Charles Simic on the current state of Poetry in the US

Poetry doesn’t need much promotion. It is doing quite well in this country. I gave a reading the other night in Concord, N.H., with two former poet laureates — Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin —and 740 people came. That’s a lot of people!
– Charles Simic, New York Times 02/03/2008

While I have no beef with Charles Simic or his work, I do not know any of his work at all, I am disappointed in this quote. While 700+ is a great audience for any event, his example serves as a poor example of the state of poetry readings I have been to.

I have been to a ton of readings both here in the Bay and in New York and have generally found that average attendance for a poetry reading is pretty low. Yes, if one was putting together a reading that featured three poet laureates I am sure you would get an amazing attendance. But how often does that happen? And is the audience in attendance for poetry or just to bask in the glow of these personalities.

Before I go on, let me cite one exception to this rule– the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café regularly sells out regardless of who is slamming and/or featuring. But then I am asking are people there for the poetry or for the spectacle of slam?

Back to Simic and the “promotion of poetry.” I believe that while poetry is not in any danger of dying I do believe that any poetry reading is fighting a battle against a variety of other cultural stimuli and, for the most part, poetry loses that battle against theatre/music events/TV/cinema/et al. It loses that battle big time. Especially on the front line of that battle: open mics. Yes, I know open mics are a hit-and-miss forum where you are more likely to hear unpolished, raw, over extrapolated work but I would love to find a successful poet who did not start their writing career with unpolished, raw, over extrapolated work.

In response to the quote above, I say this: Mr. Simic, the poetry in this country needs and deserves as much promotion as any other art. In your role as poet laureate you should not be happy with the status quo and you should explore any and all possible venues to increase the spotlight on all poetry events (even the ones who attract less the 700 people).

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4 Comments

  1. I agree with you completely! I facilitate and participate in readings in the Richmond, VA area and while we have an active poetry communiy, if you get twenty people to a reading, it’s a raving success.

    He could easily use his position to promote, rather than assume because he gets a crowd poetry is healthy. His last visit here was packed because tickets were given away and poetry students at two local colleges were required to attend.

    The responsibility is ours, too. There is nothing more annoying than the poet who reads and leaves with his or her entourage. Or the poet who refuses to go to open mikes because they might here “bad” poetry. A well-run open mike gives everyone a chance but doesn’t let anyone dominate, bad or good.

  2. So I agree with both of you re: Simic and what he can potentially be doing with his position.

    I will also say that I am one of those poets who do not always enjoy going to open mics because I don’t always anticipate enjoying the kind of mixed bag of poetry we get there. And I go to a LOT of poetry readings so I am very selective.

    I do go to open mics that have a feature poet whose work I’m interested in hearing more of. That said, I believe in supporting poets and the many kinds of poetry which we find interesting, and this means going to readings, as well as buying as many poetry publications as I can afford, reading those and finding poets and their work there that I may not previously have known.

  3. Shann: Thanks for the comment and definitely agree with your stance that it is a shared responsibility. Poets should continue to work to increase awareness of literary events they believe in.

    Barb: While I do believe that attending open mics is one of the ways to increase the promotion of poetry I don’t believe it is the only way. You listed a couple of great alternatives and to that I will add supporting poetry workshops (by attending, referring or advertising), spreading the word of literary events that are enjoyable, and/or making any kind of donation to a literary organization. Of course, the best promotion of poetry – to me – is writing and sharing the best poetry we, as writers, can generate.

    If anyone else wants to add to this list, feel free!

    I hope Mr. Simic is taking note of how folks are working towards increasing the promotion of poetry and are not satisfied with its current state.

  4. Some poets are good .. and deserve the adulation they receive … I have been to hear many whom I had heard of .. and assumed I was in for a treat … sometimes (translated ‘often’) … this is not the case …

    I try so hard when I go to poetry readings to make sense of what I am hearing … I close my eyes .. cup my hand to my ear … then assume it is “me” … in the end … I feel I have witnessed a plane .. a train .. a truck … a car … and a jogger … all leaving the city … have no clue from where they came … have no idea .. where they are headed … and in the end … couldn’t care less …

    The current state of poetry is good .. because there are a lot of good poets out there … and I thank those who are .. those who take the craft seriously …. unfortunately … you have to kiss a lot toads .. to find your prince or princess.

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