5 Questions for . . .
Michael Sohn, Composition Instructor, Long Island University Brooklyn
Dolores Hayden, Poet, Professor of American Studies (Emerita), Yale University
Morgan Leigh Davies, Writer, Co-host of Overinvested Podcast
Judy Plott, English Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
Simon Perchik, Poet
Bill Plott, English and Drama Teacher (retired), Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
4. Much has been said about the impact of our digital age on our capacity to sustain mental focus. Is it harder to read poetry nowadays? How many people (who aren’t poets) do you know who regularly read poetry?
Reading poetry has always been difficult (at least for me). I don’t think it is any more difficult now. It may be more difficult to find the time and to sustain the kind of concentration and incomprehension that one needs, but the actual reading is just as difficult as it has always been.
Most of the people I know who read poetry also write it. Of course, that probably says more about my choice of friend-readers than it does about who reads poetry. I don’t mean to imply that poets only write for other poets, or that in order to read poetry, one much also write it, or write at all. But there is something about the way poetry cleaves (to) the letter that calls people who also cleave thus, whatever that means. Hölderlin’s perennial question, perhaps, although I am not sure if it is the poet or the distress that won’t go away.
As a poet who is also a professor of urbanism and American studies at Yale, I do know many people who read poetry. They may enjoy one or two poems at a time and the internet has made that much easier with sites like Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. Fewer people buy books of poetry, but I read recently that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has sold over 80,000 copies. This suggests that political subject matter draws readers from many fields and the inclusion of visual art in a book can increase its resonance.
I’m also impressed with digital audience reached by the new MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that draw thousands of participants. Robert Pinsky’s EdX class, “The Art of Poetry” is a good example – my daughter, Laura Marris, is a poet who worked on this project. Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” is another example of digital outreach. People from all walks of life have been videotaped reading a favorite poem and explaining what it means to them.
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Most people I know would sooner drink iodine than read a poem. All that means is that not everyone needs poetry. But when standing alongside a gravesite nothing can heal better than a few words of John Donne. It's just for those who need it, when they need it.
As I said earlier, I don't think the digital age helps focus, though I have a Kindle and I write on a computer, and have done for decades. I don't think it's harder to read poetry, though I do read poetry in books and not on screens. I am a former (recovering?) English teacher, so many of my friends regularly read poetry. Some even go to readings.