I’m going to come clean: I don’t spend much time browsing the web for poetry. There, I said it. I am maintaining a blog on poetry, but I spend little time on the web looking for it. I like to have the book in my hands. I like to hold the page between my fingers, to smell the ink and hear the crisp crack of the binding as I open the cover. Books have a weight that the web does not.
At the same time, I realize that poetry is more than the books it appears in: more than the ink, more than the pressed and bound paper. Poetry is even more than the words, more than the sounds on the page, the line breaks and stanzas and bold-faced titles. Poetry actually has a purpose beyond itself, and this purpose can be expressed in a book, on the web, on an abandoned brick building, in the margins of a notebook, on a napkin, or etched into a bathroom stall. Poetry can be anywhere. The medium isn’t what matters. It’s the audience that matters. Without an audience poetry is nothing.
But who reads poetry anymore? Goatee-wearing latte drinkers? College students? The French? Who is the audience? When I tell people I’m a poet, most of them look at me with excitement, as if they’ve just seen a rare bird, or an albino crocodile. There seems to be this belief that the poet’s work is rare and can only be understood by a select group of individuals. Perhaps this perception comes from the fact that poems are not stories. Most people want the story. Most people want to know what happens next, if they get back together in the end, if they catch the killer, if they die or don’t die. Poetry doesn’t really give us that sense of continuity. Poems are weird. They can feel random, even arbitrary and self-involved. But don’t be fooled. Poems may require a little work (or a lot of work), but they are not self-involved, inaccessible things. Their audience is not an eclectic bunch of grad students; it is you, whoever you are. It is your sister, your mother, your uncle Joe who lost a finger milling steel. It is the waitress at Denny’s, the mechanic at Clay’s Auto. It is the alcoholic recovering in the hospital, and the doctors and interns who treat him. Danielle Ofri’s article “Poetry that your patient can appreciate.” is a great example of the kind of audience poetry speaks to.
The audience matters. The audience is everything. Words can be written in ink or in pixels. They can be whispered in the ear, shouted from the balcony, spoken through a microphone. How they are communicated doesn’t really matter – only that they are communicated to someone. When Pablo Neruda writes, ” I know the earth, and I am sad,” what difference does it make unless someone is there to read it. Someone who can say with Neruda: “I also know the earth. I too am sad.”