The other day, one of my friends was telling me what she dislikes about poetry and poets. She doesn't read my blog, so she doesn't know that poetry is one of my main writing subjects. I was actually thankful that she was unaware of my interest and thus felt free to offer her critiques, which helped me to gain more insight into why and how poetry struggles to expand its audience.
First, my friend is a social scientist and thus is likely adverse to the popular view of poetry as a genre filled with writers telling, sometimes obsessively, their personal stories and feelings. For readers interested in narratives and ideas beyond only an individual's emotional and isolated outlook, there's a large body of poetry that would be undesirable and viewed as over-personalized if not egocentric. Of course, there's an extensive body of works by poets who address historical events, though admittedly those works are not cast as representative even though that kind of writing is quite pervasive.
Another deterrent, from what I can gather, for would-be poetry readers is the idea that poets often employ obscure, hard-to-decipher references. Accordingly, the critique is that poets purposely and for no good reason make the ideas that they want to convey difficult to comprehend. Interestingly, from within the poetry world, seemingly obscure references are not so obscure, and poets viewed as overly simplistic or cliche are often shunned by other poets.
So the interests of poets and the interests of general readers are often incompatible. Like any field, poetry has its distinct terms, notable figures, significant events, internal logic, and a sense of insider-ness that could make even engaged novices feel like distant outsiders.
Many senior literary scholars and a large number of poets have little sympathy for the readers who are apparently "too lazy" to put in the necessary work to understand poetry. On the other hand, many general readers suggest that it is the irrelevant, obtuse, and apolitical nature of so much poetry that disinclines them from reading, not laziness.
Those of us who regularly write about poetry have give little attention to reasons why large numbers of would-be readers ignore or have disdain for poetry. However, paying more attention to their disdain and indifference might better help us understand the persistent and perhaps widening gap between poetry and the non-poetry world.
A Notebook on the Black Arts Era