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So You Want People to Read Your Poetry?

November 26, 2010

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:

1. Form.

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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle Roise permalink
    November 27, 2010 3:39 am

    Question that has crossed my mind regarding poetry in recent decades: is it possible that most poetry of our time has been set to music ( Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” comes to mind as I’ve recently enjoyed that piece) or would you consider lyrics another art altogether? I have enjoyed Billy Collins’ work. Thoughts?

    • Steve permalink
      November 27, 2010 4:26 am

      Yes, I think that song lyrics are the most common type of popular poetry, and while a good many song lyrics are not particularly poetic (or at least not good poetry), there are song writers who are putting some good poetry to music. If I were more attuned to the pop music scene(s), I’m sure I could name a few.

      But even very pedestrian song lyrics still bear traces of their poetic ancestors. I know an English professor who teaches the conventions of lyric love poetry with illustrations drawn from country-western songs that the students all know. (I don’t like country-western music myself, but I will give it this: the good artists in that genre take the trouble to make their lyrics rhyme and scan, and they tell clever stories to boot.) I’m afraid, though, that a lot of popular music has gone the same route as postmodern poetry–narcissistic ramblings made only slightly tolerable by electric guitar accompaniment. Perhaps more contemporary poets should learn to play the guitar…

      Popular music is about the only source of contemporary erotic poetry that I know of. I posed the question to a colleague of mine: where are the contemporary erotic poets? We spent the next couple hours in his office leafing through books of contemporary poetry with very little success. What we did find was a disturbing trend toward disembodiment–poems about dreams, fantasies, abstractions, and other escapes from the body. (Wendell Berry was a notable exception. His “Country of Marriage” is a refreshing change from the usual contemporary fare.) We also noted that, with the exception of Sappho and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, very few women write love poems of any kind. That still puzzles me.

  2. November 27, 2010 4:50 pm

    I found this essay both extremely interesting, succinct, and informative, but also, as an art historian, I was struck how strong the parallels are to analogous observations that could as well be made of modern and contemporary art and its audience – or shortage thereof. Much appreciated.

    • Steve permalink
      November 27, 2010 7:35 pm

      Indeed, I suspect that similar things have happened across the arts. Jazz comes to mind. A once-populist genre is now divided between the concert hall and elevator music, and while there are good jazz musicians writing and playing today, the general public isn’t much interested in buying good, new jazz. As with poetry and art, I don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps a genre must die entirely in order to have a shot at being resurrected. Drama has done that a couple different times in Europe throughout the centuries.

  3. Douglas Mitchell permalink
    November 27, 2010 5:25 pm

    Very persuasive and sensible. We seem to have divided things into the heirs of the modernists and the children of the Beats. The latter conduct poetry ‘slams’ and emote to the roars or catcalls of urban bars; the former publish in little read academic quarterlies and reviews and send out the occasional volume from a university press (in order to secure tenure in their MFA gig).

    Still, there are very good poets out there writing good poems. Perhaps something will come of the shakeup in the publishing industry and on-line journals beginning to get more traction.

    • Steve permalink
      November 27, 2010 7:47 pm

      Thanks, Doug, for showing up and weighing in here. It reminds me of the time Flannery O’Connor responded to the question, “Do you think the universities stifle writers?” Her reply: “I don’t think they stifle them enough.” Academic support of the arts (poetry, orchestral music, painting) has certainly helped keep a lot of good artists in business, but I don’t know that the proliferation of MFA programs has been really helpful in developing and publicizing good poetry and fiction that appeals to a wide audience. Of course some good writers have been trained in MFA programs or those like them (O’Connor was one), but the academic nature of a lot of the arts has had some ill effects. For one, artists become in-bred culturally; their friends and colleagues are all artists too. Also, their art has to be acceptable to academics, and will be judged by academic standards, so by definition the art produced in academia needs to be formally complex, intellectually challenging, and often profoundly ambiguous. It looks good in a tenure review, but it won’t sell at Barnes & Noble or at the annual art show at a mid-sized city.

      I think that fiction is about the only literary genre left in which it is possible to write a complex, challenging work and still have it sell reasonably well. They are read by people who are educated, yes, but not just by people with an English degree. The contemporary novel still gives me hope that it is possible to produce art, music, and poetry that is both aesthetically excellent and appealing to a broad audience.

  4. November 28, 2010 10:37 pm

    Sadly Steve, this reads like the first lesson of Robin Williams character in “Dead Poets Society” when he gets then to rip out the page on “How to Analyse a Good Poem.” Modern religious poetry in free verse sells extremely well…eg. Les Murray, Kevin Hart, Seamus Heaney and R.S.Thomas. All write theologically and spiritually insightful poetry with vivid imagery, self-reflection and emotive language. I’ve always been intrigued at how few novels or collections of poetry are produced by academics in English faculties. “Those who can do….?”

    • Steve permalink
      November 29, 2010 7:45 pm

      Oh dear, I never liked that movie…

      I’m not sure I’d call Heaney’s poetry religious or theological, though it certainly attempts a spiritual dimension. I suppose I might have included more contemporary poets that I respect in my list at the end–Seamus Heany, Eavan Boland, Derek Walcott, Wendy Cope… My own frustration comes, though, not with the few notable poets of the century, but with the many lesser-known poets whom I suspect will remain obscure because they won’t or can’t write poetry that has a wide appeal. There are plenty of would-be novelists in English departments across the country, but they have problems similar to those of poets in academia. It’s hard to write good fiction that nevertheless has a wide appeal. I suppose that’s true of all the arts.

      But I hope that the poets you mention represent a revival of good, accessible poetry. I’ll admit that I don’t know R. S. Thomas’s work nearly as well as I ought to. But as I was revising this piece, I was reminded that the state of poetry in America (from which I’m writing) may not be what it is in the British Isles, for better or worse. Americans have long been pragmatic, straightforward people, and I think that the ornament of poetic language and the ambiguity of even good poems tend to put them off. But since this blog is more or less international, I’d be interested in hearing what kind of poetry is being read or not read in other Anglophone countries.

      Your reply does give me hope, at least, that I’m not asking the impossible. There are days when I wonder whether a poet, or any kind of artist, is inevitably forced to choose between the aesthetically good and the potentially popular, between fidelity to the craft and market conditions. But then I pick up George Herbert again and find that, no, a poem can be both accessible and good.

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