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Anxiety, a rant in three fits

By A.E. Stallings

Fit the First: Anxiety and Audience
I was working on this post a while ago, perhaps an oblique response to Brian Phillips’ essay among other conversations, and then got caught up in some other thoughts and discussions. But this still seems relevant, especially viewing recent comments to Christian’s Failure posts (particularly Marty Elwell’s).
I wonder why we Anglophone poets are evidently so worried about audience. I meet plenty of Greek poets. They are writing in a marginal (though not currently endangered) language for the tiniest of audiences: even a best-selling novel here sells just a couple thousand copies. I’ve never seen Greek poets sell books at a reading, though they often give their reading copy away to a new fan. Poetry books are to be presented to friends, relatives, critics, editors. For a Greek poet, the ultimate wider success is to find an English translator and have their books published in English (whether in America, the UK, Canada), to reach a world audience. I’ve even encountered younger Greek poets who are writing in English, though it is not their native tongue. Personally, I think this is disastrous, but they seem to view it as a kind of survival technique.
So what do we English-speaking poets have to complain about, really? Why are we whining?


It’s true you could argue that poetry in Greece, and in other not-so-Western countries, has more street-cred. The poetry of Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos and Gatsos have all been fashioned into popular songs that people know the words of and can sing along to. The Greek national anthem, which has got to be one of the most artistically successful in that bombastic genre, is from the poet Solomos’ Hymn to Liberty . But no one quotes the living Greek poets, and Greece is not a nation of readers.
This problem of tiny—and shrinking—potential audience of course doesn’t dog just Greek poets, but any poet writing in a marginal language. A couple of years ago, I attended an International Poetry Manifestation in Tetova, an Albanian-speaking enclave in Slavic Macedonia (you can read about my odd experience here ), and, as one of two American poets in attendance, was deluged by booklets of poetry in Albanian. The urge was to get these poems to an English-speaking audience.
Our anxiety isn’t new, of course. Randall Jarrell said something to the effect that the gods who have taken away our readers have given us students.
But I look at some of the Greats with a capital G of the past—take Sappho (who has come up in another conversation), who wrote in an Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek—in an island vernacular—for what must have been the tiniest of audiences by our standards. The poet who composed the Odyssey—whoever he or, for my money, she may be—composed in a literary farrago of dialects never actually spoken.
Cavafy, who lived in Egypt but wrote in Greek (how’s that for marginal?) didn’t even publish his poems in book form in his lifetime—just handed out broadsides to friends and admirers—and took them up again when he made revisions.
These poets weren’t writing just for a handful of living people. They were in conversation with the dead, and were confident they were writing for posterity too—for ideal readers yet to be born. Perhaps we have lost faith in a readership of the future?
When Robert Frost, certainly not one to pooh-pooh popularity, writes of his ambition as a poet, he writes that it is to “lodge a few poems where they cannot be gotten rid of easily,” not to get as many poems across as he can to as many people. Why are we so obsessed with popularity and acceptance in the here and now? Posterity won’t look kindly on it.

Comments (15)

  • On September 30, 2007 at 9:40 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    PS–I should point out that the fits will only appear… fitfully.

  • On September 30, 2007 at 11:41 am Steve wrote:

    You suggest that we– we Americans, and perhaps we contemporary English-speakers more broadly– worried more about having an audience in the present because we’re not sure that there will be a future, or at least not a future with the time and the ability to read any English-language poems (we’ll be too busy struggling to get by in a world without petrochemicals, for example). That may be.
    What do the Greek poets you meet do for a living? Is there a pattern? (Is the pattern the same from generation to generation?)

  • On September 30, 2007 at 2:34 pm Don Share wrote:

    Eliot said: “When a poet deliberately restricts his pubic by his choice of style of writing or of subject matter, this is a special situation demanding explanation and extenuation… It is one thing to write in a style which is already popular, and another to hope that one’s writing may eventually become popular. From one point of view, the poet aspires to the condition of the music-hall comedian. Being incapable of altering his wares to suit a prevailing taste, if there be any, he naturally desires a state of society in which his own talents will be put to the best use. He is accordingly vitally interested in the use of poetry…”
    Your mileage may vary. This quotation, by the way, ties into our discussions here about “taste,” and about “failure.”

  • On September 30, 2007 at 6:20 pm Susan McLean wrote:

    Follow the money. American poets may be more anxious about audience less because of posterity than because of the fellowships and teaching positions that require publication as a proof of talent. The money at stake may be pitifully small compared to the sums in other professions (and even in other forms of creative writing), but if it makes the difference between making a living from writing and having to earn a living doing something else, the pressure is on. In a climate in which most publishers lose money on publishing poetry, it gets harder and harder to get a poetry book published. The ever-diminishing audience for poetry is therefore hitting poets right in the pocketbook.
    I know there are some poets who don’t need the money and just want some recognition. But they too feel that they are under the gun. How many poets since Emily Dickinson have been totally unrecognized during their lifetime, but highly respected after their deaths? These days I think few poets can hope that they will be discovered and appreciated after they are gone. Poetry is the gift that keeps on giving–because there are no takers.

  • On September 30, 2007 at 9:35 pm Steve wrote:

    Susan, I think the anxiety about audience isn’t linked to anxieties about publication per se (nor to anxiety about landing the kind of jobs that require publications, i.e. academic teaching gigs, for the most part). Hiring committees don’t want to know how many books a poet published by, say, Wesleyan or Iowa has sold– they just want to know that the poet had a book published by Wesleyan or Iowa (or Alice James or, for many places these days, Krupskaya), in the same way that they would want to see a hire in neuroscience publish in the relevant scientific journals. Indeed, the poets most anxious about audience– in my experience– are those with one or two or three books out already: now that your book is out, you realize how few people are likely to read it.

  • On October 1, 2007 at 3:06 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for the comments… I think I’ve fixed the links now.
    I think America must be about the only place in the world where so many poets actually make a living from poetry (by teaching it). Maybe that is why the gods gave us students instead of readers! In Greece, it is impossible to make a living off of any kind of book writing, though I think you can make a living of sorts writing for a newspaper or magazine. Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, who is one of the best living Greek poets, and also one of the most celebrated outside of Greece, ekes out a living as a translator, and in a good year supplements this a little from her pistachio grove.
    My blogs are a matter of thinking aloud, and so there are always lots of afterthoughts (and contradictions). I should point out that I don’t think popularity is a bad thing at all, or striking a popular chord with an audience. We all want readers. But I guess I do not understand the deep dissatisfaction with readership that seems a constant preoccupation of poetry conversations in Poetry magazines and elsewhere (I myself was asked to write a little piece on the subject a couple years back). Really, poets don’t have it that bad–ask a contemporary composer, painter, sculpture or playwrite. And there isn’t a National Contemporary Sculpture Month or a Playwrite Laureate. I think we’re doing pretty well, really. I think we have got passionate and intelligent readers, even if we don’t have a mass market.
    I see what Eliot means–but he of course was also writing for the ages, I think there can be no doubt about that. Poets used to be quite open about this goal–to live in the mouths of men, non omnis moriar, Not marble nor the gilded monuments… Our poetry age seems embarassed even to strive for greatness or anything beyond a few flimsy prizes in the here and now. The genre that really seems to be striving for greatness is television writing–Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer–perhaps that is what this age will be remembered for!

  • On October 1, 2007 at 9:12 am Ange wrote:

    I agree completely that the anxiety about poetry’s small audience is misplaced. James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry sums it up for me: “A poem can’t help but to be meaningful; it may speak as easily to one person as to a thousand. But especially when it has something urgent to say, a poem’s power inheres less in its conclusions than in its propensity to resist them, demonstrating their inadequacy while moving inevitably toward them. … Dickinson, Dante, Horace — these are not poets who shied away from their own strangeness, making poems that are easily consumed.”
    Any poet who strives to fulfill this stringent ambition is going to be marginalized in an age that measures success by popularity.
    Most poets I have known don’t even bother to argue these points. They are busy creating journals, curating reading series, designing chapbooks and broadsides, and trying to collect cash to publish their favorite work to send by mail to small but passionate followings. That is, I believe many poets live their poetry lives the way Greek and Albanian poets do….

  • On October 1, 2007 at 12:33 pm Michael Gushue wrote:

    These comments do move fast, but I’m still stuck on the question of why “Anglophone poets are evidently so worried about audience.” This anxiety doesn’t seem to affect the ongoing effort of creating journals, curating reading series, designing chapbooks and broadsides, and actually writing poems. Does it truly influence anyone’s real poetic practice?
    And it seems to toggle between Kantian antinomies: (1) either the audience for poetry is disappearing or the audience for poetry is bigger than ever; (2) either the shrinking audience for poetry is a bad thing or it’s a good thing (good riddance); (3) the reason poetry isn’t being read is the fault of the poets and kind of poems they’re writing, or the reading population is itself to blame either directly (philistines) or indirectly (capitalism, industrialization, alienation, etc). You can fill in the adherents.
    Edwin Muir’s essay, the Estate of Poetry, published 45 years ago, was already making the argument that “poetry is neglected in all civilized countries” and “poets are visited by a horrified surprise at the realization that things should be as bad as they are; that this audience has melted away.”
    Before that Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads (which Muir quotes) is already complaining that “For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”
    Which leads me to think that our worries about audience are somehow inherent in what we think poetry is. Maybe (I’m just spitballing here) our idea of poetry has been inescapably determined by the Romanticism and the Romantic project (like Wordsworth). If so, then no matter what school you identify with, you’re stuck with *that* idea of poetry as what poetry is, regardless of whether you participate in it or react against it.
    So maybe I want to change the question to phenomenological one: can we describe what poetry is to uncover the relationship between poetry and the audience as one of anxiety?
    Or is our time better spent writing, curating, designing and publishing?

  • On October 1, 2007 at 1:15 pm Danielle Chapman wrote:

    It’s been a while since I chimed in here, so first of all, let me just say how much I’ve been enjoying the blog; you’ve all been engaging in such intense, interesting ways!
    Reading over Alicia’s initial post, then all the comments, it strikes me that the point of hers that no one else has picked up is that of “writing for the ages.” It seems that, in our age of anxiety, bringing up “the ages” is something that we all find vaguely embarrassing. Is it that we can’t believe in them, because most of us are convinced that the world will have been blown up or withered by excessive heat by the time those ages come to pass? Is it possible that all the anxiety in the poetry community is really just a variation on the sort of existential anxiety that we see throughout our society–which drives the consumer frenzy, etc., and which is more pronounced in the US than other countries?
    Of course it sounds somewhat insane to declare that you want to write “great poems.” (Also, for us ladies, I think that “greatness” can somtimes seem to refer to the “great men of history,” making it a hard notion to attach to.) However, if you take away the buzzword, “greatness,” and say: “I want to write poems that people can read in a hundred years” (and isn’t longevity really what “greatness” is?) the goal somehow begins to sound worthwhile. Also, it forces one to think that life (and humanity) will indeed exist in a hundred years, and to imagine what that will mean. I think that our postmodern despair has become a bit too automatic, and it has limited our imaginations–both within our own poems, and in our notions of what poems should be.

  • On October 1, 2007 at 8:35 pm Ange wrote:

    Hi Danielle,
    I think I could say, cheerfully, that I want to write great poems that will be read in a hundred years. It’s just that, well, putting it this way seems tantamount to saying “I know what makes poems last,” when we don’t really. Since I have Susan Stewart on my mind today, I’ll just quote what she says on the subject:
    “The special history of literary transcendence is ultimately unintelligible and idiosyncratic; its meticulous particularity, a refusal of judgment. And the dioramas of context offered by a narrow historicism are the projection of a model of history necessarily aestheticized in the first place by its drive toward closure of explanation.”
    Neither can we ascribe transcendence to fixed forms that are social and historical in nature.
    And yet we go on writing, with our elective affinities held close. What else to do? And meanwhile, commenters on this blog wonder why things get so heated here. As if the subtext of all this discussion weren’t, indeed, the future, and what it will look like….

  • On October 2, 2007 at 8:18 am Danielle Chapman wrote:

    Hi Ange,
    I just read your last post about Stewart and loved it; I want to read this book. (All the measured critical writing in the world can’t inspire one to read something as well as a passionate, personal tribute.) Yet while I can see her point about the idisyncratic nature of (artistic) history that you quote above–i.e. there is no grand, aesthetic scheme in which all art fits–I don’t see why we need to jump to the conclusion that, by thinking about futurity, we’re assenting to “a model of history necessarily aestheticized in the first place by its drive toward closure of explanation.” Does a pledge to “meticulous particularity” mean that we have to disavow the idea that there is something in the human condition, in the structure of our emotions and beliefs, that remains consistent and vital over time? And if we can identify that thing in ancient lyric poetry (as Steve pointed out in his post about Sappho), why can’t we identify it in ourselves and project it into the future?
    And is Stewart’s idea meant to apply to individual poems? If so, it would seem to close off the possible experience of “closure of explanation” that one can get (at least temporarily) from reading a poem. But surely such a poem has a place in the vaster idiosyncratic world of literature that she values. How far can we take the notion of “refusal of judgment” before it becomes a dictum in and of itself, which limits one’s imagination (especially if one’s imagination is fueled by the idea of transcendence) rather than freeing it?

  • On October 2, 2007 at 1:05 pm Ange wrote:

    Danielle, I actually took the quote about “a model of history” to be more of a rebuke to the sort of closures offered by the avant-garde, which posits that by studying the history of reception we can start to predict with confidence what should survive into the future and what shouldn’t. No, I don’t think she means this to apply to individual poems. She doesn’t get dogmatic at all about the individual forms poems should take.
    I think she says that if there is any kind of literary transcendence, it comes from individuals speaking to each other across time. It’s one very moving aspect of her book. The discussion of the senses becomes a ground for a kind of universality, since we all have bodies. This is certainly one thing we can try to project into the future. But at the end of the book, she expresses pessimism about the future; from the way things are going, it really does look like we are going to change ourselves technologically, and there may well be a real break with the past.
    Not sure how to respond to the idea of refusal of judgment. She certainly stakes a position with this book, and from the academic reviews I’ve seen, it’s unorthodox. More Kant than Marx, I guess.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 8:42 am Danielle Chapman wrote:

    Ange–I really do need to read this book, before I go writing a dissertation on one pull-quote! I wasn’t aware of this avant-garde theory about being able to predict what will survive and what won’t, but I can see why Stewart would want to rebuke it. And I’m very interested in this idea of creating sympathy through our senses–especially how emotions and ethics play into this idea, and how an ethic of the senses avoids becoming mere sensualism. (I’ve recently read The Brothers Karamazov, which doesn’t look too happily on sense gratification!) I’m looking forward to reading more, especially after your longer post on the topic….

  • On October 3, 2007 at 9:42 am Alicia (A. E.) wrote:

    Thanks for this lively discussion!
    I think “individuals speaking to each other across time” is exactly what I am getting at. That is what Sappho does, for instance, there is an immediacey in her voice as of hearing someone actually speaking to you, just to you. Of course, this effect of spontaneity is achieved through great artifice, control and skill–but that is another rant.
    “Greatness” and “writing for the ages” always seems to turn people off or make them deeply wary. Although surely we all do want to write great poems? “Great” need not mean “major,” by the way–great poems need not be earth-shaking epics or radical pioneers of styles or movements. There are great poems that are simply little gems–not even perfect (which strikes me as a deadening virtue to strive for), but greater than the sum of their parts, inspired, durable, alive. I guess I am not so interested in what future critics will determine is great or not. Poets’ stocks go up and down. Some of my favorite poets are unfashionable, but that doesn’t really affect how important they are to me. I don’t see that future critics necessarily need be any more astute than contemporary ones, they will have different biases according to their age, though they will have some hindsight and perhaps less junk to weed through. It is readers and future poets conversing with each other–for to me it does feel like a dialogue.
    It seems to me there is such a concern NOT to be striving for durability and greatness, that you end up with the opposite–the anti-poem, the completely ephemeral this-is-what-I-did-today-and-had-my-little-epiphany-that-life-is-really-OK in flat language with such a concern not to be artificial (that would be insincere), that the poet actually deliberately uses cliches because not to do so would be to be seen to strive towards Art. I don’t mean in an avant-garde conceptual way, either (as with Christian’s review post), or an ironic post-modern way, I mean as a badge of everyman sincerity. Just the other day I was reading a poem on Writer’s Almanac describing, say, the sky as blue and the clouds as fluffy, not ironically or anything, but just in a why-bother shrugging kind of way. It’s the logical extension (or reductio) of eschewing artifice in other areas of the poem as an indication of “real” feeling.
    I think it is freeing, really, not to be so worried about contemporary reception and readership–you are less constrained by the prejudices of the time. That doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to find that future readership–that doesn’t guarantee that what you are doing will speak to an individual over time–but that end of things is beyond our control.
    One of my favorite poets who remains unfashionable, I think, though his stock has been creeping up in recent years (it couldn’t really go down–he has always been dismissed as–yikes– popular), is, yes, AE Housman. (I don’t think I will shock or surprise anyone by that!). This poem (the last in “A Shropshire Lad”) seems very much to address the subject at hand–about individuals speaking across time, about the ambition to lodge a few poems where they are not easily got rid of, about fashion and durability:
    I hoed and trenched and weeded,
    And took the flowers to fair:
    I brought them home unheeded;
    The hue was not the wear.
    So up and down I sow them
    For lads like me to find,
    When I shall lie below them,
    A dead man out of mind.
    Some seed the birds devour,
    And some the season mars,
    But here and there will flower
    The solitary stars,
    And fields will yearly bear them
    As light-leaved spring comes on,
    And luckless lads will wear them
    When I am dead and gone.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 2:04 pm Don Share wrote:

    Yes, recent times have been pretty good to Housman – Archie Burnett has recently produced scholarly editions of both the poems and the letters, each well worth tracking down. For those wanting a just a taste of A.E.H., there are many really inexpensive editions of his poems, but for me his writing about poetry, collected in a paperback called “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (named after the famous essay), is equally indispensible but also greatly entertaining; you can pick it up new for under ten dollars. “I think that to transfuse emotion,” he writes, “to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer – is the peculiar function of poetry.” Hardly anyone since Richard F. Hugo has dared say anything like that! (Nice use of the word “peculiar,” too.)


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, September 30th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.