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Where Are You, General Audience?
I woke up the morning after the college reunion reading not only slightly hungover on cucumber vodka, but also satisfied and addicted. These few hundred folks might well be the largest audience I’ve ever read to that didn’t consist primarily of poets, writers, and poetry and writing teachers. I had had the rare experience of reading for a general audience—and I admit I wanted more.
It was not only the relief of writing and reading for a group of my peers about our common experiences, without the filter of literary fashion or literary politics getting in the way, that I found so addictive—it was also the feeling of being useful. These people were hungry for something that my poem could give them, something they weren’t going to get any other way. The poem was printed on the back of the program distributed at each place setting, but some were removed by waiters, and the next day I heard stories of people searching for and in one instance fighting over copies.
As we mingled on the verdant grass under the white-and-blue tents, nursing our hangovers after breakfast, everyone I talked to mentioned the poem. Interestingly, a number of them chose to resurrect an old phrase: they thanked me “for being our class poet” in such a natural way that I was moved. Though it’s been decades since college classes routinely had a class poet, there seemed to be almost a built-in familiarity with that idea, as if a community of a certain size is aware that there should be, or at least that there could be, be a poet doing the job of articulating its concerns and marking its milestones.
Perhaps because the cause of promoting poetry has become so identified with poetry-centered insitutions in recent decades—institutions that, in turn, create their own communities centered on poetry—the crucial question of how poems work within organically functioning groupings of human beings seems virtually absent from recent discourse about poetry and its audience. The hypothetical individual reader is the implied subject of the currently prevalent “read-poetry-because-it’s-good-for-you” model; on the wonderfully complete poem suggestions in the newsletter of the Academy of American Poets website, for example, at most it seems we are supposed to share the poem with one other person—mom for mother’s day or one’s love for Valentine’s Day. A different kind of isolated individual reader (only in lesser numbers) is equally the assumed audience for poetry on the other side of the argument, for example in Charles Bernstein’s invective “Against National Poetry Month.”
But what happens when the audience for poetry is assumed to be not necessarily the isolated individual but the group, the class, the gathering, the tribe? While individuals may not particularly need or want to read poems for the sake of reading poems, as the current institutional campaigns would have them do, it seems that as often as not, plenty of people in a given group may want or need the scop, the praise-singer, the bard, the griot; they may need poetry that speaks for their own group and its particular occasions—custom-made poetry, if possible. How else explain the way my college class jumped at the chance to have its own poet? Isn’t this how poetry began, in the need of a group of people to hear itself transformed into words that are of a different order than ordinary speech? And hasn’t there a been a strong community with shared experiences and goals incubating poetry in most if not all of its most memorably fertile moments–for example the English Renaissance court, the Harlem Renaissance, the women’s movement of the 1970s?
Yet in spite of the fact that the human need for poetry in community may well be as alive as ever, two widely received assumptions now interfere with the connection between poetry and a general audience. The first is the belief that general audiences (ie non-poets) will only accept watered-down doggerel as “their” poetry. In fact, though, the Yalies who enjoyed my poem were not doing anything unique. These are intelligent people who can follow a complex film, who read Plato, who like challenging art. Why shouldn’t they, and the people like them, be able to get what I’m doing in my poetry? Perhaps the unwritten stricture that only artists appreciate complex art would loosen a bit if the need to “epater la bourgeoisie,” first felt by the avant-garde of a hundred years ago or more, were to be reexamined in light of the number and sophistication of today’s educated professsional “cultural creatives.”
The second assumption is that aiming to write for general audiences is politically reactionary and counter-progressive. This belief was activated, if not implied or invoked, by some of the poetry community’s response to the initial formation of the Poetry Foundation, as documented in Dana Goodyear’s article. But do we really need this idea anymore? Does it make sense that, aesthetic tastes aside, when we look back at the early twentieth century the high Modernists Pound, with his fascistic sympathies, and Eliot, with his Anglican elitism, are now cast as heroic progressive revolutionaries, while the true political progressives, activist populists such as Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Edna St Vincent Millay, Lola Ridge, Edwin Markham, and even James Whitcomb Riley who championed Dunbar, are marginalized as irrelevant?
Thinking about the state of poetry now, I remember a wonderful book I read when I was raising my first child, The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Living with and researching peoples that lived close to original human tribal ways of living, Liedloff found that children thrived best and were most easily raised when they were not the center of attention, but left to their own devices on the fringe of adult activity. So instead of a group of adults spending a Saturday watching their children play soccer, the children would watch the adults plant a garden or hold a dance. Instead of sitting and playing blocks with a child, or sitting idly at the playground, the parent would interact with other parents in meaningful work or play, and let the children watch or help.
In the same way, perhaps lyric poetry thrives best when it is left to play at the margins of meaningful human activity, marking and arising from whatever “really” goes on in our lives. And just as architecture— isolated one-family houses connected by cars, as opposed to the village compound where adults meet freely and children can play at will—facilitiates one way kind of living and child-raising or the other, maybe our physical and social isolation from each other, the dearth of deeply connected groups, is a root cause of poetry’s lack of general audience.