I don’t know the figures, but it’s pretty obvious that far more people don’t read poetry by choice, than do read it. People obliged to read it for school can’t be counted in this. By and large, the people writing poetry are people who read poetry. After all, no one does poetry for the fame and glamour, the only realistic motivations involve love or catharsis, or both. Often (but not always) people who write poetry seem to assume that they are writing only for the small number of people who habitually read poetry, and this tends to make poetry less accessible.
I read a collection recently that had a lot of classical references in it. Now, it’s one thing if you’re a Hellenic Pagan writing about Greek Gods for fellow Pagans – this is not about you! Pagans aside, access to ‘classics’ tends to come with a certain kind of education – grammar school, or private. Anyone under forty will probably not have studied Latin at state school. Anyone who went to a secondary modern, or even a regular comprehensive won’t have done much on classical writing. There is a definite class aspect to this, and as most of us are working class, most of us are excluded from any poetry that assumes the reader has had a certain kind of education. I know people whose poetic education was about verse – rhyme and beat, which means everything of the twentieth century ‘classics’ is unfamiliar to them.
Yes, we can self-educate and many of us do. Yes, we can read around, and read widely, and as voraciously as the local library and time will allow. But, if you read alone and for the love of it, you probably won’t find your way to all the literary poets other poets may be inclined to reference. You may well be totally put off long before that happens.
Now, if your poetry includes waves to ancient Rome, or T.S. Eliot, but makes perfect sense to someone who doesn’t know about those things, you’re golden. Those who know can enjoy it, those who don’t know can enjoy it and you may even help someone find their way into other things they hadn’t read before. However, if the sense of the poem depends on knowing who Eurydice was, or being able to recognise what God said to Noah without the context, or something of that ilk, it becomes a locked box for which many readers will never have the keys, and that’s just annoying.
When a poem assumes knowledge the reader does not have, the poet is saying ‘this is not for you.’ I don’t think poetry should be a largely inaccessible thing written by and for a particular kind of educated elite. I think poetry should be for everyone.