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Tuesday, 7 January 2014

THE DECLINE OF THE DISINTERESTED READER & POETRY

When considering the relative decline in a readership for contemporary poetry (at least in the UK), little attention is paid to what I should like to term "the disinterested reader".  At first counter-intuitive, I believe this concept is actually helpful for academics and critics trying to trace the low impact that poetry has on popular culture's discourse (tweets, fan sites, interest etc) relative to television, film, videogames, music, and novels, literary and commercial.  Too often poets bemoan the absence of interested readers for poetry - but in fact these exist and form the core support for poetry in its present form.

Indeed, this hardcore base of interested readers is precisely the problem with current poetry reception in the British isles - for this interested readership, by its very nature, is incapable of applying the sort of indifferent reactive formations that allow genres and works of art and entertainment to enter the mainstream context in a meaningful way. Instead, interested readers - in this case, almost always those with an immediate stake in the art product, like practitioners, critics, booksellers, teachers, and relations of the artist - establish a sort of in-bred circle that, due to its intense self-referentiality, can lead to cronyism, false evaluations of significance, and grandiose or unrealistic claims and expectations for the work.  Consider, however, how the disinterested reader operates, and how their functionality is far more dispersive, transgressive and indeed fertile - think of the bee that accidentally pollinates fields in the process of seeking honey.

A disinterested reader is the reader who allows an underground novel like Fight Club to become a cult classic, for instance.  This reader has no stake in the author's fortunes, or the success or failure of the poetics of the novel qua novel; they - this is hypothetical - instead read the novel perhaps on a whim - bored, they pick it up - or a friend recommends it.  They do not come to the novel expecting anything.  They only want to read "a good book".  This disinterested reader then either "likes" the book or not.  If they like it, they will then recommend it to others - and so news grows.  Such free-browsing, free-floating, "uncommitted readers" are the ones that turn little-known works, like Twilight or 50 Shades, into word of mouth sensations.  They spread the infection of reading - not because they need to, but just because.

In short, they are serial enthusiasts, these readers. Indifferent because like the god in Yeats' poem, they indifferently let drop what does not please them.  They can become interested, but are always browsing, grazing.  They do not know what will excite them next.

Now, there are few such readers of this kind for poetry. I know this, from experience as a teacher at universities and colleges since 1998 (15 years), as a writer, and publisher.  99.9% of my well-educated students, friends, and colleagues are disinterested readers - of prose.  They rarely if ever "stray" across into the poetry book genre.  If they did, they might fall in love with one, and turn it into a word of mouth best-seller.  But we know that such books barely exist - perhaps one poetry book a year achieves anything like this status, and then sales are in the tens of thousands, not the millions.

What is to be done?

Somehow, poets, poetry publishers, and poetry critics must attempt to change the discourse surrounding poetry, which I believe has falsely exaggerated the claims for poetry.  A good poetry book is not more entertaining or life-changing than Fight Club will be for most people, or The Secret History, or the Virgin Suicides.  Indeed, too often, the Interested Poetry Reader will claim too much for poetry - and this then results in Disinterested Readers being put off when they actually sample said poetry book.

I would suggest that more modest claims for poetry might, in fact, lead to more disinterested readers approaching it.  Just a thought.

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