Saturday, April 2, 2011

How Public are Poets?

David Orr, who writes an "On Poetry" column for The New York Times, reviews a few volumes of poetry, including Thomas Sayers Ellis's Skin, Inc., in the April issue of Poetry magazine.

In the opening paragraphs of the review, Orr provides some useful points and questions about the meaning of "public" and "publics" in relation to poetry.

Orr writes:
All poetry is public, in the sense that every poem implies an audience. But some publics are more public than others. Most contemporary poets, for example, address a public that consists only of close friends, professional acquaintances, and a few handy abstractions like the Ideal Reader and Posterity. This kind of public is very different from (and much smaller and more homogeneous than) the one that buys novels by Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen. And of course both of these audiences pale beside the public that we usually think of as “The Public”—the ocean of humanity that votes in elections, watches the Super Bowl, and generally makes America what it is, for better and worse. Poetry has famously little contact with this last and largest public. Indeed, the only such “Public” appearance by a poet in recent memory was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at the inauguration of President Obama, which earned a predictably ambivalent reaction from segments of poetry’s own public.

But if poets don’t often find themselves reading before a million citizens on the National Mall, that doesn’t mean they don’t address issues of national concern. The question is, which public gets to hear those public thoughts—and exactly how public are they, anyway?
Orr's observations helped me clarify some unresolved ideas or perhaps puzzles that have been circulating in my head for a while related to African American poetry in particular.

Things are still unresolved, but I see some benefits of thinking about why or how "some publics are more public than others" and what that means for poetry and poets, not to mention novelists, bloggers, and literary critics.

No comments: