On Reaching New Audiences With Poetry
The major assumption that narrowed the scope and audience of Twentieth
Century poetry -- and other arts to some extent -- is that the basic
truths of existence (or the deepest truths we can reach) are unconfrontably
The argument (usually implicit) runs as follows: We moderns now
know that life is a meaningless horror, from which we are protected
by various stratagems and illusions. Most people don't want to confront
these horrors, which would only drive them mad. Therefore, serious
works of art cannot be popular. Conversely, to make a work of art
more popular, one must make it more corny (untruthful, sentimental,
Illogical corollary: If a work of art is broadly popular, it must
Over the past ten years several magazine articles have discussed
the notion that poetry has fallen on hard times, reaches a small
elite audience and is no longer a part of the mainstream culture.
In a 1991 Atlantic article, "Can
Poetry Matter?", Dana Gioia argues persuasively that poetry
is, indeed, restricted to an unnecessarily narrow audience, having
become in large part an inbred offshoot of college creative writing
programs. He then proposes that poets take various measures to bring
poetry a broader audience, for example, use traditional forms, read
from the classics at poetry readings and include other art forms,
such as music, at readings.
His solutions don't deal with my opening "major assumption",
nor with another major factor keeping poetry from having a broad
audience: The fact that large audiences for written material of
any complexity are non-existent in this country. Most people are
subliterate. When we think of periods when written (not oral) poetry
was "popular" (e.g., the best-selling Victorian poetry),
we mean that it was popular among the literate. But in those periods
the literate were actually literate. In our day, many of the supposed
literate are not. If you ask them to read aloud, you can tell. If
you ask them to explain or apply what they've just stumbled through,
it becomes more obvious.
I don't mean "cultural illiteracy"-- for example, the
fact that most people don't know much about their history, Greek
myths, geography, etc. - but the more basic inability to read and
understand, to recognize words and syntax and get the concepts.
This hits poetry more than other arts, even other written arts.
Poetry has always been THE art of the written or spoken word, the
art that, above all others, has stressed the need to use the precise
word and the need for readers who can appreciate that precision.
Poetry's association with the most powerful and efficient uses of
language shows in our describing as "poetic" any prose
writing that gives special attention to richness or precision of
Therefore, the main thing needed to give poetry a broader audience
is an increase in literacy. Even oral poetry requires an audience
that knows the meanings of words. Programs exist already that, if
funded, would restore literacy broadly. (I've been particularly
impressed by the techniques developed by an international organization
Scholastics, adopted by several countries for training of teachers.)
However, I know of no programs available to handle the second
major obstacle to a large audience for poetry: Among the more-or-less
literate, millions buy novels who wouldn't consider buying a book
of poems. When I talk to such people about their dislike of poetry,
the main response I get is, "I just don't understand poetry."
They find poetry inaccessible. Why?
I've met a few people who bemoan the absence of rhyme and meter
in most modern poetry, but they are a minority. For most people
rhyme and meter are part of what they don't understand. One man
(an engineer) told me he was put off as soon as he saw the first
letters of each line (in a traditional poem) capitalized. He couldn't
understand that. These same people are put off at least as much
by the "classics" as by modern poetry. Those classics
were, in many cases, forced down their throats in school -- sonnets
by Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Longfellow's Hiawatha, etc., memorized
It's true that rhyme and meter can be FELT by an audience when
a poem is read aloud and make the poem easier to remember. In these
respects they increase the accessibility of a poem. However, the
constraints of rhyme and meter usually lead the poet to compressed
and involved syntax that make the formal sonnet, for example, more
difficult to read and understand than a freer form might be. Thus
traditional forms can either increase or decrease accessibility.
The same is true for most of the other solutions offered for broadening
the appeal of poetry: They can be useful or detrimental, but do
not get at the crux of the problem. Mixing media -- for example,
music and poetry -- is interesting, but leads to some awfully limp
poetry. I tend to stop listening when the poet brings up his flute
or guitar accompanist. Usually, both musician and poet use the conjunction
as an excuse for endless sentimental riffing. Having readings with
both musicians and poets slated to perform is good show-biz (and
an idea I favor), but does not necessarily lead to poetry that is,
in itself, more accessible.
What DOES make a poem more accessible? Humor? Sometimes - if it's
really funny. But humor, too, can be obscure or shocking or repulsive
to a broad audience. "Light verse" is often based on insider
academic jokes, snobbishly obscure for most readers. And most of
us who write poetry feel we have things to say that go beyond the
bounds of light verse.
Shorter poems? Sometimes this helps. We live in an age of short
attention span, according to the gurus who study our TV addiction.
Short and punchy sugarcoats the pill. But most poets would like
to find a way to reach readers with longer more ambitious works.
And many poets skilled at developing intense poems on a larger canvas
don't have the skills required for good short work. Also, short
poems can be mystifying. I know readers who, hearing classic haikus,
say, "So? What's the point? Is that all?" Three lines
of frog jumping into pond, splash, are not everyone's idea of accessible.
Informality? It helps readers put off by the super-serious preciousness
they've come to associate with poetry. But then there are the readers
who are put off by the absence of the formalities of traditional
poetry. They want titles, rhyme, meter, lofty language, etc.
Simplicity? Useful if you have something simple to say that's
worth saying. But the point is to make SOMETHING accessible, not
to say less, but to get MORE across. If accessibility means that
a poet with a complex rich vision must lop off his vision, that's
not making poetry accessible. That's offering something accessible
by subtracting the poetry. A piece of doggeral may be simple and
accessible, but is it poetry? And what sort of simplicity? Kafka's
stories are all in a painstakingly simple style, but many readers
find them incomprehensible. The teachings of Lao Tse are simple
-- or, to some, inscrutable. If, by simplicity, we mean easily understood,
then yes, of course, accessible is accessible.
More basically, to increase accessibility, UNDERCUT. That is,
to broaden the scope of a communication, get more basic, closer
to truth, more universal, etc. This is true in any communication,
not just poetry. For example, if two people are arguing about who
does what, you might point out that if SOMEONE doesn't get the job
done, their company will go under and BOTH will lose their jobs.
If two nations are at war and promoting their differences from each
other, you might point out that both sides are people and want to
survive. Etc. To undercut is to get at basic agreements underlying
This concept applies to subject, style or any other aspect of
poetry. When an area is in confusion, it's time to retreat to basic
agreements and rebuild from there. For example, if a marriage is
breaking up, attempts to salvage it will flounder if the couple
continues to argue about who gets to watch which TV show. A good
marriage counselor will ask them to recall why they married to begin
with, what they saw in each other, whether they can re-experience
the love they began with.
One way, then, to ensure the inaccessibility of poetry would be
to make it difficult for a poet to undercut. For example, if people
are taught that those who seek truth inevitably go mad or that the
way to achieve truth is to become an alcoholic...
Millions of high-school and college students are taught the profundity
of Joseph Conrad's story, Heart of Darkness (upon which the movie
Apocalypse Now was based). Here's a rough summary: The narrator,
Marlowe, is about to undertake an expedition into darkest Africa.
The fiancée of a trader named Kurtz asks Marlowe to look
up her lover at his post along the river. Kurtz has dropped out
of communication. Something's wrong. What's happened to him? When
he left Europe, he was a romantic, full of ideals and poetry and
Marlowe, in the course of his voyage, sees a lot of corrupt, money-mad
traders who exploit the natives, etc. When he finds Kurtz, the idealist,
he finds a madman who's set himself up as a god among the savages
and has heads of some who opposed him on stakes outside his hut.
Kurtz is near death and delirious, but regains enough of his sanity
just before he dies to look "into the heart of darkness"
within us all and say - his last words - "The horror! The horror!"
Marlowe goes back to Europe, gives Kurtz's relatives and betrothed
a sanitized version of Kurtz's death, because we poor humans aren't
up to confronting the cruel truth of this terrible darkness at the
heart of civilization, so must maintain our cherished illusions.
Most of us recognize this as mainstream for this century. Kurtz's
last words are T. S. Eliot's epigraph for "The Hollow Men".
But this notion of the unconfrontable darkness or savagery or meaninglessness
of existence (sometimes based on the modern "scientific"
world view, sometimes expressed as a decaying remnant of religion
-- Puritanism minus Grace) runs through a few generations of English
literature. Existentialism is an attempt to "solve" it.
Surrealism is an expression of it and a solution to it, hymning
the profundity of the Freudian unconscious, to be approached only
obliquely. In most 20th Century literature, it comes up as, either
the unconfrontable truth or the desperate solution to that truth,
for example, the idea that one must have faith in something in order
to have a faith - ala T. S. Eliot and Pound, who glory in "tradition"
in a self-consciously nostalgic way that tells us they are fighting
a rear-guard action in a retreat.
This has meant that poets, in particular, who have always stressed
vision - which implies truth - as a function of great poetry have
found themselves with a choice among writing (1) grim shocking stuff
to jolt people into seeing the awful truth; (2) obscure stuff that
elaborately non-confronts the truth or hints at it, sneaks up on
it; (3) complexly, tentatively affirmative stuff, where the author
carefully "comes to terms with the meaninglessness of existence"
by means of complex ironies, "wry self-deprecating humor"
and almost apologetic joys that pop up in life despite all our theories;
or (4) poetry that evades paraphrasable message altogether: The
poem as pure music or image, truth in things, worship of surface.
Poets have been told for decades that they must be outsiders,
alienated - that, essentially, the potential broad audience is not
worthy of them.
(Poetry over the past ten years or so seems to me to be much more
varied than what I've described, with much that challenges the above
description, but for the many people who don't read poetry, the
above description is accurate. Since major publishers and distributors
have decided that "poetry doesn't sell", they don't TRY
to find accessible poets and invest in marketing them widely, so
most people don't know that many poets are writing works they might
enjoy. My description of poetry, above, applies to the poetry that
over several decades has proven to publishers that, indeed, poetry
My contention is that, apart from a lowering of literacy in the
West in this century (more people literate, but to a lower standard
of literacy), the main reason why poetry has a narrow audience is
that this big assumption that the basic truths of existence are
grim and unconfrontable and that any penetration of truth is a move
into horror - this assumption is, not only unpopular, but also a
limited vision that strangles poetry.
Here are some ways this makes "serious poetry" inaccessible
to most readers:
1. The grimness is depressing.
2. The value of shock is much overrated, in literature as in psychiatry:
Yes, if you throw children into the river to teach them to swim,
some will learn - but most will drown. If you want to teach swimming
or anything else, you offer a series of easy steps that build up
gradually to mastery. Shock "therapy" cures depression
(when it does) by wiping out memories and abilities and moving man
toward zombie. Shock in life and literature is justified as a way
of jarring people out of fixed ideas and attitudes. But shock flings
a person from one fixidity into another - explaining, perhaps, the
fanaticism of converts. Shock is not what its RECIPIENTS need. It's
what its PURVEYORS need to deliver. It's a symptom of the desperation
of poets who cannot reach an audience, of psychiatrists who cannot
help patients. It is vengeance masquerading as education or therapy.
It loses readers (and patients).
3. The demand that anything positive be complex narrows readership
to those willing to unravel the complexities.
4. Apart from its unpleasantness, the often unrelieved grimness
-- especially when despair is asserted to be the most profound vision
attainable -- is simply unreal to many readers, not true to their
sense of life.
5. The grimness has become doctrinaire. It may once have had,
at least, the value of freshness. Now it's the main cliché
of our times: the obligatory vivid grotesquery or matter-of-fact
downbeat understatement. Yes, the Holocaust is hard to confront.
But only because it is unreal to us because we care for each other
much more than we typically admit. The death of children torments
us because it cuts them off from a future that has in it positive
possibilities. The inhumanity of the killers shocks us because we
know we are capable of better things. If we cling endlessly to the
shock and insist on being permanently overwhelmed by what man has
done to man, I wonder if we are not protesting too much our not
being part of all that.
This assumption also encourages writers looking for a broader
audience to go in the direction of corn - for example, the beautiful
sadness of being a victim - rather than to seek more vision, more
In my own experience, when I've encountered evil or insane people
and had a chance to get to know them, I've found the inception of
their evil/insanity in some positive impulse gone astray. I have
not found my life meaningless or devoid of positive value, I do
not find the universe -- at least not MY universe -- a spiritual
void; and I do not find, when I look into my own motives for action,
that at root they are discreditable. I do not find joy a rare complex
phenomenon. I do not find most people incapable of appreciating
deep feelings. This is probably not an acceptable statement from
a "serious poet".
I would contend that the gloom-and-doomsters take a glib view
of the world around them, are too easily overwhelmed by its horrors,
are reacting against even glibber Victorian optimism, have swallowed
nineteenth-century myths about the power of science -- while rejecting
nineteenth-century myths about the benevolence of science -- and
are pathetically afraid of being accused by the literati of being
sentimental or simplistic.
For example, for decades most poets have assumed that modern science
has somehow dispelled the "myth" or "dogma"
of personal immortality. Modern scientists don't usually share this
view, especially those in the more effective and testable sciences
(e.g., physics). This dogma (for that's what it is) comes mainly
from Wilhelm Wundt and his followers in psychology and psychiatry.
It's treated in their writings and in the writings of such psychologists
as Skinner as a proven fact, when, actually, it's an assumption
they make at the start to justify their long-range approach to the
human condition: Men are stimulus-response machines that can be
made happy by conditioning (ala Walden Two). This is dogma coming
from a "science" that has always been primarily a political
tool for controlling the masses (Pavlov in Russia, Wundt and the
rest of the Leipzig school in Germany, with their "scientific"
descendents, including Freud and most of current psychology and
Not that poets are happy about the loss of souls, no, they often
flaunt the beautiful sadness of this unpleasant "truth".
Is wisdom a fad that flipflops from century to century? Those
called wise over the millennia usually affirmed the reality of the
spirit -- I don't mean the priests with their enforced dogmas, but
those whose names still carry an aura of veneration, for example,
Buddha, Socrates and Jesus.
But an attempt to justify a non-despairing view of life is beyond
the ambitions of this essay. I simply suggest here that such a viewpoint
is arguable. My point is that so long as poets and other artists
insist that the most profound truth is "horror" or nausea
or meaninglessness (where "meaningless" is uttered in
the very meaningfully distraught tones of the Existentialists),
then any attempt to undercut in the direction of universality will
alienate a broad audience. But undercut is the key to accessibility.
Thus, either poetry is doomed to a small and shrinking audience,
or poets must acquire the toughness (it takes toughness to be able
to continue to love others despite betrayals, for example) and maturity
and integrity needed to get beyond flip alienation, super-sensitive
victimhood or the complex, tentative affirmations mandated by academicians.
Such measures as those suggested by Dana Gioia are temporizing in
What we need is, simply, more vision - not more technique, not
more power, freshness, authenticity, etc., but more vision.
And where we find such poets, we (whoever we are - poets, readers,
editors) should push them forward. We have poets writing work that
is good poetry and would be accessible to millions of readers (enjoyed,
even BOUGHT) if it were marketed to those readers. I know this is
so, because I hear it on occasion at open poetry readings, poems
that grab the whole audience, evoke laughter and tears, find several
people eager to talk to the unknown poet during the break.
Editors need to put some attention on finding and publishing work
that has the potential to reach a large audience. In other words,
we need editors who include among their criteria "poems that,
without being corny, are broadly accessible". This should be
at least as strong a criterian as the more common "strikingly
original difficult work to be saved from undeserved obscurity"
or "raw and jolting" or "for the discriminating reader".
The two ends of the communication line already exist: Poets who
write accessible and high quality poems and readers who, if they
knew about them, would buy books of these poems. What's missing
is the distribution lines. Standing on my front steps and yelling,
I can reach two or three neighbors and a few passersby. With a computer
and modem and copying machines, I can reach a few hundred more.
I can self-publish and hope for a thousand readers. Each Harlequin
Romance sells in the hundreds of thousands. But these have a huge
marketing investment behind them. An individual poet or even a group
of poets, in the absence of major stars (there are none), doesn't
have the resources of a major publisher, the communication lines
into thousands of bookstores, TV networks and book reviewers.
Publishers who don't print poetry and reviewers who don't review
poetry and bookstores who carry little and never display it prominently
offer as justification the "fact" that poetry doesn't
sell. Of course not: Nobody is SELLING it. When a major publisher
puts out a poetry book, it's a loss leader, and it's always a "prestigious"
poet -- meaning a poet prestigious in a narrow academic circle,
writing work unlikely to succeed with a broader audience. It's a
publisher's alms to "culture", not a marketing endeavor.
Has it occurred to those who want to contribute to culture that
anything that puts ALL the people of a culture into better communication
with each other would much increase the vitality of that culture?
I remember the exhilaration in the '60's of realizing that I and
Leonard Bernstein and millions of teenagers and grown-ups were all
digging the Beatles together.
Publishers, thinking of the prestigious Poetry and New Yorker
poetry (often elitist stuff aimed at fellow faculty members) or
the best-known non-academic poems, say Ginsberg (really quite academic)
or Bukowski (often flipping his finger at potential readers, though
he's quite accessible at his best -- and has a wider audience than
most poets), have the fixed idea that poetry won't sell, but the
major publishers probably haven't broadly MARKETED a living poet
since Odgen Nash. When's the last time a poet from a large New York
publishing house plugged his book on the "Tonight Show"?
There's the question: What sort of poet COULD conceivably plug
poems on the "Tonight Show"? Rod McKuen could. Comedians
often go over well. So someone could write a bunch of gags (or McKuenesque
lovely sad sunsets) and call them poems. OR someone could look at
what in the comedy (or in McKuen, who is better than academicians
want to admit) reaches people and use that to reach people with
poetry. These two approaches are not the same. In the first, the
poet becomes a comedian. In the second, the poet undercuts, finds
something in common with the comedian's successful actions and emphasizes
For example, the stand-up comedians always talk TO their audiences.
And they work hard at making sure the listeners GET what they're
saying. Many featured poets I've heard at readings talk to their
audiences somewhat in their remarks between poems (often their most
lively communications), then begin to read (or chant) their poems
to some unnamed muse. They speak BEFORE, not TO their audiences.
And they often seem not to care if anyone understands what they
Of course, these are symptoms of the larger dilemmas discussed
earlier: Why should a poet try hard to be understood when he knows
what he has to say will only make his audience as miserable as he
is? Or when he despises his audience? How can the poet speak - except
in an snide or angry, declamatory tone - TO people he despises or
fears? How enthusiastically can a poet search for common ground
with an audience, when he has been indoctrinated into the belief
that what we have in common with each other is that we are all vile
or pointless or doomed? Or that our redeeming traits can only be
perceived by an uncommonly complex, educated and hyper-sensitive
The notion that most people aren't "up" to good poetry
is as illogical as saying that children's literature must be childish.
Poets also need to re-examine their assumptions about poetry to
throw out excess baggage. A poet with a strong, positive view of
life may find himself hobbled by the consideration that poetry must
be complex, ironic and difficult, simply because these are the current
credentials for an academic poet. These complex ironies ARE essential
to a frightened poet, just as combat troops under bombardment need
heavy armor and camouflage. But if troops are under fire too long,
they may forget that any other life is possible, may teach their
children never to go out into the street without heavy combat armor
Similarly, the 20th-Century fetish of "the vivid specific
image" and avoiding simple direct statements of abstract ideas
(the exact reverse of the aesthetic of 18th-Century poetry) can
lead a poet to add layers of inaccessibility: the need to translate
each direct statement into image, loading poems with "specifics"
outside the experience of most readers, etc. Vivid imagery, complex
ironies and all the other staples of this century's poetry are tools
that can either increase or hinder accessibility. When popular tools
are confused with "poetry" (as if a screwdriver were carpentry),
they become hindrances.
Thus, unless the undercut is thorough, a poem accessible in some
ways will be inaccessible in others, an accessible vision, for example,
hindered by the trappings of poetic respectability. Poets who are
concerned about the lack of a large audience for poetry should consider
what they have to say to the large audience they'd like to have
and how they can best go about getting it across to that audience.
And that "how" should include the basics of communication:
How does one get in touch with a person or audience? How does one
get that person or audience to listen, to understand? How does one
become, oneself, someone to whom others will gladly listen? Should
one say it with flowers? Will anyone understand this allusion?
(This should not concern a beginning poet, who has enough to think
about, just getting the words on paper, learning, as a poet, to
talk. When you teach a baby to talk, you don't worry about whether
the new talk is tactful, brilliant, etc. You just want talk. But
poets who know what they're doing, who write well and easily, who
consider themselves professional, these poets should begin to address
Cut back to basics. Bypass the standards of editors, academia,
etc. If poetry isn't reaching large audiences, that's a breakdown
in communications. What causes communications to break down? How
are communications patched up? UNDERCUT. And if, in the course of
undercutting, you reach a grim "truth", undercut further.
Before the disappointment was hope. Before the hate must have been
love. Before the shock of "meaningless" was whatever leads
us to care for meaning.
If all else fails, a more ethical life is worth a try. It's hard
to talk intimately to a large audience when one has secrets from
friends. It's hard to talk to people we despise, and it's hard NOT
to despise people when we violate widely-shared agreements, for
then we cling to our contempt for others to justify our own actions.
The notion that an artist should live a wild and destructive life
is a wonderful way to destroy a culture by ensuring that artists
"discover" life to be a grim farce.
And it is, no doubt, a consolation to a drugged, frustrated, lonely,
mean-spirited person to note that others are worse than he, to scratch
at the scars of the Holocaust and make them bleed, to persuade himself
that prosperous suburbs are rife with "happy-face" people
who are doing horrible things to the planet, etc.
There's some truth to all that. But if that truth impedes communication,
there must be a more basic truth that will facilitate communication.
Just the fact that we continue to reach out with our poems tells
me that. Given literacy, that's all there is to accessibility and
poetry capable of reaching large audiences.