Who Reads Poetry Anymore?

To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, The Grand Poobah
Subject: Who Reads Poetry Anymore?

WANTEDDrop 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




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8 Responses to Who Reads Poetry Anymore?

  1. selchie_us says:

    Nice clear analysis..

    In my real world experience it is the young who crave poetry (or the young at heart)…as well as sentimental people. Non-poetry-writing older friends of mine seem to be interested in nature poetry, good quality personal poetry…or poetry expressing some ideal (“women’s rights, the sorrows of the oppressed or war torn”)…occasionally older people seem excited by the energy & emotions of the poetry of the young, also.

    This is a little embarassing to me as a “retired” poet because these folks might say “You’re a poet; how wonderful”…..just as my son used to say, “At least people WANT to hear rock ‘n roll, Mom”.

    In places like Russia poetry is taken much more seriously. The problem with that is a poet might be exiled or jailed. Well, actually, maybe in today’s Russia poets have lost street cred. Speaking of street cred, what about rap, poetry slams and other forms of “live” poetry? Also I noticed some fancy Brit actors are reciting poems (the ladies probably love that)…albeit the poetry is maybe Brit Romantic period.

    There is a type of bird (PBS nature show)….perhaps the blue footed booby….that is known to carry on ritualized courtship behaviour for years without ever actually mating, perhaps never. When I watched that show years ago I thought, the poets of the bird world…..

    best ann (er, Kitty….who can’t figure out how to post in the Black Bart thingee)

    Sent from Samsung tabletThe New Black Bart Poetry Society wrote:

  2. When I was a kid poetry could be used as a wardrobe accessory to indicate your coolness ( a tattered copy of Howl sticking out of your tattered jeans back pocket) whether you actually read it or not. I always meant to read it, really.

  3. Here is a good use for poetry, from my new book, “So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems, 1968-2012,” beginning with a quote from the great late Anselm Hollo:
    to the judge who sentenced a criminal to read poetry
    a sentence Anselm Hollo noted:
    “Well, as il miglior fabbro put it
    If the hoar FROST grip thy tent
    Thou wilt give thanks when night is spent.”

    This is the frostiest poem ever written.
    Take that to your cell you criminal with a dirty mind.
    This is not the sexiest poem ever written
    This is the most ascetic poem ever written.
    It practically scorches the dust it walks in
    rolling its sexy buttocks like St. Jerome.
    This is the richest poem ever written.
    Nobody can buy it because it is mine.
    Nobody even knows why this poem was written.
    Only I know and I’m not telling.
    Yesterday this poem did not exist.
    Yesterday you were an ignorant criminal and today you read me.
    I am more ignorant than you and I am a hell of a lot harder.
    Sixty-two years ago the writer of this poem did not exist
    but was beginning to look around to see if he should.
    This is the swingiest poem ever written.
    it’s so packed with music it’s making people dance
    people who are not even born yet for fifty years.
    The things this poem can do with an egg and an earring
    you would not believe.
    This poem is practically made out of meat.
    One day this poem ran into a poem by John Keats.
    They chatted pleasantly for a while until one of them
    had to go into an anthology and by the time it got there
    its poet ceased to be, but the other poem kept escaping
    narrowly from the slippery hands of anthologists
    and landing in the most unlikely places like right here.
    This is the most unwritten poem ever written.
    Read this you criminal until dawn breaks on you like an egg!

  4. robert feuer says:

    For me a work of fiction exists only so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. – Nabokov

    Replace the word “fiction” with “poetry” and you have the raison d’etre for this or any other art form. The rest is all ego.

  5. Only 5% of the people read anything at all other than sms’s.

    • robert feuer says:

      Being a member of the SEA, Society for the Elimnation of Acronyms, I didn’t know what sms meant. Thanks to Google, I do now.

      Robert Feuer

  6. robert feuer says:

    PS I wish there was a spellcheck on that last one.

  7. theparoleofficer says:

    Please read Conditions of Parole before commenting — poems, particularly those not written by the author of the comment, are frowned upon.

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