I participated in a reading yesterday at the Brush Art Gallery at SLU. There were about ten of us reading, a fairly even mix of professional* poets and amateurs. That terminology is highly problematic along several axes of meaning, I think, but I'm not sure how else to characterize the obvious differences between those who have mastered certain techniques and attitudes and those for whom poetry is not a matter of mastery but of expression.
That distinction between poetry as a set of practices and poetry as a mode of (self) expression seems basic to me and it raises an underlying question about value and pujrpose. The professional poet implicitly makes a claim about the value of the work based on his / her mastery of the canons of poetry; the amateur poet, on the other hand, makes a claim for the value of his / her poetry based on the degree to which it satisfies the human need for self-expression. The reading I participated in yesterday embodied this pair of categories with hardly any overlap. Now, it would be easy -- as with all binary pairings -- to put a positive valance on one side and a negative valance on the other, but I don't want to do that.
Speaking from the professional side, I want to honor the impulse to express oneself in poetry, however one understands poetry; at the same time, my sense that the poem must always exceed the poet's personal situation runs counter to the self-expressive mode. It's not that my own poems don't express something about my "self," whatever that may be in this contingent, post-modern world, but the poem must ultimately float free from the self and take its place as an autonomous cultural object.
What is the nature of that object? It is not the independent, shimmering, well-wrought urn of the New Critics, certainly; it is embedded in history and is no doubt a captive of an evolving cultural matrix that at least partly animates it. An organism in an environment? Perhaps that's as good a metaphor as any for describing the relationship of one of my poems to the world.
There was an audience in the room yesterday, each of whom came to hear a poetry reading. Matthew Schmeer has raised the issue of what the audience gets from contemporary poetry. Some (fairly large) percentage of the audience were themselves poets, either on the program or not, but there were also ordinary readers of / listeners to poetry. And what about those "ordinary" readers? What's in it for them? The answer depends, I think, on how they conceive poetry: If they think of poetry as self-expression, they want one sort of thing and are likely to be disappointed by poetry that fails to deliver self-revelation; if they are interested in poetry as an expression of particular cultural values produced according to certain aesthetic assumptions, the auditors / readers will want another sort of thing, more like what the "professionals" produce.
*Isn't the act of writing a (modern) poem, by virtue of its inevitable skepticism about its own language, the antithesis of professionalism, which is about the acceptance and deployment of power?