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I recently in The Paris Review came across an interesting quote by great poet, by Robert Graves (1895-985). He says, “Never use the word “audience.” The very idea of a public, unless a poet is writing for money, seems wrong to me. Poets don't have an “audience”: They're talking to a single person all the time…... All the so-called great artists were trying to talk to too many people. In a way, they were talking to nobody.”
I posted it on Google+, seeking the views of people. I got responses, some usual +1, I’d take it that they liked and agreed with the statement. But a dear friend, and wonderful poet Sum James, wrote that the words which are written for audience and is not something of an ante-thesis of poetry, as is seemingly contended here. It runs along. I would however, agree that the term audience here could be misleading. Every poem, I would agree with Sum James, is intended to an audience. Therein lies the reason for disagreement.
Poems are not scalar. Poems are vector, they have a sense of direction inherent in them. They need to go somewhere. They carry emotions. Emotions which are pent up, held in the dark corner, as if they were dead, only they aren’t, ride on the arrows that we call poetry. As all arrows they are directed to some direction and audience sits there. And audience here is not the reader. Audience has no say and the Reader is incidental.
However, I think, I do understand, what Robert Graves meant when he wrote the quote. The poet writes for the audience, which may or may not be a wider audience. The audience might not exactly be the one which is obvious. When the poet writes to an oppressive government, he more often than not, is not writing to the government. He or she is writing to the citizens, empathizing with them, urging them to change things or merely offering them a shoulder to cry on. We fantasize the poet as an eccentric who is so ill at ease with the world in which he would rather not be.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. A poet, or a writer for that matter, is the one who is most impacted by the world around me. Things which other people are not much perturbed with and are easily able to deal with, are the things which trouble a poet to no end. He writes out of that discomfort and poetry is his way of reaching out to the world. He is seldom understood which seldom matters to him.
Thus, it is established that a poet writes to the audience. The audience can be non-human, human or divine. This is where the twist is, which explains what Robert Graves possibly meant. His small discussion is not dependent on the willingness of the audience to listen to him. He writes words directed towards the audience, but he doesn’t care about the readiness of the audience. In that sense, his words may wither down and end up on the ground like dry autumn leaves, but they are there for someone. They are written in hope, in happiness, in horrid sadness, for someone.
I believe, the poet meant that poem cannot be driven by the market. Audience is a passive thing for a poet. Poems are driven by the poet and no one else. He doesn’t care about the willingness, the want or the readiness of the world. His poems are force of nature and they are written because they need to be written, like a river or a flower, or the meadows or the mountains. The poet decides, when and how. Robert Graves was possibly referring to the commercialization which plagues writing today, when he said that poets should not write for the audience. After all, he is the poet who wrote “There is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money” and also gave, what I would say is best advice to a poet, on how to handle commercial failures and even success, when he said that poetry is a condition rather than a profession. I totally agree with him and would further advise writers to write poems, if only as an exercise to prepare themselves for prose. It brings exactness and urgency to writing. Cheers to poetry, anyways, it is a condition and all it needs is love.