How do you maximize a poetry audience?

Hi everyone,

Thank you for the suggestions of topics that might help keep us interested and involved as the siren call of summer beckons to us. Jane Yolen’s list included this thorny one: How do we maximize a poetry audience?Jane Yolen

I think the question has questions within:
1) How do we increase the number of poetry readers?
2) How do we create more poetry enthusiasts?
3) How do we entice more people to choose poetry readings over other choices? 4) How does an individual poet increase his or her fan base?

The floor is open for comments. Give us your thoughts about any of these you choose to and/or offer other thoughts on the general question.

I’ll start with #1. For decades I’ve been reading that teachers who don’t like poetry and therefore don’t enjoy teaching it are suffering from unpleasant experiences when they were students. Assuming that this was ever true, it seems like a rather tenuous argument today, more than forty years since WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS began a revolution in poetry for young readers. Today’s 50-something teachers grew up in the Silverstein era.

Surveys have shown that kids love poetry when it’s read to them or when they find a poet they like (as in understand, enjoy, and relate to) but even so, most children choose something else, almost anything else, before picking up a book of poems for their leisure reading. Even the most passionate third grade poem lover gravitates within a year or two to action stories, space stories, or anything that crawls out of the ground at night to devour innocent people.

So kids today don’t have the so-called bad experiences with poetry that their teachers presumably had. They LOVE poems, especially ones they think are funny. They LOVE to write poems, too, during a rather thin slice of their total school career. But once they reach an age where their writing is being judged and graded, they lose their eagerness and freshness in their efforts to please and “get it right.”

That’s where the bad experience part comes in, I think. The allure of reading poetry dims grade by grade while the pain of writing poetry increases year by year unless guided by good and empathetic teaching. That’s how we turn out, each year, a new wave of high school graduates, most of whom will spend the rest of their lives happily ignoring poetry. They’ve been there and done that and the best poetry-related memories they have were back in Ms. Snider’s 3rd grade class when a goofy clown came to school, played an harmonica, stood on his head, and shouted out twelve silly poems in three minutes. “Now that was funny, man!”

Maybe part of the problem is in the way poetry for adults is written, published, and perceived today. Papers don’t publish poetry anymore. Neither do general interest magazines. College campuses are awash with poetry readings but the attendees are other students waiting their turn and a smattering of professors who have skin in the game. Books of poetry are still published, primarily by university presses. There’s a brisk debate between poets who teach poetry versus the NYC publishing crowd that laments the disconnect with the masses of readers who aren’t plugged into campus-bred poetry. I don’t know if this is another subject or merely one of the ingredients in Jane’s question regarding how we build a poetry audience.

I’m going to give it a rest for now and stand by for other input. I may leave this up for an extra day or two to give folks time to clean the grill and come back in the house.



11 comments on “How do you maximize a poetry audience?

  1. Not only the judging and grading, but I find that having to overly analyze the meaning – not technical aspects, just the meaning – behind poems (and writing essays about such analyses) kills the joy for me and people I’ve spoken with. I’d advise teachers to stop emphasizing searching for the authors’ hidden meanings (for any work of fiction).

    • I agree, Teresa. I often quote Billy Collins’s poem on the subject of overthinking a poet’s intent. In INTRODUCTION TO POETRY, he begins, “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” and ends with, “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

  2. A good question that has pestered poets down the ages.

    I’ve come to believe that one good poem is more important by far than a book of poems, than a poet’s career, than an abstract notion of poetry. And a poem that spreads wide, that lasts long, is a rare thing, an event that ought to be celebrated.

    We need to create and promote more popular venues to publish and share aloud individual poems — poems from the past, poems by other living poets, the absolute best poems of our own — to help those poems become enmeshed in common attention and rooted in public (and private) memory through repetition.

    “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” for instance, has lasted two centuries, but few know (or care) that it was written by Jane Taylor and published as “The Star” (in five quatrains) in her Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806. That extra knowledge is wonderful, but it is inessential to the experience of the poem as a modern folk song.

    Even the most accomplished poets for adults are rightly remembered (by anyone except scholars) for a small handful of their best works (or the best fragments of their work).

    Also, we can’t always tell in advance what will travel and endure. Or for what reasons. That’s part of the joy of literature.

    I repeat: A poem that spreads wide, that lasts long, is a rare thing.

    Hold a rare thing long enough, and it becomes precious.

    But if everything is precious, if anything is a poem, then nothing is.

    Steven Withrow

    • And well said, Steven. Glad to have your thoughts on this first in our summer talks. Hmm. Maybe this thing needs a name, something like Summer Talks Around the Grill?

      • “Summer Grills and Poet’s Quills?”

        As Steven said, we have no idea what poems will have lasting power – just like no one really knows how to write a hit song. There are right ways and wrong ways to go about creating one, but one never knows what’s going to connect and endure until it does.

        I think academia has played a role in poetry’s loss of popularity, as the most highly-praised, professionally-lauded adult poetry these days also seems to be the most obtuse. Unless it speaks to the emotions of the masses, poetry will be perceived as a merely academic pursuit and not the beautiful, linguistic artistry that it is.

        And as Teresa said, the more we force students to pick apart poems to find the correct “answers” the tests are looking for, they’ll never appreciate poetry because they’ll never WANT to appreciate it.

  3. Steven is so right about the need for more popular venues. The classic individual poems of Stevenson, Eugene Field, W. de la Mare, Christina Rosetti, and so many more have endured over the years because we’ve repeated them and learned them by heart. Some of the greatest and most enduring poems are by our old friend Anonymous (“I’m glad the sky is painted blue, and the earth is painted green . . .”). The luckiest nursery rhymes have been turned into songs: “Twinkle, Twinkle,” of course, and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme,” “Oh, dear, what can the matter be?” and many others. Music is another good way to get poetry into people’s hearts and memories.

    Important subject. Thanks, David.

  4. Well, David, I’m an apprentice poet; and the circulation for my published works consists of a few friends, a monthly poet society reading and, of course, W.O.M.,
    so, I don’t have an expert opinion about the popular reading of poetry. My personal opinion is that more poetry would be read if more poets wrote for the “masses” (as did Shakespeare). I’ve been reading poetry, or had it read to me, for about 80 years, so I’ve got a pretty good idea what I like or what “turns my crank.” OK, so I like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Jim Harrison, T.S. Eliot (the shorter works w/o Greek French and Latin introductions), Charles Bukowski (the smuttier pieces do get boring), Gary Snyder etc.. What I don’t like is poetry that is so heavily nuanced and convoluted it is completely obtuse. No hope for understanding. William Strunk said,
    “… get the reader up on dry ground or at least to throw a rope … .”
    I believe this applies to all writing, be it prose of poetry. Most of the over the edge avant garde poetry is so far out in the swamp there is no hope for dry ground, let alone a rope.
    Here’s a line I read:
    “… The cyclone will come or your hydrangea of moroseness ….”
    Throw me a rope, please.
    End of rant.

    • Thank you, Gene. I admit that I often find myself going back to poets I’ve read and reread for decades. I read at least a few poems by today’s poets each week, too, but some of them don’t do much for me. I wonder if that’s always been true or if we’re seeing a shift in the kind of work being produced these days. I wonder how readers of poetry reacted when free verse came along back in the late 1800s. Perhaps that shift left a lot of people wanting a rope too.

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