Little Emerson

04 July 2005


John Koch - The Cocktail Party
Cocktails anyone?

K. Silem Mohammad makes some interesting commentary in a recent interview at Tom Beckett’s e-x-c-h-a-n-g-e-v-a-l-u-e-s. I’d like to center on Kasey’s views on the concept of “audience” in poetry and the role the poet may play in that regard. Maybe Kasey’s advise would be helpful in light of our inability here—at Little Lonely Emerson—to publish anything or to find any poem that excites more than four out of nine judges at a time. What role does audience play in this regard?

Kasey notes:

I’m increasingly interested in the whole notion of “audience,” and the different kinds of creative-writing dogma that spring up around the notion. Like, you should or shouldn’t write with a particular audience in mind. My take is that you’re always writing for an audience, even if that audience is just yourself. But who wants to go through life writing “for themself” (sic)? Invite some friends along from time to time. Get out more often!

Sometimes I think shyness is a cover-up for hostility. Our initial instinct is often to excuse people who don’t participate in group discussions, etc., on the basis that they’re sensitive souls who shouldn’t be prodded to step into the spotlight against their will. But that kind of sensitivity is like a wound that will get infected and potentially spread to others. Poets who cling to a “dark-horse” romantic investment in their own maladjusted anti-sociality (here I’m thinking of Jim Behrle’s very funny comic strip “Dark Horses” on his JimSide blog) and complain bitterly about nepotist publishing practices, cliquishness, etc. often seem to be longing for a poetic universe in which each poet is one omnipotent god complete unto him-/herself, and somehow the whole cosmos of solipsists is supposed to integrate magically into a heaven of objective purity, uncontaminated by things like friendship, desire, ambition, flattery, and other human diseases. So I’m interested in that other poetic cosmos, where we’re all minor cherubs who promote ourselves and each other shamelessly. Because all that stuff definitely keeps me going.

I find Kasey’s opinions interesting though I do not agree with some of them. I believe the concept of “audience” can be dangerous to poetry. And it can become increasingly dangerous when it plays an active role in the creative process. Indeed, as a marketing tool it is fine if the object is to “sell” poetry and selling becomes a necessary evil. This may very well be the case. When audience gathering and audience response becomes an integral part of the creative process, however, artistic integrity may be at stake. It may very well result in mimicry and mediocrity, a sort of “sequel” concept: “If this works and they like it, I’ll give them more of this until I exhaust the process.” It is very Hollywood in a sense and it works as far as audience gathering goes. But how does it affect the individual work of art and the artist? Was this, say, what Eliot thought of when he wrote “The Waste Land”? Can original works of art be created to please audiences without sacrificing art?

Kasey maybe right. It is said that Shakespeare wrote for his audience, though I would tend to doubt that truism. It may also be true that Shakespeare could have written for a herd of cattle with the same artistic result, but then again cows would’ve had a hard time applauding. Will may not have appreciated the silence. Best we learn from Joyce and write directly for moocows, like moocows. That did him well. In the end, however, do we appreciate Shakespeare for his popularity or for the inherent quality of his works? Or both?

While writing with an audience in mind and writing for oneself may not be mutually exclusive concepts, I would still err on the side of narcissistic creation where the audience plays no part at all in the creative process other than as final guest at the wedding, as Jarrell might say. Though Kasey is right short term I think the ages have proven otherwise in terms of artistic permanency: true poetic works of art are rare and no amount of audience gathering or popularity can change that, primarily when no audience exists for the original poem when it is written. Being widely read by an audience assures success today; but tomorrow it may have the same effect as not being published or read at all.

But I know I ought to climb down from my high horse. Most poetry is not and has never been an everlasting artistic accomplishment. Wasting our time in such ethereal notions does nothing for poetry today and little for the living poet. In all fairness to Kasey I think that he is being more pragmatic and practical than I’m able to be or admit to being. That doesn’t make either position wrong. It maybe true that we ought to get “shy” poets out more often and cure them of their disease. It may also be true that poets may accomplish more in one cocktail party than in a thousand fabled nights of anguished work by the lantern. Given a choice, though, my suspicion and bias sticks to the loner. Anybody out there hear me?


  • Loud and clear, Alberto.

    A fitting tribute on this 150th anniversary of Whitman's self-publication of Leaves of Grass.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 04, 10:29:00 pm  

  • Now, why was I also thinking of that?

    Thanks for dropping by.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at Tue Jul 05, 12:13:00 pm  

  • Interesting post, Alberto.

    I think Merwin's poem captures the idea of audience best (please forgive me if somebody else has already mentioned this).

    [Merwin's poem "Berryman" from Opening the Hand (1983):


    I will tell you what he told me
    in the years just after the war
    as we then called
    the second world war

    don't lose your arrogance yet he said
    you can do that when you're older
    lose it too soon and you may
    merely replace it with vanity

    just one time he suggested
    changing the usual order
    of the same words in a line of verse
    why point out a thing twice

    he suggested I pray to the Muse
    get down on my knees and pray
    right there in the corner and he
    said he meant it literally

    it was in the days before the beard
    and the drink but he was deep
    in tides of his own through which he sailed
    chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

    he was far older than the dates allowed for
    much older than I was he was in his thirties
    he snapped down his nose with an accent
    I think he had affected in England

    as for publishing he advised me
    to paper my wall with rejection slips
    his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
    with the vehemence of his views about poetry

    he said the great presence
    that permitted everything and transmuted it
    in poetry was passion
    passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

    I had hardly begun to read
    I asked how can you ever be sure
    that what you write is really
    any good at all and he said you can't

    you can't you can never be sure
    you die without knowing
    whether anything you wrote was any good
    if you have to be sure don't write

    By Blogger Peter, at Sat Jul 09, 09:26:00 pm  

  • So good of you to stop by, Peter.

    Excellent example by Merwin. Thanks for pointing it out. Sometimes simplicity and re-statement of the obvious, as Merwin so well points out (or Berryman as Merwin’s muse) becomes truth. Many will say, indeed, as many have said about our little experiment here: “Well we all knew that. Tell us something we don’t know.” And yet those very facts that we all apparently know so well turn on us because we want to rise beyond “passion” to that logical formula, that elusive key that will create, produce or identify the “poem”. Is this poem good? What makes it good? I suppose audience represents, rightly or wrongly, that elusive answer, that barometer or measuring stick of approval we seek. The danger with such need—the need for approval and recognition—appears obvious to me when we may seek to give what we think people want to hear. Hence, the inevitable arguments about form, structure, etc. The poem ought be like this, rhyme like this, look like this. The fact that no one is right lies at the center of the mystery of artistic creation.

    Kasey’s interesting concepts of “shameless promotion” and group-support dynamics are different matters. They touch upon the business of poetry, an entirely different necessary evil, I think.

    By Blogger A.R.B., at Mon Jul 11, 09:56:00 am  

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