(This is a repost of my August 3 post at The Best American Poetry . It’s a great website, come visit and look around!)
It’s easy to describe the readers I have in mind when I write my column in The Nation: the 185,000 Nation subscribers, who are mostly liberals, progressives and leftists of various sorts, college-educated, over thirty, up on the news. I know quite a few of these readers, and hear from them all the time. Beyond the magic subscription circle, there’s the larger community of feminists, other journalists, and writers I admire, including a few dead ones in my head.
But whom do I write my poems for? "Anyone who wants them" is one easy answer. "Myself" is another. Both are true in a way, but incomplete. Who is that "anyone" who pockets the breadcrumbs I cast upon the water? And if I write for myself, why do I try to publish my poems and care what anyone thinks about them? At least for me, communication is intrinsic to writing, so I must have some blurry idea in mind about who I’m communicating with — or, perhaps more accurately, given the state of poetry these days, wish I was communicating with.
There’s a sociological answer to the readership question. According to The Poetry Foundation’s survey, "Poetry in America," the most frequent readers of poetry (or, as the study oddly calls them, "users" of poetry) are middle-aged women with post-secondary degrees, who began reading, or using, poetry when they were young. That’s me all over! Sociologically, "I write for myself" and "I write for anyone who wants it" are not such different statements after all.
But what about the ideal reader? The one who really sees what you are trying to do in a poem, and if you can please that demanding but simpatico person, you feel you’ve gotten it right? If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher like that when you’re young, or a friend, or a fellow poet or two. Failing that, or in addition to that, you might have to imagine your ideal reader, as Dante for all intents and purposes imagined Beatrice, whom he’d had such a crush on when they were kids.
One popular type of imaginary ideal reader is, curiously, the non-reader. In "In My Craft or Sullen Art," Dylan Thomas claimed he wrote not for literary people or for the ages but for "the lovers,/their arms round the griefs of the ages,/who pay no praise nor wages/nor heed my craft or art." And indeed, if those lovers disentwined themselves long enough to read a poem, it was probably one by Thomas, one of the last poet-celebrities of the English-speaking world.