For some strange reason or several, many of the students in my courses display more connections to poems published decades and decades ago and by typically older poets as opposed to contemporary poems and younger poets (To be fair, the older canonical poems have gone through extensive filtering processes and often represent the "best of"). The growing distance between contemporary poets and readers can be scary, especially since we subscribe to the premise that both groups need each other. Yet, evidence indicates that they increasingly don't.
Although most contemporary poets would certainly welcome popular and widespread book sales, the reality is that financial stability for poets comes most often through appointments as professors at colleges and universities. Poets with the more prestigious appointments tend to be those with higher credentials, which not surprisingly are linked to elite institutions and esteemed awards. None of that stability is dependent on mass support of readers. In fact, a relatively small number of interconnected specialists, most of whom are poets, make the most important judgements and defining decisions about poets and poetry.
General readers, especially students from primarily working-class backgrounds like those that I work with, rarely purchase volumes of poetry. They know little about even acclaimed contemporary poets, that is, beyond older popular figures such as Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. For the most part, students do not care enough about formal contemporary poetry to care that formal contemporary poetry, institutionally and pragmatically speaking, cares little about them--students from primarily working-class backgrounds.
The indifference on both sides worries me because of my sense that they potentially have much that they can offer each other. The young people I work with have several thought and artistic barriers that poets could assist them with addressing. At the same time, poets might find wonderful muses and useful models of exciting language among the masses of the people, so to speak.
There are, of course, poets producing works that interact with the people, and there are those among the people actively engaging poetry. But those interactions and engagements are exceptions rather than rules. Much needs to be done in order for us to establish firmer bonds between contemporary poets and general readers.
Related: A Notebook on Fear of Language
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