Message in a Bottle
National Poetry Month Special: Does Anybody Read Poetry?

While searching for a suitable quote to put on our blackboard I came upon this comment by the poet C.D. Wright:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment.
I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too.

Sadly, the use of the pronoun “we” implies that only poets read poetry. That poets toil in a vacuum bag inhabited by the dust of poets past and exist only to be emptied into the receptacle of poets present and future.

I looked further to find the context for her remark. I assumed it was from an interview but it was actually contained in a book of essays called Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. It’s an interesting title choice for a book about the state of American poetry, first because it invokes a term of law that relates to murder (if enough cooling time elapses between the provocation and the killing then the charge may be homicide instead of manslaughter) and second because it suggests through the use of the term “vigil” that American poetry is the victim or is at least on its deathbed.

Here’s the quote in its entirety:

Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment. I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too. It can be allowed that an industrious quantity of contemporary American poetry is consciously written for a hermetic constituency; the bulk is written for the bourgeoisie, leaving a lean cut for labor. Only the hermetically aimed has a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching its intended ears. One proceeds from this realization. A staggering figure of vibrant, intelligent people can and do live without poetry, especially without the poetry of their time. This figure includes the unemployed, the rank and file, the union brass, banker, scientist, lawyer, doctor, architect, pilot, and priest. It also includes most academics, most of the faculty of the humanities, most allegedly literary editors and most allegedly literary critics. They do so—go forward in their lives, toward their great reward, in an engulfing absence of poetry—without being perceived or perceiving themselves as hobbled or deficient in any significant way. It is nearly true, though I am often reminded of a Tranströmer broadside I saw in a crummy office building in San Francisco:

We got dressed and showed the house
You live well the visitor said
The slum must be inside you.

If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance, and if I thought such an understanding were the basis for a lifelong inquiry, I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words…

So there it is. The idea is not that nobody reads poetry but that a whole lot of people don’t. That a broad swath of the population is “hobbled by an engulfing absence of poetry” without even realizing it—is suffering from a life-threatening “deficiency” of something it has but a mild passing awareness of. That the engulfing absence of poetry could be as silent a killer (metaphorically speaking) as heart disease among women. It’s not poetry that’s the victim—it’s the poetry-less. It’s just the sort of sweeping radical hyperbole that I’m attracted to, but more than that it’s a cultural diagnosis and a call for a cure. If it sounds like a quack diagnosis by a literary charlatan trying to pass poetry off as a miracle potion, the respected physician (and poet) William Carlos Williams made a similar and more dire pronouncement when he wrote:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

Whether or not declaring a “National Poetry Month” comes anywhere near to addressing (dare I call it) Poetry Deficit Disorder or anywhere close to redressing the hobbled and culturally deficient “slum” we may or may not inhabit is up for debate. Detractors, many of them poets, claim that proclaiming a National Poetry Month perpetuates the perceived irrelevance of poetry by stamping its foot and insisting on its relevance and that publishers and institutions use the month to spotlight and traffic in mainstream poetry—to promote and push “accessible” poetry while effectively burying “inaccessible” poetry.

I can sort of see their point but after all is said and done I like the idea of National Poetry Month. The cure for poetrylessness may begin with the awareness of poetry but it might also require an exposure to a less threatening strain—like a vaccine. Do you suppose there are any ribbon colors that are not yet spoken for?


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

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