Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Poetry is dead! Long live poetry! -- those growing shrinking audiences

Hey, the next time someone tells you about the growing popularity of poetry, you should listen. They have a point. Then this: the next time someone tells you about the declining popularity of poetry, you should listen. They, too, have a point. 

By now, you've read positions on both sides of the debate: Poetry is dead! Long live poetry!

Here's the thing...well, here's a couple of the things. There are tiers of audiences for any art-form. There are intermediaries such as literary agents, editors, publishers, judges for awards, faculty at MFA programs, reviewers at major publications -- all of whom have influence on what gets published or widely disseminated.

Next, we have connoisseurs -- those people who have a high degree of knowledge about poetry. They may not control who and what gets published or circulated, but they possess sophisticated senses of the works, authors, histories, and the overall profession.  Many connoisseurs are or were poets themselves.

A little further out, we have amateurs. Some of us are really knowledgeable about select realms or sub-fields of poetry. Some of us are right there on the cusp of connoisseur, and some amateurs are closer to the side of general audience, but happen to possess more interest and engagement with the field.

Finally (or first), there's the general audience. They "like" poems. They "love" some select poets. Some are near-amateurs. Some write poetry and may have taken a creative writing class. But notably, their lives are filled with other interesting things, and poetry may not be in their top 10 or even top 25 favorite things.        

The general audience can shrink even as the numbers and power of intermediaries and connoisseurs grow. The 3 or so intermediary/connoisseur judges for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and other prestigious poetry awards could care less what general audiences and amateurs think about given volumes and poets.  They don't need our views and opinions in order to facilitate their taste-making. In fact, "literary" poets risk losing aspects of their standing (i.e. status) if they take the interests of non-connoisseurs too seriously.

Often, when people mention that poetry is dead or dying, they are often commenting on some large portion of the general audience. Poll the (general audience) man or woman on the street about poetry, and the state of art likely looks different than it does for, say, an editor at a noted poetry magazine or for a senior poet in a creative writing program at a prestigious university. Different social locations on the landscape of poetry manifest different views.  

Thus, we have these growing and shrinking poetry audiences. Sometimes, the connoisseurs have little and shrinking interest in a poet that general audiences love dearly (i.e. Maya Angelou). Conversely, some intermediaries and connoisseurs might place high value on poets (i.. Rita Dove or Carl Phillips) whose works do not resonate as much among general audiences.

Why and How Poetry Struggles to Expand Its Audience
Amiri Baraka, Lil Wayne & Mainstream, Underground Audiences
How Different Audiences Create Different Kinds of Black Poetry
Nikky Finney and her Audience 

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