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Poet Asks for Evidence That Poetry Has Small Audience

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When our assumptions are showing

David Orr serves up a hoary chestnut in today's New York Times as he makes the point that poetry readings can be and often are exciting, if not electrifying.

"Poetry is supposed to be dusty stuff, the reading of which can inspire even a hyperactive 4-year-old to go gentle into that good nap." he writes. The reference, of course, is to a famous Dylan Thomas poem about not going "gentle into that good night."

My quarrel with this excellent writer is that my experience runs counter to his observation, and his observation seems to me to feed another questionable assumption about poetry, namely that it's not much read. I use the word quarrel with trepidation, because Orr writes about poetry for the Times frequently and I've always welcomed his reporting.

Most poetry readings I attend or take part in are intellectually and esthetically stimulating, the audiences responsive. Is there boring poetry? Yes. And boring journalism, too. And sometimes good poetry badly read and bad poetry dramatically read. But I'm not sure Orr's contention, even if it serves his larger and more optimistic point, can be justified. Nor do I think the implication that poetry enjoys a scant audience is anything more than shibboleth.

The Bible, old and new, the Qu'ran, the Vedas and many other religious texts are sublime poetry with vast audiences. Country, Blues and other musical genres call for poetry, often of a high order, as is the case with Muddy Waters, for example. And a great deal of prose qualifies as poetry. The way we define poetry is curiously narrow. I would point the finger at the academy if I didn't know better. Many poets teach, but it doesn't mean they write academic poetry, not by a long shot. And much academic poetry-whatever that is-is as challenging to some as hunting and sailing are to others.

So, as much as I am pleased that Orr finds the Nuyorican Poets Café, KGB Bar, Bowery Poetry Club and other poetry venues exhilarating, I wish he hadn't resorted to a device that is, at best, arguable. It might have been so much better to challenge the notion that poetry has a small audience.

Is the notion based, for example, on the percentage of poetry sold by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, W.W. Norton and the other major poetry presses? Or is it based on all sales by our many poetry presses? What is its basis? And if it were possible to assume that it's based on all sales by presses large and small, that still wouldn't account for chapbooks and self-publishers, literary journals, online and in print.

And even we had such statistics in hand, to what would we compare them? The sales of romance novels, mysteries, and non-fiction? What algorithm would we be using? The same algorithm by which we speciously concoct best-seller lists, which are far better gauges of marketing clout than merit?

Even the question of what induces a snooze is nuanced. I recently gasped from the podium when I noticed a famous poet napping as I read, but the same poems I was reading had often elicited happy and approving applause. Just the other day I gingerly joined a thread of conversation on Facebook about accessibility in poetry. At least two participants rather dogmatically declared that poetry that isn't readily accessible [how do we define this?] is, well, crap, I think one of them indelicately said. So much for Hart Crane, George Chapman and many others. But I often find difficult poets delightful and challenging. And, anyway-define difficult? Does that mean a poet who refers to something he or she thinks we ought to have read? If a poet presents me with a knot, I often start untangling it. If others prefer a more Alexandrian tactic, so be it. I am as suspicious of dogma in poetry as my hero Albert Camus was suspicious of it everywhere. I think it has an unkind odor, and that is why I'm turning up my nose here at David Orr's journalistic device, but not his rewarding article.

I wouldn't expect Orr or any other reporter to come up with answers. I'm not sure the answers are there. But I think the questions should be asked. Otherwise, his first-paragraph contention is as suspect as the criteria by which Muddy Waters has been kept out of our pantheon of poets.

Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook's first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. "Artists' Hill," an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal Latté first prize in fiction. Artemisia's Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller's Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.

Del's book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latté's fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother's art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt's art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

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