. . . the poetic audience, even among intellectuals, has largely vanished.
- Christopher Clausen
. . . there are three to four times as many books of poems published now as there were in 1940 . . . and the print-orders of books published by major publishers are five to ten times greater than they were.
- Donald Hall
This begins, like so many things, with a mistake I made.
In the fall of 1990, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, who was writing a piece about plans for New England Review, the literary quarterly of which I had recently become the editor. We talked for awhile about NER's editorial policies and procedures-how many manuscripts arrived daily in the mail (fifty), how many ultimately saw print, all the usual questions. The conversation was focused mainly on the pragmatics of our internal operations, so it is perhaps understandable that when she innocently asked, "And how many readers do you have," I replied, with equal innocence, "Oh, there are only the two of us."
In the shocked silence that followed my answer, I had the obvious epiphany-that my interrogator had made a transition in her questioning which I had not followed. She meant, of course, for me to tell her the size of New England Review's audience; I thought she wanted to know how many editors screened the incoming manuscripts.
At the time, the momentary misunderstanding was first confusing, then comic. But in retrospect I realize that it is also instructive. The fact that the word reader applies equally to editor and audience is no accident; the identity of these two words points toward a connection that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when we talk about the complicated set of relationships among writer, reader, text, and editor.
How must it have sounded, at first blush, to the friendly Free Press reporter - herself, of course, a writer, one immediately responsible to an editor and to a sizable readership-when my reply to her question turned out to be not merely two, a figure ridiculous enough in itself, but "only the two of us?" How often has it been said by critics and by the public at large-not to say by the sort of "hard-nosed professional writer" a reporter stereotypically is-that poetry and "literary" fiction are highly rarefied enterprises, and that, for instance, poets only write for other poets? How much more shocking is the idea that a couple of editors out in the Vermont hinterland might be producing a hefty, handsome literary magazine for the consumption of "only the two of us?" How could we possibly justify our parasitic existence?
The very idea is comic. And yet it remained true that New England Review's relatively small circulation - 2500 or so at that point - was paltry by comparison even with that of the Burlington Free Press, just as sales of my last book of poems were paltry by comparison with the circulation of USA Today. And it is also true that, when I justified New England Review's budget to the Middlebury College accountant, as every year I had to do, it became clear that the figure 2500 sounded to him not so different from "only the two of us."
A readership cannot be judged simply on the basis of a number, I find myself saying over and over. And I am correct every single time I say it. Yet the beat goes on. It is a familiar beat as monotonous as disco, and it says Who do you think you are, you poets, you fiction writers, you artists, you editors of lit mags, you parasites, you who produce no junk bonds and drive no BMWs? For whom do you write? For whom do you publish? Where's the dividend?
We've heard all that, again and again. To those "of us" in the field, it grows tedious. But it ought in all honesty be remembered that this sort of question does have its basis in a very real knot of complicated issues which have no obvious solutions. Why should the general public, whatever that awful phrase may mean, not have doubts about the poet, the "literary" fiction writer, the literary magazine editor?.
What is at the heart of the matter is nothing less than relatedness: the connection among writer, text, editor, reader, and the "non-literary" public. This list comprises a large number of factions, all-once they are defined as factions-having urgent claims and concerns, often in conflict. But there is also a counter-truth: that the boundaries separating these groups are in some sense, to some degree, unreal.
What writer is not a reader? What reader is not a writer? What editor is not both of these? "The two of us" who screened manuscripts in the office of New England Review were readers in every possible sense of the word. We were the audience of everyone who sent us work. In many cases, we may have been the only audience a given story or poem or essay ever had. And where is the writer, the editor, who does not come out of, and therefore belong to, that massive, mythically undignified, reputedly mindless thing we call the "general public"? And where is the citizen, however unliterary, who has not benefited, however unconsciously, from the lonely labor of the writer?
It's Us against Them, we sometimes think.. But who are we? Who are they? What is the difference between us?
The history of poetry is haunted by the idea of audience in exactly the same way the history of romance is haunted by the idea of the Beloved and the history of war by the idea of the Evil Empire. Philosophy, psychology, and critical theory (in that order) have labored for at least three hundred years to express how Otherness is a creation of desire, of our need to explain ourselves to ourselves even while we are doing things we only half understand. And yet we go on, as we will go on as long as we last: all of us lovers, all of us soldiers, all of us poets, imagining we are called into action by something out there which needs us to love it or to kill it or to speak toward it some utterance that resonates with the mystery of being.
For poets, the image of audience is a double-edged cliché, as old as the art, but still dangerous whatever way it is posed. For whom does the poet write is an expression of the left wing of the issue, and who cares what the poet writes an expression of the right. The usual answers are equally polarized. To the first, the boundaries of reply are for everyone or for myself alone; to the second, nobody or anybody. Politics enters as soon as the question is in the air. Populist, elitist, solipsistic: the gradations of possibility are as numerous as the history of argument is long. It is useful for poets to give an account of what is in their minds-vis-a-vis audience, vis-a-vis anything-when they are writing, to help us understand the particularities of motivation and the inner workings of craft; but I want to reserve space for what I believe is a healthy agnosticism about what they (and what I) have to say on the subject, hypothesizing that this issue more than most calls forth our natural perversity. What do we think about the Beloved while we are busy conceiving children? What do we think about the Great Satan of the enemy while we are busy waging war (or about the very same Evil Incarnate when, five years on, he or she has become our ally)? It matters to us at the time: but how much difference does it make to our children, or to the battlefield dead? Ghosts are ghosts, regardless whether they are images of those who have come and gone before us, or those who will come and go after we ourselves have come and gone. We can only guess at who they were or will be based on what we know of ourselves.
All this is true also of the potential reader. And while it most certainly makes a difference how a given writer conceives that reader-just as it makes a difference what our political convictions are-it is also true that the conceived reader is a fabrication based on convenience, a preliminary creation which helps us to write the sort of poem we most want to write. The poem I write for the Beloved will certainly be different from the poem I write for my mother, or Christopher Clausen, or Everyman. Do I decide to write for only one of these possibilities? If so, how do I make that decision, and what does it mean that I make it? In what guise do I decide? Into what or whom does my decision turn me? The history of romance is as much haunted by the image of the Lover as that of the Beloved, and the history of war as much by the image of the Chosen People as of the Evil Empire. The proposition is always precisely double; the mirror can't help looking two ways.
I'm tempted simply to say that the best exploration of this problem I've ever encountered is Walter Ong's justly famous essay "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction," to refer the reader there, and to wash my hands of the whole difficult business. Ong gives lucid expression to what is, for me, a clear and realistic hope:
If the writer succeeds in writing, it is generally because he can fictionalize in his imagination an audience he has learned to know not from daily life but from earlier writers who were fictionalizing in their imagination audiences they had learned to know in still earlier writers, and so on back to the dawn of written narrative. If and when he becomes truly adept, an "original writer," he can do more than project the earlier audience, he can alter it (italics added).
But the romance haunts me, too, and I know that if I could give an honest and complete answer to the question For whom do I write I would understand something important about the perverse dwarf who labors away in the sweatshop of my upper brain, making things I call poems. I believe I am entitled to say this much: that every poem is written exactly for whomever happens to be reading it at any given moment, and that if no one is reading it, for all practical purposes it does not exist. That person-the actual reader-is in one important way like the issue of the Lover and the Beloved: my ideas about the future determine nothing about the color of my child's hair, the shape of her hands, the quickness of her nerves; my ideas about my audience cannot determine the actuality of whatever audience I am fortunate enough to have, a second from now or in a hundred years. But this is not a sheerly fatalistic proposition. Children, poems, readers are not created ex nihilo; they are called forth in their different ways from the stuff we are given by the world-flesh, society, language, and the material history of process, which we both understand and misunderstand, use and misuse, in the course of our impossible passion to live forever and know everything.
In what I have said so far, it may sound as if my stance is essentially existential, that my belief is that we are all separate from each other, sealed off in hermetic subjectivities and busily projecting exterior realities in order to maintain an illusion of sanity, but in fact that is not my position. We are, I think, constantly in danger of falling into such an atomized condition; but one antidote among others is the sort of body politic, tenuous though it may be, created by the bond between writer and reader through the medium of text. Reading is relationship, and so is writing; language is as communal, and as specifically human, as our flesh and blood, which we are born to share. But language is even more ours than flesh and blood are; insofar as we can be said to be creators at all, language is our creation.
Generally, we believe that our children are what they are because we have been attracted to some Other-something in the genes calls to something in the genes; we choose, we do not choose; we are chosen. In the best of circumstances, we do have at least something to say about it; in the worst (in the case of rape, say, as advocates of freedom of choice concerning abortion argue, or in the case of passionate error) we make our choices post facto. One of the beauties of the act of art is that we have more choices: to write or not to write, to read or not to read. We read with most profound pleasure and benefit those texts which at least appear to have been written with us in mind; we tend to reject those which seem for whatever reason too foreign. But what can it mean if I find that Dickinson or Yeats or Keats or Sappho has me in mind? Which me? And in what mind?
My impulse is to look for paradigms in other realms to understand how writer and reader create each other in the act of attention which we call poetry. I have understood more and more clearly with the passing of time how much my turning to poetry depended on the place where I grew up and the time when I grew up there. I was born in Noxubee County, Mississippi, in 1950, white and solidly rural working class in a part of the world where seventy percent of the population was black, deeply poor, and powerless in every sense. I lived there, as James Agee puts it, "successfully disguised to myself as a child." I grew up also a perfect little racist in that remote and otherwise benighted place, having from the very beginning no choice in the matter.
We have come to understand something about what racism inflicts on those who are its targets: racism on that level is violence, even when no shots are fired and no blood is shed. What is harder to understand, much less care about, is what racism does to racists, and to their children, whose beautiful childhood disguises come to include white robes and hoods.
Racism is a sort of bewitchment, made beautiful by the power of its awful magic to those it possesses, and language is part of the spell. That's why I don't entirely trust language and its figures, though I love them. To break the spell that was cast on me I had to die and come back as somebody else; I had to commit a long and slow, if metaphorical, suicide. That was the only available cure. Fortunately, I did not have to do this alone. I owe a debt for my un-bewitching first and foremost to the heroes of the civil rights movement-an endeavor as important to whites and others as to blacks. Without that large and visible movement, and the obvious human logic upon which it was based, I would never have understood that I was not who I thought I was-one of the favored of the gods, one of the chosen-but was in fact, in this metaphorical sense, one who deserved the suicide I granted myself.
I can now see that I first came to the writing of poetry, in 1968 or so, at the end of a process of self-dismantlement; and I came to it for what at first glance would appear to be all the wrong reasons: not in love and joy, but in exhaustion and horror and self-loathing. I would like to be able to say that, having worked my way carefully through the sort of self-analysis that clarifies the boundary between personal psychology and politics, I arrived fully at an empowered selfhood, ready to take on large and responsible social tasks, and that I found in poetry a perfect means to that end. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead, the process I went through was more emotional and intuitive than analytical-confused as it was with the more usual process of coming to terms with identity normal in adolescence-and when I came out the other end of it, there was little left of me but anger and guilt. I felt that something monstrous had been done to me, as indeed it had; but I was not ready to accept my own complicity in that process, much less my responsibility in taking part in the obvious struggles. Though this was not consciously in my mind at the time, I am afraid I turned to poetry as an escape. What, some part of me must have thought, could be further from what I came from than poetry? What could be more truly apolitical than this? Where I grew up, people did not hate poetry; far from it. We did not think about poetry at all. Southerners are fond of talking about the great tradition of writing in the region; my earliest memory of discussion of a "great" writer is hearing someone curse "Faulkner, that traitor to the South." Poets got less than short shrift; they got no shrift at all. What, then, could be better? In the depths of my self-alienation, I think I believed poetry could belong to me alone. It was a narcissistic obsession, a passion without risk to its perpetrator because insulated from effects, like that of the peeping Tom who believes the person he stares at anonymously through a window is passionately in love with him.
What I could not have known was that this obsession held within itself the seeds of its own healing. What I now understand is that poetry is stubbornly, radically communal, like all art; it belongs to no one, it is in love with no one, it serves no one: it simply relates. It is one of our great structures of relationship-by no means the only one, and no better (but no worse) than others-and thus the "birth" of a poet as poet is a birth into relatedness. No child comes into the world without parents, however broken the family may be. When I came to consciousness as a poet and found myself alone, I was already misunderstanding myself. Poetry can never truly serve narcissism because by its very being it implies progenitors and demands an audience. An utterly narcissistic writer-one who truly writes out of and for himself or herself alone-is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms.
I offer, therefore, a different paradigm, one which is perhaps the basis of my conception of audience.
My great-grandfather Tom Jackson died in 1957 at the age of 97; he was born in 1860, the year before the outbreak of the Civil War, and he died when I was seven because he fell down the stairs of his old farmhouse, broke his hip, and had to go to the hospital, where doctors accomplished in a week what just under a century of genuinely hard life had failed to do. His death was the first that came close to me; his funeral was the first I ever attended. Curiously, I remember standing in our living room on the day before he died, staring up at a row of Readers' Digest Condensed Books-virtually the only books our household contained-and thinking "Grandaddy is going to die"; then, when he did die, I felt a certain exaltation, as if I were a prophet for foretelling the obvious and mentioning it only to myself.
But as far as I was concerned, Tom Jackson was no common man, and his dying deserved prophesying. He was in the first place the oldest white man anybody in our part of the country knew; and because he was white, the dating of his birth was precise, unlike that of an antebellum black person, who would have been by definition a slave; his age, like everything that belonged to white people, was authoritative.
I visited him fairly regularly throughout my early childhood; his presence is among my earliest memories. As I recall them, the visits were always the same. I never went to see him alone, partly because I was too young and partly because, well, one of my generation simply wouldn't go to his house alone; it would have been a breach of decorum. As I remember, it was always either my father or my grandmother (Tom Jackson's daughter) who took me there. We would invariably find him in one of two places: in his living room by the butane space heater when the weather was cold, or on the front porch in his rocker when it was fine. Because his blood pressure was low, he was constantly chilled, and seemed always to be wearing more clothes than any normal human being would want to wear-even in Mississippi August he would have on long underwear and a long-sleeved khaki work shirt; in winter, his butane heater was like the Old Testament furnace. He carried about him his own atmosphere, perfect for him, uncomfortable for others.
He was a splendidly archetypal old man in appearance-properly wrinkled and liver-spotted, with plenty of snow-white hair. He had the bleary bluish eyes of one who has survived the ordeal of old-fashioned cataract surgery (the sort where the convalescent must lie for weeks without moving his head, on threat of blindness or worse). He was most certainly a survivor. He could remember the Civil War, and Reconstruction (he was the "man of the farm" at nine, and claimed he could plow a straight row with a mule at that age) and all the wars and reversals that succeeded. Wars and reversals were all he knew, but those he knew intimately. His presence was formidable; he was clear-minded, intelligent (though uneducated), forceful, arrogant, sure of himself and of his position in the family. He was a classical patriarch, and it is no wonder that my early images of God the Father, about whom I heard so much at the little Methodist church we attended, were all mixed up with Tom Jackson.
A child approaching him had in the first place to be announced. Tom Jackson made no pretense of remembering his great-grandchildren as individuals. He had thirteen children, a host of grandchildren, and a multitude of ones like me; our lives to him were frail, like the dandelions in his front yard, like spit on a hot stove. He'd see us coming, a large one and a small one; he'd rivet his gaze on the small one first, and say, "Whose child are you?" The hierophant adult then was required to answer, in my case, "This is Vernon's boy, grandaddy," at which he then would say, "Well, let him come over here and shake my hand."
The handshake: this was a critical juncture. Tom Jackson had never owned much, but almost everything he'd ever owned he still had. This was true of cars and trucks, wagons and tractors; it was true of animals; it was true of the furniture in the house, the books in his bookshelves (few and strange-Masonic manuals and anti-Catholic tracts, with a healthy leavening of old National Geographics which belonged actually to my great-uncle Warren), his tenant farmers, and the parts of his body. He had all his hair, all his teeth, his tonsils, his appendix, everything he was born with, a catalog he would recite with pride. The one glaring exception was his good right hand, which he'd lost eons earlier in a run-in with a corn-auger, maybe the only argument he couldn't win by sheer force of will. His hand was gone just at the wrist, and the resulting stump had been wrought into a sort of blunt point which always peeked suggestively out of the cuff of his khaki shirt. To a five- or six-year-old, this vision-this wound, this scar, this loss, this astonishing difference-was a source of horrified fascination. To shake hands with Grandaddy meant first the transgression of shaking left-handed-do children, boys, still receive careful instruction from their fathers in the art of shaking hands, With the right son, always with the right?-and second the fraught opportunity of glimpsing what one ought to have been grasping but would never grasp. Perhaps there was something phallic about it-which might have pleased the old man if it had ever secretly crossed his mind; but I am certain it never did, because he was as cruelly pure as a Baptist preacher, and as resolutely ignorant as he was intelligent. But to grasp his left hand was to transmigrate into his atmosphere, to enter the looking-glass.
"When you begin to read a poem," Randall Jarrell writes in "The Obscurity of the Poet,"
you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother's hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.
Entering the foreign country of my great-grandfather's front porch, I was already learning something about the kind of experience poetry is. I was learning to cross boundaries with balanced fear and fascination, disgust and longing.
Finally, having done what was required of me, I would meet one of two fates: either I would be dismissed to play in the yard or in the front hall until the adults had finished their visit; or I would be told a story. How can I say which I dreaded more? Playing at Grandaddy's was boring. It was Byzantium writ backwards: No country for children; there was nothing to play with, except the walking canes and rocking chairs of the old, But to hear a story: that, too, was no pleasure, because Grandaddy was a terrifying storyteller, and yet the stories, I thought, were incomprehensible and dull. That shows how little I knew. It is certainly true that while he loved to tell stories, he was interested in only a few, telling the same ones again and again: the one I simply could not understand, for instance, about how his father died in a Yankee prison camp, and when the Federals came marching into Louisville, Mississippi, in 1865, Tom Jackson stood on top of a split-rail fence shouting You killed my father at the top of his lungs until he lost his balance and fell on his butt-and all the "blue-bellies" laughed; or the one about how, after the war, the family had no salt and so had to dig up the smokehouse floor and eat the salty dirt. How could I understand these things at five or six? He made no effort to explain them to me. I had little idea of what the Civil War had been, or why the soldiers laughed at the pain of the boy (just my age!), or why anyone would have to eat dirt, salt or no salt.
But the truly terrifying thing was the guise he assumed as he spoke. This was no pleasant and loving storytelling such as my parents indulged me in; indeed, it was as if I were not even there. Tom Jackson would stare off into the distance with his otherworldly old man's eyes, and he would say what he had to say. His authority was clearly absolute in his own mind. It was an authority based on two things: a monstrous ego, and an infinite memory. He was who he was, and he had seen what he had seen. This was neither entertainment nor instruction; this was testimony, something like prophesy in reverse. I was to understand that I was in the presence of a Personage, a redneck oracle, and it was not his job to explain nor mine to understand-he was there to speak what he remembered, and I to remember what he spoke.
It gives me no comfort to imagine Tom Jackson as a paradigm for anything in my life. He was, I understand by reading between the lines of our family history, a tyrant and a bully; he steamrollered his wife and broke the spirits of most of his children (my grandmother excepted, who inherited enough of his iron and invented sufficient grace of her own to stand eye to eye with him). He was an unrepentant and unreconstructed man who lived by will and bleak hard work, owned land, had many children, and expected no more and no less of those around him. He was the image of a predeluvian (but postlapsarian) patriarch, and patriarchs as we all know are in bad odor for good reason.
But there is a point-a bad and profound pun-that simply cannot be missed here: when I went to visit Tom Jackson, my visit was an audience. I was granted, in a large and ancient sense, a visitation and a hearing. His presence, in the act of his storytelling, was transpersonal-the audience I had with him was in fact with history, and the audience he had in me was in fact with the future. Not that either of us had any such thing in mind: it just worked out that way.
I would not want to imagine that the self I project in a poem is anything like Tom Jackson-his narration was too fascistic for me to wish to imitate it. Neither do I want to believe that the reader I project for myself through the poem is as helpless as the five-year-old boy excruciatingly transfixed on that Mississippi porch. In any case, the whole setup is so terribly, so archetypally Southern-so like a scene from great-grandaddy Faulkner-that I don't like to look at it from any angle that is not oblique. Perhaps that's a failure in me; perhaps it isn't.
But I learned from Tom Jackson that an audience is double: that there is a level of utterance which is mutually and reflexively creative. Whatever else I inherit from him, I inherit the best and most transpersonal moments he shared with me-those moments when he did not give a good goddamn who I was-and with them the means to extend Ong's accurate observation by one human degree:
If the writer succeeds in writing, it is generally because he can fictionalize in his imagination an audience he has learned to know not from daily life but from earlier writers who were fictionalizing in their imagination audiences they had learned to know in still earlier writers, and so on back to the dawn of written narrative. If and when he becomes truly adept, an "original writer," he can do more than project the earlier audience, he can alter it.
I take this to mean that, while we are apprentices, we inherit our concept of audience along with the craft which we labor to learn, like taking the medicine with sugar. The Dear Reader to whom we imagine we are writing is a dead convention, exactly like meter and rhyme, or certain narrative structures, or image, or trope, or what have you. One learns a craft of audience along with the craft of language; and one's craft of audience will be different if one is learning from Larkin or Plath or Whitman or Rich. We are all readers before we are writers; we know how it feels to be written for by a Whitman or a Plath. Somehow they have us in mind, and we aspire to write poems of our own in order to reproduce that experience for others. It is at best a generous, humble, and communal impulse which is muddied by sheer ego, the desire to be that powerful, prophetic mind which can have in itself the whole of the past and also of a future world of readers, containing even me, however reluctant I may be to join a club that would have me as a member.
But there comes a moment when a line is crossed, when the poet takes hold of something by the left hand-by which I mean nothing more mystical than that the poet as poet understands and respects the strangeness of his or her own life and of the lives of others, and grasps that strangeness by whatever means present themselves, realizing that there is no prophesy and no prophet, but only a desperate humanity staving off death by the things we tell each other-and then the poet alters the projected audience by withdrawing the projection. By this, I mean that the poet ceases to write for some conventionalized particular, and begins to write a poem which belongs to no one, is in love with no one, serves no one. This does not mean that it is written for no one. It means that the poet consciously writes a poem which is for the actual reader-for whatever unique reader will read it at any given moment. And it is devoutly to be hoped that the reader will be equal to the demand of being created at that moment, along with the poem itself, which without the actual reader is less than nothing.