The question of poetry and its audience
I remember when the Carter administration invited several hundred poets to the White House for a celebration of American poetry. There was a reception, handshakes with the president, the pop of flashbulbs. Concurrent poetry readings in various White House rooms capped off the festivities. In each room a few poets had been asked to read. The rest of the poets, the ones who hadn't been asked to read, could attend the reading of their choice. A year later, Jimmy Carter lost the presidency.
I used to think that this incident was a parable for poetry in our time. It seemed to make the point that poets were the only real audience poetry had and that they were implicitly in different camps, having to contend with one another for what little audience there was. I no longer feel so defeatist about poetry's prospects. I believe that American poetry has a true readership beyond its own practitioners and that furthermore it would be impertinent to behave as though this readership were necessarily restricted to an academic ghetto. This is not to deny the existence of a problem but to suggest that perhaps the problem has been ill defined. It is not that American poetry lacks distinction or variety or potential readers; it is that the task of reaching this readership requires a plan as imaginative in its way as the verse on the pages of the books that publishers continue to publish, with reluctance in some cases and with something like ardor in others.
The question of poetry and its audience—with the implicit nagging undertone that maybe poetry doesn't have readers because it doesn't deserve them—has certainly become a hot item in the popular press. Every couple of years an article in a national magazine arouses a good deal of comment by alleging that poetry is dead or by countering this claim with a list of helpful suggestions for improving poetry's public image. In May 1991 Dana Gioia asked readers of the Atlantic Monthly, "Can Poetry Matter?" (Gioia recommended that poets recite other poets' works at public readings.) Joseph Brodsky, the nation's new poet laureate, fired off "An Immodest Proposal" in The New Republic on Veteran's Day. (Brodsky proposed that an anthology of American poetry be found beside the Bible and the telephone directory in every hotel room across the land.) At Columbia University, three eminent critics pondered "An Audience for Poetry?" with its pointed question mark, while a panel of five poets convened at Adelphi University to discuss "Is Poetry a Dying Art?" On the latter occasion, the moderator ruefully recalled that his title echoed that of Edmund Wilson's famous essay "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" Wilson published his piece in 1928. Many noble technicians of verse have written since then, and many more will survive the articles and symposia of today, which may even have a salutary effect if they remind people that poetry is, for some of us, a burning issue. Still, all this talk does lead one to wonder whether Oscar Wilde was wrong to suppose that it is easier to do a thing than to talk about it.
It has been a pleasure working with Charles Simic on The Best American Poetry 1992. A marvelous poet writing at the height of his powers, Mr. Simic is also an accomplished essayist, and at the time he and I were collaborating on this project he was working on a monograph about Joseph Cornell—a telling choice, for a Simic poem and a Cornell box illustrate similar principles of juxtaposition and surprise. Both are hospitable to all manner of object and event, and the same may be said about the makeup of this anthology. The Best American Poetry 1992 includes a "Midwestern Villanelle" and a "Saga" built on sonnet variations, a poem for the New Year and another for All Hallows' Eve, a poem about the jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker and one about the fate of eyeglasses in Auschwitz. There is a prose poem by the author of the nation's number-one nonfiction best seller and a meditation on the color green by a nineteen-year-old writer living in Vancouver. More than half of the poets in The Best American Poetry 1992 have not previously appeared in the series. Over three dozen magazines are represented (and numerous others were consulted). Seven titles came from The New Yorker, topping the list, and it was a banner year also for the Paris Review and Ploughshares (six titles each) and for those stalwart campus quarterlies the Iowa Review (five) and the Michigan Quarterly Review and Field (four each). The settings range from a women's jail in Rome to the back rooms of a fast-food joint in downtown Milwaukee. And then there are the poems that unabashedly declare their subjects in their titles, such as "Nostalgia" and "Sex," which seem to be our idiomatic equivalents for what T. S. Eliot called "memory and desire."
No critic will ever have the effect on our poets that certain of their grade school teachers had—the ones often credited by the poets themselves for their lifelong devotion to the art. But criticism done right, not vindictively or meanly but with generosity and amplitude, with a respect for the reader's intelligence and the writer's intentions, can help teach us how as well as what to read, by example rather than by precept. There is no substitute for the sort of poetry criticism that we have so little of at the present time. The contributors' notes in this book—many of which include the poet's comments on his or her poem—are meant not in place of interpretive criticism but as a way of assisting such an effort, and as a bonus for the reader.
From the start, the editors and publishers of The Best American Poetry have gone on the assumption that readers equal to the best poetry of the day do exist and will stand up and be counted. It pleases me to report that this seemingly quixotic article of faith has turned out to be a simple statement of fact.
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About the Author
David Lehman's books of poetry include New and Selected Poems, Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, The Evening Sun, The Daily Mirror, and Valentine Place. He has edited The Oxford Book of American Poetry, among other collections. A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, the most recent of his six nonfiction books, won the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2010. Lehman teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.
The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry, 1988-2014
University of Pittsburgh Press