I promised this informal essay as my next blog post: a piece I actually started as far back as the mid-1980s (a portion of which was published in Poet News: Sacramento’s Literary Calendar and News) and have recently completed—so I am offering thirty years of thought on the subject of an audience for poetry.
“A work of art is the social act of a solitary man.” So wrote John B. Yeats, a painter, a visual artist, and father of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Should this statement hold true for visual artists, how about poets, who may appear to be even more solitary and singular, enclosed as they are in their own world of words? Can such creatures ever rely on an “audience”? Do they even need one?
“I’ll go it alone,” a poet might be tempted to say. “I write only for myself.” Nonsense. “Alone” or “only for myself”—either way, that’s a fairly lonely enterprise, beyond the capacity of most people to endure, I suspect—although there have been heroic efforts. Yet even Emily D. cheated on occasion and sent poems to her friends, or enclosed them as an integral part of her letters.
We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of watching someone pass a storefront window that suddenly, through some nearly miraculous trick of sunlight, becomes a mirror. And we all know the reaction (more than likely because we’ve been guilty of it ourselves): that shock of recognition, quickly turning to preen for just a second, having seen oneself as others do. Let’s face it; we all crave “feedback” of some sort, preferably kind. We seek confirmation that we exist in the eyes and minds (and hopefully hearts) of others. And poetry is no exception to the rule of–fortunately in some cases–largely harmless egoism.
I have a friend who is an excellent jazz guitarist. He claims he went into jazz because he “can’t stand crowds.” This remark always draws a laugh from his audience, intimate (small) as that audience may be on occasion. They know that jazz, if it’s genuine, is a demanding art, and not a spectator sport for just anyone—except perhaps themselves. The same may be true of poetry. It remains, in spite of the admirable efforts on the part of someone like Bill Moyers to prove otherwise (those fine programs that might have been mostly ephemeral or impermanent attention getters, I fear, like anthologies that attempted to compare “great poems” to the efforts of Folk/Rock Troubadours in the Sixties), a somewhat esoteric art—at least in the United States where school kids may be expected to know the names of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but are not necessarily obliged to read much of their poetry. We have no such card game as Hyakunin isshu karuta (based on an anthology, Single Verses by a Hundred People), a game popular in Japan in which players, given the first three lines of waka or tanka (as it was later called: a 31 syllable—5-7-5-7-7—form either way), are expected to know the last two lines in order to match up the parts. These poems date back to 1,235 A.D. It’s as if we knew most of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart and could amuse ourselves by mating any octave picked at random with an appropriate sestet we could recite.
As a kid, I used to play “Authors” with my family, and I was intrigued by the faces of John Greenleaf Whittier (I also liked his name a lot!), Longfellow, and Poe, but not their poetry. Whatever skill I had at the game came down to remembering the names of works I was not likely to ever read (I haven’t, to this day, made it through all of Snowbound or The Courtship of Miles Standish). My daughter-in-law Yoko, who worked as a nurse in Japan before she married our son Steve, not only recalls playing Hyakunin isshu karuta as a child, but can to this day sing the poems, which have been set to music. In Japan, she belonged to a haiku society in which she wrote poetry herself.
As an American poet, I’m generally happy to have a few folks turn out to hear me read my poems, much less have had them memorize them for future use or reference in a card game, or learn to sing them (and I have set some of my poems to original music). As an American poet, I’d settle for just about anyone who might care deeply for much (or all) of what I write. But that’s a big order — even for family and friends.
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who paid the ultimate public price for a poem (he died, a political prisoner at age forty-seven, in a transit camp near Vladivostok, having been arrested for reciting, at a party of close friends, a poem critical of Stalin—so watch out for your audience, should you find one!), said that the poet’s words are like a seafarer’s note (“containing his name and a message detailing his fate”) sealed in a bottle and tossed into the sea. Someone, someday, wandering along the dunes will “happen upon it in the sand.” If that person reads the message, or poem (“the last will and testament of one who has passed on”), he or she, having found it, becomes “its secret addressee.”
Mandelstam contrasts the normal reaction of a person with “something to say,” a person who “goes to other people,” [who] “seeks out an audience,” with the “terrifying indifference” of a madman or a poet who runs “to the shores of desert waves, to broad and resonant oaks” (Pushkin), the latter making himself—in the eyes of the world—as suspect as any madman. People would be “within their rights to stand back terrified of the poet,” if his or her words were not actually addressed to someone. But, Mandelstam adds, “This is not the case.” He writes of the “contractual relationship … the mutuality which attends the act of speaking,” yet acknowledges the ambiguity of an “audience” for poetry. “We do not know, nor will we ever know, where the audience is …Francois Villon wrote for the Parisian rabble of the mid-15th century, yet the charm of his poetry lives on today.” These thoughts (and saying that “every man has his friends. Why shouldn’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?”) led Mandelstam into his account of the seafarer and the bottle (or poem which, with the aid of the ocean and the “secret addressee,” will “fulfill its destiny”), and his belief in the sense of “providence” that overwhelms the “finder.”
Mandelstam’s account (the best, I’ll confess, most honest statement on the nature of audience I’ve ever found) ends there, but I think whatever use the finder or recipient puts the message (or poem) to is not the poet’s business, for the business of poetry seems to be to remain without much “use” at all. There is talk today, however, of an audience for poetry—that is, an audience aside from friends and an occasional seafarer.
First, we have that horde of fellow writers, their numbers legion: a wildly appreciative look on their collective face, ready to pick the brains — and poems — of whoever happens to be Bard for a Day, sizing up her or his images, ranking lines, appraising the “stance,” aping the style or voice (even personal habits or sensibility), trying her or him in the most literal sense: as adjudicators, parasites, or thieves, walking off–or running away–with whatever they feel is worth taking, lines (or “licks,” as they say in the jazz world) for the sake of their own poetry. But there is nothing new in this. Even Apollo, that unimaginative bully and bore, stole both prophecy and poetry from Pan, the man or goat who got there first. We have all I fear, at one time or another, been a part of this audience.
A second type consists of those good souls who have just “discovered” poetry: novitiates, postulants, neophytes who, their most elementary, essential feelings distorted, ignored or denied throughout their lives, have now been told by well-meaning enthusiasts to think of those feelings, and the instant discovery and expression of them (written down as quickly, “automatically” as possible, with none of the friction of conscious intent or craft) as poetry. And they do. The Greek word for the process is therapeia (a “waiting on” or “tending to sickness”). Mandelstam compared such practitioners to “children and simple people [who] feel flattered when they can read their names on the envelope of a letter.”
Let me say, for those of you in the “audience” who may be getting concerned or even chagrined at this point, that I am fully in favor of any activity–especially with children (of any age, aging adults!)–that involves working with words as a means of self-discovery (or acquiring self-enhancement), but do feel that people who undertake poetry seriously have an obligation to understand that it is a Craft, an Art Form that extends far back in time (its “lyric”–love song–mode as far back as 1300 B.C. Egypt, 1000 years before the “The Song of Songs”)—and perhaps, as human instinct, as far back as 250,000 years to Homo Neanderthalensis, or “The Singing Neanderthals.” (See Stephen Mithen’s book with that title).
A third audience, the most wildly appreciative and the most dangerous, actually “embraces” the poet, takes possession, confers celebrity status, claiming her or him as their very own. This group is as old as the insane strictures that circumscribe all tribal dance. Miguel de Unamuno called their successful efforts the “inquisition of culture.” The poet becomes culture’s “instrument”: chock full of exactitude, synteresis, prudence, equanimity, always ready to please whatever group, clan, or mob she or he has become spokesperson for or charming rebel or “character” within, shocking the community through occasional excess but never confusing it, winning hearts either way, for the terms on which such a poet exists are always theirs, not the poet’s own.
A genuine poet like Mandelstam (the Real Thing—his life devoted to the art) was the victim, most obviously, of the latter group, not because they embraced him favorably–which they did not–but because, in the form of the powerful Union of Writers, they denied that he had any place in contemporaneous “culture” or the world of poetry at all. They excluded him from the tribal dance. They simply turned their backs on him and did him in. And, in his case, the first group was no better. Running scared, owing so much to him and knowing it, they pretended they owed him nothing at all. The second group, on the “rise” (and maybe “the make”), fully caught up in their own small moment of poetical/political history, busy “expressing themselves,” simply pretended he did not exist. “There have been entire epochs,” Mandelstam said, “when the charm and essence of poetry were sacrificed to [these] far from inoffensive demand[s].” It may be comforting to know (ho ho) that “P.C.” is not a recent invention.
Mandelstam left behind words: words in a bottle, words that, for some peculiar reason, people today (an audience far down the road from his cruel era) have chosen to remember. Why? Before we examine this peculiarity (and it is one: that someone so disenfranchised, even condemned, slighted, ignored should now be so well remembered, and revered), let me indulge a wild idea of the Gnostic Mandaens. They believed that in some “upper world,” a person’s “original idea”–an image or eternal Self –prospered, while “here below,” the earth Self sweated it out in exile. “The image “above,” kept safe, got better as the person below got worse, perfected by inevitable failures and compromises–a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. But which was the poet and which the audience? Perhaps that better Self, in total tolerance and sympathetic accord, yet also demanding in a friendly, family way, served as W.H. Auden’s true censor: that “inner examiner … only interested in one author and only concerned with works that do not yet exist.”
A portion of the poet him- or herself a poet’s best audience?
Why not? No one could demand more, or less. But this doesn’t really explain why anyone else should find poets or their poetry worth remembering. The concept–like audiences one, two and three–is too confined and confining, too selfish, too small. And after all, What is poetry? Perhaps if we knew what it was we could determine just whom it’s for.
Unfortunately, most attempts to define poetry, objectively, prove discouraging, if not downright futile. Coleridge spoke of “the best words in the best order,” as if a poem were a verbal corset, or military troops in line for review—a theory that makes me want to launch some sort of insane dance, naked, arms akimbo, just to allow poetry to breathe freely again. Shelley’s “best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds” reminds me of an ad for a film by Walt Disney, and Matthew Arnold’s “criticism of life” makes me want to celebrate the death of his century. Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “speech framed” strikes me as the oddest thing in the world for him to say (whose speech, compared to the tight frames, or corsets, of his friend Robert Bridges, always runneth over—and in sprung rhythm no less!). Among the Moderns, Wallace Stevens’ “a revelation in words by means of the words” and W.H. Auden’s “the clear expression of mixed feelings” sound as fatuous as those two might have become around cocktail hour on any given day, being terribly witty in tandem, the sort of occasion at which the statements may well have been made. Archibald MacLeish’s justly famous (when it was first espoused) “not mean but be” has borne repeating, but maybe to the point where it shouldn’t be repeated anymore. Heard too often, the phrase begins to cloy, to sound vacuous. Poet Richard Howard just gave up on a definition, calling poetry “the best kept secret of all.”
Who can we trust then? Paul Valery was a genuinely serious, philosophically-oriented poet, and his insights were no toss off, although it’s somewhat disheartening to see how they varied, even within a single essay. I am attracted to his “A poem must be a holiday of Mind. It can be nothing else,” but at one point, he succumbs, as most poets do, to expansive nonsense: poetry represents or restores (to what?) all those things which “cry, kiss, caress, sigh,” et cetera. Et cetera indeed! Then he goes in for philosophical levitation, saying, “Poetry is only literature reduced (italics mine) to the essence of its active principle.” Huh? That’s pretty abstract, and we all know what Ezra Pound had to say about that (“Go in fear of abstractions.”). Valery also confesses that most people have such a vague idea about poetry that “this vague feeling itself is their definition of poetry.” I like that one! I think of Poetry Audience Number Two: the therapy/thrill seekers. And also, I suspect, most poets who, as they should be, are mainly concerned with writing the stuff–that medium, as Auden said, to which they are “accustomed”.
If I have been toying with the sacred Great, it was to show that, even among them, objective definition as such is not likely to get us very far. Therefore, I must be subjective again—as subjective as the act of writing itself. I do love another statement of Valery’s and one by Mandelstam. Valery spoke of “energy that spends itself in responding to what is,” and Mandelstam said that the living word does not just denote objects, but takes up “residence” in them–freely choosing its meanings within a body that’s nice to inhabit. Mandelstam had an “architectural” notion of poetry: to truly “know” something meant “to build,” and “to give meaning.”
I like the approach of these two fine “practicing” poets (not just theorists; I also like Robert Graves’ “But nothing promised that is not performed,” the last line of his fine poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”) because they, as perceptions, are as active (zestful), sexy, tidy and tightly yet spontaneously drawn as a good poem, and because they emphasize what I feel is most important: poetry is an act, a distinct response to something–a definite residing within what is. If poetry is an act, a response, a residing within, it just may, as such, not possess suitable time–within its own fine active, sexy, tidy, tight time–to consider or care about how others respond to or use it. Like sex, it’s stingy within its own context. Which brings us back to that use which is no use at all.
Mandelstam asserted that an audience representative of a particular era or age (and he had to contend with plenty of those) tore the wings from poetry, deprived it of “air,” made it incapable of the “freedom of flight,” divested it of life and surprise. Working on the premise that poetry is “the consciousness of being right,” yet acknowledging that a poet will search the face of whomever he converses with “for sanctions, for a confirmation of [that] sense of rightness,” Mandelstam knew that a genuine poet’s eye “darts beyond his generation” (even though he may have friends within it), because addressing a “concrete, living” audience, representatives “of the age” (as even friends can be!), the poet, and his poetry, can only speak “of what is already known” (this is what he calls “a powerful, authoritative psychological law. Its significance for poetry cannot be under-estimated”). Proshchai (farewell, or final goodbye) to all surprise! “The sight of ears ready to listen may inspire others—an orator, a politician, a prose writer,” Mandelstam said, “anyone, that is except a poet.”
He did speak, however, of the “abiding value” of poetry and its “sacramental nature.” And so would I.
What seems clear is that the poet’s primary encounter is with this oblational response or the rite of making poetry itself. Poetry then may be a unique form of prayer/praise that runs the risk of voiding itself at nearly every turn–something invaluable, treasurable to hold on to. I know of no other way to account for the power of poems–their hold, not just on any particular era’s audience, but on that solitary figure as yet unknown, the one who, happening across that poem in a bottle discovered among the dunes, will feel herself or himself to be the reader, its reader, or (in Mandelstam’s words) “the chosen one.” Response on this scale seems a natural enough spin-off from the larger: the poet’s response itself: reciprocity with not only the poem made but the rite of making it, the sacramental act undertaken–“homologizing the personal and the universal,” which, according to Joseph Campbell, is the “basic method of mythological discourse.”
And, to my way of thinking, poetry. The response to poetry should be as personal (and universal) as the act of writing it. But a living, concrete audience (always on the edge of being a crowd, or even a mob) may be incapable of such a response. It’s got too much else on its mind, is easily distracted by inessentials. It’s too fickle, too false, and more than likely should not be entrusted with such valuable human encounters as sex and prayer–or poetry. However, if an audience with the genuine, rich, surprised appreciation of that seaside “secret addressee” could be found in the present, within the poet’s lifetime—wouldn’t that be wonderful?!
And that seems a suitable (and suitably playful for this truly difficult subject) spot for me to stop, for today—even though I have more both playful and grave (deadly serious) things I hope to say about poetry and its audience. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, Part One, on the subject as much as I have enjoyed attempting to put it together–assuming I just might have an “audience” out there, somewhere–an audience for whom I’ll close with a series of drawings and woodcuts I did of Osip Mandelstam, ranging from when he was twenty-two years of age in 1913 to 1936, two years before his death: these in honor of that splendid poet. And I’d also like to celebrate having acquired 3,022 “views” on the blog I started in July, 2013 (1,725 visitors from 53 different countries from Albania to Zimbabwe)—so thanks to everyone (worldwide!) who has paused to check out or take a look at what I’ve posted on Bill’s Blog.