In January 2006, the Poetry Foundation released the results of "Poetry in America." They hailed it, "The first national, in-depth survey of people's attitudes towards and experiences with poetry."
There's plenty to read and mull over in this study (available at poetryfoundation.org.), but I was especially drawn to a section called Perceptions of poets and poetry readers.
I have this theory (completely unscientific and based on nothing more than my own observations) that one of the biggest obstacles poets face in attracting an audience is the stereotypical way we're regarded by both the public and the media. You know what I mean—refer to someone as a poet, and all kinds of wild, distorted and even distasteful assumptions are conjured up.
Doesn't it seem that poets are commonly depicted as bohemians who eschew the values of the average citizen, as intellectual elitists who wouldn't be caught dead watching "Lost" and condemn anyone who does? Or as incomprehensible visionaries who speak in tongues and spew gibberish?
When it comes to gender stereotypes, I've noticed female poets are perceived as romantic airheads who flit through life tossing about scarves and rhymed couplets, as suicidal princesses of the dark literary arts or as breezy nonconformists with free spirits and loose morals. In other words, if she's a poet, she must be ditzy, wanton or damaged goods. I remember a People magazine profile of Suzanne Somers in the 1970s that referred to her as a nonflake poet. Indeed, a comedienne-poetess who plays a dumb blonde on a situation comedy is so much safer—and more admirable—than a "flaky" poet who might, um, actually know how to write.
Male poets? They have their own image problems: Which cardboard caricature will it be? The eccentric outsider (think Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird), the exhibitionist reprobate who can't be trusted alone in a room with young women or the consumptive milquetoast who's a little too in touch with his own feelings? When journalists wrote that 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry composed poetry, smirks seemed to dance between the lines.
Does the general public truly harbor some preemptive notion that poets are bizarre folk who have nothing in common with decent people? Does this impression poison their minds against poetry before they ever pick up a magazine or set foot in a bookstore?
WHO'S A POET?
I guess it should be a relief that "Poetry in America" provides no evidence to support my theory of poets being waylaid by self-image issues. But I'm not at all reassured by the way poets are perceived in the study.
The 1,000 adults in the survey sample reflect varying levels of interest in poetry. Respondents include those who currently read and listen to poetry, those who've read poetry in the past but don't anymore and those who've never read poetry. (Come on, there are adults who've never read poetry? Not even on greeting cards or gift plaques?)
The questions in the survey were forced-choice—respondents had to choose from two or three options. Regarding the perceived gender of poets, 30.9 percent respondents said poets were more likely to be men, 14 percent said women and the rest said both/neither. On age, 13.6 percent thought poets were more likely to be old, 18 percent chose middle-aged, 3.5 percent said young and 64.4 percent indicated no particular age.
Respondents thought 17.8 percent of poets tend to be white, 0.4 percent tend to be black, 1.1 percent are some other race and 79.4 percent are no particular race. I'm sure this doesn't mean respondents think poets are race-less, but that they didn't know—or care—what race poets tend to be. A footnote in the study says, "There were no responses of Asian."
When it comes to social characteristics, respondents believed poets tend to be more creative (72 percent) than logical (5.4 percent); more quiet (54 percent) than talkative (16.6 percent); and more loners (42.5 percent) than sociable (24.1 percent).
WANT TO MEET A POET?
The Cultural Status section of the study really jumbled my assumptions about poets' stereotypes. In response to the question "Do you think poets are more likely to be people you'd like to meet or people you would like to avoid?" an astonishing 70.3 percent of respondents chose "meet" vs. 8.3 percent who chose "avoid." And respondents thought poets tend to be more respected (75.3 percent) than disrespected (4.8 percent).
My gosh. People want to meet poets! They think poets are respected! Who knew?
"Poetry in America" offers some equally surprising perceptions when the responses are broken down by strata (i.e., according to poetry users, nonusers, former poetry readers and nonpoetry readers). The following quote from the summary really gave me pause:
Further, the data suggest that non-poetry readers, while more likely to choose a specific trait to describe poets, often choose the trait that counters the usual stereotype. To illustrate, if we accept that the stereotype of poets is that they are old, white men who are creative, quiet loners, then non-poetry readers' perceptions go against the stereotype on all but one of these attributes. Non-poetry readers are significantly more likely than former readers to say that poets are black women who are logical, talkative and sociable. These data suggest that people who have never read poetry at all may be so unfamiliar with the art form that they are unaware of the stereotypes attached to it as well.
Could there be a Maya Angelou (Oprah cohort) effect at work here? No wonder 52.4 percent of nonpoetry readers in the study would be willing to meet a poet.
Despite the perceptions of this study's respondents, poets in America—and worldwide for that matter—defy stereotypes.
I picked up a recent edition of Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, an annual small-press publication that showcases a broad cross-section of poets at all levels of skill and experience. I scanned the biographical notes to find:
• high school teachers (of English, as well as other subjects)
• college and university professors of literature and creative writing
• several musicians
• an actor/director
• a business systems manager
• students at the undergraduate and post-graduate level
• a lawyer
• a well-known children's author
• the owner of a cleaning business
• the owner of a martial arts school
• a performance poet
• an engineer
• a poet with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award to his credit
• retirees from academic and publishing worlds.
As editor of Poet's Market and a poet myself, I witness firsthand how wide and deep the sea of poets really is, based on my exchanges with readers, and the editors and publishers listed in our book. There are poets in academia and poets in small-town literary societies; poets studying for their Ph.D.s and poets who never graduated from high school; poets honing their skills in prestigious workshops and poets stealing a few moments to write between breaks at work; poets who edit literary journals and poets who have no idea such publications exist.
We're everywhere, diverse and vibrant and wanting to be read or heard—avant-garde poets, performance and spoken-word poets, horror and sci-fi poets, even cowboy poets. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, the community of poets is large; we contain multitudes.
THE POETS AMONG US
While we should be most concerned with writing poetry, not who we are as poets, I can't help but think more people would read our work if they realized we're right there waiting in the dentist's office, cheering during our kids' soccer games, getting our tires rotated, walking the dog in the park, comparing the prices of canned beans in Aisle 5 and buying a cup of coffee at the convenience store.
According to "Poetry in America," there are plenty of people who'd like to meet a poet. It might just make a difference if they'd realize they already have.