Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Double

by Kay Ryan
If I were only one person I could answer the question of how I perceive the audience for poetry in a single way. But I am two people, so I must answer in two ways—first, as the godlike writer of poems, serenely independent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and, second, as her cousin.

1

So to begin, let us draw close to the empyrean springs and ask the poet, even now dipping her alabaster hand into the poetical waters, how she feels about audience:

"Do you think, as you write, about who will read your poems and how they will like them? Be honest."

No, I do not. My attention is entirely taken up by the voice in my head—a perfect tyrant, utterly without charity. And a pig for pleasure, I might add. Ordinary conditions do not obtain. Take the condition of time, for example. While I'm trying to satisfy this inside voice, time takes on that bulgy condition it has during the most critical stage of a skid, where astonishing maneuvers become possible simply because they must (or you'll crash). It is extremely occupying. When I was younger I noticed that I sweated terribly when I was writing just as though it were very hard physical labor. I liked that evidence that I was grappling with something at least as difficult as uprooting an oak.

"You actually mean to say that you have no concern at all for any sort of reader?"

No, I cannot say that. There is a stain in the ichor—a sense of being watched and judged, and a desire for approval. When I am writing, I feel that I have insinuated myself at the long, long desk of the gods of literature—more like a trestle table, actually—so long that the gods (who are also eating, disputing, and whatnot as well as writing) fade away in the distance according to the laws of Renaissance perspective. I am at the table of the gods and I want them to like me. There I've said it. I want the great masters to enjoy what I write. The noble dead are my readers, and if what I write might jostle them a little, if there were a tiny bit of scooting and shifting along the benches, this would be my thrill. And I would add that the noble dead cannot be pleased with imitations of themselves; they are already quite full of themselves.

2

On the other hand, the lofty condition enjoyed by the poet takes up only perhaps two hours, or 1/84, of a week. A good week. I must spend 83/84 of the week as my cousin.

This cousin has a higher and, I'm sorry to say, a lower nature. Her higher nature sees itself as the steward of the poet's work and responsible for helping that work secure a place in the world. This means that she must take an active, practical interest in living readers, not just by tidying poems themselves so that they're fit to be seen, but also by moving the poet's mover along the squares of the Poetry board the best she can. In this spirit, she seeks good journals for the poems and good presses for the books, accepts reading dates and agrees to interviews, so that the poet might gain name recognition, by means of which the poet's poems might reach an audience and rise or fall fairly, based upon their merit instead of simply resting upon the bottom because nobody ever saw them.

On the other hand, the cousin's lower nature simply enjoys la gloire, which comes by way of the audience. This spotlight hog trades eagerly upon the poems (which she didn't write and only partially understands), larding readings (the bigger the better) with comic remarks and avoiding the poems that aren't snappy. She needs to know the audience is out there, and the quickest way to feel it is through their laughter. Her only ambition is to hold the audience. I often see her as a betrayer of the poet, but she isn't. Secretly they are best friends.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

COMMENTS (1)

On April 22, 2009 at 3:10pm melissa wrote:
this poem is amazinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn i love it deeply.

it made me cry
:(

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 Kay  Ryan

Biography

Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Ryan's tightly compressed, rhythmically dense poetry is often compared to that of Emily . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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