“Poets who defy making sense and do it deliberately and often brilliantly (as Ashbery can) are making a kind of sense, and may be extending the range of what poetry can do, though they ensure that poetry’s audience will be small and chiefly academic: i.e., composed of people inclined to equate a puzzle with that which is meaningful.”
This spurred me to respond in the blog’s comment stream, but I since my reply ended up to be rather lengthy and maybe useful to Perpetual Birders, I’m repeating it below–with a few minor changes.
I agree with Dunn, though I’d observe that poetry’s audience in this country is small and chiefly academic anyway. Last year’s NEA survey, which is—in the best bureaucratic “put-a-good-face-on” tradition—entitled “Reading on the Rise,” reported that readership of poetry among “literary readers” declined by about 31% between 2002 and 2008. The specific percentages seem less alarming, somehow, the drop being from 12.1% in 2002 to 8.3% in 2008.
The catch, of course, is that all these percentages are based on the NEA’s definition of “literary readers”: anyone, the report states, who has read “any novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online” in the 12 months prior to the survey. So reading a single poem (or story, novel, or play) during that period gets you classified as a “literary reader.” And according to the NEA, 50.2% of Americans qualified in 2008—a total 112.8 million people. If we do the math, this means that there were 9.36 million Americans who read at least one poem in 2008. To pretend that this is a measure of poetry readership is absurd.
These seem to be the best numbers we have. What we don’t have is any sense of how many of these readers have a genuine interest in poetry—those, let’s say, who read at least one full book of poems by any one author in 2008. My firm belief is that if we could establish meaningful criteria for “literary readers”—one not based on the NEA’s need to justify funding—we would certainly discover that there are many fewer such readers than this survey suggests, making the numbers of poetry readers minuscule indeed. And if we could analyze that minuscule readership, my hunch is we’d find that the largest readership for poetry exists in academia—among faculty members and students—and that among students the interest in poetry declines fairly rapidly after graduation.
Of course, I’m merely speculating based on my own experience. I’m perfectly willing to be surprised. But for now I would simply suggest that Ashbery’s audience is really just a subset of the academic audience, as is the audience for Language poetry, new formalism, mainstream “free verse,” prose poems, politically and socially conscious verse, etc. The poetry wars, in which I have spiritedly engaged myself, are finally comedic because they are turf battles over a patch of land about the size of a row-house back yard. It’s this cramped space that makes them so fierce, of course, with each partisan theatrically growling, “I’ll give up my Theory only when they pry it from my cold dead hand!”
Personally, the numbers don’t scare me or worry me. The “lonely situation” of the poet in America is typical of poets everywhere, after all, as the lonely situation of being human is typical of humans everywhere. It’s only our egos demanding something more–validation, emoluments, fame, salvation: the things that get in the way of art. So I’m actually quite content with an audience that sales of my books lead me to estimate at around three hundred. They’re a very undemanding lot, so far as I can tell, and don’t expect a plot or certain character types or adherence to this or that genre, the way readers of novels do. They seem happy with my limited and meandering awareness. Thanks to poetry, I have what Gerald Stern calls a lucky life, in which I am allowed to “draw my sacred figures / and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind.” What more could I want?