Contemporary poetry is in tumult these days, though the average reader wouldn’t know it. There is no “average reader” of contemporary poetry; most books written by modern poets are bought and read only by other modern poets, if at all. What’s going on? Explanations abound: poetry has become too “academic,” poetry hasn’t become “academic” enough, too many poets cling to the past, too many poets are obsessed with innovation…the list goes on.
Part of the problem is stereotyping. Many people believe that all poetry is flowery love verse akin to the Shakespearean sonnets read in most high schools. Or that it’s all high-brow esoteric pomposity written by self-righteous pedants like Ezra Pound. Poets are seen as quiet, bookish (probably homosexual) men and women in black clothes, their mousy brown hair stuffed under a postmodern beret descendent, and their skin of an almost translucent paleness in direct proportion to the thickness of their wire-frame glasses. Hogwash. Poetry is a medium every bit as diverse as fiction or non-fiction, with just as much variety of authors, genres, subgenres, and levels of intellectual engagement. What I’m saying is, there is something here for everyone, regardless of taste.
The way I see it, there are three basic steps that can be taken to expand poetry’s readership. The first two are directed at poets; the third is for poets and readers.
One: The tumult needs to stop. Modern poetry has segregated itself into cliques and subgenres with boundaries that are rarely crossed, except to sling mud. New Formalists don’t like L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. Hip-Hop Slam poets don’t dig academics. And though I’m not sure about this, I secretly think that greeting card poets hate children’s poets. It’s simply got to stop. It’s self-destructive and counterproductive.
Two: Now more than ever, poets should keep the reader in mind when they compose. This does not mean “dumb it down” for Joe or Jane Schmoe. I’m simply suggesting that poets take more time to consider what message they’re trying to communicate, and to make that message as clear as possible to readers, without sacrificing artistic vision. Don’t limit yourself; but if you are a poet who wants your work to be read, not just glanced over, remember that for such a thing to happen, a living, breathing reader is required who wants to enjoy his or her experience.
Three: Exposure. Poets need to work harder to get their stuff out there, and the few loyal readers of contemporary poetry need to do their best to spread the word about poets whose work they enjoy and admire.
Kill the stereotypes dead in the most effective way possible, by reading some poetry. As I often suggest in book reviews: Go to the poetry section of a bookstore. Pick a few books at random, and in each one read five poems. Just five. If you like those, read five more. If you like those, buy the book. Bringing art back to life is as simple as that.