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Where Are You, General Audience?

By Annie Finch

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.

Comments (45)

  • On June 2, 2009 at 8:03 am poonam srivastava wrote:

    I know what you mean and am happy to read it so eloquently stated.

  • On June 2, 2009 at 1:26 pm john wrote:

    Interesting thoughts, Annie.

    I recently read Jarrell’s novel “Pictures from an Institution,” and it’s a marvel. One thing that struck me is how integrated the arts were ca. 1950, at least . . . socially. People expected poets to know what was going on in contemporary classical music, and vice versa. Since the breakdown of the high/low divide in the arts, that hasn’t been true, and it’s been bad, I think, for both poetry and classical music. Classical has a better shot, today, than poetry, because, well, because of Alex Ross of “The New Yorker.” “The New Yorker” *is* college-educated pop culture, and their classical critic has an interest in contemporary composition. It’s nice that “The New Yorker” publishes poetry, but the college-educated pop audience (understandably) wants a guide to lead them through the thicket of artifacts, and who provides that?

    The “classical concert” is barely more than 200 years old; before that, all classical music was ritual or occasional, for church services, funerals, weddings, occasions of state, particular festivals, teaching occasions, or theater productions (often but not always opera). Maybe the concert will fade away, and classical will go back to work in those various milieus, like movie soundtracks, where classical has flourished.

    Does anybody know how old the poetry reading as an institution is? I mean the reading of lyric poems, not narrative — the reading of narrative poems is a few millennia old, at least. My hunch: the reading of a lyric poem might have happened at parties, and never more than a few poems — sort of like Gershwin playing his songs at parties — it would be a highlight of the party, for sure, but he might not play more than 5.

    Here’s my verdict. There is a place for lyric poetry in our general, non-literary culture, but only one poem at a time. One poem for the wedding, one for the funeral, one for the college reunion, one or two at any party whatsoever. I’ve read poems at parties, spontaneously, but I’ve only read one or two per party, and people have liked them. Not my own poems — and, I have a background in theater as well as music, so I tend to ham a poem up — And There’s Nothing Wrong With That!!!! Also, when readings *were* popular, into the 1940s or ’50s, most of the most popular readers were actors, like Will Geer [Grandpa Walton]. I’ve even interrupted a DJ (with his permission) to read a poem at a party. (He spontaneously accompanied me with a mashup of a bunch of instrumental records — it was fantastic.)

    The Grandpa Walton example also points to the integration of poetry with other arts. Will Geer preferred to bring a musician with him to his readings (Woody Guthrie was one of them); they would trade sets or take turns — I don’t know how the programs were laid out, but it wasn’t an “all poetry” concert.

    Sorry to ramble — it’s a jumble out there! And thanks, Annie.

    • On June 2, 2009 at 1:41 pm Don Share wrote:

      Folks interested in the history of poetry reciting as an American institution should check out Joan Shelley Rubin’s Songs of Ourselves; she traces the phenomenon of ordinary people reading poems out loud between the years 1880 and 1950. Fascinating stuff.

    • On June 2, 2009 at 1:42 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

      “The Grandpa Walton example also points to the integration of poetry with other arts. Will Geer preferred to bring a musician with him to his readings (Woody Guthrie was one of them);”

      Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti read at the Band’s ‘The Last Waltz’ concert. All is not yet lost.

      • On June 2, 2009 at 2:02 pm john wrote:

        Thanks Don and Gary!

        And . . . those home-reading scenes in those Jane Austen novels. Family entertainment.

        Not to mention a poem about such family entertainment — Longfellow’s “The Day Is Done.”

    • On June 4, 2009 at 1:41 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

      Annie, more on the Russians, for a moment, their belief, at least, in poetry as serving the community–I’d mention Akhmatova,and how her poems were memorized by prisoners,as essential sustenance…how poetry is/was language of the soul, for many. Memorized by millions. One evidence…

      Anna Akhmatova(translation: Judith Hemschemeyer)

      “Knock With Your Little Fist”

      Knock with your little fist–I will open.
      I always opened the door to you.
      I am beyond the high mountain now,
      Beyond the desert, beyond the wind and the heat,
      But I will never abandon you…
      I didn’t hear your groans,
      You never asked me for bread.
      Bring me a twig from the maple tree
      Or simply a little green grass,
      As you did last spring.
      Bring me in your cupped palms
      Some of our cool, pure Neva water,
      And I will wash the bloody traces
      From your golden hair.

      1942

  • On June 2, 2009 at 1:37 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Nice event, Annie. There may not be any true public larger than those few hundred who remember you and really want to listen. Back to Neruda and Parra for a moment (from the Eileen Myles thread). Accosted for autographs by especially saccharine fans in a restaurant, Pablo sighed mordantly, and unfairly, “just think that this is everything Nicanor Parra is longing for.” Or, as Lew Welch put it: “More people know you than you know. Fame.”

    Every five years for the last quarter century, the class of 1964 at Swarthmore College has put on a poetry reading. Next Saturday, we’ll be Robin Smith Chapman, who won the Cider Press Review prize this year for her book Abundance; Lydia Razran Stone, who translates from Russian into very clever meter and rhyme; Rebecca Parfitt, who doesn’t publish a lot but pays deep attention; Jed Rakoff, who is a federal judge and will plead a doggerel brief for Shylock; and me — I translate from Spanish, teach bilingual middle school kids to translate and write poems, and will blow my own damn horn some other time.

    Reading with our group for the first time this Saturday will be our old professor Daniel Hoffman. Dan was a sweet young guy when we were freshmen; now he’s 86 years old. I’ve come a long way from his poetics and part way back. The point is that none of us gets to be the class poet, which would be all right too. Instead, we get something even rarer: a community of poets which rises out of the earth every so often, like cicadas.

  • On June 2, 2009 at 1:50 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    It’s hard to argue that there is a “general audience” for books at all, given that a recent NEA survey (http://www.nea.gov/research/ReadingonRise.pdf) shows that only 8.3% of Americans read poetry last year—a 16-year low. And that’s “poetry,” not “a book of poems”; it includes everyone from readers who stumbled on a single poem in one of Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” columns to those who read dozens of poetry books. My sad point is that there is not and likely has never been a “general audience” for poetry. Considering that only 54.3% of adult Americans read any book at all, and only about half of those read a “literary” book, it’s hard to argue that literature of any kind has a “general audience.” Historically, Americans in general have never given a damn about poetry and likely never will. We could all spare ourselves a lot of angst by accepting our writing situation instead of grasping at vaporous notions such as a recently developed “physical and social isolation” to explain the silence out there.

  • On June 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    Annie,

    I suspected you might be coming to this conclusion almost from the beginning of this fascinating post: that the real problem of a lack of general readership lies in the lack of communities, and in the basic anonymity of modern life, especially in America. This is something that I notice immediately when I return to the States. Here on the other side of the Atlantic, communities, as you describe them, still exist, especially in southern Europe. I greet my neighbors daily, with handshakes, a couple of kisses (which are more like simply grazing each side of the other’s face), and exchange of words and they call me Senhor Doutor, even though I haven’t worked at the university for nearly a decade. They still see me through my front window sitting at my desk all day, writing and translating. In this kind of environment poetry is much closer to the surface of daily life; it has a less cloistered presence than it does in America. And poets don’t teach “creative writing”. One of my favorite younger Portuguese poets is an anthropology professor at the University. His main area of interest is in the anthropology of biomedicine and biotechnologies. I’m the only poet he actually hangs around with, and the only reason he knows me is because I wrote an article about him for World Literature Today and put it in his mailbox. We mostly talk about politics, history and photography – and sometimes of course about poetry. Another one of my best friends is fanatical about poetry and literature in about three different languages. She’s a professor in the Law Faculty. I know a lot of people like this, from engineers to artists, few of them poets, but all of them readers of poetry. And the press reflects this. Poets are reviewed and they are held in high esteem even by the larger non-intellectual community.

    Martin

  • On June 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Bravo, I really like this:

    “The ‘classical concert’ is barely more than 200 years old; before that, all classical music was ritual or occasional, for church services, funerals, weddings, occasions of state, particular festivals, teaching occasions, or theater productions (often but not always opera). Maybe the concert will fade away, and classical will go back to work in those various milieus, like movie soundtracks, where classical has flourished.

    Does anybody know how old the poetry reading as an institution is? I mean the reading of lyric poems, not narrative — the reading of narrative poems is a few millennia old, at least. My hunch: the reading of a lyric poem might have happened at parties, and never more than a few poems — sort of like Gershwin playing his songs at parties — it would be a highlight of the party, for sure, but he might not play more than 5.

    Here’s my verdict. There is a place for lyric poetry in our general, non-literary culture, but only one poem at a time.”

    John, I think you’ve really put things in perspective; a marvelously refreshing, modest, commonsense, look at the issue. The ‘where is the audience for poetry’ thesis is usually discussed in either hyperbolic cheerleading tones (poetry IS popular!!) or with cyncial, scolding urgency (we must have poetry!) or elitist shrugs (to hell with ‘the people’) but in the details you’ve given here I really think you’ve found the ‘ideal middle ground.’ Congratulations.

    And, Annie, you are speaking along the same lines on the topic, too. Thanks for your post!

    Thomas

  • On June 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm Miriam Levine wrote:

    Thoughts about “audience”:

    The little change purse I found on the street contained only air. I brought it home, intending to use it, but it lay on my desk for weeks, until this morning, when I decided to give it away. I had been re-reading a poem of Garcia Lorca’s, “La Luna Asoma,” and remembered the last stanza:

    Cuando sale la luna
    de cien rostros iguales,
    las moneda de plata
    solloza en el bolsillo.

    When the moon rises
    with a hundred identical faces,
    the silver coins
    sob in your pocket.

    I copied the stanza and the translation onto an index card in purple ink, folded it twice, and put it and some quarters into the purse. When I went out for my walk–in my Spanish-speaking neighborhood–I left it for someone to find.

    It may have been childish, but I liked doing it. Someone once told me that in order to lure their students, Hebrew teachers smeared honey on the pages of ancient texts. I doubt it. Honey would have ruined the pages, but there is something to be said for luring readers.

    I’ve heard poets complain about the lack of an audience for poetry. What would happen if they left a poem and some silver money in a little change purse for someone to find? Someone might love the poem and be glad of the money. Maybe the person who finds my little change purse will love the idea of silver money sobbing in a pocket. Those lines–la moneda de plata/ solloza en el bolsillo–never seem sad to me. The moon and all it represents is so powerful it can make money sob. If the finders do not respond to the poems, they will still have a few coins to spend. At the very least they will wonder.

    • On June 2, 2009 at 4:42 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

      Miriam, I do the same thing all the time. I like to leave various and sundry poems here and there to be found accidentally.

      I just use the internet instead of a change purse. :-)

    • On June 2, 2009 at 5:13 pm thomas brady wrote:

      Miriam,

      I would be so delighted to find that purse!

      Of course, 9999 out of 1,000 people would probably have no idea what that stanza means. I thought I knew about 45 minutes ago, but now I must admit I have no idea…another reason why poetry today has no public audience. I realize Lorca is an icon one doesn’t dare question…

      Thomas

      • On June 2, 2009 at 6:45 pm Miriam Levine wrote:

        Thanks, Tom:

        You may yet find such a change purse.

        Miriam

  • On June 2, 2009 at 4:07 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I will add that I don’t think the crisis in poetry is a social engineering issue.

    It’s not a question of ‘how can we bring poetry to the people?’

    Or, if this is the question, the answer is not a large, complex one, but only a matter of refinement.

    Despite the efforts of ground-breaking poet-academics like John Crowe Ransom (whose ashes are scattered on the Kenyon campus), there is no expertise anywhere that can decide how or what kind of poetry should be delivered up to ‘the people.’ I think we need to cure ourselves of this notion right away. Poetry is not for experts. Poetry is how the people short circuit the experts. Science demands a certain amount of expertise; poetry is the joy of science sans expertise.

    The people get all the poetry they need from old poetry, or pop songs, or prose, or opera, or comedy, and these avenues will never be supplemented by contemporary poetry of the difficult variety to any significant degree.

    Contemporary poetry is mostly lyric poetry and this is in keeping with our ‘short attention span’ age–which began with the rise of the penny presses 200 years ago and coincided with Poe’s famous words “A long poem does not exist.” How could it? No recordings of Poe reading exist, but we do have Edna Millay and Dylan Thomas: listen to them reading their brief poems—how could one take that intensity for long?

    John asked about the first ‘lyric poetry reading.’ Poe in the 1840s was asked all the time at salons in NYC to read his ‘Raven.’ John is absolutely right; not only does a long poem not exist, but short poems should not be read for long; they should never be a big imposition.

    Perhaps we need to stop apologizing for the ‘short attention span.’ What if it’s not a flaw at all, but simply a feature of our advanced, busy, speedy-communications age?

    Instead of slamming that square peg into the round hole, why don’t we accept that ‘short attention spans’ are part of who we are now; simply a reflection of how we are adapting to our times, and if poetry is not popular, it’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.

  • On June 2, 2009 at 5:10 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    “[I]t’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”

    ——I agree totally with Brady’s point there.

    But WHY do (we) poets do this? doesn’t the answer lie in the realm of the psychoanalytic…

    almost all writers begin in adolescence by writing poetry——what differentiates those who continue in this futile practice while others (call them adults) go on to write prose . . .

    given that poetry is the least rewarded / the least funded of all the writing genres, and indeed of all the arts,

    —knowing that, why would anyone willingly opt to pursue this abject vocation . . .

    why would anyone seek such inferior status; why would anyone in their right mind join this subgroup, this slaveclass—

    masochists, manic depressives, suicides, all poets are neurotics of the death instinct, losers and failures who embrace the misery of their wretched trade, who wallow in its servile aura of diminishment and squalor—

    its paltry practice.

    But among the poets, those dismal defeated schlemiels and corner-biting cowards lured by vile Virgils into the abyss of verse, a fortunate few manage to inhabit the upper circles, its higher hellblocks——

    even among the damned there are divisions . . . there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed! who want their poetry to be read! who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—

    what traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)—

    no wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver . . .

    • On June 2, 2009 at 6:23 pm Martin Earl wrote:

      One poet’s difficulty, Herr Knott, is another reader’s walk in the park. This kind of reductive and dismal report on prerequisite failure belies your own early work. You should know better. As a poet, one, generally, and first of all, wants to succeed with oneself. (WBY…win the argument). This comment, Eileen’s recent post, Thomas’s harping on Poe and Millay (all of them glistening with a lust for failure) read more like wincing confessions than intelligible commentary. You have no idea how much you sound like Vincent Price on a bad day. My advice, go back and read one of the great books to be published in 1968, The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, by Saint Geraud.

      Here’s a sample. I’m sure it will ring a bell.

      Poem to Poetry

      Poetry
      you are an electric,
      a magic, field – like the space
      between a sleepwalkers’s outheld arms…

      Martin

  • On June 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    Brady says that poets opt for obscurity because they’re “stupid”——

    i say it’s because they’re (we’re) nutcases . . .

    define ‘poet’: stupid and/or crazy.

    whatever the cause, the result’s the same:

    the loss of audience.

  • On June 3, 2009 at 3:14 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    anyway, maybe the “general audience” of readers no longer have to passively accept whatever publishers shove onto their plate—maybe they can create their own selections of verse—

    as I posted on my prose blog today:

    *
    Going through the 18 versions of Rilke in Randall Jarrell’s Collected this morning,

    I thought of how convenient reading these 18 would be, if they were together in a small volume,

    and I remembered seeing oh decades ago a squib about how some press was planning to publish Lowell’s and Snodgrass’s versions from Rilke in a single volume with illustrations by Klee—

    a book which to my regret never appeared.

    But why was it never published?

    And why for example has their publisher Farrar Straus and Giroux

    never put out a Rilke selection with all the Lowell and Jarrell versions in it?

    And then I thought: well, what’s stopping me from publishing that book?

    What’s stopping me from scanning all the Rilkes from the Lowell and Jarrell Collecteds into a print file,

    and then privately printing (via Lulu.com) copies of it

    for myself and my friends?

    The print quality of books produced by Lulu.com equals or betters that of most publishers—

    ( the Farrar Straus Giroux printjob of Lowell’s Imitations for example is blurred and muddy in every edition of it I’ve ever owned!)—

    Yes, what’s stopping me from creating and printing out for myself a book I want to read,

    a book which should exist—

    I can’t be the only one who has realized that with the new availability of private “print on demand” venues,

    anybody anywhere can create

    their own personal edition of any author they want to—

    Via the private p-o-d process, I can publish and have my own copy of Philip Larkin’s Complete Sonnets

    (at a cost of around five bucks)

    and to hell with the executors/publishers who “own” the copyright!

    As I say, I can’t be the only one who’s come to this realization:

    there must be many readers out there who have collated edited and privately p-o-d’d

    such books for their own pleasure and purpose . . .

    I wonder how many “books” of this sort already exist!

    An underground movement of such readers must exist out there already—

    I can’t be the only one.

    **

    • On June 3, 2009 at 9:20 pm Don Share wrote:

      Bill’s “my Rilke” and “Transversions” are, indeed, available from Lulu.com – as are many other wonderful books of his poems, including “Homages,” which also includes some transversions.

    • On June 4, 2009 at 1:50 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

      “Samizdat.”
      “Vladimir Bukovsky defined it as follows: “I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and [may] get imprisoned for it.”

  • On June 3, 2009 at 5:32 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “why would anyone seek such inferior status; why would anyone in their right mind join this subgroup, this slaveclass—”

    “masochists, manic depressives, suicides, all poets are neurotics of the death instinct, losers and failures who embrace the misery of their wretched trade…”

    Bill,

    If I can just put a little perspective on what sounds to me like self-pity:

    As a young man, Robert Lowell, nicknamed Caligula, or Cal, was given a choice.

    Cal’s wealthy parents would either put him in the nuthouse OR send him down to Tennessee where he would study with Alan Tate, Ford Madox Ford (yea, that Ford Madox Ford) and John Crowe Ransom.

    If you are Robert Lowell, which do you choose?

    1. Mental Institution

    2. Immortal Glory & Fame

    Secondly, writing poetry is a pretty easy job.

    Thirdly, if there’s nothing special about you, but you can tell yourself (and others) that you are A POET, why WOULDN’T you want to do this?

    There seems to be a gross misunderstanding going on here.

    Poetry doesn’t MAKE anyone poor, or mad, or depressed.

    Poetry, in varying degrees, keeps madness and depression AT BAY.

    If poetry-writing doesn’t make one happy, then one shouldn’t complain about how hard it is to be a poet. (And one is probably not a very good poet, if poetry-writing doesn’t make one happy.)

    John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Robert Lowell were not cra-ZEE because of poetry: this is nothing but a common poet’s p.r. stunt; these guys were bonkers for various reasons, but not from poetry.

    I just re-read ‘Poets in Their Youth’ by Eileen Simpson and when I read about Delmore Schwartz bitching and moaning because he hated teaching at Harvard, or John Berryman bitching and moaning because he just didn’t have enough time to finish his Rockefeller Grant study, I just rolled my eyes…

    Thomas

    • On June 3, 2009 at 5:39 pm Don Share wrote:

      Doesn’t Simpson also basically make the point, though, that what was remarkable about those guys was that they were able to write in spite of their having so many problems with depression and addiction? Anyway, you’re right to say that they were crazy, but not from poetry…. and yet… Delmore famously (i.e., as immortalized in a Lowell poem) ruefully rewrote Wordsworth’s lines thusly:

      We poets in our youth begin in sadness;
      thereof in the end come despondency and madness…

      - hence Simpson’s title.

  • On June 3, 2009 at 10:05 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Don,

    Schwartz’s re-write of Wordsworth’s lines strikes me a jejune.

    I don’t even have to point out that sadness is different from depression; sadness even implies a sort of melancholy wisdom, which would be a good thing for a poet, and even for a youth.

    But Schwartz’s meaning is nothing but self-pity: ‘Actually, things sucked from the start.’ It’s only a watering down of the Wordsworthian poignancy.

    Unfortunately Schwartz’s generation pretty much bought all the odd prejudices by the Modernists against the Romantics, etc. The whole lot of Lowell’s generation is overrated. I don’t shed a tear for any of those tragic maturations. You shall know them by their fruits.

    Thomas

    • On June 3, 2009 at 10:47 pm Don Share wrote:

      I can’t agree with such a blanket dismissal, an odd prejudice itself, but won’t try to argue you out of it.

      However, no tears are called for, and I don’t know of anyone who reads these poets to shed them.

      Schwartz was trying, in any case, to be funny in what L. reports. Remarks aren’t literature, of course; but the words were turned into verse by Lowell, not by Delmore, in this particular case.

  • On June 3, 2009 at 10:46 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .
    By Golly, Bill Knott, you’re a genius! You have inspired me. Your little tirade about POD publishing got me thinking and I had an idea.

    First, let me say that I am a dedicated POD poet. I have proudly (and loudly) and intentionally self-published all six of my books. I have never submitted to any contests, magazines or book publishers. So, I thought, Bill’s right. We should take this POD thing to the next level. Then I got my idea!

    If I got a letter tomorrow from William Logan, Joan Houlihan or Helen Vendler or, Jeez, for that matter, anybody, asking me to send them my books for review, what would I say? I’d say: ”I am replying to your e-mail on my laptop while driving to the Post Office at 85MPH. Please pardon my typos as there are vehicles on every side honking at me and people gesturing with their fingers that my poetry is number one. Oh…wait….!

    You bet your bouncing, flabby bippy I would. So would you!

    I recently had an interesting experience. I participated in a three-way book exchange with Brian Salchert and William Michaelian. William observed that maybe we could start a trend…poets sending each other their books for free, a network of poets sharing their work. What a brilliant idea. Po-biz, shmo-biz!

    So, here’s the deal. Any person who purchases one of my books and honestly and fairly reviews it, pro or con, in a public medium, print or electronic, professional entity or personal blog, will be 100% reimbursed by me for the cost of the book. I will provide my mailing address so you can send me the receipt. I will then send you a personal check (or stamps or cash, whatever) and you can keep, burn or give away the book.

    I will read the review and laugh or cry. But it must not be disingenuous.

    No: “Read it. Not too bad.”.

    No: “I bought this book. It, like, really sucks, dude.”.

    Get it? Amateur or professional, ya gotta know your poetry.

    There is a movement, a revolution, occurring on the internet today. It’s taking poetry back to its roots, its original, popular community roots. Back to us.

    Why not take back criticism, too?

    GBF

    • On June 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

      Well, I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but I am proud to announce that I sold over 5000 books this week!

  • On June 4, 2009 at 6:05 am Janet Harrington wrote:

    Annie Finch,
    Thank you for your fine article. I was pleased to see your mention of The Continuum Concept (Jean Liedloff), a gem of a book that transformed (well maybe not “transformed” — more like “justified”) my instincts about child-rearing thirty years ago.
    Would it be possible to provide a link to your reunion poem? I would love to read the “poem on the back of the program” that meant so much to your class.
    Jennie Harrington

  • On June 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    Dear Jennie et al,
    many thanks to all who have asked to see the reunion poem. I’m hoping to publish it in a journal (reinforcing the point that poems that appeal to general audiences don’t necessarily sacrifice literary quality); once that happens, I’ll be glad to share it more freely and will make a point to post the information on this thread.
    cheers,
    Annie

  • On June 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    “Historically, Americans in general have never given a damn about poetry and likely never will.” I think Rubin’s book, which Don mentions, disproves this statement. Longfellow, for one, was really a star in the days before television.

    Miriam, I would have loved to find the purse too. But in your case I think the coins were not sobbing but laughing…

    John Oliver, how lovely to know that your class is reading together and especially with the dear Daniel Hoffman. At our reunion I’m pretty sure that the “class poet” designation arose because they heard me read a specific poem I had written just for them and for the occasion–and just one poem, as John wisely points out (I did give a longer reading earlier in the day to a smaller group, largely writers –a more typical audience for a reading. It didn’t feel at all like a square peg in a round hole; it felt completely natural on both sides. I think in this case, it wasn’t true that “The people get all the poetry they need from old poetry, or pop songs, or prose, or opera, or comedy”–they seemed to need a poem written just for them.

    As Martin, and Margo, point out, people in other cultures, whether Portuguese, Russian, or many other places I’ve been & heard of– seem to have a more organic and more empowered connection with poetry than we do in the U.S.., just as they do with each other and with other aspects of life, for example food and music and dance….

  • On June 4, 2009 at 1:31 pm Don Share wrote:

    Tangential, but…

    — All this sitting about in cafés to calm down
    Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature!
    The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.

    I have lived it, and I know too much.
    My café nerves are breaking me
    With black, exhausting information.

    from Rosemary Tonks, “The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas”

  • On June 4, 2009 at 6:25 pm Robin Kemp wrote:

    Poets who only read to other poets are isolating themselves.

  • On June 5, 2009 at 6:47 pm Iris Dunkle wrote:

    Love this post Annie, thanks for bringing this important topic up.

    I offer to add Amy Lowell to the list of the true political progressives you mention.

  • On June 11, 2009 at 9:19 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Just kidding. Jeez, you can’t even give this crap away.

    :-)

  • On June 16, 2009 at 4:34 pm William Michaelian wrote:

    Gary, I was delighted the other day to read that you had sold 5,000 books. To me, that sounded like a reasonable number. And now this. Well, maybe it’s too complicated — checks, payments, receipts — it sounds like a bookkeeping nightmare. But the book exchange idea could be expanded to include reviews or even brief honest assessments — anything that would indicate a given work has been read with an open mind. Granted, it could turn into an expensive habit, but being exposed to different kinds of writing is always worthwhile.

  • On June 16, 2009 at 4:48 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    That was the theory, William, but no offers to review at all. I guess for now I’ll just stick to ‘random acts of poetry’ and keep making books for everyone’s great-great-grandkids. :-)

  • On June 17, 2009 at 8:49 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    I understand that to the uninitiated my comment above might sound a little egotistical, but those here who know me realize that, as usual, I’m just kidding around. I am a man who finds humor in most things…especially myself. Ain’t life a kick?

    If you want sadness and sorrow and desperation, fear and depression and death, then just read my poetry! :-)

  • On June 17, 2009 at 9:25 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Internet = wasted time.

    Posting on the internet is like pissing in the sea.

    .
    Wasted time
    is undefined
    for time is time to each,
    and spending time
    creating rhyme
    is time wasted some would teach.
    To others waste
    is in the chase
    for riches and success,
    but short is life, and soon to end,
    and the value of the time we spend
    is anybody’s guess.

    .
    Copyright 2005 – Evolving- Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  • On June 17, 2009 at 9:47 pm William Michaelian wrote:

    Hmm. That explains the rising sea level. Apparently I was initiated and didn’t know it.

  • On June 17, 2009 at 11:13 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    “Posting on the internet is like pissing in the sea.”

    Let me see if I can work that out. So you are suggesting that posting a poem on the internet is like pissing in the sea. O.K. So the sea is very large and the piss of a poem, any poem, even Paradise Lost, is very small by comparison.

    So why bother to unzip at all, Gary? I mean, why do it?

  • On June 19, 2009 at 10:09 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Because I love poetry, Christopher…and the sea…and the pee.

  • On June 19, 2009 at 10:17 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    The poem of yours I liked best was the very early one of the man standing by the sea in his overcoat–or looking at the sea, or charming it or cursing it, I don’t remember. I changed one line to make him pee in it instead. Do you remember?

    I think that made the poem, and I’m very glad you’ve finally come around to agree with me about peeing in the sea.

  • On June 19, 2009 at 11:07 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .
    It was this one, Christopher:

    .
    Michael

    .
    Michael quit his job today and gave up all he had
    or ever hoped to have while here on Earth,
    and now lives like some contemporary Sinbad,
    making up for years he’s wasted since his birth.
    He explains that he forsakes the Nobel prize
    and will only read his poems to the sea.
    If he has neither fame or fortune when he dies,
    no regrets. Says he’s contented just to be.

    And when I asked him why he chose to live like this,
    needing neither recognition or respect;
    what exactly is the nature of this bliss
    that so defies the rules of intellect?
    He answered: “Laugh to living, sing to hearing us.
    Life is too important to be serious.”
    And I laughed out loud at the rest of us.

    .
    Copyright 2005 – Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

    (written 1974 – age 22)

  • On June 20, 2009 at 11:37 am William Michaelian wrote:

    Gary, that’s a very nice poem.

    Meanwhile, it just occurred to me: P.O.D. could also stand for the new “Pee on Demand” technology.

    Okay, so it wasn’t funny….

  • On June 20, 2009 at 9:07 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Funny, William…as always.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 by Annie Finch.