Seth Abramson, whose poems I’ve seen here and there and been very impressed by, has a new blog post that extends some previous ruminations on the question of the poet and the audience, although under the rubric of “The State of the Small Presses.” This new post it really doesn’t have much to do with the stated topic, but frankly I think that’s good: we must always begin with the poet/audience equation. And because that equation relates directly to some of the issues raised in my just-previous post here, I’m repeating and expanding on some of the comments I made in response to Seth.
I replied to Seth by throwing out a question: Is it possible that the professionalization of poetry in this country has cannibalized the poet/audience relationship? In other words, I wonder if our system of writing programs, conferences, contests for publication, and careerism within the system itself hasn’t turned poets into members of something like a medieval guild, with its secret handshakes, passwords, rituals, sustaining myths, and often blind allegiances — all focused on the guild itself, which has become the conduit for praise, publications, prizes, and jobs. Fellow poets have become the audience, and all too often the only audience.
When you think about why this may be so, consider how poetry writing is taught vs. how fiction writing is taught. Fiction writers are always encouraged to understand how each story makes a contract with the reader, to be aware of how the reader will receive violations of that contract, and to aim for a readership beyond other writers. Poets, as you correctly point out, are encouraged to write as if there is no contract with the reader, only some vague duty to the Tradition, or this or that theory of poetry, or Language itself. This duty is the one we find Ron Silliman promoting regularly on his blog, in between sneers at the American audience for just not getting the kind of poetry he prefers.
Anyway, as a result of our different approaches to the two genres, fiction writers have some realistic hope that their work will create a connection with a wider audience of story lovers. But poets, at least those who are members in good standing of the guild, have rejected the whole notion of taking the audience into account, much less writing for a wider audience. (Just look how summarily Ted Kooser has been drummed out of the guild for suggesting that the concerns of the audience matter.) This is why poets have ended up addressing only one another. In fact, people who are starved for what can only be found in poetry find themselves having to join the guild in order to get just a taste of it! Which is where the idea of audience cannibalization comes in.
I don’t mean to denigrate poets who teach writing, since I teach writing myself now and then, but I do wonder if we don’t need to develop a better understanding of how rejecting the concerns of the audience perpetuates the power of the guild. One has to wonder what might have become of Williams and Zukofsky if they’d joined the faculty of some writing program.
Personally, I don’t see a way out of this situation unless poets begin taking the audience into account again. That would mean reevaluating Modernism, where the rejection of the audience began, reevaluating the avant-garde, and reevaluating the guild itself. I think you’re right that the Internet provides at least one tool we can use to “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”, as Whitman put it; Whitman who also said, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”