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August 04, 2009

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Hi Katha! the question of lyric audience is such an interesting one. I wonder if you've read Helen Vendler's Invisible Listeners, which considers the question of the real and fictive reader with respect to the poems of Herbert, Whitman, and John Ashbery. A slim little book but a potent one.

There's also Gertrude Stein's famous answer to the question: "I write for myself and strangers."

Kudos: Yeats's poem, a favorite of mine, is a great answer to that compelling question. The criterion ("as cold and passionate as the dawn") is gorgeous if a little hard to pin down. Kenneth Koch liked quoting Valery: A poem is a communication from one who is not the author to one who is not the reader. A liberating thought, as is the related one that you need please only yourself when you write poetry (whereas with journalism you usually have an editor to please). When I wrote regularly for Newsweek, I got a kick out of knowing that theoretically a million people may have read a piece of mine on James Merrill, or spring training, or Barnes & Noble superstores, or murder mysteries. This took the pressure off my poetry, or so it felt. But I also think a lot of poets are needlessly defeatist in assuming that "no one" reads poetry, no one buys poetry, and that the situation is not susceptible of modification and change. "The Best American Poetry" doesn't sell a million copies, but it does sell thousands every year, and those are real readers, whose intensity of engagement with the subject dwarfs that of the average consumer with the beach blanket or coffee table book of the season.

I think Yeats also said (at the organizational meeting of the Rhymers Club? on the second floor of a restaurant? with poets literally hanging from the rafters?) something like, "The first thing we know about ourselves [poets] is that we are too many." This is from memory, so maybe I've botched it.
-- Ezra Pound

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