Poetry is for Poets

It's taken me a long time to admit this, but with few exceptions, only poets buy and read poetry. In my Logopoetry essays I espoused certain criteria for judging quality in a poem. I also advocated a poetry that was comprehensible, and went to some length to define what that meant, partly in the hope that poetry would garner a larger audience if it were less intentionally arcane. Now I think my second argument is moot. I don't think a more comprehensible poetry will have any effect upon poetry's popularity. I don't know a literate person who buys books of poetry unless he also attempts to write it. At my infrequent featured readings I am lucky to find one person in the audience who doesn't write poetry. To him I always try to award some prize, as I want everyone to recognize the anomaly: a fan of poetry who does not write it — a very rare species indeed.

This used to bother me but I've come to an acceptance about it. Poets write for each other, not for the masses. If you publish in e-zines, as I have, you may be lucky if even ten people click on your poem and five read it through. And most likely, every reader will also be a poet.

Recently my wife and I attended the LA Times/UCLA Book Festival, where it was estimated that 75,000 people a day attended. We hung out at "The Poet's Corner" to hear Robert Bly, Mark Doty, Jane Hirschfield and Brad Leithauser, among others. All the readings were free and lasted half an hour. Later in the day Galway Kinnell and other major names were to make appearances, but my mind could only take three hours of listening (split into ninety-minute segments).

And how many people do you think sat underneath the designated tent to hear these "name" poets, who trailed awards and book credits like tin cans tied to a wedding limo? We counted. There were about 50 on average — 50 out of 75,000. This computes to 0.0067%. Of course major novelists and non-fiction authors were there for lectures and panels that required tickets, and there were display booths for presses and storytelling... still, 50?

And to confirm my suspicion about the makeup of the audience, the woman in front of me had a copy of the latest Poets and Writers magazine on her lap.

One thing I did note, when all the Guggenheims, MacArthurs, NEAs, National Book Awards and other coups were read during the intros; almost all the awards were those for which one must apply, or one's publisher must apply, or lastly, for which an editor must nominate you. This is the path of the serious poet: leave no grant unturned, even if buried in Grant's tomb.

As one who came late to the fray, it seems to me that recognized, "name" poets must have followed their writing with single-minded devotion through their twenties and thirties in order to reach acclaim, and they must have worked very hard and schmoozed a lot with the powers that be. Excuse a moment of self-pity, but this makes me feel the window is closed for old farts like me.

Who wants to give a MacArthur or Guggenheim to someone nearing 50? And yet, look at the numbers again: all that work, the lifelong struggle with and love of poetry, attracts 50 out of 75,000 readers. This is your future, serious poet. This is the pot at the end of the rainbow.

If one is young enough and has the cheek for it, then by all means seek out mentors and workshops and apply for grants and awards and prizes non-stop. If you are good (and lucky), perhaps you, too, might garner an audience of 50 (plus travel expenses) after winning a Pulitzer or a string of other major awards. You'd really do better, in terms of an audience, to join a local punk band. I think all prizes in poetry, save perhaps the Nobel, should be thought of as "consolation prizes." Even the Pulitzer pays only $7,500 — but its prestige can really jack up your reading fees. Putting these thoughts aside, I should say I did enjoy the readings. I was not discouraged by the turnout. Poetry is what it is, the caviar of literature. "It's not for everyone." And I don't think putting poetry on buses or in cigarette machines is going to increase the audience. But God bless Robert Pinksy for trying to expand the audience, which must be discouraging in a time of intellectual contraction.

Yet this situation of only poets reading poets automatically puts everyone in competition with everyone else, just as actors compete for parts -- which reminds me of my favorite quote about Hollywood: "It's not enough to succeed in Hollywood, your best friend must also fail." Imagine the bile in an unsuccessful actress who, while working as a waitress, glances at the TV to see her former Drama Club friend enshrined in a sitcom. The same narcissistic revulsion obtains when someone sees a friend, a known hack, in a prestigious literary magazine. And to paraphrase a quote about academic battles, "The reason the competition is so brutal [in poetry] is because the stakes are so low."

Judging from my own sinful psychology, reading any literary magazine can lead to jealousy and resentment, especially one that has rejected my work. Thankfully, reading a good poem lifts me out of such narcissism, but a mediocre one inflames my sense of subjective injustice. And competitive ill will is no friend of the muse (unless you want to write like Ambrose Bierce).

Likewise, when giving readings that include an "open mike" portion, I fear the audience endures me only to get their turn with Mr. Microphone — when they can finally dazzle us with their creativity.

My point? I accept that we're writing for each other, and given that poets are some of the most psychologically unpredictable people I know, we must also acknowledge that those in higher places — contest judges, editors, etc. — are likely no more sane or possessed of good judgment than other poets. In fact, more than a few editors are themselves only mediocre poets, inwardly embittered while enjoying their editorial power. Then some of the best coaches in sports were themselves mediocre players, so this failing should not exclude such from being good editors, if only they have the wisdom to recognize they are mediocre poets. One might be surprised to find out how many successful writers first aspired to be poets but recognized their limitations to succeed in another medium.

***

Poetry is a cultural vestigial organ. It is the stubborn love of the few that has kept it viable, as poetry was replaced by the novel by 1850, which was replaced by films by 1930, which were extended to television by 1950, which means the baby boomer poets of today grew up in a video culture. There are more rose enthusiasts, perhaps even more orchid enthusiasts than there are poets, and far more poets than non-poets who read poetry. Thus respect from one's peers is about as much as one can hope for in poetry; given that the major prizes are, indeed, politically muddied by an old-boy network of mentors and mentorees. Everything's political, and the higher up the food chain, the more political things become, so this should not surprise us.

Poets write for poets. The delusion of some greater audience, unless the mass media chooses you as flavor of the month, like Angelou or Collins, is just that: a delusion.

Knowing this is one balm for ambition, I think. If you want to become the world's greatest lawn bowler, only lawn bowlers will know. So they're older and look funny all dressed in white; they're the only ones who can truly appreciate what you've done. I used to be cynical about this literary apartheid, but to ignore the truth is plain silly: the audience for poets is made up almost entirely of aspiring poets.

Despite this obvious insight, I will continue to try to write comprehensibly, for two reasons: 1) The rare non-poet who reads my work; and 2) History: should anyone in the future wish to research the insular world of poets in the sea of declining literacy, I want my poems to be relatively accessible. Then again, academically, this may be the wrong approach. Judging from the past century, an author may be more likely to be studied for his obscurity. (Just to be safe I've written a number of obscure poems.)

I tell my online students that the only reason to write poetry is to perfect their art, to try to someday write a "great" poem. It's fun to garner comments from workshops and poetry boards, but truth be told, most follow their own lights with regard to criticism, else they wouldn't be poets. So other than the individual satisfaction of writing well, there is little that poetry holds for society nowadays. To answer Dana Gioia's, "Can Poetry Matter?," I reply, ad nauseum, that it doesn't except to poets, a small minority of the reading public. In accepting this state of affairs I feel better. Crusade all you want; you're not going to get the American public interested in poetry. As Michael Corbin pointed out in his essay in Melic XIV, when they have to reserve a month for you — April is "Poetry Month" — it is the death knell for any self-sustained popularity. (They don't have beer, candy, or sex months, for instance.)

I just wanted to get this off my chest and explain that, after once hoping to make poetry more popular than it ever will be again, I accept the present state of affairs. Of course, any audience for this statement will be comprised of poets. And though less than ideal, I must accept this, because it's what is.

—C.E. Chaffin