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Anxiety, a rant in three fits
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.