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Whom do you Write your Poems for? | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Whom do you Write your Poems for?

(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.

Yeats (right) was another one who envisioned an ideal non-reader. In l914, fed up with the ideologically overheated Dublin literary-political scene, he imagined his ideal reader as a Connemara fisherman, a "wise and simple man" whom Yeats believed belonged to an older, better, truer, more organic (in the old sense) Irish people. What saves "The Fisherman" from nationalistic sentimentality is Yeats' admission that this ideal fisherman-reader does not exist. He is a necessary fiction, a dream:

 

 

Although I can see him still,  
  The freckled man who goes   
 To a grey place on a hill     
In grey Connemara clothes 
   At dawn to cast his flies,  
  It's long since I began 
   To call up to the eyes    
 This wise and simple man.   
  All day I'd looked in the face    
What I had hoped 'twould be    
 To write for my own race   
  And the reality;   
  The living men that I hate,     
The dead man that I loved,   
  The craven man in his seat, 
   The insolent unreproved,   
 And no knave brought to book    
Who has won a drunken cheer, 
   The witty man and his joke   
 Aimed at the commonest ear,   
  The clever man who cries 
   The catch-cries of the clown,  
  The beating down of the wise   
 And great Art beaten down.   

Maybe a twelvemonth since 
   Suddenly I began,   
In scorn of this audience,  
  Imagining a man, 
   And his sun-freckled face,  
  And grey Connemara cloth,
    Climbing up to a place   
 Where stone is dark under froth,   
And the down-turn of his wrist    
When the flies drop in the stream;  
  A man who does not exist,
    A man who is but a dream; 
   And cried, 'Before I am old    
I shall have written him one  
poem maybe as cold  
  And passionate as the dawn.'

 

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