Who Reads Poetry?

yeatsIn 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….

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7 thoughts on “Who Reads Poetry?

  1. I’ll play the low brow or high mustache.

    What do the Odyssey, the Cat in the Hat and The Road Not Taken (or whatever the formal title is) all have that most poetry in the thimble of my life list lack?

    A story? Characters? Plot with twists? The wonder / anxiety of what happens next?

    Of course, of course these are crude simplifications. Simplifications to which there are zillions of examples to the contrary. I accept that.

    My pick for a rainy day is unlikely to be a poem that needs unpacking.

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    • Unpacking is work. I like poems that make me say, right away, “That’s it! I never thought of it that way, but you’ve nailed it in words I feel like reading again (and again)!”

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  2. But look on the bright side: There are more people writing and publishing poetry in America today than ever before, according to Ellen Bryant Voigt (who?). And do authors of brilliant articles in obscure research journals bemoan the fact that no one is reading them except for their equally brilliant and obscure colleagues? Probably. And do filmmakers and musicians bemoan the fact that just about EVERYONE watches movies and listens to music? Probably not. And the fiction writers like to make fun of us poets, you know. But the poetry groupies are out there. Believe me. So be careful what you ask for. And keep writing!

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  3. I have to agree-ish with Paul. There are lots of trades that impact well in a society that barely is conscious of their existence. May I ask who are the current U.S. web blogger laureate or draftsman laureate ad infinitum?

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  4. Ruth’s recent homage to her VW fits nicely on my shelf between Dr. Seuss and Bobby Frost. No gift wrapping, no unpacking needed, She nailed it. How did I miss out on owning a VW without a gas gauge? Mine came with one.
    Jon

    Actually, Emily D might just get a place, too, although a bit of self-stick wrapping paper may need to come off first before I can see her gift.

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