Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Poetry" Magazine Provides Insight Into Why Nobody Reads Poetry

-Requisite explanation for why I haven't posted here in so long, something about being busy at work and moving, bla bla bla nobody cares-

Hey guys, here's a fun fact: "No one, other than poets themselves, really gives a damn about poetry." That's Michael Corbin writing for City Paper in 2001, and he's pretty close to the truth. Although I stopped writing poetry around the time I stopped being an angsty 15-year-old, I think it's safe to say that 80-90% of people who regularly read poetry also regularly write it. That's terrible news. Can you imagine if only moviemakers watched movies, or only chefs liked good food? We'd assume that either A) something was wrong with the creators of this narrowly appealing product, B) something was wrong with the target audience, or C) Both. 

I posit C, but for the purposes of this little rant, I'm going to focus on the people pumping out poetry that only appeals to like 1% of the population. 

Seriously, guys, just stop. 

I understand that Eliot wanted to reclaim poetry for the elites. I understand that maybe Frost watered it down a bit and made it too pop-culturey. I understand that college professors get grants for being cutting edge/avant garde/innovative (read:inaccessible). I understand that America's sad little education system does a pretty lousy job of cultivating ears for artful language. And I understand that the Facebook generation might not have the attention span for oblique, insightful, subtle verbal stylings. 

But whatever. No excuses. If the only people who want to read what you write (poetry geeks) are just like you, you're doing something wrong. 

The July/August issue of Poetry gives us a great example of this. It has a section pretentiously titled "The Poetry of Other Things" (which actually has a bunch of really great essays; highly recommended), prefaced by a short paragraph starting with this sentence:

"We thought it might be interesting to ask a few poets to write on subjects other than poetry that are close to their hearts."

Wow!! Neato!! What a crazy idea!! Golly gee willikers, I would love to know what my favorite contemporary poet thinks about something besides my favorite contemporary poetry!

Just kidding. As long as we're surprised to hear poets' thoughts on the non-poetic, nobody besides poets will want to read it. Let me say that another way: If poets only write about poetry, they make their entire craft a sort of intellectual Rotary Club -- super super interesting to the tiny fraction of the population that cares, and totally worthless to everyone else. 

In one of the only good poems about why poetry matters, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," W. H. Auden writes that poetry is "[a] way of happening, a mouth." (Heads up, poets! Auden already explained why poetry matters, so you don't have to! Please stop it!) In other words, poetry is a means to an end. It's a lens; it helps us see other things, other people. If the only role of poetry is to help us value poetry, it's a stupid waste of time, and it's no great tragedy that only 8% of Americans read a poem in 2007

Now, granted, this poetry-about-poetry house-of-cards garbage isn't the only thing contemporary poets are doing wrong. And not all contemporary poets do it (Thank you, Averill Curdy, A. E. Stallings, Steve Gehrke, Roddie Lumsden, et al; may you live for a thousand years). But here's the point: As long as we expect our poets to only have insight on poetry, we're wasting our time on them. I don't know what the solution is (probably not ranting on the Internet), but for now, all I can think to do is praise the poets who get it right and say snarky things about the ones who get it wrong. Our culture is on the line. 


  1. Dearest Betsy,

    Donald Davidson already wrote this article and offered a solution! You'll find his essay "Poetry as Tradition" enlightening and convicting.



  2. Where might one be able to find this essay, Seth?