Who'd Want to Read Your Poems?
by Violet Nesdoly
This is our first column in Violet's "Poet's Classroom" series.
Do you remember the first poem that put a spell on you? For me it was “Silver” by Walter de la Mare. That was back in Grade 3 or 4 and I can still quote parts of it from memory:
Slowly, silently now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon
This way and that she peers and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees….1
The teacher probably had to explain what “shoon” meant but otherwise, in my little girl way, I pretty much understood what the poem was about.
Chances are somewhere in your past are poems that touched you just as deeply—so deeply, you now write or want to write poems yourself.
Chances are also good that in your relationship with poetry you’ve experienced what I did years later. In about 1998 after I had been away from reading and writing poetry for years, I felt a tug to get back to it. So one day I went off to the local library and signed out one of The Best of American Poetry series.
Back home, I snuggled into my reading chair, opened the substantial hardback with anticipation—and hit a brick wall. Poem after poem was indecipherable to me. These poems were obscure and difficult, like riddles with few clues. Instead of feeling welcomed back to poetry, I felt excluded, snubbed and stupid.
Poetry is communication
Ted Kooser, American Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, says this disconnect between modern poetry and reader doesn’t have to exist. “Poetry is communication. Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.”2
However, even a little sleuthing on the Internet shows us that in Canada today, few people do care about poetry. The first two books listed as bestsellers in the Amazon.ca Poetry category of Literature and Fiction are not even poetry (#1 Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is a novel, #2 Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections is a book of studies on contemporary art and culture). The third place book, Poems to Live By in Troubling Times, was published in 2006, ranks only 1,678 in the Amazon.ca list of all book sales, and does not have a single review to its credit (rankings checked July 22, 2008).
Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? Mostly it’s us, the people who write these hard discouraging poems. I include myself here. For though I determined when I started writing poems again to not write difficult ones, on occasion people have also said to me, “I don’t get it.”
Why do we do it? I think it has a lot to do with our idea of our audience.
In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Kooser writes about the things in a poem that can spoil a reader’s enjoyment of it. He takes a close look at the poem “The Windhover”3 by Gerard Manley Hopkins and comes to the conclusion that though the poem is musical and energetic, the way it’s written (with “richly modeled embossing” he calls it4) may be a barrier to just anyone understanding it. Kooser ends his discussion with this telling statement: “Hopkins has done what all poets must do to some degree; he’s selected a kind of audience by the manner in which he’s written.”5
Who is our audience?
What kind of audience do we envision when we write our difficult poems? Isn’t it often ourselves, our fellow poets, the critics, the professional interpreters, the editors of the literary journals, and the contest judges?
It’s fine to write for these people. Actually it’s practical. With poetry’s small audience, who will read our verses if these people don’t? However, not everyone believes that poets should pander solely to themselves and each other. Seamus Heaney, Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, says, “The aim of the poet and the poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.”6 As Christians, we have an even greater motivation to be understood as we use our poems to tell the best news on earth.
Thus if our goal is to expand our audience and once again bring poetry out of the rarified atmosphere of poetic elitism and back down to earth, we need to change our focus. We need to take our attention away from our needs as poets and focus it on the needs of our readers (or potential readers).
To get us on the road to doing this, let’s look at four published poems (portions are quoted below with links to the complete poem) with a view to discovering the audience of each. To help us, we’ll answer the following question after reading each poem: Who would appreciate this poem?
– unsophisticated adults who don’t normally read poetry
– unsophisticated adults who read and enjoy poetry
– sophisticated readers of poetry
– people familiar with the Bible and Christian culture
I’ll follow the poems with my thoughts and end with some ideas of how we can use what we’ve observed to make our own poems more accessible to more people.
Watch the daffodils
see the sweet gold voices lifted toward the sky
laughter embodied in delicate petals
gather them up in bunches
breathe the scent of their summer-dust and sunlight
spilling from sweet, yellow cups
gather the daffodils until your hands are full
until they spill from your arms in smiling drifts . . . .
(Read the rest of “Daffodils” ©2004 by Stephanie Adjemian)
Revlon and Jesus saved me from death.
Stubborn cowardice, to punish the poor flesh,
as if you, illiterate beloved,
could read me if only I inscribed the page with blood.
Hair in weeds, loose body a burden of fat.
A mess. God save me.
Happiness isn't for me
too necessary. You hid me from death
so long in your arms I grew fat
with suppressed desire to spend my allowance of flesh,
a naive romance of oblivion in the blood.
A raping god from the sky. O beloved . . . .
(Read the rest of “Lipstick Sestina” ©1999 by Jendi Reiter)
A Shortcut to Happiness
Walking to the pier head,
Where the dirty pontoons
Grated on their moorings
And the river flowed fast and furiously,
enough to kill the unwary.
He thought of Uncle Charlie.
Charlie, told them all each year,
(With the help of drambuie)
powerful memories of him and Gladys
dancing their way across the river
On the "Daffodil"* with, sisters, brothers, soldiers
In the swirl of VE Day celebrations . . . .
(Read the rest of “A Shortcut to Happiness” ©2004 by Dick Hayes)
"I went out full and the LORD hath brought me home again empty... Ruth 1:21a"
Sobs crack air
eyes, tumid map of veins
pulse a widow's elegy
scan horizon flat as hope
Her mouth blisters with unspoken words
sucked mute by the vacuum of loss
Muscles tear from the force
of holding back desire
for the anointing of his embrace . . . .
(Read the rest of “Naomi” ©2003 by Bonnie Flaman)
Thoughts on audience
Example 1: “Daffodils”:
If you followed the link and read the entire poem, you will know that “Daffodils” was written by a 13-year-old. I’m sure you’ll agree that even children could read and enjoy this lyric piece. Though the poet uses little punctuation, the line divisions feel natural and make sense. The images are easy to understand yet fresh. This poem puts few barriers in the reader’s way.
Example 2: “Lipstick Sestina”
I chose sophisticated readers of poetry as the audience for this poem for several reasons. For one, “Sestina” is mentioned in the title. The reader unschooled in poetry probably won’t have a clue what a sestina is and thus may feel excluded from the outset.
I also find the poem difficult in the “what’s it about” department. I think it’s about body image, guilt, and the poet’s relationship to “you”—though I’m not sure who “you” is. While I enjoy the references to common things: “Revlon,” “Hair in weeds,” “burden of fat” etc., I’m not sure I get the poem’s meaning as a whole.
On the other hand, I can see how the veiled message delivered in this technically demanding form could be an enjoyable challenge to an experienced interpreter. If you write poems like this, congratulations! Though your poetically unsophisticated family, friends and neighbors may not always understand or appreciate your poems, poetry editors and contest judges may welcome them.
Example 3: “A Shortcut to Happiness”
Any adult who likes to read—poetry or not—could get a lot out of this vignette. The language is simple and natural, the people recognizable. The poet aids our understanding by how he places the lines on the page—the setting and conclusion are on the left margin while the speaker’s memory of Uncle Charlie is indented. The poet even footnotes the name of the boat, “Daffodil,” to keep us in the know. The situation he describes—a young man thinking of entering a relationship but proceeding with great caution because of other relationships he has observed— is interesting and easy to relate to.
Example 4: “Naomi”
The audience I selected for this poem is people familiar with the Bible. A poem about a biblical character is a great subject if your target audience is familiar with such things. If not, you run the risk of making them feel as left out as you feel when poets write about characters from Greek or Norse myths, or any world you’re unfamiliar with.
The lack of punctuation in this poem may confuse some readers, though the arrangement of lines and the capital letters that begin some lines signal the beginning of a new thought/sentence. The word “tumid” stopped me. The poet could have substituted “swollen” to make that line more immediately understandable.
For poets to consider
1. The look of your poem on the page—lines of various lengths, ignoring rules of punctuation and capitalization—may be barriers to some readers, but you can compensate by making your ideas flow logically and arranging the length and placement of lines on the page for a sentence-like flow and pause in the reading.
2. Words that are part of the in-vocabulary of poets—like the names of forms (villanelle, rondeau, sonnet, etc.)—can make a reader feel left out. You don’t need to stop writing in these forms. Simply avoid mentioning them.
3. Writing poems about subjects that involve specialized information (like biblical characters) is appropriate when your audience is knowledgeable. But be aware that such poems may turn off people who don’t have your expertise or background. Similarly, avoid using obscure words when more common ones will do.
In conclusion, writing accessibly and for a wider audience will remain an inexact science involving imagination and empathy on the poet’s part, and continuing desire and effort on the reader’s. Let’s make it our goal to write poems that are so interesting, rewarding, and touching our readers will be glad they expended that effort.
For you to do:
• Look at your poems. Who is your usual audience?
• Choose one of your poems and rewrite it for a different audience.
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2008 by Violet Nesdoly
 “Silver” by Walter de la Mare.
 Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 2005) xi
 “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
 Ibid., at 71
 Ibid., at 72
 Ibid., at 6