So You Want People to Read Your Poetry?
Why is it that most literate people do not read much poetry? There was a time in England and even America when volumes of poetry sold as well as novels did. But who really reads poetry today? Even among my fellow English teachers, there are many who admit with some chagrin that they do not especially like poetry, or that they feel they do not understand it. They like novels and plays, but not poetry. As the Amazon.com lists attest, there are still many people who like to read fiction, biography, history, and even philosophy and theology. Why, then, do most people who enjoy reading still not read poetry? When I get the chance, I like to ask people why they don’t like (or think they like) poetry. Or, more precisely, which poetry they have read and disliked. Typically, they had been exposed to poetry that was (a) predominantly twentieth-century, (b) written in free-verse, and (c) notably emotive. Put another way, when people say they “don’t like poetry,” they have in mind poetry like that of e. e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg. They almost never have in mind poetry like that of Dante or Shakespeare or George Herbert.
Anyone who wishes to promote the reading of poetry, as I do, should especially promote poetry with the following characteristics:
While free verse is a legitimate mode of poetic expression, it has significant limitations. It taxes the reader’s attention and frequently degenerates into prosaic self-indulgence. Good formal verse–especially rhyming, metrical verse–renders the poetic matter interesting and memorable. Like any good art, poetry should appeal immediately to the senses, and especially to our auditory senses of rhythm and aural pattern. A poem that fails or refuses to appeal to our senses may yet be a good poem, but it will never be a widely read poem. It is worth noticing that there is very little comic verse written in free verse, and that almost no children enjoy free verse on any topic. In my own teaching of poetry, I find that my students quickly find themselves enjoying formal poets like Donne, Pope, and Wordsworth, which somewhat prepares them to grapple with T. S. Eliot, but Eliot is nearly incomprehensible without having first been saturated in the formal poets.
2. Accessible Language.
A poet who wishes to be widely read must use language that makes sense. I do not necessarily mean that a poet must use “the language really used by men,” but a poet must at least appear to use words to mean what most people mean when they use them. W. H. Auden, a poet whom I admire a great deal, too frequently uses words that have private connotations or esoteric definitions, which leaves the uninitiated reader baffled. Blake was better at using language that could be understood in both its ordinary and its private senses. A poet who chooses to use a private vocabulary should not complain about not being widely read, as a person who chooses to live in a remote area should not complain about being infrequently visited.
3. Interesting Content.
What is the proper subject of poetry? The ancient Greeks would have said “war.” The Anglo-Saxons would have said “heroic deeds.” The Renaissance sonneteers would have said “erotic love.” But what is the dominant subject of modern and contemporary poetry? Personal feelings. Although we live in an age obsessed with gossip and investigative journalism, the poetry of personal feelings has not gripped the public imagination. After all, there is a difference between a poet who writes about her feelings because she knows they will be of interest to others and a poet who thinks her feelings worth writing about merely because they are hers. Any poet who wishes to be read must write about things that interest other people. But what potential poetic subjects are interesting to others? Perhaps after Longfellow, it is difficult to take narrative verse wholly seriously, and yet the success of Dr. Seuss shows that many people enjoy hearing stories told in verse. And whatever happened to erotic poetry? The twentieth century produced a few good erotic poems, but no great poets whose primary concern was romantic love. And is there yet any serious contender for the great love poet of the twenty-first century? I do hope to see a few good theological poets emerge in the next few decades, but between Dante in the Middle Ages and T. S. Eliot in the twentieth century, they have a high standard to live up to. And what about political satire? Most satiric verse is now set to music, and in that mode it does reach the public’s ear, but I suspect that there is a ready readership for good satiric poems as such.
I am not deploring free verse or confessional poetry or esoteric language as such. The “difficult” poets of the twentieth century are some of my personal favorites. But it is natural that the general reading public, at least in America, is not automatically attracted to contemporary poetry, which is very much the heir of literary modernism. I certainly want to help the reading public refine its poetic tastes, though I wish there were more contemporary poets willing to meet the public half-way.
Off the top of my head, here are a few first-rate poets who did not need to sacrifice sophistication for accessibility. They were not all read widely in their own time, but they can and do appeal to the non-specialist reader: George Herbert, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Frost. I hope to find several contemporary poets to add to this list.
Stephen Schuler holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University and is an assistant professor of English at the University of Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. He is currently working on a book about the theology of W. H. Auden.