September 13, 2005

Enchanting Audience.

My first paper as a graduate student is for my Topics in Poetry class, which focuses on Poetry and Politics. We were asked to write a short essay about our concept of audience and "the relationship you strive/hope to establish between you (in your figurative role as writer) and your potential readership." What effect or "change" do we want our work to have, how may it manifest in a political sense? A very intriguing, but broad topic. Here, for your interest and enjoyment, is the essay I wrote:

“By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.” - Neil Postman[1]

One of my first memories of being aware of poetry’s audience and, furthermore, of my potential audience as a would-be poet, was reading Dana Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in May, 1991). In his essay, Gioia laments the fading poetic community which, he claims, consists more and more of specialized educators isolated in the ivory towers of universities and concerned not with what matters to humanity and the human condition, but what matters to publishers, editors, colleagues and students. I was not then a member of any poetic community that might be offended by his accusations. As a shy teenager, I was a part of that population most prone to feeling acutely isolated and adrift in the mainstream, and Gioia’s wish that poetry be a major part of American public culture struck me deeply. I believed--I was desperate to believe--that it was a realistic goal, one that an ordinary person like myself could help to realize.

The intervening years--more than seven since I first read the essay and almost fifteen since it was written--even if they haven’t changed the nature of Gioia’s frustrations, have certainly transformed my own. What I sensed about poetry then, I know more concretely and more intimately now: that poetry is really a language of love, of connection, of communication infinitely heightened. As Anne Lamott wrote, “To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.”[2] Poetry is, essentially, an expression of reverence. And my ideal readers, my imagined audience, also sought to express and dwell in this awe with me, in a community of “life-appreciators,” for lack of a better description. But at the same time that I was slowly learning this through and about my own writing, I was also running into the same defeat again and again, a defeat that often left me feeling immobilized and that Gioia had only partially captured or predicted in 1991.

The problem I found was that a true community of such readers--whether that of popular literate culture, or the insular bureaucratized institution of professional poets Gioia describes--seemed to be increasingly rare. As an undergraduate student, I had trouble finding my way into either of the two contrasting (but according to Gioia, clearly distinct) communities, both of which seemed to be potential, if imperfect, forums for taking poetry seriously. Instead of community, I found only audience. The difference? Passive enjoyment, rather than active engagement. We live in a time when the term “audience” has increasingly become just another euphemism for “a particular group of consumers.” What we find in modern American culture is a flexible collection of isolated individuals, each belonging to many different and sometimes incongruous social groups, each conditioned to consider themselves influential only through their buying power and, even in this sense, ultimately replaceable and thus ineffectual, disposable. That is to say, a population who cannot take itself, let alone anything it produces, all that seriously.

Poetry’s audience, whether within the university or the popular mainstream, has grown almost indistinguishable from the target audience of any other consumer product, from television shows to rap music, from the newest, thinnest laptop to the latest, thinnest cell phone. In short, poetry can conceivably be “sold” to the same target audience that exists for any product that seeks not only, on one level, to aid in communication, but on another level, to make communication into something sleek, stylish and above all entertaining. This is Neil Postman’s main concern in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argues that television’s unanalyzed omnipresence is drastically redefining our understanding of communication and community, often without us noticing. A society dominated by images and multimedia, fed and directed by the capitalist need to continually manufacture and market new products to eternally interested buyers--even to the point of constructing the very population to which it sells them, which it is also then free to destroy and reconstruct to suit changing market needs--is a culture in which nothing un-entertaining is valued for very long.

The results of this eschewing of all that does not entertain is twofold. First, it demeans language in the name of popular enjoyment, leveling all subtleties in communication to surface meanings, if that. As everyone recognizes, the easiest way to ruin a joke is to over-explain why it is funny; on the other hand, a comedian might entertain even with incomprehension, if his babbling is ridiculous enough. Without a serious discussion of context and meaning, however, much of what is said can be taken for granted as understood, or even as irrelevant to understanding, when the aim of communication is assumed to be merely entertainment. After all, we live in a culture when a person can sing along quite passionately to Incubus on the radio--“Come one, come all, into 1984”--not only without recognizing the reference to Orwell’s novel, but furthermore without understanding the redefinition of the Orwellian concept of control--not only of being watched but of watching, not only of a repressive Big Brother but the self-defeat of thoughtless media consumption--that the lyrics infer. We live in a unique time, when songs on the radio and shows on television are perfectly capable of attacking their very medium without their target audiences, applauding as loudly as ever, even noticing the contradiction, let alone taking it as a matter that deserves serious consideration.

This diminished and impoverished engagement with language is effectively immobilizing for many writers. Not only do we face the challenge of winning a reader’s trust and patience that poetry is “a language which may be worth the trouble of learning,” as T.S. Eliot put it, but we daily confront evidence that the average American is no longer paying much attention to anything anyone says, himself included. Gioia wrote in 1991, “A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”[3] I would add to this list: advertisers, marketers and corporate giants, all of whom encourage entertainment as the main measure of value in order to keep consumers emotionally stimulated and perpetually seeking the new once the old has grown boring. These days, not even a wide audience necessarily indicates a poem that is successful as poetry, when its fame could be just as much due to good marketing or emotional appeal.

Which leads us to the second major result of America’s cultural obsession with entertainment: it transforms aspects and institutions of culture which once had serious, complex functions into easy-to-swallow, relatively thoughtless amusements. Postman’s most striking example of this phenomenon is televangelism. Although he hardly blames modern religious leaders for wanting to compete with secular entertainment, the result is “an unusual religious credo” that hopes to capture an audience by offering them what they want. “There is no great religious leader--from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther--who offered people what they want. Only what they need.”[4] Much of poetry, like much of spiritual and religious experience, incorporates the seed of mystery, uncertainty and challenge inherent in confronting a difficult and often ugly human existence. It is of no little importance that tragedy has not experienced the same upsurge in popularity that comedy has witnessed recently in mainstream America, and that even modern television and film “drama” is often relatively straightforward and sentimental, rather than complex and cathartic. After all, in a consumer culture designed to create the needs and insecurities for which it can, for a price, offer instant cures, tragedy--grounded not in insecurity but in mystery, not in cures but in questions--just does not sell. Comedy, on the other hand, can survive, even thrive, by being merely funny.

The question, of course, is what becomes of art, religion, and even politics, when they are robbed of their ability to seriously address issues such as suffering, justice, sublimity and death? For whom am I writing poetry in a society which can provide ever-changing and ever-growing “audiences” geared towards mass-consumption but which apparently flounders and fails when I seek an engaged community with which to share my reverence? What role can language play in a society which redefines and thus trivializes “shock and awe” itself as a marketable slogan? If I wish, like Gioia, to address myself to and remain relevant in the public culture--and indeed, to think that universities have institutionalized poetry so much that this subculture alone escapes the isolating, deadening trends of the mainstream seems foolish--I must accept the fact that I am writing to people entirely unused to hearing, let alone believing, the phrase: “I am not trying to sell you something.” I am writing to readers who, though enthralled when entertained, are also well-trained to scoff at enchantment as an unhealthy blindness, a dangerous loss of freedom--where “freedom” means the ability to choose among a variety of products. In essence, I am writing to a community which treads dangerously close to triviality, with the hope of restoring another notion of freedom: that of creative potential, the serious and invaluable activity of defining and communicating sacredness.

[1] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin Books: New York, NY), 1985, p. 122.
[2] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books: New York, NY), 1994, p. 107.
[3] Dana Gioia, “Can Poetry Matter?”
[4] Postman, p. 121.


Post a Comment

<< Home