Sunday, October 14, 2007


"Starved of a general readership, poets are writing only for other poets, like shortwave radio hobbyists who build elaborate machines on which they can only reach each other." (Brian Phillips, "Poetry and the Problem of Taste," Poetry, September 2007)

Shortwave radios: that sounds pretty cool to me.

Here's a less metaphorical approach to the same issue from later in the article:

"Another sign that subjective taste has weakened in poetry is the very obsession of the activists, who feel that poetry has become a subculture catering entirely to its own needs. This idea has prompted a long train of bullet-point-riddled essays advocating various means by which poetry could be rescued from its subcultural ghetto and restored to the culture at large. But poetry is not, and never has been, a subculture; at the moment it more exactly resembles something that tried to become a subculture and failed. One of the defining characteristics of a functioning subculture—one, that is, which is successfully satisfying the needs for which its participants turn to it—is that its members are indifferent to, possibly even embrace, its lack of popularity. We see this in every field; in the anxiety of the indie-rock audience when a cult band signs with a major record label, for instance. It is only when a subculture fails to satisfy the needs of its members that, like a fringe political movement, it begins to covet adoption by the outside world, as though this could provide a meaning that it is incapable of generating for itself." (boldface added by me)

Poetry as a failed subculture—not even a subculture, perhaps, but "just" a hobby?

Years ago, when my wife taught German in Poitiers, in France, I talked to a class of hers about poetry. One of the students asked her beforehand if poetry was my "hobby"—I was actually a bit offended. But a hobby can be a very honorable thing, can't it? :-)

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