Imagine Your Audience
Le corps de ma brune puisque je l’aime comme ma chatte habillée en vert salade comme de la grêle c’est pareil, Joan Miró, 1925
I may not know what reviews are for, but I know who they are for: their readers. And it behooves reviewers to keep those readers in mind. One reason I’ve enjoyed reviewing for Poetry is that I picture its audience to be pretty much my ideal one, knowledgeable enough that I can assume familiarity with poetic concepts and history, but broad enough to keep me on guard against the excessively technical or clannish. But not every reviewer for Poetry has imagined its audience in the same way, and it’s fascinating to hear how many different pitches echo through the archives.
The sense of audience depends a great deal on the age in which the review is written, of course. In the magazine’s early days, when its contributors and readers perhaps considered it less a public forum than a semiprivate club, reviews often sounded like overheard conversations between like-minded initiates. I love this opening of Ezra Pound’s May 1914 notice of Yeats’s Responsibilities, where Pound congratulates both himself and his readers for their intelligence, and makes it sound as though his views on Yeats are matters of utmost public urgency.
I live, so far as possible, among that more intelligently active segment of the race which is concerned with today and tomorrow; and, in consequence of this, whenever I mention Mr. Yeats I am apt to be assailed with questions: “Will Mr. Yeats do anything more?”, “Is Yeats in the movement?”, “How can the chap go on writing this sort of thing?” And to these inquiries I can only say that Mr. Yeats’s vitality is quite unimpaired.…
It’s marvelous to picture Pound behind a podium at a noisy press conference, flashbulbs popping in his face, as reporters besiege him with these queries—but of course at the time such burning questions were in fact of interest to a relatively small, not to say modest audience.
Also in the early days, though, many reviews seem designed to enlarge that audience through gentle education. In March 1923, Harriet Monroe herself wrote a review titled “A Contrast,” setting side by side The Waste Land by one T. S. Eliot and The Box of God by Lew Sarett, known to his age as “America’s Foremost Woodsman-Poet” but to ours not at all. (The poor fellow doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.) This is a wonderful performance by Monroe. She first offers a patient, insightful, and clear account of Eliot’s poem, which “shows us confusion and dismay and disintegration, the world crumbling to pieces before our eyes and patching itself with desperate gayety into new and strangely irregular forms.” But she does not, as you might expect, use Eliot’s modern achievement to belittle the old-fashioned woodsman-poet. On the contrary, it’s Eliot who’s taken to the woodshed:
Yet all the time there are large areas of mankind to whom [Eliot’s] thinking does not apply; large groups of another kind of intellectuals whose faith is as vital and constructive as ever was the faith of their crusading forefathers. To the men of science, the inventors, the engineers, who are performing today’s miracles, the miasma which afflicts Mr. Eliot is as remote a speculative conceit, as futile a fritter of mental confectionery, as Lyly’s euphemism must have been to Elizabethan sailors. And these men are thinkers too, dreamers of larger dreams than any group of city-closeted artists may evoke out of the circling pipesmoke of their scented talk.
As you’ll have surmised, it turns out that the sturdy Sarett is just as appropriate a poet for the inventors and engineers as Eliot is for the city slickers. Such equanimity! At a moment like this, one realizes why Poetry had to be born in Chicago, a great city but not one to suffer futile fritters gladly. Did Monroe realize Eliot’s superiority to Sarett? I will venture that she did. But by using the more accessible Sarett as a foil, without denigrating him, she’s able to make Eliot’s “masterpiece of decadent art” seem surprisingly approachable.