Poetry and the Mass Audience
Copyright © by Norm Olson, 4/11/01 

  The other evening, I was at a literary event at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.  In the row in front of me, somebody was sitting in a seat that was assigned to someone else. Since this audience was mostly English majors, the two parties were intently discussing the concept of redemption as it related to assigned seating and free will in an unpropitious universe. Well, eventually they both sat down and one made the remark that it did not really matter because "we are all friends here."  As the lights went down and the reading began, a very good reading, I might add, it occurred to me that this innocuous cliché in fact, was profoundly revelatory of the attitudes of the Twin Cities poets toward the mass audience.
  To pursue this analysis, we can make a crude but serviceable model by dividing the Twin Cities poets into basically two camps.  In camp number one are the anti-academics and the hipsters.  These are the folks you will find at the Arcadia Coffee Shop and a half dozen other venues and poetry groups that come and go around the Twin Cities, providing poets outside of academia with places to read, workshops, opportunities to socialize with like minded souls and an endless supply of tar like coffee.  The hipsters generally tell me that they don't give a rip about the mass audience.  They do their art for themselves, as a personal kind of lifestyle exploration and for their small audience of other poets and for their girl/boyfriends and frankly, they barely seem to notice even this small, companionable audience much. Some of them talk about posterity and claim to be "great" artists, the next Walt Whitman, etc. but their general attitude seems to be that non-artists are way too uncool and/or stupid to get their art anyway so, why should they care what some insurance salesman has to say about art.  At least judging by what they say, people in this camp seem truly indifferent to the mass audience.
  In the other camp we have the academics, the college teachers and students and those involved in official nonprofit groups like The Loft or SASE. These folks like to have discussions after their poetry readings so they can show off the effluvium of their humongous brains and, although they may be smarter than the anti-academics, they generally match them pound for pound on the ego scale.  (In fact, a good place for those of strong stomach to see these two camps bumping egos, like huge over inflated rubber balls boinging off each other, is Dan Schnieder's web-site).  Regarding the mass audience, the academics have a very different view.  They love the mass audience, talk about it in glowing terms, and are, in fact, so blinded by the narrow-mindedness of the truly segregated and the truly arrogant that they think that publishing a small book of poems at an obscure, not for profit press in Minneapolis, in an edition of 4,000 (of which 3,000 are given away free, 500 are sold to colleagues, family members and students and 500 are warehoused) is supplying "art to the people."
  Although I attend readings and publish essays in both camps, I am not a part of either and seem to be the only person in the Twin Cities who believes that art does not have even an existence until it becomes a communication with an audience and that far and away the most important part of the whole artistic paradigm is the communication between the artist and the audience. As a poet, I want to reach a mass audience and I believe absolutely that the only interesting criteria of quality in writing is how many books are sold. Great art is sellable.  Of course, some lousy art is sellable too but, the point I am trying to make here is that it is not the poem that is important, it is the communication from the poet to the audience which is built into the poem.  Since I am absolutely opposed to totalitarianism, I believe that this communication is dependent upon the audience member being a willing participant in the process, willing enough to pay for the privilege of participating.  The art must be good enough to elicit that response from the audience.
  It is considered an absolute truism in the publishing business that poetry books do not sell.  Most publishers and virtually all agents refuse to even consider poetry books.  I think that this is somewhat wrong.  I think that there is a market for poetry books and that the books being printed now don't sell because the poetry that is being done by both of the camps mentioned above is of little interest to people outside of the arts community in the first instance and outside academia in the second.  My belief here is based on the huge market that the rock poets have found for their words.  Although literary poets may never be able to compete with rock stars in terms of sheer audience numbers, I think we could sell a lot more books if we would do the following:
  First, we need to change our attitude.  Those of us in academia need to learn to see beyond the end of our ivory tower noses and start trying to write poetry that will have meaning not just for PHDs with a working knowledge of Eurasian mythology but for plumbers, office workers and yes, even insurance salespeople.  I suggest that a good place to start would be to look at some of the best of the rock poets and ask, what are they doing that we are not?  Splinter groups like rappers, Nuyoricans and slammers have tried to do this but, by and large, the results seem to me pretty mediocre.  Maybe the academics among us with their massive brains could do better.  Well, at least I think they should try.
  The nonacademics need to loose the "hipper than thou" attitude and the relentless self-absorption and think about a poetry that is a communication with an audience and not just a monologue addressed by the poet to his or her navel or crotch or whatever.
  I suggest both camps drop the us against them view that poetry is a private party for "me and my friends."  I think we need to all think about poetry that has more images and less therapeutic prose stories about our fucked up childhoods and way less of the ego obsessive memoir mentality that "my life will be interesting to you because it is interesting to me."  I think we should consider the musical qualities of language, rhyme, meter, alliteration, etc. because people have shown that they love poetry that has those things.
  Well, it is more an attitude that the audience is important and that reaching a mass audience is important than any specific technical details of poetic style, that I endorse.  I want to bring poetry from the tiny, incestuous stage of the Jungle Theater to the huge, everyman/woman stage of the Target Center and even if I suspect that may never happen, I will continue to strive to reach the mass audience because the only thing that interests me about poetry is the communication, the magical, wondrous, mysterious communication that really great poetry is and can be.

DAN REBUTS: Stormin', you make some good points- however 2 disagreements. 1) Art is about communication but a great work of art that is not viewed or purchased is still great- that it is unappreciated says more about the audience than the artist. 2) Don't kid yourself- every hipster I've ever met- from the Nuyoricans to the Red Lights & Poetry crowd not only WANTS, but CRAVES mass appeal to such a degree that if it were possible to secure such by human sacrifice the human overpopulation issue would be resolved in days!

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