Who reads this stuff anyway? Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin on poetry

‘I have my people and they are waiting’: Who are the readers of poetry?

Who reads this stuff anyway?

That was my working title for this lecture. Every poet wonders about the readers: who are they, where are they, what will they understand, what will they like? Interestingly enough, non-readers or reluctant readers of poetry seem to be asking the same question. Who reads this stuff anyway? Let me start by exploring the difference between the questioners.

At the time in one’s life when poetry becomes an important activity – in other words, in youth – the whole question of how people will respond becomes very pressing. All poets have had some intense experience of reading, when the mere shape of a poem, or the floodlighting of truth through its language, seemed to take over the reading mind.

And then you find that this is an experience not everyone else has had. You start to notice the warning signs posted around the cultural hoardings. And if you’re turning into a poet yourself you can see that it’s not just that poetry is alien to some people, but the poet is marked as a dodgy character. In my own case, I could see the warnings spread about in the popular literature of the early 20th century and so that is where I’m going to start. However, there are other questions I’d like to mull over as well: the historical place of poetry in modern Ireland, the ways that poets have set out to reach the reader, and also the question of how we know what the reader is doing.

Poetry exists inside a wider literary milieu. So, the reader like myself who has been surrounded by poetry all her life gets an occasional sharp reminder that brings up another unwelcome truth: poetry readers are rarer than readers of prose. Perhaps not quite so rare in this country as in certain others (since lots of people get an acquaintance with poetry when they’re at school and quite a few go on being interested) but rare all the same. It’s quite recently that I’ve begun to consider how this should be so, starting with: how true is it? And have we a sense that poetry was once a great deal more popular than it is now; and is that sense well-founded? And how do people in our culture think about poetry in general? Is there an Irish twist to that attitude? And finally, what do we know or imagine about the reader’s response to the poem?

A well-regarded contemporary American poet, Ben Lerner, comes from Topeka, Kansas, and he mentions his home city repeatedly in his enticingly titled short book, The Hatred of Poetry, rather as if he expects the reader to accept it as an explanation for his low view of poetry’s public status.

His prize exhibit, and his starting point, is a three-line poem, Poetry, by Marianne Moore; the first line of which is “I, too, dislike it.” He writes entertainingly about William McGonagall, perceptively about Whitman and Dickinson; he illuminates the 20th-century American poetic from Olson to Claudia Rankine, and whizzes past Plato and Sidney and Shelley. He is trenchant in his response to cultural commentators who think there was a golden moment when the poet (who just happened to be a white male) spoke for everyone and defends Plath and Heaney from the charge of having an excessively personal voice.

The analysis of the public attitude leads him to conclude that people, including those who don’t actually ever read it, have an idea of what poetry ought to be, but believe the poets don’t adequately achieve it. His response, while admitting that every individual poem is a provisional and skewed attempt to capture the “utopian ideal of Poetry”, is that the poet is clearing “a space for the genuine Poem that never appears”.

I admire Lerner’s analysis, but I would like to start rather lower down on the intellectual scale. If we want to think about how poetry in general is regarded by a wide public, we might start by asking, how do we recognise a poem? The technical answer based on rhyme and metre is much less influential than it used to be.

Most people who think they can recognise a piece of language organised as a poem are responding to the look of the thing, to the typographical effect of line breaks that are not logically paragraphs or even grammatically sentences. But in fact, the single poem only gets us so far, and we would have to look closer to see whether what it contains in its complex of sounds and meanings is indeed poetry and not a shopping list or a catalogue of pictures. If it is a unit, it is the product of an individual voice.

Which brings us back to the characteristic of all language, that it is produced by speakers and writers, that it communicates what someone wants to say. Who is this someone? I am trying in this essay firstly to look at the social view of the poet and then of the reader, asking about the mismatching between the two that poets complain about, that they find frustrating, so that I can go on to examine the demands the poet makes on the reader, the faith, hope and charity that are expected.
This is an extract from Instead of a Shrine: Writings from the Ireland Chair of Poetry, published by UCD Press. The book will be launched at the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson St, Dublin, at 6.30pm today, with special guest speaker Edna Longley. All welcome.

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