August 31st, 2005

Egrets Reading

The lack of a general, interested audience...

Recently, I received a letter from John W Parr which was included with the subscriber mailing of the September 2005 issue of Poetry magazine. Parr is the President of the Poetry Foundation which oversees the $100 million dollar gift to Poetry magazine by Ruth Lilly a few years back.

The Foundation plans to use Lilly's gift to "pursue a more vigorous presence for poetry in our culture". Their stated premise is that "poetry's overarching the lack of a general, interested audience".

I couldn't agree more.

Yet, the letter seems to skip all around the question the above statement raises in my mind - why? Why is there a lack of a general, interested audience for poetry?

Some might say that there simply is no need for poetry in our modern society, yet poetry isn't universally shunned by all modern cultures.

When I went to the Haiku Pacific Rim conference a couple of years ago, we watched a segment of a Japanese television show. Since it was in Japanese, I didn't understand much of what was being said, but what stands out for me about this show was that it was a weekly poetry critique show.

The show format consisted of a panel of three people who commented on various haiku submitted to the show by the show's viewing audience.

The show is reportedly quite popular but it boggled my mind to try to imagine a similar show on American television, which would probably stay on the air for less than ten minutes before it was canned.

American poetry, in my opinion, is currently too bogged down in the halls of Academia to be relevant to the average person in the street. Poetry magazine, for all its efforts to promote poetry in our culture, published 85 pages in the September issue yet only 31 of those pages were actually poetry. The rest of the magazine, more than 50% of it, was consumed with dense literary criticism.

Literary criticism has its place, but if we want poetry to recapture the hearts of Americans, we need poetry that matters to the average person, poetry that is accessible to those who do not have advanced English degrees and poetry that echoes in our hearts when we hear it read aloud.

We need poetry about our day-to-day lives that teach us something, that makes us smile, that makes us cry, that makes us think, and that makes us happy that we're alive.

We need poets who write about the things that matter to the "general audience" and editors that will publish accessible, non-academic poetry that will interest this same "general audience".

America needs poetry but just doesn't know it, yet.