Thursday, August 8, 2013

Poetry's Audience

Writing for Others or the Audience for Poetry

There is a recent two-part blogpost by Tasha Golden at Plougshares that focuses on cultivating an audience for poetry.  I found the series thoughtful.  The first part can be found here:

The second part can be found here:

The basic view of the posts is that modern poetry could learn a lot from pop music in seeking an audience.  Golden takes for granted that poetry has lost its audience, but she suggests that this audience can be regained by following the lead of popular music.  In many ways this makes sense to me.  But I have a somewhat different take on the situation.  What follows are a few comments stimulated by Golden’s posts.

First, the sense that modern poetry has lost its audience is widespread and is, I think, in some ways accurate.  In the not-so-distant past poets commanded large followings and a significant audience when they spoke.  Poets like Poe and Tennyson and Longfellow had huge followings and their readings were major cultural events.  As recently as Edna St. Vincent Millay a poet could generate huge sales and be regularly interviewed and commented upon in the mass media.

All that is gone.  There are popular poets: I am thinking of someone like Mary Oliver.  When she does a reading it is very well attended.  But there is a difference in the make-up of such an audience from that of the past.  It is this:  in the past the audience for poetry readings and events contained large numbers of non-poets.  This is true today for music, whether classical, jazz, or rock ‘n roll.  At music concerts the majority of people in the audience will be non-musicians who are attracted to the concert.  (This is also true of things like sporting events; most of the people who go to a baseball or football game are not themselves players of that game.)  That also used to be the case with poetry.  That is to say when Poe gave a reading of The Raven the majority of people in attendance were not poets themselves but were attracted to the reading in the same way that concert goers are attracted to a performance of music that interests them.  Today, the audience for poetry consists almost entirely of other poets.

This has been noted for a number of decades.  Dana Gioia wrote about it in his justly famous essay Can Poetry Matter?  Gioia pointed out in his essay that the number of poets, and their friends, is large enough so that this culture of poetry readings attended mostly by other poets can sustain itself.  I don’t think it is in danger of disappearing.  But precisely because poetry events are attended almost exclusively by poets there is a sense of isolation.  Golden’s posts seek to address this, and remedy it, by adopting some of the strategies of pop music.  The hope is that poetry will become, once again, appealing to a wider audience; that is to say to those who are not themselves poets.

There is one aspect of this that I think Golden, and others, miss.  What I want to suggest is that the audience for popular music is the audience for modern poetry.  What I am suggesting is that pop music is a conveyor of modern poetry.  What I am suggesting is that the lyrics of popular music are where much of modern poetry can be found.

I am not the only one who has this view.  In the Library of America series on American Poetry, the lyrics of songwriters are included.  Volume Two of the Twentieth Century includes Bessie Smith, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart and Blind Melon Jefferson.  In the Volume Two of the Nineteenth Century there is an entire section devoted to Folks Songs and Spirituals

In the anthology The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, they have included, under ‘Anonymous’, lyrics of a number of songs including such classics as The Streets of Laredo.

And finally, the Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth edition, contains a selection from the hymns of Charles Wesley; probably the most influential composer of hymns in history.

So the idea that the lyrics of popular song are poetry is not eccentric on my part.  I simply would like to extend it to include people like Bob Dylan and a multitude of other rock, country/western, and other pop genres.  Mr. Tambourine Man deserves a place in our anthologies.

Here’s the thing: if you look at song as a conveyor of poetry it shifts your view of what was going on with poetry in the 20th century.  It rewrites your narrative of that history.  If you include popular song lyrics as poetry the major shift in one’s view is that the impact of free verse on the history of poetry becomes much more restrained.  Hardly any song lyrics are free verse; in fact, I can’t think of one, though if you really hunt I suppose you can find one.  But the point is that if you include song lyrics, if you bring such lyrics into the realm of poetry, then the impact of free verse on English language poetry becomes a much more muted; not insignificant, but of diminished significance. 

And here is where my view of what is going on with audiences for poetry differs somewhat from Golden.  The diminished audience is a diminished audience for free verse.  Just as classical music concert-goers tend to have rejected the avant-garde and simply do not show up for such concerts, in a similar way audiences have simply stayed away from free verse.  Not totally; free verse poets do have a following.  But in the sense of the kind of audience that Tennyson could generate, modern poetry’s audience is highly specialized and lacks widespread appeal – except for the lyrics of popular songs.

There is an alternative way of looking at this.  Where I live there is a local bonsai society.  It has been going for many years.  The Bonsai Society puts on monthly events, yearly shows; the kind of thing you would expect from such a group.  The audience for events at the Bonsai Society is almost exclusively made up of people who maintain Bonsai themselves, plus a few friends, and perhaps a few people who are interested in Japanese culture in general.

I would like to suggest that the audience for free verse is similar to this.  That is to say the audience for Free Verse resembles the audience of the Bonsai Society.  In both cases the audience is a specialized group.

Is that a bad thing for free verse?  Well, it depends on how you look at it.  It is expected that the Bonsai Society will consist primarily of people who themselves cultivate Bonsai.  But because in the past poetry has generated huge followings and has been felt to have larger cultural significance, the absence of a broad audience, the absence of widespread cultural interest, appears as a lack.

There is also the matter of ego here.  Cultivators of Bonsai do not expect to generate a big cultural impact.  They are content with their craft and sharing their craft with others.  Because of the heritage of poetry, and the significance it has played, there is a feeling among poets that poetry should be considered of greater significance than cultivating bonsai, or baking bread, or pottery. 

In my view, though, poetry is simply a craft and very much like Bonsai or pottery.  If looked at in this way, there is nothing wrong with how free verse has evolved.  Like numerous human activities, free verse has its groups, magazines, societies, and those who are interested in it.  That is not a bad thing.  But it is a shift as to where poetry is located in the culture.

So, in a sense, I am saying two things.  The first observation is about where to find poetry: and that observation is that if you want to find poetry that has a large cultural impact, an impact that resembles the impact that poetry in the past had, then look to popular music.  That is where the dominant culture of poetry can be found.

My second observation is that if you want to locate other types of poetry, such as free verse, the best way to locate such activity is by comparing it to other interests such as gardening, or pottery, or quilting, or baking.  Free verse has a vital audience; even the most severe critics of free verse have acknowledged that the audience for free verse is large enough to be self-sustaining.  But it is not the same audience that poetry had in the past or that the lyrics of popular song currently has.  My view is that there is nothing wrong with that; it’s just how the situation has evolved.

And this observation about audience also applies to syllabic forms such as Haiku, Fibonacci, etc.  In Japan there are numerous Haiku Societies and they function very much like societies devoted to Bonsai, Karate, Tea Ceremony, etc.  My observation is that form-centered poetry societies in the U.S. are also developing along these lines.  It is a specialized audience that resembles those who are devoted to baking, or quilting.  All of these kinds of activities make life enjoyable for the participants at many levels.  From my perspective that is all the justification they need.

In closing, part of what I am getting at is that there is no single, overall, audience for poetry.  Perhaps there was in the past; I’m not sure.  But today the audience for poetry has become a number of different, sometimes overlapping, sometimes mutually antagonistic, audiences.  There is an audience for free verse, there is an audience for popular song lyrics, there is an audience for Haiku, for Fibonacci, for traditional metrical verse, etc.  This resembles gardening where you have Rose Societies, Geranium Societies, African Violet groups, Bonsai Associations, etc.  Again, there will be some overlap among the participants, and at times some antagonisms, but one can still see the specific focus involved.

Society has changed.  The conditions in which poetry has a presence have changed.  Poetry has adapted to these changing conditions and that is, I think, all to the good.

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