To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, The Grand Poobah
Subject: Who Reads Poetry Anymore?
Drop another wet log on the smoldering crisis of relevance for Anglo-American poetry (as an example) in the form of the question “Who reads poetry anymore?” and hear the hiss of phase transition as the evaporation of belief that anyone even cares – it is a background constant for all poets. As yet no one has answered it to anyone’s satisfaction. Google it and be prepared to sort through a lot of cluelessness. It is a question mantra-like in its persistence.
Octavio Paz offers an elegantly considered and intelligent response in a selection of essays entitled The Other Voice, Essays on Modern Poetry (1989), still a relevant overview of modern poetry even a quarter of a century later. He makes the point that appreciation of ‘modern’ poetry other than that in the approved Anglo-American canon is controlled by an insular monoglot professional class that sieves all through the filter of a sovereign culture and implied superiority of the imperial tongue. The servile circular similarity of the resulting poetry, as most contemporary readers can attest, will render anyone comatose by the second stanza (if there is one). Can this highly inbred dueling banjo routine be the reason for a lack of interest?
Or could it be as simple as the erudite polyglot George Steiner sees it? “Whether poetry has ever had an audience is a moot point. The number of serious poems that have signified much to anyone beyond a very restricted minority is small. The proposition that poetry is in some ways the highest human accomplishment, the one most imitative of the original enigma of creation, is almost universally accepted. But that universality is conventional — it is an abstract password of culture rather than something that most human beings have felt in their bones.”
That said, poetry’s appeal, like music’s, to an emotional core through language is very real, whether it is greeting card verse or skillfully expressed sentiment. However, there is always a question as to its utility beyond eliciting sensation. As William Carlos Williams noted, “men die for lack” of what poems contain. A palpable humanity, perhaps?
The audience for poetry, the poem, is the same as it has always been: its practitioners and their literate followers. The appreciation of poetry, then, becomes a badge of aesthetic merit. For some, it is superficial and social, and others, strictly careerist and professional. For the fortunate, it is genuine and ecstatic. Some cultures pay high homage to their poets while others regard them merely as anachronisms. Michael McClure once said “all poets want to be rock stars,” implying that they wanted the kind of adulation bestowed on celebrity. But poetry doesn’t compete in the same arena with popular media and probably never will. It is as ancient as the first cognitively fluid inklings and the analogy engine at the core of all creativity. The only way it becomes trendy (however briefly) is if it is allied with performance, predominately music, today, − think jazz and poetry, poetry slams, theatric arts, etc. − in an attempt to amplify poetry’s essentially low tech, low visibility, low resolution signature. Despite the efforts of even the best poets to popularize their art, the appreciation of poetry, particularly poetry on the page, will continue to be an occasional and very personal experience, an intimate exchange between the reader and the poem, available only to those who take the time to read poetry. At today’s hectic pace, there are so many other priorities that trump this ancient mode of sentience no matter how often it is relabeled “modern”, “post-modern”, “avant-garde” or “new wave.”
Students are assigned poetry to read, and learn to like or dislike. There is an assumption that readers who are not poets come to poetry for something (words, sentiments) they don’t know how to summon from themselves. And there are the readers who are friends and relatives of poets, and of course the poets themselves, who read poetry because of the importance of this arcane art in their lives. In general, it would not be an exaggeration to say that poets are the most frequent readers of poetry.
Twenty five years ago when Octavio Paz’s Other Voices was published, 42 million Americans admitted to being poets. That figure is surely much higher today. Unfortunately, the work of being a poet, knowing poetry, is often based on a checklist syllabus that is never referred to again once the diplomas are handed out. Instead, it is replaced by a network of former classmates and associates who read each other, publish each other, award prizes and honors to each other unencumbered by the work of knowing poetry beyond their own narrow self-interest. The sheer number and variety of writers identified as poets also has a tendency to level the talent pool, abetted by intense competition and the inevitable factionalism. The proliferation of small presses, self-publishing, and blogs, not to mention MFA programs, attenuates a definitive aesthetic even further. Although not every writer is a talented poet, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a book or publish online. Suddenly there are in excess of 42 million plus poetry books to read. That alone can be quite daunting.
Still a nagging question remains, albeit with a slightly different spin, do poets read other poets? And how widely do they read outside of their own peer group/class or language? An even more tantalizing and potentially contentious question would be do poets need to read poetry to write poetry?
However for everyone else, poems are a little like sunsets. You read one you’ve essentially read them all. Not that the awe inspiring buzz of a gorgeous sunset or a really great poem can’t be appreciated, but unless your name is Apollo or some other analogous sun god/dess whose job it is to make sure the sun sets at exactly the right time and place on the horizon, or a practicing poet, one does have to get on with one’s life.
Ancillary comment from The Parole Officer: Interested in what the future of poetry might look like? Click on Code Blue For Poetry As We Know It