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?
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.