Why Good Poets Write Only for Themselves
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics: Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
Poets who think this way implicitly assume that the act of composition is some sort of contractual arrangement between themselves and their readers. They also assume that, like contracted parties in a business deal, they are required to live up to an agreement that provides satisfaction to their partners. A poet--so the assumption goes--will give his readers the sort of poetry they like and want, and they in turn will give him attention, applause, and respect. The trick is to determine what the audience is apt to like and want, and to make sure that one does not deviate too much from those templates of preference.
Some poets are alarmingly blunt about this contract and its details. They will state quite plainly that their poetry is addressed to God-fearing Christians, or pro-choice feminists, or baby boomers, or white middle-class progressives, or environmentalists, or gays, or oppressed people of color. Poets of this type (who are the artistic equivalent of niche marketeers) direct their work at one specific group, usually determined by ideology or identity politics. But most poets are not this naively focused--they cast their nets more widely, hoping to get a majority of all potential readers, on the same coalitionist principle that guides hack politicians in an election. They want as big an audience as possible--and that of course commits them to the sort of compromising, waffling, and vagueness that are the marks of all careerists and timeservers. Some poets in this category actually employ professional submission services that post their poems to journals in quantities that approach the level of junk mailings. For them, success (as well as safety) lies in numbers.
On the other hand, a large number of practicing poets shrewdly decline to say anything about their aims concerning audience. But in fact most of them have decided, consciously or unconsciously, to write for the small coterie of academics, grant-dispensers, and editors who are likely to review their work, award prizes, and decide on future publications. Of course, such poets will go through all kinds of rhetorical contortions to deny this charge, but it is the simple, brutal truth. They write, as academics might put it, for the profession. My favorite type in this group is the poet who claims that he writes "for all persons of good will and common sense "--nine times out of ten he is an old fuddy-duddy liberal who voted twice for Adlai Stevenson, and who is desperate to get into The New Yorker.
Aiming one's poetic efforts at an in-group simplifies matters quite a bit for a poet. All one has to do is read a few prestigious mainstream journals, tune into some trendy critics, and then shape one's work to look and sound like everyone else's. This is colloquially called "going with the flow," and it is so common a habit that most people cannot imagine doing anything else. Human beings are highly imitative animals, and we learn very quickly that mimicry of externals is a crucial step in becoming what we want to be. In fact, most of the successful lemmings and mediocrities that one meets in all walks of life have gotten their comfortable niches via sedulous imitation of others.
One can hardly blame a prospective poet for taking the same tack. He sees pompous drivel published in what everyone around him calls "important magazines." He notes similar bilge assigned in his advanced English classes, and praised by his instructors. He hears amorphous emoting at various open-mic readings, all of it receiving rapturous applause from undiscerning listeners. He attends lectures by chic frauds at the 92nd Street Y. He reads abstruse theoretical posturing in learned journals claiming that we are in the midst of a poetic renaissance. So quite naturally he thinks to himself "I can be a poet too," and proceeds to crank out similar garbage on the sound Pavlovian principle that what is rewarded once may well be rewarded again. Multiply this imagined scenario by thousands of aspiring young bards in hundreds of workshops and seminars, and you have the toxic waste dump that we call the contemporary American poetry scene. In short, a young poet on the make quickly recognizes that, if his most important audience is other poets, he had better start looking and sounding like them.
For a truly serious poet, however, all this concern for an external audience is a complete waste of time. I say complete deliberately, for I mean it. There is nothing more futile and self-defeating than trying to determine--and write for-- the actual living audience that your poetry will face. It is also, in the long run, fatal to your poetic gift. Obsess about audience too much and the springs of your creativity will dry up. I could name three poets in the New Formalist movement who are so pathetically anxious to sound like more successful poets (i.e. poets with a somewhat wider reputation) that they have totally lost their esthetic identity as a result.
By "a truly serious poet" I mean one who is devoted to manipulating the resources of language and ingenuity in the most technically proficient manner possible. This poet is concerned above all with his craft and its raw material (words), and how best to shape that raw material into high art. He is not ultimately worried about selling himself or his labors, although like all human beings he is gratified by attention and praise. For him, l'oeuvre c'est tout. To such an artist, concerns about external audience are minimal, as they should be.
Now before various dwarfs rise up in rage to smite me, I ask for a little patience. Let's look at the thing in a completely logical and dispassionate manner. Whenever you produce a linguistic composition and commit it to the cold reality of paper, that composition is essentially out of your hands. You have absolutely no idea of (and certainly no control over) the audience that the composition will go before. You may start out by just showing it to your friends, but copies move like scattered pollen, faster than you think. If it is printed, your poem is read in a dozen cities and countries. It travels all over the planet. It sits on library shelves for centuries, to be picked up by God Knows Who. The number of persons who see it, both right now and in future ages, is incalculable. No writer can hope to know who his readers will ultimately be, not in his own lifetime, and most assuredly not in time to come. Would Dante or Chaucer or Marlowe have had the slightest inkling of who would be reading their work today, in the vastly changed cultural and historical conditions under which that reading is now done? To sum up, your external audience is unknowable in any meaningful sense. Any poet's readership is, quite literally, anonymous.
I can hear the dwarfs protesting: "But we're writing for our own time, for this little decade that we're in right now--we're speaking to and for our immediate contemporaries." If you say that then you're just a pathetic little nerd, as temporally limited as a may-fly or a rose petal. You'll have to redo all your work every ten years to fit the new times and circumstances. I advise you to give up poetry and turn to tabloid journalism. This way you can write with a new twist each week, and suit your every phrase to the ebb and flow of fashionable trends.
If you are going to be a genuine poet of the sort I have described above, you first have to accept the fact that the external audience for your work is elusive, ungraspable, uncertain, and protean. It is an unclear, vague, and shifting thing that by its very nature cannot be the subject of any kind of dependable knowledge. You have about as much chance of knowing who the external audience of your poetry will be as you have of knowing who will be on the subway car you take to work tomorrow morning. Don't despair--this fact is immensely liberating. Having admitted that the external audience for your poetry cannot be ascertained, you can then turn to the task of mastering your craft, and writing for your interior audience.
The interior audience is my metaphor for the internal guidance system that keeps a poet on his true esthetic course. The only audience you can really write for is your interior audience. Every serious artist has one. It is that constellation of esthetic beliefs, standards, loyalties, and preferences that represent his best aspirations as a craftsman. The interior audience is a powerfully and profoundly internalized set of values--both literary and philosophical-- that prompt a writer to produce his best possible work at all times. Great artists always listen to their interior audience, just as Socrates listened for his daimon, or medieval mystics listened for the voice of God. If you don't have one, you're like a boat adrift without a compass.
The interior audience helps you produce not only your best work, but also your most characteristic work. It is the guarantor of your esthetic identity, like a passport. When critics speak of a poet's "voice" or "style" or "signature," they are often speaking of his loyalty to his interior audience. When we recognize the peculiar mix of daring and reticence that mark a poem by T.S. Eliot, or the sensuous sonority of Swinburne, or the verbal surprises of Dickinson, we are following the spoor of an author's interior audience. These things are a reflection of what they were as literate human beings, and of something personally definitive that they felt compelled to incorporate into their art. The interior audience is the artist's self, that irreducible essence that makes him what and who he is.
Of course, if (like most of the dwarfs who infest literature departments today) you don't believe in the self, whether actual or authorial, then all of this is meaningless to you. For you, no human being has any intrinsic identity, and all poetry is just tendentious pap churned out by interchangeable, socially constructed nonentities. If you believe that, fine--but I wish you'd have the honesty and decency to cease teaching literature. You can also stop reading here, as the rest of my essay will be beyond you.
OK, now that the dwarfs have gone we can continue.
The interior audience is not just a narcissistic reflex. A true interior audience is composed, like a mosaic, of many small pieces of myriad other artistic consciousnesses that have touched a poet and taught him over the years. The interior audience comprises all the most important and compelling esthetic principles that one has gleaned from wide reading and from serious training. It is an ideal code of composition, created from one's memories of and reactions to a panoply of poems, persons, and precepts, existing in one's mind and guiding one's pen. When you have an interior audience, everything you write is judged by criteria that you yourself have collected and honored and internalized. It is the rationalization of one's tastes, preferences, and favorite models into a coherent esthetic philosophy and practical guide. Needless to say, the development of an interior audience takes years of reading, writing, and concentrated thought.
The interior audience is partially composed of the recalled voices of other persons, such as respected teachers, mentors, advisors, and friends from one's past. Other component voices are those of poets, living and dead, whom one admires and emulates in certain specific respects. Sometimes these recalled voices suggest fixed forms and subjects, at other times they advise metrically, and at other times they simply veto false starts and unprofitable notions. But most important of all is their iconic status as ancestors whose achievements one must aspire to equal, if not surpass. Rather than simply offering a mirror in which the poet can preen himself, the interior audience is more like a squad of demanding drill instructors who constantly force one to be better, and to live up to a standard that goes beyond one's limited individuality. The interior audience is also a complex of one's personal tastes, preferences, and predilections. (And by the way, if you don't produce work that is congenial to your own tastes and preferences, you might as well put a bullet through your head.) It also involves, to varying degrees, one's emotional experiences, family history, cultural background, and prejudices. All of these factors operate together as a kind of touchstone by which your poetic compositions are judged. If you have labored well on a poem, and you finally are able to say "Yes... I like that very much," then you have passed the scrutiny of your interior audience. Nothing else matters after that.
Does this mean that your poem can't be further improved later on, either by advice from others or by your own second thoughts? No, of course not. We are all human, and whatever we do is subject to error or lapses. One should never be too proud to accept honest criticism. But the longer one reads and writes poetry, the steadier and more certain and more clear-sighted one's interior audience becomes, and if you remain faithful to its dictates your poetic perceptions will grow sharper and truer, like a marksman's aim. There will be less hesitancy in your work, less defensiveness, less diffidence. Ernest Hemingway, in the context of prose, once said that every good writer had a "built-in, shockproof crap-detector" at work all the time. His words might well be applied to the interior audience. When your interior audience has been functioning for many years, you will have a foolproof sense of what is garbage in poetry and what isn't, and you will write with a confidence and ease that astound your timorous contemporaries. As for an external audience of actual readers, they will be about as relevant to you as the denizens of Mars.
Loyalty to an interior audience is especially necessary in times such as these, when flux, uncertainty, and dissolution are the order of the day. One could plausibly argue that Dante did indeed write for an external audience of medieval Italian Christians, and Shakespeare for an external audience of Elizabethan Englishmen--though the art of both men was so potent that it has survived the disappearance of those groups. But modern poets have no such homogeneous external audience, bound together by ties of religion and culture and nationhood. One's readership today is a shapeless multicultural and trans-ethnic porridge, with nothing in common except a command of Basic English. You can't presume to write for that variegated mob unless, like a TV producer, you only bring forth mindless and inoffensive pap. A lot of fake poets are doing exactly that, but if you have any shred of self-esteem you won't imitate them. You'll write for yourself alone. It's the only procedure that makes any sense these days. And never listen when literary hustlers start whining about "what we all share" or "what we have in common." Those words are a sure sign that someone is trying to con you out of your sovereign identity.
Are the dwarfs back? I hear their screams of indignation: Ivory-tower poet! Self-absorbed elitist! Uncollegial snob! Narcissistic esthete! These epithets have been flung at me before, and they have about as much effect as spitballs on a Sherman tank. They are the typical exhalations of people who need the ratification of others before they can have self-respect.
The dwarfs don't realize that what I'm offering them is radical freedom. By liberating poets from the hopeless task of catering to an external audience, I'm making it possible for them to "follow their bliss," as Joseph Campbell once put it. It won't be an easily attained bliss, since all serious art is demanding and draining, but it is a bliss that will be genuine, honest, and one's own. When you have an interior audience you can write what you want, and nor be second-guessed by a rat-pack of arbiters who aren't even identifiable. You can write to please yourself, and to suit your own characteristic style and perceptions. Remember this the next time some denimed Marxist schmuck in a poetry workshop says that you ought to write poems about slum clearance. Just laugh in his face, and tell him that your interior audience has no interest in the subject. Isn't the prospect of such freedom exhilarating?
Well, maybe it isn't to dwarfs. They're utterly terrified by intellectual independence, and much prefer the warm security blanket of a crowd-pleasing consensus and majority-certified unanimity. Just attend one of their faculty conferences and see.
Failure to understand or to heed the interior audience is endemic among American poets who are Americans first and poets second. This is because America is founded on the sacred principle of selling things for a profit, the corollary of which is that one must always please a potential customer. If one's poetry doesn't make one famous or popular, then one's poetry--according to American standards--is a failure, like a deodorant that garners poor market share. Moreover, if a poet is famous and popular Americans think that he must be competent professionally--they do not associate success with actual achievement, but with the simple fact of celebrity. If you think this crass, commercialized attitude hasn't affected poetry, think harder. The current poetry scene is awash with ambitious go-getters on the make for grant money, prizes, and sinecures, but whose actual poetic gifts are negligible.
About two years ago one of my female students, who doggedly plugged away at writing godawful poetry to accompany rap music, actually said the following to me: "I don't really care if my poetry's good--but I definitely want to hit it big and be famous." I long ago ceased being shocked by such an attitude, since it is pretty much general among young people today. The silliness of a coed sophomore? Not exclusively. There is an aspiring formalist poet here in New York City who for years has begged me to put out a joint "manifesto" with her. "A manifesto of what?" I always ask. "Oh, it doesn't matter," she replies, "as long as it gets us some publicity in the poetry world!" Are these two women much different?
If you aspire to poetry because you want to be lionized and feted and interviewed and published, then you have no interior audience other than your own venal ambition and vanity. Here's some free advice: Take a sensible course in securities investment, and get rich that way. Do you really need to infest the world of literature with your self-promotion and vulgar hype? Once again, my thoughts return to my students. Some want to be doctors, with all the money and prestige that the position supposedly carries, but none of them are especially interested in healing people. Others want to be lawyers, for the rewards that a law practice can bring, but they are not especially concerned with law or justice or equity. Some plan to enter the ministry, but they don't actually believe in God or an afterlife. A sizeable percentage of the stupider students want to be rock musicians, for the sybaritic lifestyle that it seems to offer, but they have no particular love of music, and most can't even read it. If you want a picture of what America will be like in 2025, think about those students and the cultural ramifications of their worldview.
A vast number of people want the hypothetical prestige that adheres to the name of "poet," but many of these same people haven't the slightest interest in the art itself, or any motivation to master it. Their only concern is to please some external audience that will ratify them as celebrities. This sick desire is typical of contemporary America, where people seem, perversely, to prefer acting out a role to actually being something, and to favor replicas over the genuine article. Future ages will, I am sure, see this fascination with false surfaces, ersatz substitutes, and fakery as the distinguishing characteristic of our time.
I'm trying to suggest, for poets at least, a way out of that suffocating
world of illusion and virtual reality. Find your interior audience,
which is the sole anchor to reality in the midst of this carnival of hype
and fraudulence. Remember that genuine poetry, like all genuine arts, exists
purely for its internal esthetic perfection. The only way you can
contribute to poetry's perfection is by developing your interior audience
and creating work that adheres to its strictures. And forget about that
chimerical illusion, the external audience. Such an audience isn't
worth your time or trouble.
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi