Right up until the first three decades of the 20th century, poetry was a central part of the lives of everyday Americans. People owned and read volumes of poetry. Newspapers regularly published new and familiar poems which were eagerly read. Poets actually made a living writing and publishing poetry.
Then something happened. Poetry became obtuse, overly symbolic, esoteric and difficult to understand. Potential readers became “poetry scarred” and “poetry scared.” Children learned to hate poetry as it was taught in school and carried their dislike into adulthood. Poetry in America nearly died. Somehow, poetry became “guess me” and most people became too wary or put-off to hazard a guess.
But poetry did not die. Through it all, a small group of dedicated people kept their love of the form and a minority of poets continued to believe in and write poetry for general audiences. And while I don’t have any formal statistics to back me up, it seems to me that poetry is on the rebound both in the number of people who read poetry and those who write it.
I have spent most of my life loving, reading and writing what (I hope) is accessible poetry. I have never forgotten that I am guest in whatever magazine my poem appears. More importantly, I am a guest in the reader’s house. If my poem is snooty, bombastic, too difficult to read or understand or if it does not resonate with the life of the reader, then I have been a rude guest and have overstayed my welcome.
A poem works for me when it is so beautiful, relevant and surprising that it causes me to take a quick in-breath. It also works for me when it makes me smile or even laugh out loud. To my way of thinking, not all poetry has to be deadly serious. I hope I generate smiles in people who read my poems.
Readers sometimes ask me if I have an audience in mind when I write my poems. I do. She is a waitress in a diner, coffee shop or chili parlor in Ohio working either the breakfast shift or the lunch crowd. She is in her thirties and lives alone. Maybe, she is divorced or has never married. Nobody knows this about her, but when she gets off work, she goes home, pours a cup of coffee and relaxes with a small volume of poems that she bought with tip change at a second hand store. Even though she is alone, she still treasures love poems the most.
Although I and my wife of forty-five years now reside in California in order to be closer to our children, most of my adult life has been spent in the Midwest: Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. These are what people call “fly-over states,” the states people pass through on their way to somewhere else. When I travel to a foreign country, native people there know about New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco. Virtually none of them have heard of Columbus, Indianapolis or Omaha. That’s all right. The only city I know of in France is Paris.
These are the types of places I write about: small towns losing their zip codes with their young people moving away and the folks remaining trying to carry on their lives. These are the things I know and feel strongest about. Although I write about many topics, if you asked me to categorize myself, I would probably answer that I am a poet of geography, both real and imagined.
My fondest hope is that someday, the waitress in that diner in Ohio will pick up, read and be moved by one of my poems.