Writer A and poet B were talking about poet C: "C has one of the strongest lyric gifts of our time," said B. "He now denies it," said A. "He wants to speak in the people's voice, directly, without emotional flourishes. He wants everybody to understand him. In his new book he has gotten rid of all his lyricism." B shook his head. "Crazy. Impossible. He's mad." A week later, A got a postcard: "I've just finished C's new book. You're right. Incredibly, there's not a lyric note."
Victim of the notion that poetry doesn't matter, C supposed that The People speak through best-seller lists and look for their poets, like movie actors, in tabloid gossip columns. If he flattened his lyric voice, he guessed, people would take him up, he'd become popular. But he missed and lost his audience because, in fact, the audience for poetry is stable and faithful. The composer George Walker has said, "Only a small percentage of any group is interested in classical music"; but the percentage interested in poetry is large; it's noncommercial; it reaches across the nation; it discriminates against no one; and it persists despite government hostility, academic manipulation, economic censorship and attacks in the middlebrow press. To be sure, among the Milkens and the Babbitts, it's secondary. For everyone else, poets as different as William Heyen, William Mundell, Mary TallMountain, Jean Valentine, Jay Meek, William Stafford, Ishmael Reed, Julio Marzan, Philip Booth and Stanley Burnshaw matter greatly.
In a junk-bond, celluloid world in which a President can say he didn't read the briefing book for the 1983 economic summit because The Sound of Music was on that evening, nothing may seem real. But that this world represents us is an illusion: The politicians we elect and the news we get may be what we deserve, but they're not what we want.
In this commercial fairyland, we're not told the truth about poetry, either. Not even by poets. Newspapers ignore it; book reviews skip over it; TV and radio avoid it; and even poet Dana Gioia proclaimed in his recent book Can Poetry Matter? (the title essay of which appeared in The Atlantic) that poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. "None of it matters very much to readers, publishers, or advertisers."
Not true. Advertisers have always cared about effect, and their hard-sell, subliminal means of marketing have undermined the sense of humor that created the zippy Burma Shave signs. Publishers who are part of conglomerates care primarily about profits--witness the sad case of Pantheon and Andre Schiffrin's forced resignation three years ago--but small, independent presses are bringing out more poetry than ever. Indeed, some people say there's too much; they can't read it all. Yet readers are avidly reading, …