Saturday, February 19, 2005

Should Poets Write for Poets or for Non-Poets?

I have touched upon this subject before. It is a variation of my question on whether Asian-American poets should write for an Asian-American or an non-Asian-American audience. As is often the case with this blog, I didn't provide a definitive answer -- in fact, I think that it may even vary from poem to poem.

I think that most of the readers of this blog know that poets writing today exist in a completely alternate universe, unmoored from the reality of the rest of the world. For example, I have many intelligent graduate/law school friends (or at least I have to say they're "intelligent" in case they're reading this blog ;) ). But I know that most of them can't name 5 living poets. I would venture to wildly guess that 90% of the public cannot name 5 living poets. Poets just ain't that popular nowadays, except in the Trekkie, fan-fiction sense.

Now I don't think that this relative lack of popularity is either right or inevitable. I believe that poetry should be central to American society. So I would argue that poets should write for non-poets in this sense. But I can definitely appreciate the position that poets should not write for non-poets. Thus, I remain undecided in general.

Now what do I mean with all this abstract nonsense about writing for poets vs. writing for non-poets? It is very difficult to define, but I will make an attempt here. I think that "poems for poets" contain a certain conformity to a certain type of form, language, content that is consonant with the perceived acceptability of the poems by fellow poets/editors for publication. Often such poems express metaphysical concerns through specifically rendered descriptions, voiced through upper-middle class language and diction. But even such a generalization is unsatisfactory -- what I mean is poets in a "community" writing for other poets in the "community." The expectations are there, and one just has to conform to them.

If "poems for poets" was hard to define, then "poems for non-poets" is even harder. By "poems for non-poets," I think that I mean poems with more common language and references, that is, poems that are more accessible to the general public. To offer some perhaps inaccurate generalizations as examples: Li-Young Lee, Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins. I am thinking of poetry that makes a conscious attempt to appeal to a wider audience, an audience that is not necessarily well-versed in the developed poet-speak of the "poetry community."

While one side can stereotype the other as "plain, dull, and unoriginal," the other can critique the first position as "artsy-fartsy, self-absorbed, and inaccessible." At any rate, I remain very interested in the question of audience in poetry. I do not think that any poet with an interest in publishing writes without an audience in mind, be it a specific poetry editor or the entire world, if only subconsciously. I think that this imagined audience has some effect on the writing of the poem, though I'm not sure to what extent and how.


Blogger Nick said...

hey roger, send me an email, I lost yer email address and I want to tell you about an exhibit my stuff is going to be in.

btw, audiences cannot be controlled and neither can one's writing.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

How many screenwriters can you name? ... um, Ezterhas? Goldman -- the one who wrote Princess Bride and a couple books about screenwriting ... I'm ... I'm drawing a blank ... and these are writers who strive hardest for a popular audience!

How about living painters? ... Hockney, he's still alive ... Diebenkorn? he's not dead yet, is he? ... sorry, I know I'd recognize a lot more names if given a list.

... I'm starting to feel real ignorant here. Annie Liebovitz? She's still alive, I think. What's the name of that one who photographs drag queens? Cindy Sherman? Yeah.

How many photojournalists can you name?
... I can't even name the guy who took the picture of the napalm'd naked girl in Vietnam and he was just in the news recently for having died ...

How many living novelists can 90% of the public name?

We can all name actors and the British royal family. Pheh.

Unlike screenwriting you don't make money from poetry. With commercial screenwriting the audience is of primary concern. With poetry the poem is of primary concern. But of course all poetry is not high art. One shouldn't think of it so. Oprah fell in love with a book of gooey poems by a little kid with a fatal illness and the kid's book hit the best seller list.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Nick, e-mail sent. thanks.

2:03 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Glenn, thanks for surfing on over and posting! Yes, nice point!

I think that few people can name living writers. I have a problem with the fact that both K-12 and college/university education place emphasis on dead poets over living poets, often to the exclusion of living poets. Perhaps there is an argument that there should be more focus on dead poets, but it shouldn't be 100 to 0 percent.

I don't think that I was entirely clear, and this is in response to Nick as well. The focus of my post was on what is in the poet's mind while writing a particular poem, and I think that, at least subconsciously, most poets have an imagined audience, be it a particular editor, a community of poets, or the public in general.

I think the distinction between focus on the poem and focus on the audience is a difficult one. For example, most American poems obey certain linguistic, syntactical, and spatial conventions that most Americans can comprehend. But even beyond that, with many poems, there are cultural, geographical, religious racial, gender, sexuality, etc. that are more accesible to a targeted group of people.

Like Nick, I think that audiences cannot be controlled, though I would add the caveat that there is a limited audience for contemporary audience vis-a-vis novels, for example. However, I do think that poets can control their own writing. I think that much of the time poets do. Now there is stream of consciousness, surrealism, dream journal type writing that, one can argue, liberates the poet from such control, and that should be acknowledged.

I would agree that all poetry is not high art, though there would then have to be a distinction drawn between "high" and "low" art. Not an impossible distinction to draw, if conscientiously defended.

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