A few weeks back I wrote about Artists, Gatekeepers and Disruption. The theme of that piece was how individual artists, empowered by new online tools, have been able to circumvent the old, “Gatekeeper” distribution models in entertainment — the Movies, Music and Books. What put that theme in my head in the first place was trying to understand why Poetry, specifically, still seems so “undisrupted”. Working titles included “Why does Poetry suck?” and “What the hell is wrong with Poetry?”
I started writing the following piece back in March, then stopped when it hit me that what I should do with this sudden perspective I had achieved over the problem with Poetry was not write a blog post, but launch a startup. LOL. So I bought a domain, made a logo, coerced a co-founder into sharing my vision, and even submitted an application to Y-Combinator. YC passed (it was a longshot), and I have since jumped at the chance to join the team at video sharing startup Tout.com. So, my window of action for disrupting Poetry is closed for the time being.
I figured I’d go ahead and publish the blog post that was almost a company. Maybe somebody who loves Poetry (or who loves what Poetry CAN be) will read this and be inspired to boldly build that website I passionately believe should exist but does not.
Excerpts from the YC application are posted at bottom.
Just follow me here…
The use of data to support an argument can sometimes muddy the point. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask a person to use his or her own intuition and they’ll get it right. It wouldn’t take a genius, for example, to guess that the number of people who’ll be reading things from printed books is going to decline rapidly. You don’t need to see the chart. There’s plenty of evidence to support the guess. We can see the bookstores are all closing. We can also see the obvious arrival of the device that is aggressively replacing books.
Consumption norms are changing content forms
Right away it’s clear, too, that this new manner of reading is going to change every type of writing. The new mechanics of distribution and popularization for textual content that are now being built to support tablet-based reading are going to have a radically transformative effect on the forms of writing we consume. Before tablets, similar influences have already created entirely new forms of writing seen only on the Web. The competitive fitness of these new forms for our attention is readily apparent – from tweets to ebooks. Now, as all of reading migrates over to tablets, and definitively away from books, every living writer who wants to be read is going to be affected.
For the most part, this is entirely fantastic news for writers. It creates nothing but opportunity. I am particularly excited by the opportunity to create new forms and to evolve fitter forms, if possible, from old forms. The one particularly old and unfit form of writing I want to pick on here today is Poetry.
Poetry is altogether not popular
Here again, it wouldn’t take a genius to guess that Poetry’s “Share of all Reading” is probably very low. You have only to consider its share of shelf space in the average chain bookstore (if you can find one), to get a sense of its likely share in all book sales. Factor in that one of the problems with physical books sold at retail is irrational inventory, and the sales number for poetry could be even smaller than it appears. And that’s just book sales.
It shouldn’t be terribly difficult to convince you that Poetry’s Share of all Reading is below ten percent. What about below five percent? Below one percent?
Living poets are even less popular
When you remove dead poets from the Poetry mix, the Share of all Reading drops precipitously. If I had a chart that divided up Poetry book sales by the birthdate of the author, I’m sure it would show that the best-selling poets are all dead. That, too, feels like a reasonable expectation, even absent data. Name a living poet. Maya? Is she still alive? Who else?
Why should this be? You would expect that at least some of the poets alive and producing today, who can avail themselves of the modern methods and tools for self-promotion, would make themselves known to us.
“Who says a poet ain’t supposed to be popular?” – Robert Frost
That sounds to me like an excuse for not being able to solve the creative problem of how to be both popular and good. We know that it is possible for an artist to be both popular and good because we have many examples from every area of art.
But even better than that, we have Robert Frost, an American right here in Poetry to shed light.
You have no doubt already heard the name of Robert Frost before now. There’s a reason for that. There’s a history behind the persisting recognizability of his name today, even among regular folks who’ve never read any of his poems. For those who don’t know the history, it might be tempting to assume that the reason for Robert Frost’s lingering fame is simply that his is one of those Great Names in literature that are conducted forward on the currents of time, even though most people don’t actually read their work. Like Shakespeare. But that’s not the case.
Robert Frost was certainly a great poet (in the official sense) and has been a staple on all the important academic reading lists for a long time. But, the reason you know his name is because he was once a famous guy. He was a household name. He was as famous as Ernest Hemingway when they were both alive and writing in the Fifties. Everyday folk would drop lines from his poems into their conversations, the way we drop corporate slogans and taglines into our language today.
Accessibility is a prerequisite of popularity
The Robert Frost example proves that it’s possible for a living poet to be famous in his time, and to see his work taken up into the bosom of American popularity. But, much more importantly, there is an attribute in the poetry of Robert Frost, largely missing from the poetry being written today, that I think accounts for his popularity: Robert Frost’s poems make sense. They were written in accessible language. They readily yield their meaning to the reader.
Again, it is a statement of the obvious, but how could a writer (any writer) interested in being read, ever lose sight of the importance of being understandable?
It is not a necessary attribute of good poetry that it be difficult to understand. It’s been established. To retreat from clarity after you’ve seen its good effect is a strange creative choice for a poet writing today to make. Let’s look at it from the perspective of a Regular Joe: “At some point it became okay for poems not to make sense. At that point, I began to enjoy them less.” And we know exactly why this happens. It is driven by the desire of the Artist to innovate, to push and stretch old forms into new forms. For the most part, we are always better off for it. But there is one possible consequence of gratuitous innovation in Art, which may be the fatal dagger now stuck in Poetry’s back. To understand it in Poetry, it may be better to look at the same effect in Painting. Let us return again to the perspective of the Regular Joe: “Once I could tell if a painting was good just by looking at it. Now, not always. I understand that there are now paintings that are good even though they may not appear good to me. This makes me feel anxious.” Poor Joe. Not everybody can tell a Jackson Pollack from a spatter of paint.
Why don’t most poems make sense?
Poems don’t make sense because poets have no incentive to make them make sense in order to get them read. Does that make sense? The fault lies not only with the poets, but also with the system through which supposedly “good” new poems and poets are identified and published.
Because there is no (viable) alternative available to them (yet), poets who want to reach a wide audience must submit their work for judgment by a small community of people, who comprise the poetry-publishing world, and its prize-awarding ancillary. That’s just the way it works. English majors, for the most part, decide what is good. And they do so according to a set of abstract principles, which they alone create and maintain. Poets who want to get published observe the work of other poets who are published, and see that it’s not necessary for poetry to make sense to pass muster. That sends a message to poets, just as it sends a message to Joe.
That there should be a “priesthood” of critics sitting between us and what’s good, while outmoded as a vetting model, is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem here is that the stuff they are vetting and presenting as “good” never seems to resonate with the public. Is that necessarily so? Do we have to accept that Poetry is not going to be an important and influential form of writing in the future? We are inspired here by the example of Robert Frost, again. We do not accept that good can’t be popular, too.
The priesthood has to go
Unfortunately, the big changes in Publishing have not been as liberating to poets as to other types of writers. Because the merit of a poem is not determined by its popularity but by whether or not it meets with the approval of the publishers and prize-givers, all poets pursue that approval instead of popularity. The way poets expect it to work is that this community of English majors then has the power, through its reach and prestige, to make them famous.
Other problems attach themselves to this old system. Because the English majors tend to vet whole poets, rather than individual poems, a writer once accepted into those ranks may have latter poems published on the strength of earlier ones, rather than on their own merit. This compounds the effect of the initial selection bias.
How did Poetry get so messed up?
To understand how poetry got to be where it is today, it’s useful (as with most things) to consider where it came from, what it was before. Once upon a time, poems and songs were the same thing. In places like England, before there was much reading and writing, there were guys who just sort of walked around and performed poems. They sang poems to people, and it was in their singing that they discovered how sound and meaning could work together for a powerful effect on the listener. This is how using rhythm and having words rhyme became a part of what poetry is. This relationship between musicality and meaning was established in live performance, long before anybody ever wrote a poem down.
Then, much later, when people wanted to start to write things down, all that musicality (born in performance) was inherited onto the printed page.
Freed from the rigors of performance, you might say, and presented with a whole new way to communicate with their audience, the Poets of the Printed Page ran with the proverbial ball.
Needless to say, when a flat sheet of paper became the medium of conveyance for poetry, everything changed. The whole performance aspect was gone. The poet had to rely entirely on the sounds that the words would make in the mind of the reader as they read the poem to convey the musicality. Moving from live performance to the printed page was good for distribution, though, so it took on. Clever poets came up with their own rhythms and rhyming schemes. These schemes became popular because they sounded good in people’s heads and because they amplified meaning. Other poets started using them, too. Both the poets and the public seemed to appreciate that their were “norms” of poetry, so that the poets had a guideline in writing poems and the public had a guideline in recognizing and consuming them.
This worked well for a while. Poets wrote poems and people read them. The numbers grew. And then something terrible happened: the poets innovated.
Settle down, English majors.
Only a moron would suggest that an art form never evolve. Certainly, we are better off for having had work from all the artists who’ve pushed and stretched things into new shapes.
But, in the case of poetry, innovation took a fatal, irrecoverable detour into nonsense.
I have so far been very free and easy with my timelines. I only breezed through the evolutionary steps of poetry in a matter of a few sentences because I think that’s the coarse level of granularity you need to observe the overall trend. Of course there was not a smooth line of decay in the popularity of poetry. Nor did the fall of poetry into meaninglessness happen in a smooth progression. The truth is that there have been peaks and valleys of popularity, as important poets and even whole movements in poetry came and went over the course of centuries. But, for the sake of succinctness and clarity, I drew a straight line through the dots.
What I see is that Poetry is in trouble. Part of the problem is poets have stopped aiming for popularity because somehow they’ve become convinced that unpopular is part of what Poetry is, that it’s not supposed to be for lots of people to enjoy and understand. The other part of the problem is the Gatekeepers of Poetry who are perpetuating aesthetic standards for poetry that have brought it to the verge of extinction.
Poetry must be disrupted!
What follows are excerpts from the YC application, where I go into some detail on the site, the business model and the landscape.
What is your company going to make?
a YouTube for poetry.
Poems are a unique content-type for which we have not yet seen an effective, dedicated social sharing and discovery platform.
Our vision is to create a service that regular people can use to share poems with their Facebook friends, and that serious poets can use as a tool to promote their work, both to their own networks and to the world. A submitting poet may also add an Amazon or Goodreads link to his submission, turning an individual poem into a promotion vehicle for a book or ebook they may have written, and creating a revenue stream for us. We hope to also let poets upload and sell their own ebooks, creating more share of sale revenue for us.
Given enough traction, the data we collect about what poems people like and are popular, becomes the basis for a recommendation engine. For intersecting deep social insights and highly-granular text samples, this would be a valuable data set about what people like to read.
Why did you pick this idea to work on? Do you have domain expertise in this area? How do you know people need what you’re making?
The genesis of the idea was trying to understand why poetry (as a category of writing) seems to have such a small share of what people read. More acutely, I wondered why the people who are alive and writing poems right now have not been able to SEIZE more readers, given the tools and methods we have today. This is a complicated question, I realize, since there may be attributes innate to poetry that stand in the way of its mass popularization, or of its easy transport via social sharing. You might say that poems are hard to understand, and that they don’t seem to be clearly about things, and that this would be the main reason why so few people are interested in reading them. But Robert Frost reminds us that poets CAN be popular, and that good poetry CAN also be accessible to the masses. Perhaps it will be one of the (r)evolutionary consequences of [name redacted] that poetry becomes once again accessible and popular. Given that, you would expect, also, that a lot more people would call themselves poets.
What’s new about what you’re making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn’t exist yet (or they don’t know about it)?
Because the convention is for poets to promote their books, rather than their individual poems, all of the existing social and sharing tools are made to promote things at the book level. Goodreads and Amazon do service there. I would expect that some writers may already enjoy a social following and may be able to promote a book via Facebook or Twitter.
What we are giving poets is the ability to use their individual poems as promotional vehicles, by giving them a life as objects in the social graph…