The Closed Circuit of Poetry

Turning words into comfort, weapons, and the most widely embraced artform of our time

During many of the most recent political shifts toward conservative nationalism, be it in Europe or in America, I have heard the call that artists must take up the mantle and create, that this must become a period of renewed drive, and that poetry, among the many arts we need now more than ever, will lead the way back to brighter times.

I have my doubts. Certainly not about the power of poetry to provide solace in trying times or to lift the veil on hypocrites and racists. Instead I worry about poetry’s ability to do so in an effective manner. I should add that my doubts do not stand in defiance of trying, but if we’re going to turn our art into tools of comfort for allies and into useful weapons against oppressors, we’d better make damn sure we’re not working inside an echo chamber.

I would argue that this has become a problem in every area of modernized society. Social media platforms and apps use metrics to narrow down what news we see, what advertisements appear before us, what books and pages they suggest, and so on. In digital life and in reality, we whittle away friend lists and acquaintances so we only interact with those whom we agree. Too many monitor only those news sources that align with what we’d like to hear about our world. We hear ourselves shouting into the void and the returning sound is a pleasing echo, and yet we are shocked in rare moments—and often important moments—to find that this echo does not match the reality that surrounds us.

Poets, I fear, have long fallen victim. This is not a condemnation of poetry or poets, our work and our art is vital, but we have fallen into this same echo-chamber reality that haunts us in every other aspect of our lives. There are more poets and editors and publications and presses than ever before—this is a good thing. But I would argue that poetry is a very incestuous artform. Unlike acting, painting, or music, our creations are primarily read and heard by those who also create poetry. Not exclusively, but too often the poetry community feels like it’s found within a closed circuit. Readers of publications are often writers. Audiences at readings are often writers. I’d loved to be proven wrong, but I fear I’m correct. Few who do not write poetry have any interest in it or any knowledge about its continued existence. This, I insist, is the very practical basis of my doubt in poetry’s ability to become the force it could be.

This leads me to ask me what we can do, all of us, writers and publishers alike, to make poetry a wider, greater force that is also an inclusive force. We must open our midnight carnival tent, turn on the bright lights, and welcome the locals to our outskirt field and barker them inside where they might discover that poetry does, in fact, have something to say and can change our world in meaningful, impactful, and practical ways. We must work to bring in those who wouldn’t even glance at the Poetry section of Barnes & Noble, much less enter a Barnes & Noble in the first place.

To do so, I have suggestions. None are perfect, some may help, and all invite improvement and enhancement by you, my fellow poets. We won’t win everyone over, but we can make gains. Here are my ideas.

First, we must understand that while poetry readers and writers easily grasp the power behind the words, lines, and stanzas that move us, your typical Jane and Joe Workaday often find poetry both inaccessible and elitist, or at least not practical. Well sure, if we’re going to be practical about things, poetry doesn’t rank high, but neither does Shark Week, and everyone loves Shark Week. Poetry’s purpose, of course, is adding value to the practical day-to-day chores that make up our ability to exist. But while we writers see that value, it is harder for others not touched by poetry to see that amongst the bright lights and loud noises of Netflix, Instagram, cable news, and Spotify.

And so accessibility is an issue—if poetry is not there out in the open, it will not be observed by those not seeking it. We need to do a better job of getting poetry in front of the non-poetic public, something beyond thrusting a book of Sexton or Ashbery into their hands. Something beyond the well-intended but baby-step-at-best method of putting poetry in places where people might see it and read it by accident—poems in subway cars, on the back of metrocards in major cities, on disposable products like coffee cups and beer bottles. We need to make poetry not just more accessible, but more immediate as well. We need to start inviting non-poetry readers to poetry readings.

Now I know it’s hard enough to get poets to poetry readings, let alone their friends and family members who wouldn’t know Kerouac from Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, but I believe this would be a much more important and effective method of introducing the public to the power of poetry. So many of us were turned off from the same desperately minute pool of poets our teachers showed us in school. I was one. I refused to even read a poem until my mid-twenties after I left high school and seeing Robert Frost dissected so often that his very name made me cringe.   

Bringing someone who felt the same to a reading and letting them see you, their friend or son or sister, up on stage reading something to a rapt audience (let’s assume they’re rapt,  ‘cause you write killer shit) will help them see the affect it has on you and others. It will be visual and aural, it will be personal. It will have an impact. Not on all. It might be a one night event for some people, but you’ve cracked the window. You’ve taken a brick out of the wall. Bring them back to a second reading, a third, fourth. Tell them you loved having them there. Let them become a part of how important poetry is to you. Not all will feel it, but some will. Let them join the ranks of those in the know.

Experiencing poetry, however, does not alleviate the issue of not understanding poetry. Some of us write some pretty eclectic and avant garde material. I read submissions year-round for Hobo Camp Review and routinely see poems that, while incredibly written, fly so far above my head in content, meaning, style, vocabulary, etc., that I can’t help but feel dumb. Is that the poet’s fault? Not at all, and I’m not asking poets to write “simpler” poetry, but imagine someone who never reads poetry trying one of those on for size. Game over. Elitist bullshit. Not practical. Not useful. Forgotten.

If we’re going to write for ourselves, have at it. If we’re going to try to impact the world with our poetry, if our goal is to create an arena where poetry can have more weight with the greater populace, then it is important to keep those readers in mind and find ways that meld our wildly varied personal styles and flair with our audience’s ability to translate that into understandable and meaningful insights and emotions. It is important to build bridges with our words.   

This might even require us to explain poems to friends and loved ones—so be it, let’s make that one of our goals. Bringing them along to readings and talking about the poems afterwards is perfect, like talking about films on the drive home from the mall. Asking them why they did or did not like a piece and picking out words or phrases that stuck with them will draw them in further, whether they realize it or not. Writing a poem for someone you care about, especially someone who knows little about poetry, and then telling them all the reasons why you used this image or that line, it can’t help but make them see the power of your words. Asking someone to read a collection alongside you and talking about what they think as you go along is another way. Make understanding poetry a shared journey.

Helping someone understand poetry leads easily into another suggestion—insert poetry into the every day in direct, personal ways. Leave small poems in lunches for loved ones. Jot a poem down on a Post-It note for a roommate. Leave them in pockets, on windshield wipers, in books, in the fridge, on the remote control. Sew it into the every day. Make it the norm. Make people look forward to those little poems.

Ask them to write poems too. Once we begin making our passion personal for them, inviting them to readings, sharing poems, talking about them, let’s invite people to try their hand at it. They may be terrified, but imagine if your sister who never read a book after high school finally did write a five line poem. Imagine of she shared it online. Imagine if she signed up for an open mic with you. Imagine the world you’d open for her. It’s something I’d suggest we try with our non-poetic loved ones after we’ve already lured them in with the other suggestions I mentioned, but I believe it will also be the easiest step.

I believe poetry, of all the arts, is the easiest method of creation, contrary to the ivory tower reputation. Unlike music or painting, there are no tools or instruments to master, and don’t let anyone tell you so. Sure, mastering some tools makes for better poetry, but it’s not a prerequisite for writing poetry in the first place. And unlike writing a novel or acting in a play, there is no massive amount of time commitment necessary to write one. You sit down and write your feelings in a handful of lines, stand up, and you’re done. You are a poet. You are inside the closed circuit. And if enough people brave that one act, even just one time in their life, the closed circuit will grow so large that it bursts open to leave no barrier broken. Then our words will truly be able to comfort or destroy with the power we need. Then and only then.

Idealistic perhaps, but that’s a poet for you.

(This column originally appeared in The Blue Mountain Review in the spring of 2017.)