It’s no secret that the main audience for poetry is other poets. If you want to slow or even stop a party conversation, ask, “What new poets are you reading?”
Poets are well aware of this, though many, like unpopular teenagers, affect not to care. Some even make a virtue of their work’s obscurity. However, by not expecting to be read, poets create a self-fulfilling prophecy and further damage the reputation of poetry. Poets who want to be read widely, avidly, and with pleasure can easily be lost in the prevailing obscurity.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The cure I tout, poets, is this: write as if a large audience of general readers is already yours. Write not for each other or the cognoscenti but as if general readers actively seek good poems. This does not mean dumbing your poetry down; it means smartening it up so that readers who love excellent prose—whether by literary masters such as Joyce Carol Oates and Tobias Wolff, or by genre masters such as James Lee Burke and Stephen King—will love your poems.
By writing for a general audience, poets will write better poetry. They will write about things that excite and/or move them, in ways that will excite and/or move readers, too. They will write as if speaking person-to-person, using all of their intelligence and craft to be understood—as if a poem were a communication in honest English, meant to be enjoyed, not deciphered; as if the goal of poetry, like that of fiction, is not to befuddle, but to entertain, enlighten, and sometimes amaze.
Poetry written for a general audience will tell good stories, as poetry used to do. It will use humor as Shakespeare did, for serious fun. Accessible will no longer be code for banal. Obfuscation will be seen as a way that bad poets disguise their undistinguished minds.
To live up to Coleridge’s definition of poetry—i.e., “the best words in the best order”—the words must be fresh, vivid, apt, artfully arrayed, and, individually and as a whole, understandable by any intelligent woman or man. If a good general reader—my wife, for instance—doesn’t “get” one of my poems, I need to improve the poem.
Granted, a good poem requires closer attention than a piece of prose of the same length. It takes practice to get poetry—but not that much. Over 300 years ago, John Dryden complained of poets who give us “a hard nut to break our teeth, without a kernel for our pains.” Give readers consistently pleasurable kernels, and few will begrudge the pain of reading carefully.
To see that my cure works, we need look no farther than Billy Collins, whose accessible (he prefers the word hospitable) poems wowed audiences on American Public Media’s A Prairie Home Companion and have racked up impressive sales. My own anthology, Stand Up Poetry, started out as a pile of Xeroxed poems that beginning poetry students consistently enjoyed. Stand Up features Denise Duhamel, Edward Field, Richard Garcia, Barbara Hamby, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, Ron Koertge, Thomas Lux, Ed Ochester, William Trowbridge, and many others whose poems appeal to a general audience.
Time will tell whether American poetry will take my cure, but American literature would profit if it did. Individual poets could still write esoterica. Poetry, though, would stop standing in its tiny corner and move back toward the center of the literary room.
One of my proudest moments as a poet came at a reading with bestselling novelist Craig Johnson, creator of Sheriff Walt Longmire. Of the capacity crowd, more than 90% had come for Johnson, but after the reading, a woman with the look of a long-time rancher marched up brandishing my book and announced, “I don’t like poetry. But I like your poetry.”
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Brain Camp (Univ. of Pittsburgh), due out in April. He’s also a professor of English at CSU Long Beach (Calif.).