Discussion Guide

Is This Thing On?

The April issue investigates poetry's audience.

Each reviewer in Poetry’s April 2011 issue questions how, and if, poems can serve as public works. David Orr writes:

All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience. But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity.

Beyond that public lies another, he adds—presumably a more, well, public one: “the one that buys novels by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen.” And beyond that one, another, far bigger: “the public that we usually think of as ‘The Public’—the ocean of humanity that votes in elections, watches the Super Bowl, and generally makes America what it is, for better and worse. Poetry has famously little contact with this last and largest public.”

Does Orr’s triple-tiered notion of the public resonate with you? Might there be some overlap between readers of Franzen and devotés of Forché? And fans of football, for that matter? Or are these overlaps too tiny to matter? If you accept Orr’s scheme, where do you imagine yourself within it?

Each of the poets whom Orr reviews writes about public affairs. The work of Thomas Sayers Ellis, for instance, “is conspicuously public in the largest sense, which is to say that Ellis talks about issues of obvious societal concern in a manner that smart general readers might follow, and possibly even admire or criticize.” But Eleanor Wilner, he writes, produces “run-of-the-mill contemporary public poetry—which is to say, [her poems are] intended to speak on a subject of great public importance to an audience composed almost entirely of poets. There’s much bearing witness without much worrying over who the witness gets borne to.”

Should poets worry? Is a bigger audience a better audience? Or might it be ideal to have some poets writing for a smaller public, and others for a larger one? Different notions of audience might, after all, yield different kinds of poetry.

Orr lauds Ellis for writing with a “smart general reader” in mind. But if the poetry world is as cloistered as Orr believes, will smart general readers even know to look for Ellis’s work? Perhaps it’s telling that Jason Guriel, in his review of Dorothy Parker, describes this same class, “smart general readers”—people “who don’t read a lot of poetry” but would pick up a volume of Parker anyway—as “mythic figures.” Are they mythic, or are they merely few? Would you count yourself among them, and if so, do you respond more strongly to Parker and Ellis, as the reviewers suggest you might, than to Donnelly and his ilk?

In her review, Abigail Deutsch notes a preponderance of casual greetings in the work of Matthew Zapruder (who offers: “Hello everyone”) and Dorothea Lasky (who chirps: “Hi everybody”), and focuses on the irony of these salutations:

Zapruder and Lasky aren’t actually addressing you: they don’t know you. Nor are they addressing an “everyone” or an “everybody,” because you, the reader, are likely sitting alone with their books, declaiming their words to your tabby cat. No matter how energetic their rhetorical waves, these poets are merely acknowledging their isolation—and yours—in a single swoop.

Does this irony strike you as strongly as it does Deutsch? Are you in the habit of declaiming poems to your tabby cat, or do you discuss them with friends, attend readings, take classes, or perform in other shared activities that testify to a more robust community than Deutsch acknowledges?

Which public, or publics, do the poems in this issue seem to aim for? In answering that question, what rubric should we use? If we apply Orr’s categories, we might point to C.K. Williams’s “Butchers” and Dave Smith’s “Drycleaners” as among the more “public” of the magazine’s poems. Easily accessible and socially oriented, “Butchers,” like many of Williams’s efforts, describes long-ago wrongdoing in lengthy lines: “vanished those species—begone!—those tribes, those peoples, those nations / Myrmidon, Ottoman, Olmec, Huron and Kush: gone, gone and goodbye.”

The Smith poem, which hints at racial dynamics in Baltimore, adapts a storylike strategy—one familiar, no doubt, to the readers of Smith and Franzen who comprise Orr’s general literary public—that describes an orderly unfolding of events, fully grounded in reality. It’s not impossible to imagine even a participant in a Super Bowl party starting an anecdote the same way Smith begins his poem: “At the drycleaners I stand in line, my feet / shuffling weight from side to side.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we might locate poems like Roddy Lumsden’s “Yeast,” which bubbles with sonic rather than narrative energy, and eschews the grand social dynamics that interest Williams, Wright, and others. Physically small, the sonnet describes the adventures of a miniscule fungus, which “squirms,” “gurns,” and is “born again.” The word “yeast” itself recurs in various iterations, appearing in a scramble of letters at the end of each line: “yes at,” “as yet,” “not easy.” In subject and style, this poem might seem to cater to a specifically poetry-reading audience: it neither concerns itself with “public” events nor hews to conventions recognizable from fiction.

Where would you place the rest of the poems in this issue? Does the notion of a small public trouble you, or do you feel, to quote W.S. Di Piero’s poem in this issue, that sometimes, “not being heard”—or being heard by just a few—“is the whole point of it”?

Originally Published: April 1st, 2011
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In