Friday, July 13, 2007

For Those Who Dislike Poetry

I'd be interested to know people's opinions on contemporary poetry, especially those of you who rarely read it. Why do so few people read poetry (as opposed to writing it, which is still a popular activity)? Is because it's too much effort? Or because you don't know what to read? Or has what you've read been too abstract or boring? Or, alternatively, are you put off because the contemporary poetry you've read is too dumbed-down, too crowd-pleasing?

I really aim to write poetry that attracts people who normally don't read it. I think poetry offers something that no other art form can offer. At its best, it takes a sideways, unconventional look at the world, and it speaks into the heart of human experience (even if a poem itself isn’t drawn from direct experience at all). At its best, poetry can’t be mistaken for prose, even if it seems ‘like prose’.

But equally, I'd like to write poems that people want to read without sacrificing complexity, as human life is complex. What I write isn't obscure, but I guess it wouldn't be considered simple either.

I was listening to the talented Luke Wright. He is reaching out to new audiences, but my style isn’t anything like his, and never could be. However, imaginative live readings in interesting venues might be one way to go. On the other hand, I read an article in PN Review recently, which argued strongly that live readings were all part of a poet-as-product ethos, and should have nothing to do with the art of poetry.

Is there some middle-ground between the commercial popularising of poetry and the wilful obscurity demanded of ‘high art’? Surely, like the best alternative rock/pop bands, there must be ways of gaining attention for one’s art without compromising its creative centre?


onepoet4man said...

Todays poetry fails uselessly, unless it shouts. Flat words on hidden pages have no sound. Today everything is about image. Big splashy pictures that move are what poets, especially narrative poets have to compete with. Poetry is disliked because readers today are looking for easy to understand metaphors. Their bandwidth and short attention spans do not allow them to penetrate the meanings contained in anything subtle.


sefton said...

I think not knowing what to read is a big part of it.

If you're a newbie in a field that simply throws everything at you without a guide, the natural reaction (provided you don't flee) is to gravitate to the greatest, not the latest. Poetry is in the same boat as classical music and jazz when it comes to how it presents itself to the public: you have to have a tremendous amount of prior knowledge just to navigate properly when buying the stuff, and the newest composers are the least known, and therefore the riskiest.

Now think about all the ways that sellers of pop music and novels make it easy to learn what's popular, what's brand new, and what's good and bad. Unsurprisingly, the latest tends to sell better than the greatest in those fields.

If you're looking for a conventional answer, reliable, recognizable guides are it. Garrison Keillor successfully hawked an anthology. If someone like Seamus Heaney or Granta delivered a Best of Britain or some other Best Of concoction every other year, it would sell.

Scotty said...

For me, it's probably because so much of it is so solemn, or topical. I'd like to to be able to read more humorous poetry but as you know, that seems to be a fairly limited market, and it's hard to get poetry books, ones that contain a lot of humorous, light-hearted stuff anyway, here in Australia.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting stats:

Tennyson's Enoch Arden sold 40,000 copies in its first two months; In Memoriam sold 25,000 copies in its first two years.

We must assume that numbers of this kind (and those for Heaney and Duffy) are the exception to the rule, and that poetry has never had a large readership, and never will do.

The difference now is that everyone is 'marketing & promotion' literate, and we know that there are certain laws governing this (placement, targeting, discounting, design, etc). As a consequence, poets have become increasingly concerned as to why these same laws don't apply to them, and imagine that there is some form of corrective action possible.

I don't think there is, really.

Re: classical music, you could try the Classic FM approach with a kind of 'poetry lite', in the hope that the audience would eventually 'graduate' to the equivalent of Radio 3 and Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, but how often does that happen?

There's a danger that this approach simply repeats the old Victorian assumptions about art & literature, i.e.

-- It's good for you, in a morally instructive way, and excites the finer sentiments in an otherwise amoral, unfeeling or potentially anarchic population.

Perhaps the instructive (and metaphorical) element was familiar to 19th century readers who were raised on bible literature, but that common ground has gone.

As for the sentiments, these remain: but are satisfied with other things. I will shed a few tears watching 'Shakespeare in Love', but not while reading 'Romeo & Juliet'.

I can only get as far as Wallace Stevens:

" ........ to have put there
A few sounds of meaning, a momentary end
To the complication, is good, is a good."

I think there's no denying that the writing of a poem is a good, in the sense of it being an addition to the world, but as for the Target (audience or otherwise) I'm inclined to believe we're obsessing over an invisible object, and in a way which is a reflection of the current mania for selling stuff ... no matter what that might be.

I mean, as human beings, we're productions of the age just as our poems are, and reflect it accordingly.


Rob said...

Thanks for some interesting replies. I agree that poetry isn't going to be particularly popular for the forseeable future, although there may be the occasional poet who bucks the trend.

To be honest, I would rather sell a few hundred copies of a poetry book I was pleased with than a few thousand of a poor book I had written to appeal to a wide audience. But I'd also like to explore ways of maximising sales as far as possible, despite the inevitable limitations on how many people are going to be interested in poetry.

George S said...

Write the poems you need to write, Rob and that's it.


Rob said...

George, you are right!