This morning, I was reading Dana Gioia's essay "The Poet in an Age of Prose."
In this essay, Mr. Gioia asserted that good poetry seeks its readers' "imaginative and intellectual collaboration by assuming and exploiting a common frame of reference." He goes on to say that judging "what constitutes that common framework at any given moment is part of the poet's task" and that the poet must start by assuming what the reader knows in order to form a foundation of shared knowledge on which to build a poem.
Read the essay. It's much more articulate than I am.
Gioia continues the discussion of an audience and the way that "the author's idea of his audience helps shape the poems he creates." He notes that, in earlier times, cultures were smaller and shared more experiences and perspectives, so a poet—or any artist—could know the audience, could be confident they would pick up on the references. His idea is that modern culture has fragmented the audiences so that there is no shared frame of reference.
Right now: apologies if I'm boring you.
But here's where it got interesting to me. Do you have to appeal to everyone? If today's culture is so huge, even a part of it could make a pretty big audience.
The Gioia says, "The situation is further aggravated by the culture's shift away from the printed word as its primary source of information and entertainment…How does an intertextual art like poetry sustain its force in a culture that no longer studies and esteems the written text?"
Whoa! The questions start: What about the great oral traditions of poetry? What about the cultures that sustain those oral traditions? I'm thinking Irish and Arabic cultures. What are some others?
And as far as audience and relevance go, what about slam? What about hip hop?
I'm not convinced that poetry must be written and must rely on a text reference base. I love references, but I'm not sure they are required for everyone. I like poems that work on a basic level, a first-reading level, and can also reveal references in layers. (Twenty years later, I learn something new, and I say, "Hey—that's what that meant!")
Getting back to that essay, where is the prose in "an Age of Prose"?
It turns out that the essay, originally printed in 1992 (or earlier), is about New Formalism, and the movement's melding of traditional forms—including narrative poetry—with popular culture. The prose does not refer to prose at all but to people who read prose. Who are these people? Apparently, they also listen to jazz and go to the theatre. I'm taking notes (as though relatively educated people who read prose do not watch TV or listen to NPR).
I like the idea of knowing your audience—even writing to an audience, with generosity, keeping the reader in mind. But I want to write for the person watching "Studio 60" reruns (even if I include not even one Matthew Perry reference) and the person reading Austen and the person reading Chabon and the person reading Dickinson or Sexton.
That's just me. What about you? Who's your audience?