought. But the point of it all was that I had and am constantly having a conscious decision to expand my tastes, to exercise my choice on buying works of literature. I cannot imagine if I only surrounded myself with Harry Potter all my life.

But that’s what books do, anyway. They expand our horizon, like opening a new landscape that we can explore in our liking. Some landscapes might not look pleasurable at first sight, and we tend to stay within the safe zones of our Harry Potters—or Lang Leavs for that matter. That is not to say it is a bad choice. It’s more of that there are wider, bigger, and more ambitious works out there, and why should you dwell here, where it’s safe, simple, and familiar?

That is also not to say that Harry Potter and Lang Leav are terrible literature in themselves by virtue of their popular simplicity—I am a big fan of Harry Potter. But I think popular simplicity is not what literature should aspire and what readers should settle for. Literature should push boundaries, and should encourage readers to do the same. They should possess not only accessibility, but also an aspect that can make the reader question things. What I mean is, if all we get is easy-to-digest literature all the time, there would be a great tendency for us to remain in that same level of quality as we grow. Like feeding an infant, one who is not familiar with literature can be fed with these kinds of “soft” food—accessible works that are easy to chew on, an almost knee-jerk impulse for swallowing and digestion. But eventually, one has to move on to harder food. One has to consider which to feed oneself, something that would not shock the developing sensibilities, as well as not underestimate the already-latent capacity for denser, more diverse material. In a way, you are not just feeding yourself to nourish the body, but also to diversify your palate. Feeding yourself with the same material without varying the texture as you go would result to a bland taste.

All this to say, quality, even for accessible literature, is to be highly considered when you are “feeding” yourself some literary materials.

The question now is whether Lang Leav’s work is of “quality” or not.

While quality is highly debatable, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be analyzed in scrutiny. Consider, for example, the conventions of poetry—cadence, line cut, imagery, conceit, sound and word choice, to name a few—which could contribute to the poem’s quality if considered with care. A poem’s or a poet’s emphasis in an element varies depending on style, but nevertheless, good poems have great consideration on many if not all of these elements. Lang Leav’s poem might be questioned in some aspects of these conventions, but these doesn’t turn her works immediately into a terrible body of literature.

One of my smartest poet-friends, Jam Pascual, nails this argument in the head in this post. Lang Leav’s tendency to fall into cliches is what makes her body of work bland and boring, the same soft mush you can feed yourself over and over in an attempt to nourish yourself without expanding tastes. In the same way food can be prepared differently through the multitude of permutable ingredients and methods, literature can also offer a wide range of different works. But in the end, after you have finished with the softer ones, it’s time to move on to other types of literature, something bigger if not even in the slightest sense less soft than the one you’ve been consuming.

All this to say, there is a whole lot of accessible poetry out there, as accessible as Lang Leav’s poetry, but with a much nuanced, better quality. To quote Pascual: “I do believe that poetry can be BOTH deep and accessible. There are a lot of great poets out there, you just gotta look!”

Conclusion

A year after graduating college, a couple of books wiser and I think a couple written works better, I still haven’t lost that hunger for bigger literature. When rhymes and meters used to scare me, I started reading sonnets. When thick novels used to scare me, I bought them and dug through them (I am just in the brink of finishing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is wonderful).

I think we should do something that scares us, especially in reading literature. We should not stagnate into something safe. For those who knows it well, the world of reading is comforting—the princess gets the prince in the end, the kingdom is saved, the evil is defeated. But for those who know it better, the world of reading is not always comfortable. The best of them disturbs you, makes you question the very reality you are in, makes you feel things you never knew you were capable of feeling.

With that said, if Lang Leav makes you feel that twang of pain, that soothing hand of sweetness, or the gaping hole of loss, then great, I respect that. But I think you can find better works out there, one that doesn’t fall comfortably to cliches. One that dares to explain these things in a wholly different light, a much better illumination that makes you feel all the same, if not clearer and more vivid, than Leav’s straightforward poems. Sometimes, the pleasure of the work is in its intricacy, in its dark corners and hidden alleyways. That inasmuch as the surface of the sea is nice, the undercurrents where the fishes and the creatures swam with great intensity is much more beautiful. Dangerous and dark to explore, yes; confusing and alienating, perhaps. But it could be much worth it, to swim below the literature’s depths and rise up again, different than you were before.

But the thing is, you have to take the plunge, a decision you have to consciously make on your own.

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