Monday, April 7, 2008
We are here in April again, and those of us concerned a little about poetry as art need again to accommodate the ludicrous thing called National Poetry Month. The hope is to get folks to change their reading habits to include poetry volumes along with their steady diets of mysteries, romances, celebrity cookbooks, and memoirs written by people who will soon be exposed as liars and cheats. Is there hope for the General Audience? The divisions in the Poetry War are drawn, both sides will wage battle for the soul of the book buyer, but the unfortunate truth is that vast promotion and arguments as to the worth of verse are to no avail. Literally, no one is buying it. Or buying too little of it for the fuss and bother of having a month out of the year dedicated to poets and their obscurities.
The General Audience I speak of is vague, purposefully so, as it says to anyone who has an amorphous notion of generalizing about poetry readers share in common. The war between various schools, groups, and the like strikes me as more bickering between the professionals, poets, critics, and academics (some of whom happen to practice all three occupations) who have status and power on the line as they advance their agenda and create an enemy camp in the interests of bolstering whatever claims can be made for a particular group's alleged superior aesthetics. Some of this ongoing disagreement is fascinating and useful since the distinctions as they're clarified can be informative. The criticisms each has of the other's perceived shortcomings can potentially yield insight on issues a writer might otherwise be too close to.
I have my preferences, sure, and I subscribe to a particular set of principles, but these rules of poetry are worn like a loose suit, not a straight jacket. Most readers who are interested in poetry, contemporary and older, will like or dislike a variety of different approaches to verse for an equally varied set of reasons, most of which, if asked, our hypothetical General Reader would be able to explain. The fundamental question of a poem, whether written for the lyric voice, the vernacular rant, or the experimental rigorist, is whether it works or not, both on its own terms and in terms of whether it gives pleasure or joy. Someone might suggest that teachers could increase the audience for poems if they taught the material better, but this is a strawman. We can't lay this at the teacher's feet because it's my firm conviction that most poetry, ambitious or otherwise, isn't going to be the large majority of their students will take after in adulthood, regardless of how good or bad a job is the instructor might be. We're talking about adult readers here, those who have reading habits formed and in place for a lifetime; some are more curious about more ambitious forms, most who read poetry prefer the greatest hits of Whitman, Plath, or Dickens. If they read poetry at all, and the General Audience, as we've been calling them, has no interest in poetry, except when they need a quote for a funeral or a wedding.
Consumers who might buy a book of poems do so for the same reasons as they always have been, word of mouth, display, book review, and so on. Things like National Poetry Month do so very little to increase the fraction of the book-buying public to have even a casual appreciation of poetry; they simply don't care for those things that are not measurable by generic conventions. Charles Bernstein wrote a cogent if slightly smug essay in 1999 called "Against National. Poetry Month As Such," in which he derides the notion that publishers and a clatch of state and federal arts czars can increase interest in, and sales of poetry collections by reducing to the level of the contrived New Age/faux mediation group think that would have us read the literature with the hope that stress and pain will go away. (I am thinking of Roger Housden's odious collection "Ten Poems To Change Your Life," which abuses the work of good poets by presenting them as accessories one buys on impulse at the cash register). Bernstein's main point is well taken: poetry is being sold as something it isn't, like the volumes poets publish are good for you in the way that pop-psych and New Age literature claim to be. What is being sold are the specious promises of poetry, not the poetry itself which, of all the literary arts, should stand alone, unencumbered by political or therapeutic contrivance. National Poetry Month is a hypocritical waste of time, I think, a commercial venture born of the kind of cynicism that enables corporations to manipulate buyers into purchasing things they haven't a real need for.