Stephen Burt teaches in the English Department at Harvard University. He is most recently the author of Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry and The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence. He has also written three books of poems and has a poetry blog, appropriately named Close Calls with Nonsense.
I read this morning—via the National Endowment for the Arts and its new report, as noted on Harriet, the blog of the Poetry Foundation—that 17% of Americans read poetry (read at least one poem that year) in 1992, 12% read poetry in 2002, and 8% read it in 2007: the reading of poetry, any poetry at all, is in what statisticians call a long-term decline.
That’s alarming, but how alarming? It’s no news that poetry no longer occupies the place it had in American life in 1960, or 1860: when serious poets or poetry turn up in some slice of the mass media (say, Frank O’Hara in the TV show Mad Men) their appearance becomes, in the poetry world, big news. Poets (Frost, Longfellow, Whittier) once seemed central to American culture, religion and education, even more important, then, than our best-known novelists (Hemingway, Faulkner, Morrison, Roth) seem now: if you want to see how important, check out the American historian Joan Shelley Rubin’s book Songs of Ourselves. But if you do check it out, you may not see the poems, or the kinds of reading, that you expect if you read lots of poetry now: you’ll see a lot of “uses of poetry,” but not so much of the poetry that means the most now to the Americans (and the other English-speaking people) who read, and write, poetry all the time, who live our lives in constant proximity to this art form.
What does it mean to live with, to depend on, poetry when fewer and fewer people care for it each year? Maybe it means—exactly what it would mean if more and more people were caring about each year. Maybe our relationship to poetry isn’t, and can’t be, mediated, if we really care about it, by the desire to use it for something else, to make it Important, to make it (here comes a verb we expect in this connection) “matter”: not if “matter” comes with the footnote “in some demographically measurable way.”
I turn from the Harriet blog and the NEA to our three-year-old, who draws pictures, these days, whenever he’s not playing music: he can draw on paper, but he very much prefers to draw on our dry-erase board, and when he’s done drawing each picture he asks us to look, to appreciate, and then to wash it away, so that he can draw the next thing on his mind. He would be very upset if he had nobody to share those pictures with (if Mommy and Daddy refused to come and look). But as long as there’s someone to take a look, and then to erase his dry-erase board, he’s not going to care whether three, or three hundred, people can see each particular picture, nor does he care whether each of his pictures will last: the point is not to expand, nor to measure, and audience, but to draw and move on.
Which is to say that our little guy is, at least in this respect, a bit like John Keats, who wrote to Richard Woodhouse in December 1818: “I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.” Keats wanted an audience—he even wanted to help cause social change (“I am ambitious of doing the world some good,” the same letter admits). But he maintained a relation to his art of poetry prior to, and more durable than, his thoughts (and he had many thoughts) about who would read it and whether they understood.
Almost all poets want someone to read their work (Keats did). Some even depend (as Keats perhaps did; as Frank O’Hara obviously did) on some internalized idea of how their friends read their last poems, as guides or goads to what they wrote next. Some poets have to imagine a stranger reading their work in order to finish that work: we must (as in psychoanalysis) imagine speech to an otherwise-unknown listener in order to tell the truth about ourselves. How many poets, though, are moved to write poems, or not to write poems, by their sense of the scope of an audience, by their sense of the number of available strangers? Isn’t one listener (known or unknown) enough? Isn’t the writing the point of the writing, prior to and more durably than any sense of how many people take note? It’s disturbing to think that the trend line in the NEA’s report might end at zero, a time when no Americans reported that they read any poems at all. But it’s also hard to believe that such a trend line could end at zero, or anywhere near zero: and as long as some people are reading poetry, quite a lot of people will try seriously to write it, and some fraction of them will write poems that last.
Indeed, the easiest explanation for the striking numbers the Harriet blogger decries has nothing to do with how many people read, or don’t read, contemporary poems: it has instead to do with the passing away, due to simple old age, of the last cohort in America to “use” poems the way that the people in Rubin’s study used them, the people who memorized Longfellow, Byron and Frost, and who reread those poets throughout their lives. My grandfather was one such person: in no way professionally connected with literature (for 17 years he was Deputy Undersecretary in the US Department of Labor), he was quoting “The Prisoner of Chillon” at length, over the phone, in the last month of his life. What was “The Prisoner of Chillon,” you ask? –and simply by asking, you make my point. How many people who hold such positions now can quote long-dead poets, for any reason, at length? We have lost that kind of cultural relation to poetry; but that does not mean that the poems of John Ashbery, Laura Kasischke, C. D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Rae Armantrout, have no cultural position, gain no attention at all.
Marc Bain, who reported the NEA numbers for Newsweek, noted the various efforts (National Poetry Month, Poetry Out Loud) to make verse available to younger folks; these promotions do some good and almost no harm. If they attract five more readers to George Herbert or Lorine Niedecker or Laura Kasischke, they’re good news. But they are also fodder for “the media,” for bookstores and periodicals and blogs, ways to turn a spotlight towards poems-in-general, and ways to miss, perhaps, what poems-in-particular, for particular readers, do. As long as there are some particular readers for poems that can last—some audience poets can imagine reaching, some set of people who might make new poems their own—it’s probably not worth worrying much about whether that set constitutes 4%, or 5%, or 10%, of the audience for fiction, or of the population a survey can reach.