Billy Collins claims that people don’t read poetry because most of it is so bad.
"One of the reasons people don't read as much poetry anymore is the fault of the poets," he said. "It's not the public's fault. There's an awful lot of bad poetry out there. I'd say about 87 percent of the poetry in America isn't worth reading."
On Facebook, the obvious jokes have already been made e.g. “87%? I didn’t realise Billy Collins had written that much!” Given that only 2% of Collins’s poems are any good (he paints by numbers far, far too often), he’s doing far worse than the national average. It is also true that 13% seems a high figure for poetry worth reading, given how much poetry is out there, but the figure is arbitrary, or perhaps ironic (given the associations of the number 13), so no point in quibbling. But now we know – it’s not the public’s fault that they desire celebrity kiss-and-tells rather than the latest young poetry thing. The fault isn’t with money, power, advertising, distribution and the manufacturing of taste either, it’s all down to those useless poets who aren’t doing their jobs properly! What comes next is the interesting part:
It's the other 13 percent, Collins said, that he lives for. "Poetry should be transparent. Transparent poems tend to teach themselves."
Two points here. Transparency? I guess he must mean lack of opacity and mystery. Poetry must be clear and obvious. If that were the case, the argument goes, people would read it in far greater numbers. The argument, by extension, also suggests that if all literary novels were written with the style of a Dan Brown, more people would read them too, and that if all short stories were written in the mode of a Jeffrey Archer, popularity for the form would explode. Nonsense, of course, and undesirable. I’d even argue that poems which are too transparent and lack all sense of mystery are part of the problem, not a solution.
The second point comes from this phrase, “Transparent poems tend to teach themselves.” Is poetry about teaching? Perhaps transparent poems are. What else can they do? There’s a clear message to impart, and that’s it. Readers can all go home now and watch TV. No point in buying that collection either, as the teaching has been done. We are now moral citizens for having read this wonderful transparent poem! But surely good poems invite readers into an experience, which may be intensified on subsequent visits because all those things that weren’t immediately transparent begin to rise to the surface?
Of course, there are many terrible poems out there. There are also many terrible novels, but that doesn’t seem to stop people reading. There are many terrible movies too and people flock to the cinemas and DVD stores. There are many terrible albums, but people haven’t given up on searching out the good stuff. Poetry’s relative lack of popularity isn’t anything to do with either lack of quality or transparency, it’s because there isn’t much money at stake. If there were, we’d all have to slim to size-zero, wear implants in the relevant places, and write poems to be edited by committee. Laughs would have to come every thirty seconds and every poem would require a happy ending. Hollywood would make movies of poems with Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens taking the lead roles. Posters of Geoffrey Hill would adorn millions of teenage walls, although the surgery would make him look more like Brad Pitt.