Kona’s column 6: Do come in

March 2, 2010

The professional poetry world is a curious place: despite regular laments about being neglected by (for example) mainstream print media, it frequently seems to relish its own marginality, wearing it like a badge of distinction. Poets interested in broadening the audience for poetry can be accused of “populism” and “dumbing-down” – as though poetry ought to be exclusive, and the only way to bring in new, “non-expert” readers is to compromise proper artistic principles and write anodyne pap. I disagree vigorously with this point of view: I think it does a disservice both to poetry as an endeavour, and to the so-called “general reader”.

Why should we concern ourselves with “audience development”? I believe poetry at its best can serve some of the same human needs that music does – and yet compare the number of habitual poetry readers with the number of iPod owners! Poetry will never be for everyone, but there are large numbers of readers out there who enjoy well-written fiction, but were put off poetry in their school days (or simply never given a decent chance to switch on to it.) These readers are missing out on something that might provide a great deal of enjoyment, consolation and stimulation – and without the participation of this literate mainstream, poetry will remain marginalised to the remote fringes of contemporary culture. Since one of the salutary virtues of poetry has always been to give contemporary culture the occasional good kick-up-the-arse, this is something of an unfortunate place for it to be.

My own interest in audience development is relatively recent. In 2008 I started selling the remaining copies of my first collection to raise money for UNICEF. As part of this fundraising drive, I cozened various “real-world” friends and acquaintances – people who would never normally read poetry – into buying a copy and coming to readings. They often commented that they were able to get into poems more easily at readings because of the preambles: those little bits of background context, or explanation of motivation, that a poet will typically provide when introducing a poem. Even that small amount of informally-delivered information was enough to give this somewhat ambivalent new audience a “way in” to poetry (and yes, some of them retained this newfound interest, borrowing anthologies and exploring further in their own time).

Too often, formal education leaves people with the impression that contemporary poems are cryptic, mocking little devils with (only) complex meanings that must be tortuously unpicked. Combine this perception with the cultural mysticalisation of the poet as a tormented and unstable artiste inhabiting some exotic bohemian niche – wholly “other” – and it’s not surprising that people consider poetry with a sense of mistrust, expecting to be tricked by it and made to feel stupid and excluded. It seems to me that a poetry reading will sometimes help to overcome this mistrust precisely because an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust: they can see that the poet is just another ordinary person, who is not attempting to deceive, mock or belittle them but rather to communicate. This allows them to listen neutrally – or even positively – rather than defensively, and be pleasantly surprised by their own enjoyment.

It’s an accepted, even expected, element of poetry culture that poets may give introductions to their poems at poetry readings;  what a shame, then, that there’s not more support for such introductions in written media.  In my own small gesture towards counteracting this, I started adding “author commentaries” to the poems on my Poem Of The Week blog.  Encouraged by the response to these, I decided to provide a full set of such commentaries for my new collection Perfect Blue, and to publish them online and as a free PDF e-Book, The Perfect Blue Companion.

In this free companion material, I’m hoping to provide the same kind of informal preambles that I might offer when introducing the poems at a reading. I’m not trying to set down some “canonical interpretation” for each poem (readers often interpret poems differently from the poets that wrote them, and fair enough too!), and nor am I trying to “explain” it in some tedious line-by-line dissection – though I might explain the occasional potentially-non-obvious allusion. The commentaries aren’t aimed at other poets, critics, literary academics or “professional” poetry readers, but rather, they are explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry. I hope that at least a few such readers, thus encouraged, might go on to develop an enjoyment of poetry-in-general.

I have no idea whether these commentaries will succeed in their aims, but I do believe that the experiment is worth doing (and I hope that other poets might consider producing something similar for their own books – especially some of those whose work, unlike mine, is at the more “difficult” or avant-garde end of the spectrum.)  One of the wonders of the internet is that it makes doing such experiments cheap and comparatively simple.  You don’t have to risk your shirt;  all you risk is a bit of egg on your face if it doesn’t work out.  That’s never a good reason to avoid trying something new, especially when it’s something that might help even a handful more people to discover the joys and consolations of poetry.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a third batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 21 April. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter. This month’s column is an extended version of the introduction to The Perfect Blue Companion.

7 Responses to “Kona’s column 6: Do come in”

  1. Quite right: it’s not that people have abandoned poetry but that too many poets have abandoned the people. Too many smug wee coteries, self perpetuating elites, incestuous reviewing, obsessions with compiling lists of the ‘ten best…, forty best…twenty six best under the age of 40…Hundred best bald poets…’ Too many poets writing in code, poets writing for other poets, poets preening, poets mesmerised by their own cleverness. I was reading the recent anthology for Adrian Mitchell and I was thinking that there was a poet addressing universal issues head on, accessible to all. Too rare.

  2. Tim Love Says:

    The Perfect Blue Companion sounds a good idea. I think some people need only a bit of help to get into some poems (I found Padel’s books useful). At my local group last year we once set ourselves the task of writing up one of our own poems, aiming the explanation at the keen novel-reader and/or spouse. But I have trouble enough understanding why some poems get published/shortlisted at all let alone explaining to others why they should give the poems a try.

    Re: audience development – well maybe each type of audience finds the poetry it wants, and books/performances are too stuffy: there’s a lot of poetry on YouTube, and sites like http://poemsnprose.com/ keep some people happy.

  3. Claire A Says:

    “Too many smug wee coteries, self perpetuating elites, incestuous reviewing, obsessions with compiling lists… Too many poets writing in code, poets writing for other poets, poets preening, poets mesmerised by their own cleverness.”

    Amen to all that, Shug. And then poets complain about dwindling readership?!

  4. Desmond Swords Says:

    Hello Kona.

    Please do not publish the first response. As you will know if you read this one; the errors have been removed and grammatically this draft is the one to publish.

    Thanks very much. Keep up the good work.


    In the world of professional poetry, soothsayers blurb to a blithely disinterested audience, administering an intricate Theory of Everything to contemporary culture, explaining why and how and if and when, few with sufficient education ‘get’ our words in the way we do, predominantly online and now, set against other modes of calibrating knowledge, ’superposition’ ’string theory’ and E equals SoQ squared, are the Humanities theoretical physicists beyond in the existential three dimensions, leaping into and speaking from, eight other realms the Theory of Everything posits in mathmatical ‘reality’ and quantum blather on poetry and its place in a universe, tribe, guild acme-village and …i dunno, to be honest, not saying anything worth listening to, the thing is, po-bizitarians bluffing a way into the e-realm, so much to learn, mentally ill alcoholics and bi-polar depressives, seer and street corner prophets, free wisdom, take take take on the eternal condition, SoQ: Why does no one take any notice of me and my poetry, please?

  5. anne Says:

    Interesting post. What poets say to audiences outside of the poems is IMO a huge and neglected topic, which I’ve been mulling over on my blog just lately. (Or rather, I’ve been looking at the metamessages rather than what they actually say.) Saying nothing is the purist option, which can be unfriendly. I applaud proselytisers like Ruth Padel, The Poetry Trust, Neil Astley with his Alive anthologies, etc. Poetry can benefit from a leg-up now and then, and I don’t really understand why some people have to be so sniffy about that.

    Adrian Mitchell, whom Shug has already cited, had album notes in his Greatest Hits collection, and why not? Though he was surely one of the most accessible poets, his work was still subject to the drift of history.

  6. […] build a future audience, both for their own work and potentially for the work of others; see “Do come in” for more thoughts about poetry audience development.)  Any single future “audience […]

  7. Kona Macphee Says:

    Here’s a project that also believes poetry “can be fun without any dumbing down”:



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