While you and I might be in the thick of our raucous National Poetry Month celebrations, we sadly represent the minority. With just a simple scan of the bookshelves of your local Barnes and Noble or Borders, you can quickly survey the tastes of the average reader. They apparently enjoy reading books with big shiny letters on the front and prefer treading literary water in a fetid bog of repetitive plot lines centered on sex and violence. They seek a book that they can race through, turning pages at a rate of a three year-old learning his ABCs.
Judging and offending this readership will probably not further my cause, but perhaps this is the very hurdle on which so many contemporary poets flounder: they consider a literary audience, an erudite clique that understands their Vergil references, unpacks their metaphors, and mentally applauds their spondaic substitutions.
This trend matches the forms of cultural transmission used by poets. If we examine how poetry is transmitted, we begin to see why it serves such an insular audience.
The most successful poets will publish their poems in volumes through major publishing houses, such as Faber & Faber in the United Kingdom and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in the United States. Yet even this treatment, reserved for the cream of the crop of living poets, still relegates said volume to a poetry section, where it fights for meager shelf space with fat complete and collected editions of dead poets. To add some statistical analysis to show the painfully weak sales of even the best known living poets, I examined the Amazon sales ranks of three of Yale University’s resident writers: poet Louise Gluck, novelist Amy Bloom, and essayist Anne Fadiman. It is worth noting that Amazon’s basic criterion for a bestseller is “current popularity,” whatever that means.
All three have published critically acclaimed books in the last year or two, as well as winning or receiving nomination for some prestigious awards. Their relative sales numbers, however, provide some insight into the huge chasm poetry has to cross. Novelist Amy Bloom leads the pack; her recent effort, Away, sits at 6,370 on the list (although it takes the proverbial bestseller cake if we refine our bestseller list to Jewish American fiction). Next comes Anne Fadiman’s At Large and Small, ranked 49,039. I notice, incidentally, that Fadiman’s page is not graced, as Bloom’s is, with a video of the author discussing her inspiration. Finally we arrive at Gluck, whose Averno is ranked 423,983.
Volumes such as Gluck’s, while unprofitable, still find a space on many retail shelves; volumes and chapbooks published by more obscure and specialized houses, such as university presses, do not. These volumes might reside in a few independent and specialty bookstores, but will never be seen by average Americans. Where then, do they reside? On bookshelves accessible only to the aforementioned erudite clique. These bookshelves in turn can be found in university libraries and, perhaps, the largest of America’s public libraries.
As we work our way down the ladder, we reach poetry journals, or literary journals and magazines that feature some amount of poetry. Perhaps the most exposure a poet could hope for would be to publish in The New Yorker. Yet that publishes just a few poems each week, poems that are wedged into the layout puzzle just like The New Yorker’s popular cartoons. These poems interrupt the text of other more substantial, more significantly billed pieces.
In other unpublished forms, poetry is still transmitted through limited networks. Take, for example, poetry workshops and poetry readings. Both should help poets communicate their works to a network of others. But unlike fans of fiction, drama, music, or film, it seems to me that poetry fans are relatively unlikely to succeed in communicating the work of a new poet to someone outside the limited network. If I watched a film and told 100 people that it was the best film I had ever seen, I would expect at least 20 of those people to watch that film at some point in their lives. Furthermore, I would expect diminishing returns with music, fiction, drama, and poetry respectively. If any one of those 100 people purchased a volume of poetry based on my recommendation, I would be legitimately shocked. This difference can be explained in part by a host of related factors. In the case of the hypothetical film recommendation, that film is probably more readily available, and many of those 100 people would have heard of the film through other means (other friends, critics, or advertisements).
For poetry to succeed, it needs to re-establish its lines of communication and break out of its introspective bubble. I would be willing to bet that Pamela Spiro Wagner shares my view in her poem, “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual.” Wagner tries to bridge part of the huge and pervasive gap that exists in the transmission of poetry. I will forgo my usual analysis and will instead take a digi-leaf out of Carol Rumens’s blog and let you have at it. Please, let me and the score or two of other readers out there know what you think.
How to Read a Poem: Beginner's Manual - Pamela Spiro Wagner
First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma,
your steel-tipped boots,
or your white-collar misunderstandings.
Do not assume meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it.
To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.
Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true,
doing holy things to the ordinary.
Read just one poem a day.
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun.
When you can name five poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you exceed your quota
and don't even notice,
close this manual.