Rear cover image for my collection
The Foliate Head. UK: Stanza.
Are there now more poets than readers?
Perhaps. Considering the efforts of Modernism to eradicate readers, I’m always surprised to find people who like poetry. In my experience, non-poets tend to like older poetry, and certainly it’s easier to find good poems in the past, where the weeds have been weeded, and the slight have been slighted.
Earlier on this blog I mentioned a conversation I had with an editor at a house that dropped its line of poetry because they had not broken the 300-mark on copies in recent years. That gives you some idea. I’ve also talked to editors with a poetry book or two that hadn’t broken the 50-mark. So it’s not an easy business, if you can indeed call it a business, this selling of poetry books. “Gift economy” was invented for such work.
By the way, I think a stranger problem is that there are many people writing poetry who are not great readers of poetry. There are many who are not conversant with the major poets of the past. I find this . . . astonishing.
I’m not sure how I became a reader of poetry at a very young age, but part of it must have been having parents who read poetry and fiction and bought me anthologies and books. I’m not so sure how one learns an early love without such parents.
A great many poets are part of the academic system, and this contributes to the sense that poets are increasing, readers decreasing. Plenty of people have talked about the multiplication of writing programs, and how they give birth to new creative writing professors and programs. Plenty of people have talked about how English literature departments have destroyed their once-healthy programs by an over-reliance on theory and “studies” concentrations. So on one hand, we increase poets and on the other, we decrease readers.
Unfortunately, this change enforces the idea that poets are “other” and do not belong to the daily world. And that idea enforces the idea that poetry is not for the daily world.
A poem can become a thing it should not be in an academic context. In the case of an academic who is a writer, each work is a potential “credit” on the yearly report that may help bring about a promotion or win merit pay (or inequity pay.) A poem becomes a kind of tick-mark in a box. It's suddenly useful in a practical way. The goal of poetry shifts. I don’t like that idea.
In addition, while it is lovely to be around young people, one’s main reading may become the unrevised work of college writers. It’s very easy to misjudge one’s own work and gifts in that context.
How do poets deal with that possible reality?
|Clive Hicks-Jenkins, interior page|
from my long poem Thaliad,
now on National Poetry Month sale
at Phoenicia Publishing
However, the increasing reliance on adjuncts may alter the equation. Perhaps, though, there will always be those willing to be underpaid as the price of staying in such a world.
I do know poets who were not part of such a community (or else were fringe members) who did not manage well—who felt too keenly the lack of audience, the lack of notice for their work. And I’ve seen it ruin lives or decades of lives. No matter how fine the poet, he or she must be very strong to be a poet outside the supportive world of academia. He or she will lack the in-person connections that assist with publications and summer gigs, the aid to attend conferences, and much more. (Full disclosure: I walked away from achieved tenure and promotion and salary because I felt that the academy was the wrong place for me as a writer. And I do feel that I lost “a system,” and that has hurt my work in terms of marketing. But I do not regret the decision.)
Despite the frequency of open readings or poetry slams in cities, almost every poet alive has to at some point deal with the often-discussed idea of a diminished audience and diminished attention. Like any other form of writing, a poem is not quite complete if left unread.
And perhaps nearly every serious poet could take advice from Yeats’s address to one “whose work has come to nothing” because nearly every poet (aside from Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and a few more) is aware that readership that once was an ark is now little better than a village ferry over a stream. Worldly success will not come to most poets. A maker to “honor bred,” Yeats says, is “Bred to a harder thing than Triumph.” In the end, he advocates a turn toward passionate creation, which must be its own satisfaction: “Be secret and exult, / Because of all things known / That is most difficult.”
What are the best ways to reach new readers of poetry (if that is even possible in our 140-character Twitter world)?
Help. Start discriminating what is fine from what is dross. It’s become a non-no to say that some work is better than other work. As a result, we’re drowning in dross, while our era tells us that we need to include everybody. When it comes to high culture, full inclusion is a recipe for dismantling and destroying and losing the bright needle in the haystack.
If you can, guide others. Share what is true, beautiful, and strong.
Teach good taste to children. We stopped doing that more than a century ago, and our culture feels the effects.
Teachers and politicians should quit trying to make poetry useful.
A good many poets should stop publishing poems that are little more than broken prose—that lack force, music, and subject matter. The first free verse writers knew the sources of power in form. Poets should know formal poems, no matter what they write. (Here we are back to the idea that some poets don’t know the literary history of their own language.)
Review ‘zines. We have a huge proliferation of online ‘zines. This trend is good and bad, of course. It’s very hard to sift so much work. But I suppose it may “reach new readers.”
Sites that aggregate poetry of the past may be helpful. I don’t really know. I’ve seen an awful lot of nonsense about good poems as a result, though.
Nor do I know if clever poets active on twitter increase their audience. There are people on who write poems as twitter lines, later presenting them as whole poems. I have several in a twitter sub-group.
I’m not crazy about the way poetry is taught in schools, though I believe the situation is improving. I think we need more memorization and less analysis. Also, we really need children to encounter wonderful poems from the past that sing and are still alive. We don’t need to give them only “children’s poems.” (But if we do, I hope we give them some Charles Causley!)
Teachers need to remember that the reading of a poem is not an encounter between a cadaver and a medical student with a scalpel. Reading a first-rate poem should be an experience.