Josh Corey has three questions for me in his response to my post from last Friday. Go read his whole post (and Josh, I haven't enough of your poetry to say whether I would include you among the foolishly contented poets), but I'm going to quote the questions in full here just to make it easy for you, dear reader.
1) Do you sincerely believe that if we all wrote poetry that rhymes or otherwise follows traditional forms and carefully avoided philosophical or "theory" references in favor of carefully unmediated-seeming narratives about daily life that poetry would become a popular art again?
I don't know of anyone who believes that, and anyone who does is a fool. But here are some dismal numbers and comments for you, from David Orr's review in the New York Times today (no link because it will soon disappear into the for-pay archives) of the 2004 Best American Poetry, edited by Lyn Hejinan:
For poets, the notable distinction of this Best American edition will be that it contains nothing from such traditional sources as Poetry, The Paris Review or The Yale Review, and is instead chock-full of work from newer magazines like SHINY and POOL and No: A Journal of the Arts. To put the adventurousness of this editorial decision in perspective, however, consider that the circulation of Pool is approximately 1,000; for The Yale Review it's 7,000; and for Cat Fancy it's 240,000. And if this year's editor has scorned The Paris Review, she hasn't exactly passed up the known for the unknown: of the 75 writers here, 41 have previously appeared in a version of ''Best American Poetry,'' a typical ratio for the series.
Now, Cat Fancy readers are probably not generally a good target audience for serious poetry, but in the year 2000 the circulation of The Atlantic Monthly was even larger: 478,861 educated readers of a magazine which often devotes 20 or more pages to serious discussion of books, and it is very clear from poetry book sales numbers that in a year's time those half a million readers don't buy even one book of poetry each.
The problem isn't that poetry is not a popular art, but that for most of its natural audience, it doesn't even exist.
Here's Don Paterson, from his T. S. Eliot Lecture, which I found via the just-added-to-that-long-list-on-the-left Exultations and Difficulties:
… on the one hand we have the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum. They infantilise our art: chicken-soup anthologies full of lousy poems; silly workshop exercises where you write a poem in the voice of your socks; ultra- 'accessible' poetry programs, where the general public text in poems to be read out on the show. …
On the other hand we have the Postmoderns, who have made the fatal error of thinking that theory and practice form a continuum. They don't: this foolish levelling of the playing field in favour of the merely clever has led to an art-practice with no effective internal critique.
So what do we do? There is no way — and certainly no need — to make poetry popular in the way, say John Clancy is popular, but surely we can — and if what we have to say is significant we should — try to recapture some of that half-million strong Atlantic audience. This answer is already far too long, but I'll nevertheless finish with a fairly lengthy quote from Paterson's lecture:
The way forward, it seems to me, lies in the redefinition of 'risk.' To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world's greatest living playwright. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism — that's to say by the time it reaches the page, it's less real anger than a celebration of one's own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one's mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it. Neither is 'risk' the deployment of disjunctive syntax, innovatory punctuation or wee apropos-of-nothing allusions to Heisenberg and Lacan; because anyone can do that, too. Risk, of the sort that makes readers feel genuinely uncomfortable, excited, open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of their self-transformation is quite different.
Real danger flirts with the things we most dread as poets. Perhaps the biggest risk of all is that of being largely understood and then found to be talking a pile of garbage. But risk is also writing with real feeling, as Frost did, while somehow avoiding sentimentality; simplicity, as Cavafy did, and somehow avoiding artlessness; daring to be prophetic, as Rilke did, and miraculously avoiding pretentiousness; writing with real originality, as Dickinson did, while somehow avoiding cliché (since for a reader to be blown away by the original phrase it must already be partly familiar to them, if they are to register the transformation; a point fatally misunderstood by every generation of the avant-garde, which is one reason they are stylistically interchangeable). The narrowest of these paths, though, the poets' beautiful tightrope-walk, is the one between sense and mystery - to make one, while revealing the other.
Still with me? I'll be much quicker with the other questions. Here's the second:
2) Do you really see groups of friends who read and champion each other's work as nothing but a drag on originality and/or popularity? What's wrong with poetry as a means toward friendship?
For the friends, if they're very clear they're engaged in a parlor game, it's no problem at all. If they think of themselves as doing more than that, as making a serious contribution to the art, then they had better find a way to convince readers outside their circle. What else could "champion each other's work" mean? Saying "attaboy" or "attagirl"? If what they're doing could truly enhance the art and they don't try to reach outside, then they have instead contributed to the diminution of poetry. If they seriously try and can't reach out, then they don't yet have a contribution to make, and they need to know that so they can dig deeper.
3) Who said poetry was a guttering flame? Not me. Poetry feels more intense and more relevant and more necessary to me than ever. And I continue firmly to believe that what feels necessary to me is bound to be necessary to other people. I refuse to sacrifice the intensity of language set free from superficial intention for a wider audience that would be correspondingly diffuse in their attachment.
No one buys poetry. People still buy novels, paintings, and music; they spend their money on plays, concerts, and exhibitions. If serious poets will not write poems that serious readers will read, then the poetry people read and hear will be reduced to sentimental pablum, rap, and cowboy poems. I'd rather try Paterson's way: the poets' beautiful tightrope-walk, is the one between sense and mystery — to make one, while revealing the other.