Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Don't People Read Poetry Anymore?

'On my morning commute, I often check people out, their heads buried in newspapers or portable Web browsers or beauty magazines. On the whole bus, I’m always the only person with a poetry book in my hands, and I often wonder how different this world would be if more people read poetry. I don’t know — maybe that’s just something that I tell myself to make myself feel better, a kind of self-validation. Maybe it’s just a dream I have, that this world could change, and poetry is the only way I know how to do it.'
from a recent piece in Smart Set. We'd love to hear why you do or don't read poetry. Send us your poetry-related stories. And don't worry, they don't have to rhyme.

29 Comments:

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love poetry. I so appreciate minimal expressing maximum.

We have a lot of talented poets that live right here in Cleveland too. And folks can hear them live at various convenient locations around town. ;-)

Neve Black

 
At 9:54 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it, Neve. Thanks.

 
At 10:30 AM, Blogger Kasscho said...

I kind of like our secret society. Has poetry ever been for the masses? Maybe the lyrics of songs and rap music?....but the serious, soul-searching kind we read takes effort - like looking for sunken treasures.

 
At 10:33 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

That's a great point. You're absolutely right that those who read and appreciate poetry comprise a secret society, not unlike the scribes who kept writing and reading alive in the Middle Ages.

 
At 11:00 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Poetry has always had a smaller audience. The essayist answered her own question: people don't read poetry because:

1. it's considered too hard, or arcane, or obscure

2. most folks have poetry shoved down their throats in school, where it's taught so badly and so superficially that it can turn them off poetry for life, and because it seems to have no connection to their lives

But there are more reasons:

3. everybody thinks "I can do that" when they read famous poems in school, or are taught a session on writing haiku

4. so most poetry, even by "professional poets" (which is an oxymoron, because no one has made a living from poetry in many decades; they make their livings from teaching poetry or teaching poets in MFA programs, mostly), is utter crap, badly written, just prose broken into arbitrary lines; because most people think poetry is simpler and easier to do well than it is (no. 3. above).

I think the secret society argument is bull. (No offense meant.) It's an elitist argument that excuses the tendency of many poets to be arcane merely for the sake of being arcane. Not that poetry has to be "populist" and easily understandable, but neither is it *meant* to be hard. We just live in period when everyone, including poets, thinks it's *supposed* to be hard. This is a belief about poetry that is precisely 100 years old, and follows in Eliot's footsteps.

But the real issue is not that poetry is arcane, or difficult, or easy, or superficially populist. The real issue is that poetry has become as fragmented and internally contentious as contemporary politics: the problem is that there are poetries, not poetry. There are as many poets writing non-arcane poetry today as there are those who lionize the arcane. Media coverage of the arts likes to emphasize drama, just like in news reporting. Poets play right into this, consciously or otherwise.

Every year we get these whining commentaries from poets asking "why doesn't anybody read my stuff?" (Because you're a silly sod who can't write, perhaps.) Every year someone publishes a "poetry is dead!" essay. (Usually written by poets who are so stupid as to think that poets should be famous and that success in poetry equals financial reward—which is stupid because it's a belief that our consumer culture engenders, but which has never been true, for poetry.) Every year zillions of unknown poets just shrug at such BS, and quietly go on writing; many of whom write poems as good or better than anything produced by the high-profile poets who get asked to write these op-ed pieces about the death of poetry, or asking why no-one reads poetry.

And even the poets who write these op-ed pieces know the real answer to their complaints: it's because most poetry is crap, and always has been. Stugeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crap." LOL They just don't want to admit it: certainly MY crap is better than anyone else's crap. (I know a lot of contemporary poetry, and I read a great deal of it, and I've never even heard of the author of this essay.)

Poetry is dead? Nobody reads it? Oh really? I guess I should go tell all those poets I know who just keep quietly writing, and producing really good poems, some of which gets published, all below the radar of the drama-addicted masses. I guess they might want to know that their good efforts are futile and hopeless. Too bad they're such good writers; they might want to give it up, and get real jobs—which is something more "professional poets" ought to consider doing.

*pause*

In case you can't tell, I find this entire topic both irritating and silly, because it attracts the flies of commentary to the BS of nothingness. (No offense intended, of course.)

 
At 11:08 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

All of those observations apply equally to any serious form of writing, be it poetry, prose or what's sometimes called narrative journalism.

 
At 12:13 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

True. Except that ALL forms of prose pay better than poetry does, or ever did. If maintaining an economically viable career from one's writing is one's professional goal, then all forms of prose have a better chance of being such a career than poetry does, or ever did. Being myself a big fan of what is sometimes called creative nonfiction—is that what you mean by narrative journalism? if not, there's probably still some overlap—nonetheless it seems to me that all forms of journalism and/or essay/nonfiction prose writing earn more than poetry does.

I think that's the real undercurrent coming from some of these MFA graduate poets, in their asking why they can't make a go of it.

I think the real issue is not that poetry is in danger of dying. I think it's that "career" or "professional" poets make such claims when they finally realize that almost no-one can make a financial career from writing poetry. The death-knells usually contain an undercurrent of disillusionment. LOL As if the poet had somehow been under the illusion that they COULD make a career of poetry. Sorry. That was never really true; especially now.

Oh well.

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I read poetry but not on public transport. I can get absorbed in a novel on the bus but poetry requires a mindset that I've never been able to cultivate in that setting. Also I can't read a book of poetry like a novel, cover to cover; poems require a level of concentration and if I read too many in a row I start to skim, and that leads to thinking about other stuff. That is why I like the Internet because I so often get one poem drop into my inbox and that's it, that's all I'm being asked, to read it and so I read it, really focus on it, the way that I expect my own poems to be read. They exist as solitary works NOT as part of a collection.

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger Kim said...

Poetry is a guilty pleasure. Err good poetry that is.

I have to agree with most of what Art said. I used to edit a women's writing site and so much of the poetry was angst filled drivel, juvenile Dr. Seuss-ish sort of stuff, (except Theodor Geisel was much more brilliant). I rejected about 5 times more poems than I accepted. There just are so many who think because they can find rhyming words, they are a poet.

Sure, people read poetry, when they can find good poetry. (I'm partial to the classics myself and have a soft spot for ee cummings).

I could have been in a poetry journal, if I paid my way in. The only form of writing that COSTS instead of PAYS. :)

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Lots of interesting issues here that I'm eager to engage with, and will soon. Thanks for kicking things off, Neve, and thanks to Art for a riff that couldn't help but invite others to join with their 2 cents.

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim makes some good points: collections of poetry are usually just that, collections, not unified works. Few poetry books are conceived as of entire books—and many that are don't succeed. Epic poetry is out of fashion right now; and that's partly because the nature of life right now doesn't lend itself to epic scale, or the time it takes to contemplate, write, and read epics. So most poetry is stand-alone poems, or small series. I usually approach a poem from the view that it needs to be able to stand on its own.

And the point about the concentration it takes to read a poem is also true. I find it hard to do it casually, in public places. I can, in some instances, but it takes more effort, and I usually want to re-read something later. It depends on the poetry, and where I'm at. Sitting in a waiting room is easier than on the train, definitely.

And Kim, I like hearing your perspective. Your stories about editing very much resonate with my own; in workshop situations, as well. Thanks.

 
At 6:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim, our Scottish correspondent, always makes good points. As for epic poems, some classics by the likes of Whitman remain quite popular with contemporary readers, so I suppose it just depends.

 
At 6:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

In other words, just write as well as Walt Whitman, and you've got it made.

 
At 6:51 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, although one must remember that Whitman never actually made much money from his various editions of "Leaves of Grass." Earlier in life, he made more of an income from being a pressman/printer, and from being a journalist/editor. At the end of life, he was pretty much broke.

But he sure could write.

 
At 6:55 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Boy, could he ever. And he lives on in the culture in so many ways, on so many levels. Case in point, to mention just one: Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky a copy of "Leaves of Grass" during their, well, would you call it courtship? Whatever you'd call that relationship, I've always gotten a kick out of that small but telling detail. It later turned out that he had also given a copy to Hillary during their courtship.

 
At 7:55 PM, Blogger June Calender said...

I agree with Kim that poetry needs focus which isn't usually possible on public transportation. I read a lot of poetry but only in the quiet of the evening.

No, friends, poetry is not the only form of writing that one must pay to have read [even by an editor/first readers] many theatres ask reading fees for plays, almost all "contests" in little magazines want $10 to $25 -- or more -- just for your manuscript. Those plays and other manuscripts may or may not be returned even with the obligatory SASE. There are precious few outlets for short stories or essays or narrative non-fiction unless you're and out and out journalist writing what the media wants to print.

Those of us who must write, whatever the genre, must first write for self-expression and distribute our work in whatever way we can.

I would add that the reason so much of all writing is crap is that any rigor in writing short of MFA programs [and they're not all exempt either] has gone out the window in about 99% of the schools in the US. Young people are not taught to think in any critical way about any sort of writing, let alone poetry and I suspect few of their teachers have been either. Those who care about what they are writing mostly have to school themselves -- not easy. So the writing that is good is a bit of a miracle and I'm always very happy when I find a poem or a book of poetry that speaks deeply to me.

 
At 8:05 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

June has marvelously put her finger on the crucial issue, which Art touched on though with different language: if you must write, you will. I've said it over and over again to writers (and occasionally written it here): you won't really persist at writing if you merely want to or love to write. You'll only stick with it if you have to. And if you have to write, you'll somehow organize your life around doing so, even if that means supporting it with a jo at Burger King. Otherwise, don't waste your time.

And to your point about not learning to read or write critically, we've certainly covered that waterfront ad nauseum here. People who write learn to do so not from school, but through lots and lots of reading, and then through years of trial and error at the writing craft. That's just the simple reality for the vast majority of writers. Your junior high or high school English teacher can't teach you to write, in part because they're probably not writers themselves. But most English teachers are serious readers, and they can and do instill a love and respect for reading, which is another way to skin the cat, and perhaps the more effective way, because that then opens the doors to the virtually unlimited university that is the body of great writing, comprised of both contemporary and past masters.

 
At 9:47 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've been accused of being a grammarian, but I deny it absolutely. I never studied language that formally. Or, not English anyway; some others, okay, yes, to some extent.

I once had a discussion with a fellow poet who thought I had so internalized the rules of grammar and syntax that they were well employed in my poems even though I had no conscious idea of using them, and had never studied them. In fact, my position in that discussion was *opposed* to the "you must learn the rules before you can break them" argument; in fact, I am still opposed to that viewpoint. I never learned the rules, and I break them all the time, and yet somehow that group of poets thought I was doing very good, interesting poetry. (Their words, not mine.) If I ever learned the rules before breaking them, it was never a formal study, and I can honestly claim to never have studied anything like that, ever. So I dislike that conventional wisdom about having to learn the rules before being able to break them, because it has no truth in my experience. Who knows. Maybe a past life.

But the truth is really very simple: I read a lot. I read a lot more. I read, and read, and read, and keep reading. I read everything that interests me, which is almost everything.

I think the best apprentice any writer can ever have is to be an avid, eclectic, and voracious reader. You can learn it all by example. The classroom is actually a potential hindrance, in some cases.

Just my experience, though. Don't claim it to be any more than that.

 
At 6:16 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Through voracious reading we absorb lessons on how to write, almost through osmosis. It's that simple, except that it takes years of reading, and then years more of writing yourself. It's not a quick process.

 
At 8:17 AM, Blogger Kim said...

Here is a question, we talk about READING poetry... how many people can LISTEN to poetry?

Sometimes the inflection that cannot be heard in writing (UNLESS ONE WRITES IN ALL CAPS FOR EXAMPLE), makes a piece come much more alive. Much.

 
At 8:42 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good question. Not long ago, on the Poetry Foundation's website I listened to an audio clip of Auden reading his famous poem "1939." It certainly added an interesting dimension.

 
At 10:35 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Listening to poetry is very important. Sometimes one needs to read it out loud.

But here's the thing: If you want to LISTEN to poetry, get a recording of an actor reading the poem, or hire an actor to read the poem.

MOST poets kill their own poems when they read them. Most poets read like they were inarticulate shoe-gazers, in a flat monotone. Most poets have total reliance on the content of their words, and any BBC news announcer would project that content better. I personally know some very good poets who are the worst readers imaginable of theirs or anyone else's poetry.

The poets who read well are all conscious of reading AS A PERFORMANCE. (Listen to recordings of Dylan Thomas.) They all realize that the poem, out loud, is both the same poem and a different one. It's the difference between reading a movie script and watching the movie made from the script: the words, performed, take on other layers of meaning and interpretation.

I completely agree that poetry needs to be heard aloud. (John Gielgud's recordings of Shakespeare's complete Sonnets, on Caedmon, are sublime.) My belief is that a poem, on order to succeed as a poem, must succeed on the page AND when read aloud. Both modes are important to poetry, and both are necessary to great poetry.

Copper Canyon, one of the major US poetry presses, has released a series of CDs of poets reading their own (and others') poetry. These are really exceptional CDs. The ones featuring Hayden Carruth and Olga Broumas (who I have seen read live) are fantastic. They're compelling, they pull you into the poem, they carry you along.

And they're in the small minority of poetry read by poets that is compelling, that carries you along.

This is a major issue in poetry, and it is largely ignored these days. Or rather, poetry, which has split into so many scenes and styles, has two major factions with regard to listening, and there is a big split between "spoken word" poets and "page" poets.

The truth is, most "spoken word" poetry, when read on the page rather than performed, falls flat. That style of poetry is designed for performance onstage; that it is has also become overly dominated by hip-hop style writing is a separate but related issue. The truth is, a lot of "page" poetry doesn't read well aloud—or in the case of some genres of what some call "post-avant" poetry, isn't even possible to read aloud. You can try, but it's pretty much designed to subvert that kind of reading.

Reading a poem out loud engages more than just the ears: it engages the whole body, because it engages the breath, and the muscles required to voice a poem. Reading a poem out loud involves the soma, the embodied person.

 
At 12:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

This subject sure does engage your attention, Art.

 
At 1:15 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, sorry about that. I do go on, I know.

I was thinking about why, earlier. I know I have a lot of strong opinions on this (these) topic(s). There's a lot of ridiculous arguments in PoetryWorld, most of them so very heated because really there's nothing at stake. LOL What I've done is back away from all that, and withdraw from all the poetry communities I used to engage with, where I saw all this played out all the time.

So you gave me a soapbox, and I realized I still care about it. it's just that your venue and you and your circle of commenters are so much more civil and reasonable about it all. :)

So thank for the soapbox.

verification word: prove

 
At 1:19 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I'm not always civil and reasonable, Art (just ask my wife). But I'm glad you feel that's the dominant tone here, because that's of course the best environment in which to learn from each other and test our ideas.

 
At 10:12 PM, Blogger Maria said...

It takes an inner stillness to listen to it.

 
At 11:01 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I like the way you put that, Maria.

 
At 9:35 PM, Blogger Kristal Pfeiffer said...

I think it take a differet kind of person to appreciate poetry. They have to have a deep side, love symbolism, and a compulsive need to understand the beautiful meanings of the words.
THAT IS WHAT IS SO GREAT. Either you get it or you don't. If you are one of those that do, you feel you have the ability to discover the hidden, beautiful meanings that are missed by most. Often poems that don't sound so pretty, like "Mending Wall" or "Luke Havergal" end up being my favorites. The words aren't pretty, but all the sudden you see it so clearly. The message is so cleverly symbolized, you feel as if you have been let in on a beautiful secret few ca see.recripb

 
At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason no-one reads poetry anymore is that the standards have gone down. It happened with fiction,music and with films.The modern poem is a 10 word "diary" entry and as such can't communciate anything.Bring back Byron Keats and Shelley.

 

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