Average Poetic Reader

The unpopularity of poetry at present…is in some ways an advantage both to poetry and to society as a whole.

—David Perkins

Academic critics often dismiss the responses of average readers to poetry as naïve and vague, and there is some justification for this assumption. The reactions of most readers are undisciplined, haphazard, incoherent, and hopelessly subjective. Worse yet, amateurs often read only part of a poem because a word or image sends them stumbling backwards into memory or spinning forward into the imagination. But the amateur who reads poetry from love or curiosity does have at least one advantage over the trained specialist who reads it from professional obligation. Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.

Literature has many uses, not all of which occur in a classroom. Poetry would not be a universal human practice if it did not serve large and various purposes. People have sung or chanted poems to sow and reap, court reluctant lovers, march into battle, lull infants to sleep, and call the faithful to worship. Poetry gave humanity the words to get through life. Most of those once common occasions for poetry seem embarrassingly old-fashioned now that piped-in tunes and hand-held devices provide the background music for life’s journey. But even in its diminished state, poetry must still provide something valuable to ordinary lives, or it would have vanished utterly. Poems can be analyzed, but that sort of intellection is a secondary activity. There are more elemental reasons why the art exists and has been integrated into so many human places and situations. To have survived since the beginnings of the race, the art must still be useful in some basic way. It says everything about contemporary literary studies that there is neither consensus nor even much interest in this issue, which was considered foundational in earlier ages.

Adapted from http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/danagioiapoetrya.html


  1. Average poetry readers = naive and subjective but closer to purpose of art (awaken sense of being alive). Analyzing poetry = secondary.


  2. MIP: poetry provides life experience that an average reader can appreciate
    Tone: neutral


  3. Amateurs’ appreciation=subjective+closer to the art purpose;
    Scholars’ critical analysis=insightful+but secondary activity


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