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October 24, 2003


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Michael Wells
I'm not so sure that I believe the turf wars really have much to do with stifling the growth of poetry readership. I don't believe those wars become so apparent until you are hooked. Don't get me wrong, I think they embody a lot of wasted energy... but do they really keep youngsters away? I think the key is embracing a wide range of poetry. Promoting a broader view of it. That can be done without sacrificing our own personal tastes.
When I write "you guys," of course, I'm not referring to any of the poets in this comment string. Or to any of the poets who are likely to read it. Or to any of my poet friends. It's a special use of the word "you". I think linguists call it the Average Jerk on a Soapbox voice.
Volunteering my services as a representative non-poet reader (or, as I've described my people elsewhere, "that self-satisfied little cluck"), I'll make a radical suggestion: Try to think outside the academic envelope. It's absurd to expect children to get anything from Melville or Dickinson or Shakespeare, much less the curdled nostalgia and thwarted desires of twentieth century poets. Children have their own verbal problems to work through, thank you very much, and it really doesn't matter how well an author cakewalked in her time: dug up and tossed into the in-crowd, she's too pooped to pop. Rimbaud was a teenager, yes, but he was hardly a popular teenager. Speaking for my awful teenage self, my pleasure reading stayed uncontaminated by the sepsis of the classroom and relied almost entirely on access to the public library and the cheap paperback (torn-off covers preferred). And my adolescence was much more attracted to self-dramatizing "fuck 'em all and let the rhyme scheme sort them out" formalists than to the type of poets I read in adult life. (Yeats can cover all periods, of course, assuming the kid's geeky and sissy enough.) The real untapped audience for contemporary poetry (as opposed to contemporary pop music or contemporary TV) is *adults*. I know I gave Charles Bernstein a few dozen appreciative readers he'd otherwise not have (and who he'll never hear from) by pirating a piece of his on my corporate network just as if it was a xeroxed "Dilbert" strip. Which is pretty much how it was appreciatively read. (Poetry should be at least as well written as "Dilbert".) So try to reach the adults. Web publishing is a great start. Cheap paperbacks and library placement are nice too. Donate randomly intead of to just your friends. Send stuff to newspapers. Write "Dilbert" scripts if you can get the gig. Pretend it's allowed to read poetry and see if anyone argues. The other piece of advice I offer, stale, skin tightening, flies buzzing behind the plastic screen, is to not *obsess* over how few readers you get. That kind of thing screws over all my talented friends who write in halfway-popular publishing categories, and there's sure no percentage for poets to do the same. The real reason I wish you guys would keep the reader in mind is so you get less cut-throat with the internal politicking. No one cares about that shit. It just makes you look silly. Of course, if you should latch onto a marketing bonanza like William Wegman or Robert Bly, more power to you! Mark my words, Lyn Hejinian's gonna get there someday: "My Life for the Teenage Soul"....
One way to create new readers is not to publish mystifying polemics explaining your distaste for certain poems or certain types of poetry. One way to create readers is not to make them feel like utter idiots for liking poetry. But I suppose that perpetuating the turf battles is far more important. And people's careers, apparently, are at stake. Give it up, people. As long as poetry is considered a profession, criticism considered integral to understanding, and authorial credibility (in a string of publications and/or advanced degrees) necessary to criticism, your desired 'larger audience' is going to feel about poetry the same way they feel about nuclear physics. Not for them. And that's what the mainstream is, a popular science of poetry for us dummies. I have no issues with the avant-garde maintaining its elite status with every exclusionary trick in the book. By all means do it. Maybe it's an important status to protect. There's something to the idea. But you can't have it both ways. You can't be elite *and* have the big audience.
in our bookstore every so often we get the kids who've just heard about Kerouac & Ginsberg; sometimes when they've gone through these i'll point 'em at Rimbaud & Lautreamont & then when they want something still more radical, i mention "these real crazy writers of the seventies"...
It's got to start before they can read. Nursery rhymes used to be a child's introduction to poetry. Now no one reads their children nursery rhymes. If children are now too sophisticated even at just two and three years old for Mother Goose, then write new nursery rhymes, new skipping songs, new hymns, replacements for what used to introduce children to poetry. If enough good poets published books of modern nursery rhymes and started working the pre-school and kindergarten crowds (and their teachers and parents), they'd sell books now and help to create a strong generation of poets and readers.

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