Sunday, January 20, 2008

Readers Wanted

Early last November, just before my hospitalization for colon cancer, I had the privilege of participating in a fascinating symposium co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and the Columbia University School of Journalism called “Make It News,” on poetry and journalism. My panel, “Covering Poetry: Past, Present, and Future,” discussed both whether the amount of public coverage of poetry (mostly in America) has changed (mainly since the nineteenth century) and the ways in which the kind of coverage poetry receives has changed (mostly due to the Internet).

The critic and poet Adam Kirsch, with whom I’ve disagreed in the past (see my post "Final Thoughts on Blogging," in which I take issue with his sweeping and uninformed dismissal of literary blogs), asserted that poets don’t write to be read and don’t desire to be “popular” (he made this statement particularly about Emily Dickinson and the Modernists as a group), that they write for “posterity,” and that only “history” will sort out which poets matter. I had to disagree on all counts. When I asked him about the role of literary institutions in these decisions of “history,” he had no reply. As I should have pointed out at the time, “history” isn’t an agent; “posterity” isn’t an actor. They are the products of people’s individual and collective decisions. “History,” both prospectively and retrospectively, is what we make it.

Furthermore, it’s a myth that Emily Dickinson didn’t care about readership or publication. She was intensely ambitious and wanted to be read; she published ten poems in her lifetime (admittedly out of nearly eighteen hundred), and sent her poems to literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the hope that he would take them up. She also distributed her poems among friends and family.

The modernists all wanted to be read and appreciated, and they strenuously engaged in the work of producing their audience, of teaching readers how and why to read their work, through essays, manifestoes, and anthologies. They didn’t disdain popularity per se; they disdained the poetry that was popular at the time. Ezra Pound, for one, definitely wanted his poetry to be popular, and though he often doubted it would be—“Will people accept them?/(i.e. these songs)”—it disappointed him that it wasn’t. He wanted his work and the work he supported to supplant the “ladies’ verse” that he so despised. Though in one poem he wrote, “I join these words for four people,” in the next line he wrote, “Some others may overhear them,” and one may be sure that he hoped they would.

Pound’s work as an editor (for Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, The Dial, and finally of his own journal The Exile, a well as of the anthologies Des Imagistes and Profile), and as an essayist and propagandist played a crucial role in publishing, publicizing, and disseminating the work we now call “modernist.” As Lawrence Rainey notes, “[Pound’s] gifts as an impresario were…impressive. Much of the coherence of modernism as an institution derived from his canny capacity to bring together patrons, journals, and authors, creating and then exploiting institutional opportunities” (Modernism: An Anthology, 39).

As music historian Arnold Whittall has noted of some of Pound's contemporaries in another medium, “Even the concept of music as ‘bourgeois entertainment’ was not rejected out of hand by most avant-garde composers, whose belief in the rightness of their radicalism was based on the conviction that sooner or later the value of their music would be publicly, culturally accepted, and that such acceptance meant performance in conventional concert environments” (Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, 21).

Pound also very much wanted his social, political, and economic views to be heard and taken seriously. Pound admired Mussolini’s ideas (if they can be called that), but he also admired Mussolini because he believed that Mussolini took his ideas seriously. It was Pound’s commitment to those ideas, to social credit and the like, and his desire to disseminate them more widely, that led him to broadcast over Radio Rome during World War II.

Just as every good boy deserves favor, every writer wants to be read: otherwise there’d be no reason to write. To say that one writes for posterity is just to say that one wants an audience in the future as well as in the here and now: one wants a permanent readership.

I have no wish to change the way that I write in order to appeal to a wider audience, that mythical “common reader,” nor do I think that such attempts to guess what other people want are usually successful. But I very much want my work to reach every reader who might be interested in what I do write, however few or many such readers there might be.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to second your observations, especially your rejection of Adam Kirsch's silly position. Clearly we write for readers who share our own historical moment; if I reject that moment and con myself into writing for some future reader (a fantasy, that is), then my poetry is bound to be phony—a product already derivative of the "posterity" which, as you point out, has been created by others. All good writers have an audience in mind, and almost every great writer—Modernists included—are on record with descriptions of their ideal readers. I defy Kirsch to find a single important writer who ever said, "My ideal readers haven't been born."

By the way, I want to thank you for your blog and your poetry, both of which are continually exciting and challenging.

Joseph Duemer said...

Though I've read your poems, I didn't know you has a blog until recently. Glad I found it.

Is Adam Kirsch a poet? I can't imagine that he is, given the views you describe. I'd go so far as to say that a poem doesn't fully exist until it is published. Doesn't necessarily have to be in the New Yorker, just sending it to a friend will do. As for the notion that the modernists were not interested in having an audience, it's hogwash. Peter Gay's recent book Modernism gives the lie to any such notion.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Joseph and Joseph,

Thanks for your very smart and articulate comments.

I agree that to attempt to write for "posterity," to achieve some notional "timelessness," is in effect to write for no one. One has to be of one's time before one can outlast or transcend one's time.

I also agree that a poem, like a piece of music, only comes alive when it is performed, even if only in the mind of a reader. Luckily, however long a poem slumbers, so long as it survives materially, it can be awakened by a reader or listener's kiss.

As Joseph Duemer notes, Peter Gay's marvelous book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy repeatedly points out that modernist artists in all fields wanted an audience--they just wanted that audience to come to them on their terms.

Gay also points out that the philistinism of the bourgeoisie who were always to be shocked (épater le bourgeoisie and all that) was not nearly so thoroughgoing or so monolithic as modernist propaganda and retrospective history would have it. If it were, modernism would never have been accepted, let alone institutionalized.

Yes, Adam Kirsch is indeed a poet, or at least he's been published as one. I find his work rather stiff and dull.

Thanks for your kind words about the blog and about my poems, which are much appreciated.

peace and poetry,


mgushuedc said...

I have to chime in and say what a great post that I could not agree with more, though I could not have put it as eloquently or as succinctly.

What does Kirsch hope to gain by taking such an obviously untenable position? His criticism seems well written to me but also aggressively conservative (I do not mean politically). What disturbs him about writing to be heard?

Daniel Pritchard said...

Keep in mind that Kirsch is a professional critic. His analysis of literature is about discerning the merit of a poet or collection or poem – one does not need a degree in literary theory to know what a difficult task that is in today's double-post-everything enviroment.

When he makes claims about what poetry ought to be, or poets ought to think, he is really saying that, from his perspective, many poets who have been Great have produced work that seems to be written for posterity. This says nothing about the true approach of the poet (Ezra 'Look At Meeee' Pound anyone?), only about Adams' semi-occluded view, and his desire to ennumerate a first principle of literature.

Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Reginald,

Thanks for your blog comments.

I'm sure you've come across such a statement from your students: "I only write for myself." Of course, they do so after they've gone to the trouble of making copies of their works for you and their peers in various workshops.

The only people who write for themselve are those who literally never share their poems with others and don't save them for posterity (for you're right about Dickinson: Not only did she crave publication and an audience, she made sure to save her work).

All the best,


Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

Mr. Shepherd,

Just poking in to express my excitement that you're joining the folks at Harriet.



mgushuedc said...

Kirsch's position still just doesn't make sense to me, whether he says that writer X wrote for posterity or whether the poem *seems* it was written posterity. What would that be exactly? That the poet didn't discuss local politics (Dante) or forms of combat that might become outmoded (Homer)? The problem is that saying such and such a poem was "written for posterity" is a statement nearly empty of content.

Now if Kirsch would have said "these are the elements of this poem that have made people want to read it for the last 500 years" or "here's why this poem has been read for since 200 BCE" then that would have some purchase on writing for posterity.

So what's the first principle of literature being postulated here? That poems 500 years old that we still read are good? That seems pretty tautological for a first principle.

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