On Poetry: The State of Reading in America

For the Valley News
Published: 3/13/2018 12:54:07 PM
Modified: 3/13/2018 12:54:11 PM

If we have reached a point in history when few people read poems or novels from beginning to end anymore, then we have arrived at a post-literary epoch made ironic by its surplus of literary publications and concurrent dearth of literary conversation — the latter of which is essential for advancing our culture and preserving the most important principles of our fragile democracy.

The latest survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, taken in 2015, found that 43 percent of adult Americans had read at least one work of literature in the previous year, the lowest percentage in any year since the NEA began tracking reading and arts participation in 1982, when the reading rate for literature was 57 percent. The less a reader thinks about a piece of literature’s workings, the less he exercises his acumen for “weighing and considering” in general, whether in relation to experiences, political issues or relationships.

The social psychologist Lawrence Kholberg established during his research on the stages of moral development in the 1960s and ’70s the importance of cognitive reasoning as the key factor in a person’s moral progress from punitive to principled thinking. What the highest level of cognitive development and literature have always held in common is the mutual practice of what William Blake called the most sublime act one can commit, namely, “to set another before you.”

But how would one ever know this if he never, for example, placed a schizophrenic young man before himself on the edge of a frigid lake, as George Saunders does in his story The Tenth of December, or heard her aunt’s cry in the dentist’s office as her own like 6-year-old Elizabeth Bishop in her poem In the Waiting Room or held his dying friend in his arms and saw himself in him, as Gilgamesh does his friend Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh. But I don’t mean to focus on literature alone; whatever finds its way into a library’s holdings should be included here.

How much of a difference would a higher readership make? What if, for instance, more than 50 percent of Americans read literary fiction, poetry, history, biographies and other nonfiction subjects? Would such intellectual activity actually make something happen, contrary to what W.H. Auden claimed in his poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” namely that “poetry,” and presumably literary fiction also, “makes nothing happen?”

In a 2013 conversation between French journalist Laure Adler and the eminent literary critic and philosopher George Steiner, Steiner made the following observation about the tragic irony of the Holocaust and other 20th-century atrocities:

The death camps, Stalin’s camps, the great massacres, didn’t come from the Gobi desert; they came from the high civilizations of Russia and Europe, from the very center of our greatest artistic and philosophical pride; and the humanities put up no resistance.

Yeats’ lines from The Second Coming — “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity” — come immediately to mind. So, what’s a writer and avid reader to do in order to pull the American public away from their smartphones and the news cycle, and what is to be gained?

The results of the last U.S. election betrayed not only the weak literacy of America’s citizenry but the failure of enough intelligent readers to prevent an ignoramus from being elected. Philip Roth, one of America’s most astute readers and best writers, put it this way:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

We live in an age when it’s nearly impossible for writers and readers not to feel Cassandra-like. The burden of writing in today’s political climate weighs heavily on American poets and novelists.

But one can’t start by merely pointing out the tragic irony inherent in the disparity between the brilliance of American literature and the “humanly impoverished” president, who commented to Megyn Kelly in an interview: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time … When was the last time I watched a baseball game? I’m watching you all the time.”

One discovers the pleasure of reading like Balboa beholding the Pacific for the first time. But one must be led to such a discovery, either by a mentor or through innate curiosity. How to proceed from this unprecedented point of intellectual regression where the “literature industry” has created a drowned river of contemporary poetry and fiction; where too many professors retreat into their cluttered studies; where legions of zealots promulgate fear-driven, specious theologies; where a shocking number of voters read fake news, lacking either the skills or interest in “weighing and considering” what they hear and read; where technological “progress” continues to perpetuate our literal-minded, bot-driven times?

I return to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prophetic essay The American Scholar for both answers and the proper witness to our increasingly illiterate age, particularly this passage, which serves as a warning to Americans who don’t read books:

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads … There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. But for the evidence thence afforded to the philosophical doctrine of the identity of all minds, we should suppose some pre-established harmony, some foresight of souls that were to be, and some preparation of stores for their future wants, like the fact observed in insects, who lay up food before death for the young grub they shall never see.

Walt Whitman opined, “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” A vast sea of great poetry and fiction continues to fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries across the country. The books are there, waiting. Their authors have absorbed their country. They have laid up food before death for the young they shall never see.

Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont and the author of six volumes of poetry, most recentlyInterstate(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). He lives in Westminster West. A previous version of this article appeared in the arts journalFogged Clarity.

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