July 19, 2006

Poetry Audience Notes

I thought I'd make these notes public. Please feel free to make comments to me at skankypossum at grandecom dot net. They were written on the run after much consideration. Of course, the meat, nonetheless, smells a little raw....)


The anxiety over poetry’s audience has been around for some time. I have been pondering it too lately. At first I thought contemporary poetics might look back at ancient models of poetic discourse for possible solutions. But now I see how misguided that approach is. Moreover, solutions are not what we need or want. Solutionism always fails. But an accurate evaluation of poetry’s place seems necessary so that we can understand our practice and its value.

I am proposing for myself a study of this audience and I am going to restrict my investigation to the 19th century in England. My thesis is that poetry’s audience is not present, but always forming. It’s flux results from the unique negation of the subject by words in the act of poetic making. That is, words are not our own: they extend from a play of forces at work in the transmission of appearances at particular instances in the practice of this art. The conscious and unconscious forces work to test language within a unique cultural framework, intensifying the potential of words by situating them in a context that communicates the interior experience of the poet to exterior forces. Poetry since 1799 (I’ll use the publication of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads as a safe touchstone) has developed most exuberantly and successfully as a new means of communication outside the mass markets of popular press and print entertainment. It largely developed, at first anyway, beyond the realm too of a rapidly expanding public school system in England. Moreover, several key figures began to use the poem and to argue its values not as objects of beauty or representations of ideal circumstances but as potential for alternative modes of communication. It was this rhetorical shift away from a tradition of public oratory, parlor entertainments, prose fiction installments, and other cultural products proposing new ideas and content for mass audiences that defined poetry’s unique position outside those markets. And since romantic poetry was conceptualized in opposition to the 18th century empirical tradition, receiving through Coleridge and others a transmission of German idealism, its roots were grounded in philosophical investigations. At a time when a radical questioning of subjectivity, most notably deriving from David Hume’s skeptical arguments, introduced problems of perception and the articulation of experience, poetry radically perceived the immensity of the issue. Who better, indeed, than a poet, to enter the complex and uncertain interrogation of language and experience to the point, ultimately, of subjective annihilation? Poets tested philosophy’s insights by shaping messages that revealed a test of words in a world increasingly shaped by the post-Enlightenment hangover of scientific positivism. (There’s a problem, we can fix it—right!) Poetry began to communicate something other, extending its formal inheritance of prosody and rhetorical devices to accommodate the radical claims certain poets were willing to make for their experience.

Of course, there’s no easy way into this, and there are many problems and reductions in what I say above. Moreover, I want to show how this unique force of articulation can be institutionalized by the positivistic entities poets instinctively resist. That tension between absolute play in the field of life, pushing language to achieve its maximum potential, loses its occult (hidden) apprehension when it is brought into more open and public spaces. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an example of a poem whose rhetorical values shift with each successive anthology. However, audiences widen through this institutionalization. And so rather than an audience, in Blake’s sense, that lives in eternity, the poet, over time, with institutional support, finds an audience in a future he or she could never have comprehended. That is an aspect of the fetishization of power scientific positivism has led us to. There’s not much else to say about that right now. Poets want to find out the nature of their experience and to actively persuade others (the other their otherness—or something like that) of some change in the world based on the perceptions that made the poem in relationship with the instability of their presence in the poem. The anthologists want to establish relationships of power, making representational objects out of natural forces.

I might look at the following writers in detail:

Coleridge—particularly his publication of The Friend and how he identified its audience in the early 18th c.

Hopkins—how he wrote in notebooks all of his life, sharing work with friends, only receiving publication after his death in the 20th c. A unique opportunity to compare an audience of one, say, where composition, invention and reception generate from one source with the audience who received books in hand.

Hardy—a popular novelist who lost satisfaction with the social obligation of the form. Pursued poetry in his later years and into the 20th century. Not a popular poet. What did poetry offer him the novel did not? His audience was often hostile, shrinking—someone significant to consider.

These three have all been significantly anthologized and so I could look at how they have been presented in different contexts.

Blake, Wordsworth, Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, will be considered, perhaps, who know what will actually arrive when it does?

This began as a conversation and continues to occupy my study. This began as a practice in poetry and as a small publisher of poetry in magazines and books. This began because I was curious in Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and how they did what they did and still do what they do to particular people.

Posted by Dale at July 19, 2006 05:28 AM
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