In discussion with a friend and fellow poet yesterday, the subject of poetry readers came up. Who are they, other than poetry writers themselves? Does a pure reader/non-writer of poetry truly exist — in numbers great enough to be statistically relevant?
In this country, the Un-United States of America, easy answers are scarce. I can think of only two countries — Ireland and Russia (odd bedfellows, those!) — where poetry is an exalted genre among the general readership. Thus, Dr. Zhivago making house calls among proletariat libraries. Thus, not only William, but Butler and Yeats being household (and tavern-hold) names throughout the Emerald Isle.
Here, though? Not so much. An anecdote, if you will. My son, a cook, recently shared the heady (to him) news that I had signed a book contract. Yessiree, Bob — Dad had a book coming out in 2016. “Really? That’s cool,” his fellow cook said, clearly intrigued. “What’s it about?”
“It’s a collection of poetry,” my son said.
“Oh,” his friend said, turning back to the grill without another word. End of discussion. Just poetry. It is, in every sense of the free-verse word, a discussion killer. A punchline. The province of academia and old fogeys.
So who is reading poetry here, then? Mostly poets. Mostly MFA types. Poets are described as an insular family in the States — probably not a good thing. One wonders, for instance, at the multiple (unread, but by poets) markets for poetry. How insular are they? How much of it is an insider’s game, where my people know your people, where my protégée gets published to show what a good mentor/professor I am? This is, after all, a university press.
Who knows? Perhaps the wounds are self-inflicted, anyway. Too many poems are not only cryptic, but proud of it. When poets themselves read poems published in the most prestigious markets for poetry, scratch their heads and say, “Huh?” (without irony), you know there’s a problem.
Will there be an upsurge in American readership for poetry soon? Unless you’re Hallmark (whose hallmark is bad poetry), I don’t think so. What sells now is the sound bite, the insult, the Internet-ready micro-comment. Yellow and journalism are a high art form, much like the “statesmanship” evident on our political landscape.
Who reads poetry? Frustrated poets and insiders scratching each other’s backs, is one guess. Will it ever change? Like the creation of world peace and the end of hunger, probably not in our lifetimes. But it’s pretty to think so….