Thursday, May 17, 2007


I just posted this at PFFA, but thought I may as well put it here too.

A UK poetry editor said recently that he disliked poems that had designs on the reader, and it does seem as though this view is quite common. For example:

John Keats - "We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us."

Robert Mezey (blurb) - “What I value in poetry, and find in Clive Watkins’s poems, is a faithful, accurate, attentive eye that is always focused on the subject at hand, a mind that is never self-regarding, does not strike postures, has no designs on the reader. (This alone would distinguish him from most of his contemporaries.)”

Paul Batchelor on UK poet, Penelope Shuttle (from Poetry Review) – “Whether the writing of such poetry was therapeutic should not concern us: that Shuttle has designs on the poem rather than the reader ensures the results are genuinely affirming.”

My initial reaction was to feel that all poetry has designs on the reader. If a poet doesn’t care how his work is perceived, why bother writing it in the first place? But perhaps what this editor dislikes is a hidden design that hooks readers in by force of rhetoric, emotional display, or personality, and which might thereby be viewed as manipulative, compared with the quieter poet who steps back out of the poem. This seems to be kind of what the poet/critic Peter Riley is talking about in a review of UK poet Alice Oswald:

“The first thing Oswald says about Ted Hughes, remembering her first experience of one of his poems is, "I was instantly drawn in." All the Big Hs do this — they draw you in: to an experience, a rusticity, to a theology and a history, to an Irishness, which they insist is important, and they draw you in with force and offer you no alternatives, and they do this by metaphor-laden forms of rhetoric. The opening lines of Dart don't grab hold of you and drag you in: they offer you an entrance. If it is insisted that we are still "drawn in" it is at our own wish: we have agreed to the contract proposed. The whole of Dart maintains that tone, as a text without designs on the reader, without self-projection, which achieves its form by following a simple terrestrial course and harmonising the voices of others…

...We could indeed be talking about a kind of self-sacrifice into the text, for the more impersonal the poems are the more they are infused with sense material which can only come from practised observation and strong response, and those can only come from the author. Yet the author is never more than marginally present.”

But do you think there is any problem with poetry having designs on a reader? Do we, with Keats, hate it? Or do we have designs of our own?


Julie Carter said...

This is one of those cases where I feel like a common language is getting in my way. I don't know how to read "having designs on the reader." I think of having designs as being ulterior motives, but what ulterior motives can exist in poetry writing, other than nailing the hot babes?

Andrew Shields said...

If "having designs on the reader" means trying to convince the reader that the *poet* has the right way of looking at the world or some part of it, then it is not a good thing.

But a *poem* that has no designs on the reader ain't worth much, usually.

Perhaps this is where we can go to Keats again, with his "negative capability." If I remember correctly, it's hard to figure out what he meant by that in the context where it first appeared, but here I would use it to mean that the poet does not pursue his or her own designs on the reader in order to turn the poem into something that can manipulate the reader in its own way.

Colin Will said...

An interesting question, and it goes back to "who do we write for?" Most of us would say we write for ourselves, and so we wouldn't write with the deliberate aim of influencing or impressing a specific sector of readership (that's what I take "having designs on" to mean). If writing a poem is an act of communicating however, who are we trying to communicate with? I definitely don't write to communicate with myself - I already know what I think - so do I have an idealised reader in mind? Not sure, except that it's important to me that the reader is a listener.

Rob said...

Thanks for the interesting comments.

This is the Pffa thread on the subject. Some really thoughtful observations there too.

C. E. Chaffin said...

From Milton to Samuel Johnson, designs on the reader were expected. Even the Romantics, like Keats, had an agenda: excite the reader's "Fancy." Modern and Post-Modern poetry have changed this, and Eliot deserves some credit for "Tradition and the Individual Talent" where he opines that the poem is a thing unto itself where the author and reader meet without designs on each other.

It is hard to get a hearing for rhetorical poetry nowadays unless it be light verse. But I think that in the hands of the right poet, rhetorical poetry can still be done well.

I've been studying Jane Hirschfield of late, and despite her famous, focused Zen meanderings, there are times when her poems do appear to have a design upon the reader--but the design happens so organically that the reader doesn't mind.