As I was getting some stitches done in a doctor's office yesterday (don't ask!), the inevitable happened: I was asked what I do. I usually assume that Hoyle's Rules of Bedside Manner require the question, but not much by way of an answer. Ordinarily in such situations, I mumble and stumble in order to avoid saying anything about poetry: it just seems so embarrassing to talk about it in front of people who do things like save lives or make real money (or, in this case, both). I don't know why this should be. I mentioned George Starbuck here the other day - boy, did he hate this kind of shillyshallying. If you were a poet, he believed, you had to say so. Not out of pompous pride, but to face the inevitable; poets are supposed to be good at facing the inevitable, after all. George even made up useful phrases to use if you couldn't bring yourself to mouth the word "poet" - image-consultant, diction-manager, things like that - I wish I could remember them all now.
But the doc, as he was sewing away, really wanted to know. So I told him straight out. "Poetry..." he mused. "You know there's a poet I've always been interested in." I couldn't imagine who this might be.
"The guy in Minnesota. Who threw himself off a bridge." John Berryman? "That's it! Berryman." Well, when I get into a chat with someone I don't even know and we're talking about The Dream Songs in under a minute, my inhibitions just vanish!
Seamus Heaney remarked in an interview with Dennis O'Driscoll: "You can say, on the one hand, that poetry is an ad hoc reality: you can log-on, log-off; you don't need to know very much, just enter where you like, take what you want and go. But it's also a coherent inner system or order of understanding. So there's work to be done in creating an audience for poetry understood in that second way..." Yet it is very clear that people generally know a lot more about poetry than some of us have given them credit for. The other day, for instance, I was startled to learn that just over half of Poetry's subscribers don't have a college degree, let alone the much-vilified MFA. I'm not going to trot out any commonplaces here or try to rekindle the wet ashes of old campfire debates about the "audience for poetry." But some of us apologize way too much. George was absolutely right to be disgusted by people who write poetry and don't want to talk about it ex cathedra.
I'll leave off now (because my stitches smart) with this coda to the story. I read critical writing about poetry all day, it seems like, every day. I never get tired of it! Yet very little of it ever really surprises me, or tells me much I didn't already know or suspect. But my doctor said something really arresting. We were talking about Dylan Thomas (whom he could quote, and lest you think him some relic of a previous educational philosophy, I should say that he's in his thirties), and he deliberated for a while before telling me that when he was a kid, his mom brought home some Dylan Thomas records from the library. "I always heard a bit of Winston Churchill in Dylan Thomas." Now that's quite an insight, and it's something that never crossed my mind before. I've been captivated by this since he said it. Clearly, I'm going to have to get out more - and be less evasive about this poetry stuff when I do.
A recent survey carried out in the UK by Booktrust found that a third of all children wanted to read more poetry or have more read with them. And of over a thousand 7 to 14-year-olds polled, 44% said their mother did not enjoy reading poetry with them. I e-mailed a write-up of the survey to a colleague who has two kids herself.
She e-mailed me back: "So sad!"