Thursday, May 05, 2005

Writing Poetry for Whom?

I may have covered this terrain before but never in great detail or as articulately as I've desired. So here's another attempt:

What is the audience of poets? The recent online discussion over avant-garde poetry (summarized nicely here has made me think more about questions of audience. I have to confess that I don't really get it when poets who have made their poems public say that they don't care about audience and only care about the poetry itself. It's an extreme position that implies that poets don't care whether other people like their poems, and that simply isn't true.

Perhaps the act of putting the poem on the paper was purely an act of inspiration that was solely about the poem. Perhaps. But the act of making the poem public -- putting it on a blog, trying to publish it in a lit 'zine, etc. -- signals to me some kind of desire for approval or critique, some kind of acknowledgment from another being other than oneself.

One critique that may be levied against avant-garde poetry is that it is intellectually and emotionally inaccessible to the general public in a field (contemporary poetry) that is already quite marginalized vis-a-vis the general public. And by "general public," I'm not even talking about six-pack, average joes here, though I wonder why I shouldn't and wonder if the poetry world has already given up on them. Anyhow, by "general public," I'm talking about people who, just hypothetically speaking, have the potential to be very interested in poetry just from their background -- college-educated, likes to read books, enjoyed poetry in K-12, etc. I'm talking about the same audience that's into fiction and non-fiction. With Asian American poetry, I'm talking about the 12 million+ Asian Americans in the United States, many of whom could really be into poetry but are not.

Even though I enjoy "avant-garde" poetry, as someone who is a wannabe intellectual, I must seriously consider the critique of its inaccessibility, which is a legitimate one. No "avant-garde" book of poetry has ever been a best seller. But no matter. Very few books of poetry sell well. Perhaps more importantly, though, the general public seems much more in tune with poems that are simply not about the text or language itself: look at the number of websites dedicated to Shakespeare, Whitman, cummings, Dickinson, Plath, etc. Now here immediately you could perform the deconstructivist act of claiming that Shakespeare et al. are, indeed, language poets. If you want to "re-"construct, however, you could counter that most of their poems are about some matter of substance beyond the text -- love, life/death, beauty, politics, etc.

Anyhow, I have too much to say and I'm drifting. My point is that "avant-garde" poets, like all other poets, must seriously consider who they want their audience to be. This concern is a microcosm of a concern that affects many academics: their audience is limited and they don't know whether that's good or not.

For example, to be blunt, I doubt that anyone other than myself and a few hundred people in America would actually care about the whole avant-garde discussion that Tim Yu has worked hard to eloquently outline on his blog. Tim has also pointed out the lack of Asian American scholars of poetry on his blog before. And maybe that's not a bad thing. You could say that it doesn't matter if relatively few people care. I would disagree.

I would disagree, because my own personal larger project is to ponder over ways to expand the audience for Asian American poetry and poetry itself. Look at this blog. The style of this blog is intentional. That is, I am intentionally trying not to use "hoity-toity" literary speak here. I want people who may not be that interested in Asian American poetry and poetry to take an interest in it. You're going to drive these people into fiction once you start using phrases like "reflexive dichotimization" or "institutional aesthetic." Now you might sound precocious (or better yet, gain tenure!) if you say it loud enough, but you are limiting the number of people who could possibly care.

I think academics should at least seriously consider this issue, especially in poetry, which could, just hypothetically, be a literary/art form with a wide audience. With regards to "avant-garde," I am not sure whether that means the poetry has to change, avant-garde poets have to do a better job of publicizing poetry, both, or some other means. (Especially do a better job publicizing beyond NYC or San Francisco. As much as one might not like to believe it, there are other places in America, you know.) At any rate, I feel that poets and poetry aficiandos should not remains content with discussing poetry theory or poems among themselves but should also do more intellectual work to at least think about ways to broaden the base.


Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

One should leave audiences with as great a love for poetry as what drew you to create your work in the first place.

If there is any need for a culture shift it's the way that poetry is viewed as a province of the elite and educated.

A culture truly thrives when it sees its literary and artistic traditions belong to all of the people, not just a privileged handful.

We need to see that poetry in fact is something that anyone can enjoy. I see it largely as a question of matching one's tastes.

There's really a poet for everyone, I think.

Some may be ready for Hongo, Li-Young Lee, or Tu Fu and Li Po, others for Neruda, Tanikawa, Adrienne Su or Borges. Others still may find Jewel, Stepanek or Antwone Fisher more to their tastes.

Whatever else we may think of such different poets and their styles, we ought to encourage the public to more freely seek out the voices that will best meet their poetic needs.

We need to break away from the current mindset and say that you don't have to wait until you're in high school or college to discover poetry. We need to break away from the idea that you can't get into poetry after you hit your 30s or 40s, etc.

We need to remember that poetry is a form that anyone can fall in love with at any age.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Great comment! Sorry for the delayed reply. I agree that poetry should definitely have more readers. I also feel like more Asian Americans, many more than there are now, should get into reading and writing poetry.

9:35 PM  
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