Friday, October 30, 2009

They're just not that into us


Complaints that poetry has lost the ordinary reader stick in my craw. No question, our market share is at an all-time low (an historical situation James Wood recently blamed on “the big fat greedy monster of the novel, which sucks all the vital nutrition away for itself.”) And no doubt, more can be done to persuade intellectually curious folks to take an interest. But the news that poetry’s “diminished stature,” to borrow Dana Gioia’s term, betrays some crackup in poetry itself is now so overpromoted as to become viciously self-harming. It’s all well and good to be upset with our x@#$% condition, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense to do what a lot of us are unable to stop doing: blaming the poets.

Everything would be different if our stuff wasn’t so difficult, or obscure, or highbrow, or introverted, or solipsistic, or autobiographical, or experimental, or academic, or postmodern. Some of these charges may be justified, but as far as the public is concerned, we’re wasting our breath. There is no once-popular style and subject that, if brought back, will stop poetry’s sliding poll numbers. There is no traditional link between poetry and the public that, if repaired, will turn things around. That’s because reestablishing the public’s trust in poetry would be like reestablishing the public’s trust in Latin. Is it crazy to believe that Latin—once the lingua franca of government, church and cultural circles—has a chance in the age of English? Of course it is. Most people would be gobsmacked to learn the language is spoken at all. Similarly, I’d bet many general readers have absolutely no idea that 1) poetry-writing still goes on, 2) since the turn of the 20th century, the public has been tangled up in a lover’s spat with the art form, playing the long-suffering Judy to the poet’s self-absorbed Punch; and 3) after a series of good-faith attempts at reconciliation, Modernism was the last straw: cold-shouldered, readers moved on for good.

This is the perfect example of a story that’s kidding itself. The high-stakes drama is all in our heads, though you can see why such a delusion—with poets cringing guiltily—would take hold. As long as we’re responsible for our predicament, we’re in control of our destiny. But solving one’s escalating irrelevancy is hard enough without being reminded of all the more interesting things winning the reader’s attention: “roses and locomotives (not to mention acrobats Spring electricity Coney Island the 4th of July the eyes of mice and Niagara Falls).” So said e.e. cummings in 1917...

If grownups don’t read poetry, it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. How often do we need to get Bartlebyed before we finally admit to ourselves that those Clancy-thumbing dentists and Grisham-toting lawyers aren’t confused or afraid of commitment? They’re just not that into us.

-- Carmine Starnino, from an essay forthcoming in Poetry

64 comments:

Jordan said...

> There is no

What?

Tennyson? *Browning*? ***Masefield***??? *****Scott*****????? *******Burns*******???????

Common denominator: the poems are *entertainment* first.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Starnino's commentary is cute but useless, though the subtext—the notion that poets, in desiring a wider audience, are persisting desperately in a shallow and therefore doomed relationship—is telling. It's natural in such circumstances, I suppose, to succumb to brooding withdrawal—into Theory, into "language," into one or another gang (read "school"), into "uncreative writing," into the self-esteem building fairy tales the avant-garde tells itself (in which it always the Hero), etc. But we can't keep reducing our scope without finally reducing the viability of the art itself. We can blame it all on those "Clancy-thumbing dentists" we keep hooking up with, but for cryin' out loud at some point poets have to—don't they?—look in the mirror and ask what exactly they bring to the cultural table.

Andrew Shields said...

Or we have to admit, as Brian Phillips was almost willing to do in his essay on taste in Poetry in 2007, that we are a subculture, something along the lines of ham radio, but with perhaps a bit more historical prestige. (Indeed, our historical prestige is surely a major part of the problem.)

Henry Gould said...

I think it's those eyes of mice that have really done in poetry for good. Wah-wah.

Ms Baroque said...

Andrew, c'mon, I think we bring more to the table than ham radio does. I really do. But it may also be true that the historical prestige thing scares some people off.

I do think the big mistake we make now is in this idea we have that you should somehow expect to make a living writing the stuff - Thomas Wyatt et al didn't put that load of expectation on it.

Andrew Shields said...

For whom do we bring more to the table, Ms. B.? Not for the people who scorn poetry as much as they scorn ham radio.

J.H. Stotts said...

Isn't the problem that poets themselves are morethanordinary readers?
I'm scared that someday I won't be able to tell the difference between a good poem and a backalley bulletin board, the way most poetry editors can't tell the difference.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Andrew, isn't it so that (for example) Carol Ann Duffy seems to be offering something that other poets aren't? Not that popularity and quality are necessarily related, though in Duffy's case they are. And I think it's fair to say that she spends a good deal of energy shaping poems that can appeal to a broader audience (not, needless to say, anyone who "scorns poetry"—that would be an exercise in futility). I'm not saying that all poets should keep the audience so firmly in mind, but I am saying they shouldn't whine when the private rituals they perform don't win them a trophy on "Dancing with the Stars."

Don Share said...

I can tell the difference, you must believe me.

Andrew Shields said...

Okay, I'll stop playing my ham-radio card now. :-)

Joseph, the issue for me is precisely "what do you offer?"

One thing that consistently puzzles me is this: Why do so many people who voraciously read quality fiction (even short stories) have such an allergic reaction to anything called poetry? The reaction is so strong that they will even avoid anything called a "verse novel" (thus missing out on some great novels). Those are the people that I feel are missing something when they "scorn poetry."

Kent Johnson said...

What a terrific analogy! I'd never thought of that one myself.

Ham radio!

Michael Robbins said...

Let us please tear our hair out & gnash our teeth about why no one reads poetry. Again. Let us blame

a) the "avant-garde"
b) the bovine public
c) Modernism
d) technology
e) all of the above

What I don't understand (I keep saying this, but no one ever answers me) is why anyone who loves poetry should care whether it is a popular & widely enjoyed art form.

Don Share said...

That's pretty much Starnino's point.

Don Share said...

P.S. You'll be able to read the whole essay in the January '10 Poetry.

Andrew Shields said...

Michael, I've seen C. Dale Young make the same point: why worry about the people who don't read poetry? He prefers poetry to be a small world.

Lemon Hound said...

People build whole careers making this point.

That's the point of the point.

Don Share said...

That's because nobody ever really gets the point.

Lemon Hound said...

I think it becomes the point. Which is in a way, a cycling away from the very point it seems to me one is trying to get at.

But perhaps I am simply in need of sugar. Another point.

Kent Johnson said...

>What I don't understand (I keep saying this, but no one ever answers me) is why anyone who loves poetry should care whether it is a popular & widely enjoyed art form.

Well, in some places it IS. And here, back a hundred years, or so, it used to be, too.

So why it's not now seems like a reasonable question. Not that anyone should tear her or his or other people's hair out over it, but difference is interesting...

Don Share said...

I'm not sure I agree, LH: some points really do need to be made repeatedly. That's in fact how justice has to work, not even the poetic kind.

Lemon Hound said...

There are ways of saying this. Many ways of illustrating it. One of which is adopting the voice of poetry's defender.

That is another matter entirely it seems to me, speaking for poetry.

Joseph Hutchison said...

I agree with you, Andrew, about intelligent readers missing something when they "scorn poetry." It begs the question, though, regarding the reason for their scorn. Are they missing something or is poetry missing something? I'm loath to argue that poetry itself is the problem (too sweeping), but I do wonder if the stance many poets take isn't alienating. The stance I mean is epitomized by Starnino's stereotype of "Clancy-thumbing dentists" and "Grisham-toting lawyers." There is plenty of scorn on both sides, it seems to me.

Andrew Shields said...

Joseph, he's surely wrong to be worrying about readers of Grisham and Clancy. The people poets ought to be able to reach are the readers of Franzen, Lethem, Morrison, and the like. Or rather, folks who like reading such fiction are missing something when they don't read poems! (I don't think the problem is the poets, and I don't think the problem is those people. To be honest, I don't know what the problem is. It is simply a mystery to me.)

Michael Robbins said...

I'll allow that Grisham & Clancy are hacks, but how about Michael Connelly or Lee Child? And anyway, what's wrong with toting Grisham or thumbing Clancy? Seems to me Starnino's point isn't just to say "who cares," but to say "We're better than those morons, who needs them." Which is definitely not my point.

Michael Robbins said...

Also, Cummings never lowercased his own name.

Don Share said...

Aw, that's copyediting, not an argument.

Don Share said...

I'm with Kent on this one (see above); don't know why his comment didn't show up till just now.

Michael Robbins said...

I assumed we were talking about the U.S. The question why poetry isn't popular here isn't interesting, because everyone always proffers the same answers, & I have yet to be persuaded by any of them (see multiple choice question above). By far the stupidest is the idea that the avant-garde is responsible, as if a) there were an avant-garde to speak of or b) anyone looking into poetry would be able to locate any of it.

Lemon Hound said...

To be devilish I'll suggest that part of what isn't interesting about poetry is just these conversations...the increasingly self-involved language and investigation of why it isn't loved...has that perspective ever wooed anyone or anything?

Michael Robbins said...

I stand with the Hound.

Don Share said...

Me, too!

Jordan said...

On the contrary, I think it's healthy to check in now and again to find out what non-combatants think of poetry, and as invidious as comparison may be, I also think it's worth considering from time to time what other arts offer that poetry does not.

As a daily preoccupation, though, I think I'd prefer to worry about whether I'm saying something surprising, memorable and true. With any luck those worries will help preserve me from epithets like "Clancy-thumbing" and cliches like "stick in my craw" and "bone to pick," let alone ill-conceived, poorly-supported arguments.

Don Share said...

Yes, but...

Surely there's a place for polemic & jeremiads? It's healthy to check in with the combatants, too, isn't it?

Jordan said...

> isn't it?

It's work, is what it is, and not a kind much recommended by the people I apprenticed under. But oh I had to be different.

As one combatant to another, I'd like to add a multiple choice to Michael's list that I would hope he'd take more seriously than the others -- f) a superior attitude.

Kent Johnson said...

>As a daily preoccupation, though, I think I'd prefer to worry about whether I'm saying something surprising, memorable and true.

Not to be invidious, but "surprising, memorable and true" to whom? To the non-combatants, or to the guerrillas in the cell?

Lemon Hound said...

Jordan,
I don't think you're saying on the contrary though... yes, we must "find out what non-combatants think of poetry, and as invidious as comparison may be, I also think it's worth considering from time to time what other arts offer that poetry does not..." that is regular engagement in and outside of poetry, contextual, poetical, theoretical and otherwise...

Not arguing from a static, defensible position...before I get to the end of this poetry will have changed, and oops, there it goes again...

Bobby said...

What I don't understand (I keep saying this, but no one ever answers me) is why anyone who loves poetry should care whether it is a popular & widely enjoyed art form.

Two reasons. One is the Goldman Sachs argument: an art with more rewards (fame, money) will attract better talent, who will in turn produce better poetry. The second is related but not identical: as poetry becomes more popular & widely enjoyed, there are more opportunities for poets to get paid (& thus have time) for being poets.

That said, I agree that it's useless to get worked up about poetry's invisibility to the population of general readers. I'm convinced that the neglect of poetry is its own punishment, and I'm with LH and MR and DS that self-involved arguments and garment-rending laments are the worst way to woo people to the art.

Far more worrying to me is the prospect of poetry disappearing from the rubric of the culture industry. I couldn't care less that no poet today could find his way to the cover of Time à la Lowell; but I think it's troubling that places like the New Yorker and the daily Times have decided that poetry reviews aren't worth their column-inches. Even the latest issue of Bookforum has not a single poetry review, though I've been told that's an anomaly.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Funny you should mention Time Magazine, Bobby. Here's a link — http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1056260,00.html — to a 2005 Time article on 7 poets, including Don Revell and Jorie Graham. None of the 7 were on the cover, but....

That noted, I wonder if it's a good idea to pay poets for what they do. Commodification doesn't seem to be good for any product if quality is what you're after. On the other hand, nobody would question the notion that good musicians, for example, ought to be able to get a living from their art—right? Quite a conundrum.

As for Kent's canny question about who should find poetry "surprising, memorable and true"—surely the conversation is about readers outside the guerilla cell—the ones who don't know there's a revolution in progress (is there?) and wouldn't care if they did. It's more satisfying—at least it is to me—if a stranger and non-specialist reads my poem and feels touched and/or illuminated by it than if a fellow poet and/or critic reads it and admires my sly allusion to Wittgenstein's father's steel monopoly.

Jordan said...

Kent,

To borrow a line from my namesake Tim Davis, myself and strangeness.

Jordan

Annie Finch said...

Actually, student demand for Latin has been notably on the rise, and the U. of Notre Dame started Latin mass a couple of years ago, also in response to student demand.

Ah wind! When Latin comes, can poetry be far behind? I think not.

As for making the point over and over--if the point is that poetry doesn't have to be enjoyed by the public to be valuable, why on earth should that point be made at all? It's the kind of point that, by definition, shouldn't need to be made, at least in public.

Personally I would like to see BOTH kinds of poetry thriving, and why not side by side: the accessible kind that is responsibile to the public, and the less accessible kind that isn't. I write both kinds, and each has its place.

Don Share said...

Thanks, Annie; re Latin, all I can say is: Let's hope so, but non est ad astra mollis e terris via...

I'll remake my point about points, which is that any point worth making is worth making again.

I, myself, as a reader never make a distinction about "accessibility." Some things may be more difficult than others to read... you may or may not have time... you may or may not find the expense of time rewarding: this is not about "kinds" of poetry - I disbelieve in "kinds" of poetry - but about kinds of readers, kinds of people. And as my old man always said, it takes ALL kinds! Pardon me for stating, and restating, the obvious!

Jordan said...

I think I see what you're saying -- you're saying it's a mistake to chase a misconceived accessibility. Do I have that right?

I still think taking stock of what more poetry can do -- having some ambition for the art, and if necessary looking elsewhere for inspiration -- is fundamental. "They're just not that into us" is a pretty discouraging stance for a critic to take. It may not be pure humbug litmus, but it comes close.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Don, this is the first example of plain illogic I've seen in any of your posts. You disbelieve in kinds of poetry but do believe in kinds of readers. So the perception of difference, of "kinds," in poetry derives not from the poems but from the reader? I'd like to see you make that case with actual poems in front of you. Could be a fun exercise....

Don Share said...

I'm not trying to make a "logical" case, or do any exercises, I'm afraid. You've stated my belief very well, however. That said, I make my case, not that I'm out to make one, every time I look at a poem, and I look at a lotta poems.

Don Share said...

Jordan, re "accessibility," perish the word, I'd just put it the way Bunting did: "I do not see why people should want to 'understand' everything in a poem." And if that's some kind of humbug, I'm not troubled in the slightest!

Jordan said...

If it's humbug I'm humbugging with you (and Bunting!).

I notice some overlap between Bunting's remark and Freud's comment on the omphalic in dream analysis.

Don Share said...

Speaking of repeating myself, here's something I've quoted before that Geoffrey Hill has said:

"The word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms which lie behind most people’s use of the word. In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together."

Jordan said...

I agree with the sentiments you quote -- I do so in a poem-essay about this subject and its overlap with issues raised by appropriating other texts, ahem -- but entre nous it seems maybe inadvisable to make Geoffrey Hill Exhibit A against accessibility.

Annie Finch said...

It's common sense that there are different kinds of poetry, just as there are different kinds of painting, music, dance. We go to the Rolling Stones or Tina Turner for a different kind of music than we go to Bach for, or Miles Davis, or Arvo Part. We go to Edward Hicks for a different kind of painting than we go to early Rauschenberg for. We go to Robert Burns for a different kind of poetry than we go to Hart Crane or Rosemarie Waldrop for. Yes, perhaps these poems were written for different audiences, but each reader is capable of being a different kind of reader-a member of a different kind of audience-- in different situations. A reader of poetry sitting in a room alone feeling rarely sensitive and intelligent may be being part of the kind of audience Geoffrey Hill describes in Don's quote--or that Charles Bernstein describes in "Against National Poetry Month." But the same reader of poetry may be part of an entirely different audience when sitting in the gym for their third-grader's school assembly listening to a recitation of poetry by kids, or when reading a Renaissance love sonnet aloud to their spouse in bed at night, or listening to an ode written for a political figure. As in life, some roles involve being truer to one's difficult inner self, some involve meeting others halfway or even more than halfway. What's wrong with that? I agree that "they're just not into us" is a depressing sentiment. If we are only willing to let poetry fulfill one role in our culture, the most difficult and self-absorbed role, and to deny it all the generous, flexible, versatility it has shown in so many other cultures throughout the centuries,the ability to appeal to so many different audiences, fulfill so many different roles, from the arcane to the pedestrian, I think we should not be surprised if poetry just flies right over our heads and takes up its roost in a more generous environment.

Michael Robbins said...

But Geoffrey Hill is the least accessible poet alive. Or is that yr point?

Don Share said...

Again, I don't use the term accessible, and have had little trouble with the difficulty in Hill's poems, so I don't know quite how to answer you.

Hey, here's something just uttered by Paul Muldoon:

"The communication of meaning is something with which politicians rather than poets should be involved. Form in poetry is not generally thought to be manipulated other than by people who’ve never experienced it. And, finally, poetry has no “natural bounds.” Many of John Ashbery’s poems deal with some of these very issues but in a far less mean and, ultimately, more meaningful way. The best of Ashbery’s poems are equal to their moment in the way that Merce Cunningham and John Cage are equal to theirs."

Don Share said...

I'll toss in a remark of Pound's, while I'm at it: "So-called obscurity is not obscurity in the language but in the other person's not being able to make out why you are saying a thing."

Joseph Hutchison said...

Your Pound quote hits the nail on the head (no pounding pun intended). If a reader finishes a poem wondering "why did I bother reading that?", it hardly matters what the poem's language does. Needless to say some of the clearest poems are the least worth reading. What really gripes readers, I think, is poetry whose language isn't clear and whose "why" is irrelevant to their lives; especially if there's a chorus of partisans in the background telling them how great the stuff is. I experience this when reading the widely touted Jack Spicer, for example, but not when reading the equally touted George Oppen. It's a mystery! Thank goodness....

Don Share said...

I'm with you %100 here, Joseph: thank you. Though I ended up liking Spicer, myself! One thing worth adding, perhaps, is that we're never the same reader twice. We can only benefit from revisiting, now and then, that which we have previously rejected (as well as that which we have embraced).

Henry Gould said...

I'm pretty much with Jordan on this, where he suggested it's worthwhile looking at how poetry might be "more".

I think both Hill's & Muldoon's comments are beside the point. Of course great poetry doesn't need to be "accessible". But let's try to remember the distinction between "accessible" and "civic", or public. I think there are modes of civic address in poetry - rhetorical modes - which have gone out of use, not because we've outgrown them, but because they are so difficult. & why? because such poetry requires a degree of actual civic engagement, which they don't teach in MFA programs, or at political-activist seminars.

Don Share said...

Here's another quotation that's beside the point. (Beside the point is precisely where I'm going with all this.)

Kenneth Patchen (on The Journal of Albion Moonlight):

"The meaning of my book? It means a thousand and a thousand things. What is the meaning of this summer?"

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

So here, then... take it directly from the horse’s mouth.

"Letter to the Editor – Poetry. January 2009

Dear Editor,

Treemont Retirement Community has a poetry study group that meets every week. We have studied individual poets and their works, processed every word of An Introduction to Poetry, worked our way through The Best Poems of the English Language, and read Garrison Keillor's collections. So naturally I felt that a subscription to Poetry would provide the group with some stimulating discussion.

As it turns out, we cannot make head or tail out of your selected "poems." We agree that there is no rhyme and very little reason—only phrases, snatches of words or thoughts in random order, with very little cohesion. The poems are neither enjoyable nor enlightening.

We feel that we are giving Poetry a fair trial, but are dismayed to think that this magazine represents the best of modern poetry.

ALICE PILLSBURY
HOUSTON, TEXAS"

These are the people who read poetry, who are your audience. Do you ever consider them while you whine about your lack of audience?

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

The Result When Combining Max Ernst
With Kenneth Patchen


What dimensions of perceptive thought
manifest themselves in the dreams of cats:

in the dual voice of wind & wet
trees whispering, the only sound
in a forest shading
violet from the rainbow settling into twilight?

In the grunts of tremendous whales,
in the flower whose petals fall
from coarse September gusts,
in the sweat of artists closing
weary eyes that have watched a brush
all night,

in the blind multiplication of infinite cells,
in fleas running in the pubic
hairs of those who make love,
in a mouse squeaking as the hawk
pulls its intestines out,
in children standing hungry and naked,
in owls hiding in cathedral bells,
in nuns who watch the sea,
in you, as opposed

to me?

My cat of ruffled beard, goodnight.


Written 1973

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

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I'm sober now. I'll behave. Sorry.

Don Share said...

True or False (quotation not by me):

"'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgment if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world."

Joseph Hutchison said...

I have no problem with "accessibility," as long as it's not used as either an aesthetic positive or negative. Why shouldn't we be able to say that Ted Kooser's poems are more accessible ("easily understood") than Jorie Graham's? "Accessible" can describe certain qualities of a poem, it seems to me; but it has nothing to do with the value of the poem at hand. Although now that I see that idea in writing, I wonder: is there something to be said for considering the relationship between accessibility and aesthetic value? After all, inaccessibility that seems created on purpose to conceal the vacuity of a poem may in fact be aesthetically more reprehensible than a poem that wears it's vacuity on its sleeve (so to speak).

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

World? Which world?

That world full of fools, you mean?

Don Share said...

Hm, good questions, Gary.

annie.finch said...

To have the kind of integrity that stands up to the strong close reading poems ask of us, poetry needs to have a certain amount of tension/difficulty/strangeness/resistance to understanding. The vast majority of contemporary poetry now creates that resistance through linguistic means: disjunctivenes of syntax, obscurity of reference, etc.

But the time-tested way to create a poetic texture of resistance and strangeness, without violating the shared conventions of language that link poets with other speakers of our language, is through prosodic texture--ie meter and other patterns.