EP&M Online Essay

Not Again!  Poetry and Audience


Arthur Mortensen

The only useful diet is to exercise and to eat much less food…how not to eat
too much food has
paradoxically turned into one of the biggest food industries...
This is all part of a general utopianism that characterizes Western society; the
search for the perfect life comes to embrace the search for the perfect food....like
other utopianisms, this easily tips over into fanaticism.  With the zeal of
religious sectarians, people organize to hunt down restaurants that offend
against the latest dietary fads....
                    Robin Fox, “The Quest for the Holy Grail”,
                        from  The Challenge of Anthropology

Speaking earnestly about poetry and audience is a diet that should tire us out.  Honestly, if nobody reads the stuff, maybe nobody cares.  It's the bland staple that fills many a poetry critic's plate.  Think, however.  Isn't the real question about poets, as Delmore Schwartz remarked fifty years ago?   To set the question, a few outrageous assumptions and analogies might be brought into play.

For example, few questions so try the intellectual classes as to why fewer and fewer adults in developed countries have children.  Across the developed world (including the United States, excluding new immigrants), rates of birth are below replacement.  The nations of Japan and Italy may disappear,  re-occupied by their more fecund neighbors, the Chinese in Japan, and Arabs and Africans in Italy. The same seems likely in France, Spain, Russia, and Canada.  The United States will soon be predominantly Asian and Latino.  The most successful diet in the developed world, it seems, is avoiding childbirth. The obvious first question is simple:  why?  

Theories inspire volume after volume of studies, illuminating theses of cause as diverse as post-war exhaustion to water pollution.  Vast sociological tracts, combining statistical analysis, economic and gender theory, historical and political interpretation, have been offered up as slaughtered lambs on the altar of demographics. But couldn’t it be boiled down to evaluating a commodities market in reproductive services, where something universally available costs more than its perceived worth?  Or is it contradictory to say that commodities can be overpriced?   The usual syllogism follows.  Human beings must reproduce to survive; human beings have a powerful drive to reproduce; therefore, price doesn’t matter.

The trouble with simple reasoning is that it excludes the contingent.  For example, human beings also have a strong urge to be comfortable, which includes sensual pleasures from eco-hiking in Nepal to dinner at Maxim’s to private enjoyment of pornography on the Worldwide Web.  (It is no secret among young women that men who pursue the latter are notably uninterested in the real thing.)  The drive to those comforts is more often distracted by children than enhanced.  For another, there is no general shortage of human beings.  In the United States, whose native population is declining, the flood of immigrants suggests a fecundity wholly out of line with whether or not one has one’s own children.   While Freudians and the Vatican may argue that the what-does-it-matter-if-I-have-any response exemplifies the death instinct, it is plainly observable that adults surrounded by easy comforts are less likely to make the sacrifices required to bear and raise children.  Why should they? Let the gardeners do that;  it will give them something to do besides eat.

We might also look at poetry as a commodity.   God knows there’s no shortage of contemporary poems from publishers claiming to represent high culture.  A rough count of such journals currently published in the United States might well exceed 3,000.   According to Editor & Publisher, there are over 1,500 new titles of poetry published every year in the US.  That’s enough paper to fill a row of grain silos.  Isn’t that a proof of market and audience?

Actually, there is no market in poetry described as high art, at least as an acquisition editor at Bettelsman would understand one.  According to the aforementioned publisher’s bible, Editor & Publisher, the average sale for each new poetry collection by a single author is less than 300 copies.  Considering that more than 20,000 Americans list their profession as “poet,” it is likely that the only purchasers of new poetry titles are poets themselves.  And those sales may be required purchases by students in their compatriots’s classes at university.  (This is an old, lucrative game.) Further, the vast majority, perhaps as high as 99%, of books and journals are subsidized by foundations or universities.  Not only is there no perceivable market outside of fellow poets, there is no need for one in that portion of poetry output self-described as a product of high culture.  But there is a huge market, measured in the billions of dollars, for poetry nonetheless.  Where?

While high culture fanatics might object to this idea, we consume a lot of this commodity, though in the decidedly non-high culture mode of rap, rock and country lyrics, cowboy poetry, not to mention limericks and other light verse.  What kind of market is being addressed by this literary fecundity?

Surprisingly enough, it’s where people still value what Dr. Salemi describes as “the traditional pomps of poetry,” which include meter, rhyme, comprehensible tropes, coherent narrative, and recognizable structure.  Where’s the connection between the decline of biological fecundity, surely the original commodity, in the developed countries and the complete loss of a readership for high culture poets in America?

Those of us in this field of endeavor face this question rather like an increasing majority of adults do in Japan, France, and America when contemplating the prospect of children.   While deep down, the real explanation may be that it’s more comfortable not to bother, not to mention vastly cheaper, it is more intellectually engaging (another pleasure surely) to generate exotic rationalizations for not pursuing a standard (relatively standard) path.  Among the favorite rationalizations, often called theses by Ph.D. candidates,  are the following:

1. The inferiority of the reader:

This is more often found in conversations over cocktails than in essays or books.   The opinion also bears a startling similarity to one held by many single American women, that “there are no men anymore.”  True, unless a man makes himself invisible, surprisingly easy for American men nowaday, he won’t hear that opinion from women.  Similarly, only a subsidized author could afford to set such thinking in print for fear of offending a potential buyer.  As a performance art, expression of opinions barred in print, or for a general public, is common at university watering holes.  It’s also one subject to that vintner’s miracle efficiently described in Latin as in vino veritas.  Unburdened by merlot of the ordinary restraints on civil discourse, the next step is predictable, to engage in prejudicial opinionizing. 

For example, the popular audience today is too ignorant to understand our work (in polite, if inebriated, company, it is best to use the plural, so as not to offend one’s colleagues).  More sophisticated prejudices include this:  the reader must be led to an understanding of modern complexities – I do this by lecturing on each poem before I read it aloud, or by writing an introductory essay.  Another pipes in: better, perhaps,  to feed the reader tidbits, the odd sexual image, or perhaps one of random violence, so, at the end, he or she may say “I read the whole thing.”  This leads inexorably to number two, as with laxatives.

2.  The immeasurable importance of the poet to himself or herself:  

Now we get to the real thing, what’s published or taught in public forums.  You have to follow your own heart is the sentimental version, often heard at well-attended, if required, events starring a self-described poet laureate.  Write for yourself  is the standard creative writing class version.  I have suggested to friends who teach such courses that they have a stamp made with that sentence impressed upon it.  Think of the time saved, the effort! It is important, however, to bear in mind that these sentiments are not the same as “write regardless of the audience’s prejudices,” an approach one can find in the work of numbers of authors both widely-read and and able to look at themselves in the morning. 

One may discover in this another analogy with declining fecundity in developing countries, where a steady theme, whether from Penthouse or Planned Parenthood, is that pleasure may be as valuable a part of sex as having children.  Lately, this has been modified to pleasure with either sex, or with one’s self,  is more valuable than reproduction.  This would be news to students of evolution, except insofar as it suggested a surprise regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs.  When you get away from the integrity question, that is “are you writing regardless of the audience’s prejudices?”, writing for yourself is little different from same-sex marriage or masturbation.  The outcome is likely to be of issue only to the partners involved, whether the spouses or the soloist’s instrument of choice and genitalia.  Not surprisingly, as the subject involves potential embarrassment, this rationalization leads to literary theory:

3.  The irrelevance of the reader:

This theory gained widespread acceptance as poets abandoned what made poetry interesting to listen to and read, memorable, and comprehensible.  The same occurred in the composition of “serious” music.   The logical development of the argument in both arts was elegant.  If the only honest approach to writing or composing is to be free of paralyzing conventions, and if audiences will not be satisfied without those aspects of cultural determinism, then, by God, who needs readers or listeners?

4.  The oppressive nature of standard expectations (such as form, coherence, and
      mastery of the arts of language).

This variation on #3 is listed because it is more popular (and easier to sell).  Among impressionable, and rebellious, youth (a valuable combination for political indoctrination), attacking tradition as oppressive is akin to accusing one’s father or mother of making one unable to relate to a love object, or to make a go of it as a writer with something to say.  After all, parents, like tradition, were there first; they must be responsible for otherwise avoidable failure. This is a repeating American drama.  As we once whacked the surrogates of George the Third during the Revolution, so we continue to beat on assorted kings, queens, and their surrogates today.   This is not all bad.   Imagine being governed by Prince Charles or Elton John.  With the former, we’d have a parade of martyred ex-wives, while with the latter we’d have to applaud a voice only a fan would recognize as being similar to that of 1975. 

A psychoanalyst might add that, as with other narcissistic disorders, a patient might well show an opposite affect, as from an extreme of self-regard to an extreme of self-pity, which leads to another theory: 

5.  The irrelevance of the author (and conversely, the significance of the critic):

In this thesis, the author is regarded as a cultural worker bee, unconscious of either sophisticated politics, or even of his or her own artistic methods.   Inspired by a sort of hormonal mist emanating from critics, the author employs automatic writing (described as creative) to illuminate the precepts of the theorist.  (Tom Wolfe wrote a splendid, hilarious essay about this among New York painters in The Painted Word.)  The author is not even a recognizable person, but a construct of attitudes imposed by an oppressive culture.  The exception would be a woman who is both not in prison and from Havana. This is a French theory, as so many are.  The late François Mitterand once theorized that if he staged an assassination attempt on himself, he would gain political supporters.  After being caught, and after years of total humiliation, he recovered to become the President of France.  So, French theory is not all bad.

One can’t help but notice in this list, which excludes rationalizations too nauseating to detail, a total rejection of the traditional work of a poet, which has been, and in all tribes, cultures, nations, world orders, what you like, to distill both the commonplace and the unique into objet d’arts that are comprehensible, memorable and – uh-oh! – enjoyable.  Enjoyable?

Sounds of shock and horror from the heirs to Oliver Cromwell – doesn’t poetry save people?  Isn’t the receipt of poetry by the benighted more akin to a development grant from the United Methodist Church than to a movie?   Actually, no.  Poetry offers no more salvation for the oppressed, or for the villainous, than having children does for a bad marriage, or for a country that has lost faith in the future.  But, comes the cry, doesn’t poetry offer up coded explanations and illuminations of corruption, oppression, the tyranny of men? 

Certainly, it does.  Milton subverted the story of the Temptation in Paradise Lost by describing Eve’s apple-tasting party in heroic language, strongly suggesting that violating the religious qua royal order lately restored in Britain might be a productive step for human beings.   Aemelia Lanier did the same thing in her Apologie in Defense of Eve, suggesting that a gang of men killing the son of God had to rate at least as high as a sin as that of one woman illegally gaining knowledge by biting an apple.   Neither poet, it is worth noting, abandoned the enjoyable, memorable, and coherent qualities sought by popular audiences in verse as diverse as that of Shakespeare or of Run DMC.  Perhaps both of them wanted to be read.  Their sacrifices to learn the trade bear more than a passing resemblance to two people investing in the future by giving up a little to have children.

But, as in the prospect of having children in a developed country, when the natives’ drive to comfort has been achieved, however relatively – one may feel oppressed not owning a Hatteras or a condo on St. Pete Beach, what does it matter?  It’s easier to rationalize about not doing the work.  One’s income won’t be affected; none of that ever depended upon publication as, say, Charles McCarry’s well-being does on writing publishable novels.  As in a developed country, where the traditional reasons are absent that would amplify a strong, but not irresistable, drive to have children, there are others who can stoop to that sort of thing.   Let the cowboy poets do it, Bonnie Raitt, or Elvis Costello.  And, as with court poets, secure in their sinecures because they’ve mastered the devices and modes of gaining patronage, an audience, like so much of their poetry, does not matter any more than children seem to matter in Japan or France.  And besides, a politically skillful eunuch could become Emperor of Byzantium.

                Arthur Mortensen