Slants on Writing Poetry for a General Readership

For many years I did what many aspiring poets did: submit and have individual poems published in small literary and/or academic magazines.  I have bought my share of sample copies of these magazines and have lamented the poetry often did not align with my personal canon of excellence. I usually found three or four petunias in the onion patch.   These magazines are largely published and read by other poets.  The general reader abandoned poetry books long ago.   Through my experience with performance poetry and readings in the 1980’s and the ho-hum prose arranged like poetry on the page in magazines, I began to ponder how the general audience could be revived for poetry in the United States.  Poetry’s audience was not imperiled in Russia or other European countries. I concluded that American poetry readership had shrunk to fellow poets and academics because so much of the poetry being written in the latter half of the twentieth century was highly personal, obscure and downright unmusical.  The lyrical and meditative modes predominated, yet when I looked at the popularity of poetry in earlier centuries, I realized the narrative or dramatic line had created a wide readership.  Longfellow’s long narrative poems and Robert Browning’s persona poems came to mind. Collections like Tennyson’s In Memoriam grouped around the one theme of grief captured a general public.  In the twentieth century I saw Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body (winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1929) carrying forward the popular narrative and dramatic tradition in poetry.  As a teenager, these poetry books fueled my love of poetry. I contend poetry is a natural love that somewhere in the process of growing up gets covered over with mud, for children naturally love their nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss’ books and everyone, young or old, loves a song.  Poetry has only to be read aloud or recited in order for an audience to measure its worth.  The ear discerns the cadence of the lines, the poem’s rhythms and other pleasing sound effects.

In the late 1980’s I began to write series of poems centering around one theme, narrative poems or dramatic monologues, that could be collected in one volume.  Of course, I continued to write individual poems born of my own experience, observation or emotions, but I wanted to strive beyond the purely personal to develop story lines in my poetry that might appeal to a wider public of general readers.  During this period, books like Derek Walcott’ s Omeros and Pamela White Hadas’ Beside Herself furnished my models. My poetry books are a result of this approach to writing thematic collections of narrative poetry.

In the last decades, healthy signs of an expanding readership for poetry beyond the confines of university writing programs and a circle of academic poets have appeared.  Performances of cowboy poetry, rap and poetry slams abound around the country.  Poetry is widely published in many fine online magazines such as Pedestal. Readers increasingly turn to the internet to read. I do not lament this trend from print to electronic format. Poetry will regain a general readership when the decision for what is good is fully back in the hands of the reader and not a coterie of academic poets in the habit of showcasing each other’s work. I look forward to the day when the majority of our great poets may again be bank clerks, pediatricians, insurance agents, stevedores and even tax collectors. There is something about writing poetry that makes it a way of life rather than a way of earning a living (a topic to develop more.) The haven of academia eluded me, but I do not regret that I spent thirty years working for a government agency (which will remain nameless). The position exposed me to all walks of life, occupations, ages, and socio-economic groups.  Yes, out of the classroom into the open public arena!  I see the poem sprouting feet and walking out the Ivory Tower. “I Hear America Singing,” as beloved Walt Whitman sang in rolling cadences.

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