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[Back to Essays]

On Reaching New Audiences With Poetry

The major assumption that narrowed the scope and audience of Twentieth Century poetry -- and other arts to some extent -- is that the basic truths of existence (or the deepest truths we can reach) are unconfrontably horrible.

The argument (usually implicit) runs as follows: We moderns now know that life is a meaningless horror, from which we are protected by various stratagems and illusions. Most people don't want to confront these horrors, which would only drive them mad. Therefore, serious works of art cannot be popular. Conversely, to make a work of art more popular, one must make it more corny (untruthful, sentimental, etc.).

Illogical corollary: If a work of art is broadly popular, it must be corny.

Over the past ten years several magazine articles have discussed the notion that poetry has fallen on hard times, reaches a small elite audience and is no longer a part of the mainstream culture. In a 1991 Atlantic article, "Can Poetry Matter?", Dana Gioia argues persuasively that poetry is, indeed, restricted to an unnecessarily narrow audience, having become in large part an inbred offshoot of college creative writing programs. He then proposes that poets take various measures to bring poetry a broader audience, for example, use traditional forms, read from the classics at poetry readings and include other art forms, such as music, at readings.

His solutions don't deal with my opening "major assumption", nor with another major factor keeping poetry from having a broad audience: The fact that large audiences for written material of any complexity are non-existent in this country. Most people are subliterate. When we think of periods when written (not oral) poetry was "popular" (e.g., the best-selling Victorian poetry), we mean that it was popular among the literate. But in those periods the literate were actually literate. In our day, many of the supposed literate are not. If you ask them to read aloud, you can tell. If you ask them to explain or apply what they've just stumbled through, it becomes more obvious.

I don't mean "cultural illiteracy"-- for example, the fact that most people don't know much about their history, Greek myths, geography, etc. - but the more basic inability to read and understand, to recognize words and syntax and get the concepts.

This hits poetry more than other arts, even other written arts. Poetry has always been THE art of the written or spoken word, the art that, above all others, has stressed the need to use the precise word and the need for readers who can appreciate that precision. Poetry's association with the most powerful and efficient uses of language shows in our describing as "poetic" any prose writing that gives special attention to richness or precision of language.

Therefore, the main thing needed to give poetry a broader audience is an increase in literacy. Even oral poetry requires an audience that knows the meanings of words. Programs exist already that, if funded, would restore literacy broadly. (I've been particularly impressed by the techniques developed by an international organization called Applied Scholastics, adopted by several countries for training of teachers.)

However, I know of no programs available to handle the second major obstacle to a large audience for poetry: Among the more-or-less literate, millions buy novels who wouldn't consider buying a book of poems. When I talk to such people about their dislike of poetry, the main response I get is, "I just don't understand poetry." They find poetry inaccessible. Why?

I've met a few people who bemoan the absence of rhyme and meter in most modern poetry, but they are a minority. For most people rhyme and meter are part of what they don't understand. One man (an engineer) told me he was put off as soon as he saw the first letters of each line (in a traditional poem) capitalized. He couldn't understand that. These same people are put off at least as much by the "classics" as by modern poetry. Those classics were, in many cases, forced down their throats in school -- sonnets by Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Longfellow's Hiawatha, etc., memorized without understanding.

It's true that rhyme and meter can be FELT by an audience when a poem is read aloud and make the poem easier to remember. In these respects they increase the accessibility of a poem. However, the constraints of rhyme and meter usually lead the poet to compressed and involved syntax that make the formal sonnet, for example, more difficult to read and understand than a freer form might be. Thus traditional forms can either increase or decrease accessibility.

The same is true for most of the other solutions offered for broadening the appeal of poetry: They can be useful or detrimental, but do not get at the crux of the problem. Mixing media -- for example, music and poetry -- is interesting, but leads to some awfully limp poetry. I tend to stop listening when the poet brings up his flute or guitar accompanist. Usually, both musician and poet use the conjunction as an excuse for endless sentimental riffing. Having readings with both musicians and poets slated to perform is good show-biz (and an idea I favor), but does not necessarily lead to poetry that is, in itself, more accessible.

What DOES make a poem more accessible? Humor? Sometimes - if it's really funny. But humor, too, can be obscure or shocking or repulsive to a broad audience. "Light verse" is often based on insider academic jokes, snobbishly obscure for most readers. And most of us who write poetry feel we have things to say that go beyond the bounds of light verse.

Shorter poems? Sometimes this helps. We live in an age of short attention span, according to the gurus who study our TV addiction. Short and punchy sugarcoats the pill. But most poets would like to find a way to reach readers with longer more ambitious works. And many poets skilled at developing intense poems on a larger canvas don't have the skills required for good short work. Also, short poems can be mystifying. I know readers who, hearing classic haikus, say, "So? What's the point? Is that all?" Three lines of frog jumping into pond, splash, are not everyone's idea of accessible.

Informality? It helps readers put off by the super-serious preciousness they've come to associate with poetry. But then there are the readers who are put off by the absence of the formalities of traditional poetry. They want titles, rhyme, meter, lofty language, etc.

Simplicity? Useful if you have something simple to say that's worth saying. But the point is to make SOMETHING accessible, not to say less, but to get MORE across. If accessibility means that a poet with a complex rich vision must lop off his vision, that's not making poetry accessible. That's offering something accessible by subtracting the poetry. A piece of doggeral may be simple and accessible, but is it poetry? And what sort of simplicity? Kafka's stories are all in a painstakingly simple style, but many readers find them incomprehensible. The teachings of Lao Tse are simple -- or, to some, inscrutable. If, by simplicity, we mean easily understood, then yes, of course, accessible is accessible.

More basically, to increase accessibility, UNDERCUT. That is, to broaden the scope of a communication, get more basic, closer to truth, more universal, etc. This is true in any communication, not just poetry. For example, if two people are arguing about who does what, you might point out that if SOMEONE doesn't get the job done, their company will go under and BOTH will lose their jobs. If two nations are at war and promoting their differences from each other, you might point out that both sides are people and want to survive. Etc. To undercut is to get at basic agreements underlying superficial disagreements.

This concept applies to subject, style or any other aspect of poetry. When an area is in confusion, it's time to retreat to basic agreements and rebuild from there. For example, if a marriage is breaking up, attempts to salvage it will flounder if the couple continues to argue about who gets to watch which TV show. A good marriage counselor will ask them to recall why they married to begin with, what they saw in each other, whether they can re-experience the love they began with.

One way, then, to ensure the inaccessibility of poetry would be to make it difficult for a poet to undercut. For example, if people are taught that those who seek truth inevitably go mad or that the way to achieve truth is to become an alcoholic...

Millions of high-school and college students are taught the profundity of Joseph Conrad's story, Heart of Darkness (upon which the movie Apocalypse Now was based). Here's a rough summary: The narrator, Marlowe, is about to undertake an expedition into darkest Africa. The fiancée of a trader named Kurtz asks Marlowe to look up her lover at his post along the river. Kurtz has dropped out of communication. Something's wrong. What's happened to him? When he left Europe, he was a romantic, full of ideals and poetry and civilized notions.

Marlowe, in the course of his voyage, sees a lot of corrupt, money-mad traders who exploit the natives, etc. When he finds Kurtz, the idealist, he finds a madman who's set himself up as a god among the savages and has heads of some who opposed him on stakes outside his hut. Kurtz is near death and delirious, but regains enough of his sanity just before he dies to look "into the heart of darkness" within us all and say - his last words - "The horror! The horror!" Marlowe goes back to Europe, gives Kurtz's relatives and betrothed a sanitized version of Kurtz's death, because we poor humans aren't up to confronting the cruel truth of this terrible darkness at the heart of civilization, so must maintain our cherished illusions.

Most of us recognize this as mainstream for this century. Kurtz's last words are T. S. Eliot's epigraph for "The Hollow Men". But this notion of the unconfrontable darkness or savagery or meaninglessness of existence (sometimes based on the modern "scientific" world view, sometimes expressed as a decaying remnant of religion -- Puritanism minus Grace) runs through a few generations of English literature. Existentialism is an attempt to "solve" it. Surrealism is an expression of it and a solution to it, hymning the profundity of the Freudian unconscious, to be approached only obliquely. In most 20th Century literature, it comes up as, either the unconfrontable truth or the desperate solution to that truth, for example, the idea that one must have faith in something in order to have a faith - ala T. S. Eliot and Pound, who glory in "tradition" in a self-consciously nostalgic way that tells us they are fighting a rear-guard action in a retreat.

This has meant that poets, in particular, who have always stressed vision - which implies truth - as a function of great poetry have found themselves with a choice among writing (1) grim shocking stuff to jolt people into seeing the awful truth; (2) obscure stuff that elaborately non-confronts the truth or hints at it, sneaks up on it; (3) complexly, tentatively affirmative stuff, where the author carefully "comes to terms with the meaninglessness of existence" by means of complex ironies, "wry self-deprecating humor" and almost apologetic joys that pop up in life despite all our theories; or (4) poetry that evades paraphrasable message altogether: The poem as pure music or image, truth in things, worship of surface.

Poets have been told for decades that they must be outsiders, alienated - that, essentially, the potential broad audience is not worthy of them.

(Poetry over the past ten years or so seems to me to be much more varied than what I've described, with much that challenges the above description, but for the many people who don't read poetry, the above description is accurate. Since major publishers and distributors have decided that "poetry doesn't sell", they don't TRY to find accessible poets and invest in marketing them widely, so most people don't know that many poets are writing works they might enjoy. My description of poetry, above, applies to the poetry that over several decades has proven to publishers that, indeed, poetry doesn't sell.)

My contention is that, apart from a lowering of literacy in the West in this century (more people literate, but to a lower standard of literacy), the main reason why poetry has a narrow audience is that this big assumption that the basic truths of existence are grim and unconfrontable and that any penetration of truth is a move into horror - this assumption is, not only unpopular, but also a limited vision that strangles poetry.

Here are some ways this makes "serious poetry" inaccessible to most readers:

1. The grimness is depressing.

2. The value of shock is much overrated, in literature as in psychiatry: Yes, if you throw children into the river to teach them to swim, some will learn - but most will drown. If you want to teach swimming or anything else, you offer a series of easy steps that build up gradually to mastery. Shock "therapy" cures depression (when it does) by wiping out memories and abilities and moving man toward zombie. Shock in life and literature is justified as a way of jarring people out of fixed ideas and attitudes. But shock flings a person from one fixidity into another - explaining, perhaps, the fanaticism of converts. Shock is not what its RECIPIENTS need. It's what its PURVEYORS need to deliver. It's a symptom of the desperation of poets who cannot reach an audience, of psychiatrists who cannot help patients. It is vengeance masquerading as education or therapy. It loses readers (and patients).

3. The demand that anything positive be complex narrows readership to those willing to unravel the complexities.

4. Apart from its unpleasantness, the often unrelieved grimness -- especially when despair is asserted to be the most profound vision attainable -- is simply unreal to many readers, not true to their sense of life.

5. The grimness has become doctrinaire. It may once have had, at least, the value of freshness. Now it's the main cliché of our times: the obligatory vivid grotesquery or matter-of-fact downbeat understatement. Yes, the Holocaust is hard to confront. But only because it is unreal to us because we care for each other much more than we typically admit. The death of children torments us because it cuts them off from a future that has in it positive possibilities. The inhumanity of the killers shocks us because we know we are capable of better things. If we cling endlessly to the shock and insist on being permanently overwhelmed by what man has done to man, I wonder if we are not protesting too much our not being part of all that.

This assumption also encourages writers looking for a broader audience to go in the direction of corn - for example, the beautiful sadness of being a victim - rather than to seek more vision, more horror.

In my own experience, when I've encountered evil or insane people and had a chance to get to know them, I've found the inception of their evil/insanity in some positive impulse gone astray. I have not found my life meaningless or devoid of positive value, I do not find the universe -- at least not MY universe -- a spiritual void; and I do not find, when I look into my own motives for action, that at root they are discreditable. I do not find joy a rare complex phenomenon. I do not find most people incapable of appreciating deep feelings. This is probably not an acceptable statement from a "serious poet".

I would contend that the gloom-and-doomsters take a glib view of the world around them, are too easily overwhelmed by its horrors, are reacting against even glibber Victorian optimism, have swallowed nineteenth-century myths about the power of science -- while rejecting nineteenth-century myths about the benevolence of science -- and are pathetically afraid of being accused by the literati of being sentimental or simplistic.

For example, for decades most poets have assumed that modern science has somehow dispelled the "myth" or "dogma" of personal immortality. Modern scientists don't usually share this view, especially those in the more effective and testable sciences (e.g., physics). This dogma (for that's what it is) comes mainly from Wilhelm Wundt and his followers in psychology and psychiatry. It's treated in their writings and in the writings of such psychologists as Skinner as a proven fact, when, actually, it's an assumption they make at the start to justify their long-range approach to the human condition: Men are stimulus-response machines that can be made happy by conditioning (ala Walden Two). This is dogma coming from a "science" that has always been primarily a political tool for controlling the masses (Pavlov in Russia, Wundt and the rest of the Leipzig school in Germany, with their "scientific" descendents, including Freud and most of current psychology and psychiatry).

Not that poets are happy about the loss of souls, no, they often flaunt the beautiful sadness of this unpleasant "truth".

Is wisdom a fad that flipflops from century to century? Those called wise over the millennia usually affirmed the reality of the spirit -- I don't mean the priests with their enforced dogmas, but those whose names still carry an aura of veneration, for example, Buddha, Socrates and Jesus.

But an attempt to justify a non-despairing view of life is beyond the ambitions of this essay. I simply suggest here that such a viewpoint is arguable. My point is that so long as poets and other artists insist that the most profound truth is "horror" or nausea or meaninglessness (where "meaningless" is uttered in the very meaningfully distraught tones of the Existentialists), then any attempt to undercut in the direction of universality will alienate a broad audience. But undercut is the key to accessibility.

Thus, either poetry is doomed to a small and shrinking audience, or poets must acquire the toughness (it takes toughness to be able to continue to love others despite betrayals, for example) and maturity and integrity needed to get beyond flip alienation, super-sensitive victimhood or the complex, tentative affirmations mandated by academicians. Such measures as those suggested by Dana Gioia are temporizing in comparison.

What we need is, simply, more vision - not more technique, not more power, freshness, authenticity, etc., but more vision.

And where we find such poets, we (whoever we are - poets, readers, editors) should push them forward. We have poets writing work that is good poetry and would be accessible to millions of readers (enjoyed, even BOUGHT) if it were marketed to those readers. I know this is so, because I hear it on occasion at open poetry readings, poems that grab the whole audience, evoke laughter and tears, find several people eager to talk to the unknown poet during the break.

Editors need to put some attention on finding and publishing work that has the potential to reach a large audience. In other words, we need editors who include among their criteria "poems that, without being corny, are broadly accessible". This should be at least as strong a criterian as the more common "strikingly original difficult work to be saved from undeserved obscurity" or "raw and jolting" or "for the discriminating reader".

The two ends of the communication line already exist: Poets who write accessible and high quality poems and readers who, if they knew about them, would buy books of these poems. What's missing is the distribution lines. Standing on my front steps and yelling, I can reach two or three neighbors and a few passersby. With a computer and modem and copying machines, I can reach a few hundred more. I can self-publish and hope for a thousand readers. Each Harlequin Romance sells in the hundreds of thousands. But these have a huge marketing investment behind them. An individual poet or even a group of poets, in the absence of major stars (there are none), doesn't have the resources of a major publisher, the communication lines into thousands of bookstores, TV networks and book reviewers.

Publishers who don't print poetry and reviewers who don't review poetry and bookstores who carry little and never display it prominently offer as justification the "fact" that poetry doesn't sell. Of course not: Nobody is SELLING it. When a major publisher puts out a poetry book, it's a loss leader, and it's always a "prestigious" poet -- meaning a poet prestigious in a narrow academic circle, writing work unlikely to succeed with a broader audience. It's a publisher's alms to "culture", not a marketing endeavor.

Has it occurred to those who want to contribute to culture that anything that puts ALL the people of a culture into better communication with each other would much increase the vitality of that culture? I remember the exhilaration in the '60's of realizing that I and Leonard Bernstein and millions of teenagers and grown-ups were all digging the Beatles together.

Publishers, thinking of the prestigious Poetry and New Yorker poetry (often elitist stuff aimed at fellow faculty members) or the best-known non-academic poems, say Ginsberg (really quite academic) or Bukowski (often flipping his finger at potential readers, though he's quite accessible at his best -- and has a wider audience than most poets), have the fixed idea that poetry won't sell, but the major publishers probably haven't broadly MARKETED a living poet since Odgen Nash. When's the last time a poet from a large New York publishing house plugged his book on the "Tonight Show"?

There's the question: What sort of poet COULD conceivably plug poems on the "Tonight Show"? Rod McKuen could. Comedians often go over well. So someone could write a bunch of gags (or McKuenesque lovely sad sunsets) and call them poems. OR someone could look at what in the comedy (or in McKuen, who is better than academicians want to admit) reaches people and use that to reach people with poetry. These two approaches are not the same. In the first, the poet becomes a comedian. In the second, the poet undercuts, finds something in common with the comedian's successful actions and emphasizes it.

For example, the stand-up comedians always talk TO their audiences. And they work hard at making sure the listeners GET what they're saying. Many featured poets I've heard at readings talk to their audiences somewhat in their remarks between poems (often their most lively communications), then begin to read (or chant) their poems to some unnamed muse. They speak BEFORE, not TO their audiences. And they often seem not to care if anyone understands what they are saying.

Of course, these are symptoms of the larger dilemmas discussed earlier: Why should a poet try hard to be understood when he knows what he has to say will only make his audience as miserable as he is? Or when he despises his audience? How can the poet speak - except in an snide or angry, declamatory tone - TO people he despises or fears? How enthusiastically can a poet search for common ground with an audience, when he has been indoctrinated into the belief that what we have in common with each other is that we are all vile or pointless or doomed? Or that our redeeming traits can only be perceived by an uncommonly complex, educated and hyper-sensitive intellect?

The notion that most people aren't "up" to good poetry is as illogical as saying that children's literature must be childish.

Poets also need to re-examine their assumptions about poetry to throw out excess baggage. A poet with a strong, positive view of life may find himself hobbled by the consideration that poetry must be complex, ironic and difficult, simply because these are the current credentials for an academic poet. These complex ironies ARE essential to a frightened poet, just as combat troops under bombardment need heavy armor and camouflage. But if troops are under fire too long, they may forget that any other life is possible, may teach their children never to go out into the street without heavy combat armor and camouflage.

Similarly, the 20th-Century fetish of "the vivid specific image" and avoiding simple direct statements of abstract ideas (the exact reverse of the aesthetic of 18th-Century poetry) can lead a poet to add layers of inaccessibility: the need to translate each direct statement into image, loading poems with "specifics" outside the experience of most readers, etc. Vivid imagery, complex ironies and all the other staples of this century's poetry are tools that can either increase or hinder accessibility. When popular tools are confused with "poetry" (as if a screwdriver were carpentry), they become hindrances.

Thus, unless the undercut is thorough, a poem accessible in some ways will be inaccessible in others, an accessible vision, for example, hindered by the trappings of poetic respectability. Poets who are concerned about the lack of a large audience for poetry should consider what they have to say to the large audience they'd like to have and how they can best go about getting it across to that audience. And that "how" should include the basics of communication: How does one get in touch with a person or audience? How does one get that person or audience to listen, to understand? How does one become, oneself, someone to whom others will gladly listen? Should one say it with flowers? Will anyone understand this allusion?

(This should not concern a beginning poet, who has enough to think about, just getting the words on paper, learning, as a poet, to talk. When you teach a baby to talk, you don't worry about whether the new talk is tactful, brilliant, etc. You just want talk. But poets who know what they're doing, who write well and easily, who consider themselves professional, these poets should begin to address accessibility.)

Cut back to basics. Bypass the standards of editors, academia, etc. If poetry isn't reaching large audiences, that's a breakdown in communications. What causes communications to break down? How are communications patched up? UNDERCUT. And if, in the course of undercutting, you reach a grim "truth", undercut further. Before the disappointment was hope. Before the hate must have been love. Before the shock of "meaningless" was whatever leads us to care for meaning.

If all else fails, a more ethical life is worth a try. It's hard to talk intimately to a large audience when one has secrets from friends. It's hard to talk to people we despise, and it's hard NOT to despise people when we violate widely-shared agreements, for then we cling to our contempt for others to justify our own actions. The notion that an artist should live a wild and destructive life is a wonderful way to destroy a culture by ensuring that artists "discover" life to be a grim farce.

And it is, no doubt, a consolation to a drugged, frustrated, lonely, mean-spirited person to note that others are worse than he, to scratch at the scars of the Holocaust and make them bleed, to persuade himself that prosperous suburbs are rife with "happy-face" people who are doing horrible things to the planet, etc.

There's some truth to all that. But if that truth impedes communication, there must be a more basic truth that will facilitate communication. Just the fact that we continue to reach out with our poems tells me that. Given literacy, that's all there is to accessibility and poetry capable of reaching large audiences.

Last updated December 13, 2004