Diary of a Poet

Visualize the Reader—or Don’t

When I was a graduate student at San Jose State University, I stumbled across a rolling cart (literally stumbled—I tripped over my own feet and almost fell) displaying the tempting label “Books $1 each.” That’s when I found 50 Contemporary Poets, the Creative Process, edited by Alberta T. Turner. In spite of its slightly sticky, caramel-colored 1970s-era cover, I paid for it, stuck it in my backpack, and limped to my next class.

That dollar is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. This book has provided me with a wealth of ideas for writing, teaching and understanding poetry. In this book, I discovered Peter Everwine, Gary Gildner, Nancy Willard, and Vassar Miller. It’s filled with Professor Turner’s wise and witty observations about poets and poetry, i.e., “Any poem successful enough to be noticed will be analyzed, categorized, and explained—by those who had nothing to do with its making.”

The book is based on a questionnaire that Turner sent to one hundred poets. Here are the questions:

  1. How did the poem start?
  2. What changes did it go through from start to finish?
  3. What principles of technique did you consciously use?
  4. Whom do you visualize as your reader?
  5. Can the poem be paraphrased? How?
  6. How does this poem differ from earlier poems of yours in (a) quality (b) theme (c) technique?

I’ve been thinking about question #4, “Whom do you visualize as your reader?” quite a lot lately. I find it interesting that Turner doesn’t ask, “do you think of a reader when you write?” Her question is more difficult to answer. It assumes that you, the writer, have already imagined someone reading your work. Who is this person? Or, more correctly, “whom?”

I’m often at a loss when someone besides an editor comments directly to me about something I wrote. I tend to follow Carolyn See’s advice, which is to avoid engaging in a conversation about the piece in question. Instead, she suggests that writers should simply nod and say, “is that so?”

I cannot honestly say that I’ve visualized my readers. I agree with John Haines, whose response to question #4 above includes this statement: “As in most of my poems, the audience, or the reader, is that ‘imaginary interlocutor’ Osip Mandelstam once described.” Or, as he puts it a little later in the same paragraph, “Anyone willing to listen.”

A few of my favorite responses from the book:

  • “No one, as I wrote; everyone now that the poem is written.” – Sandra McPherson
  • “This imaginary creature is as implausible as an insomniac shark.” – William Matthews
  • “the humanities 5 section man /who has been sharpening / his red pencil / these twenty years // my mother / who suspected me / of such thoughts / all along // the running back / who after the last touchdown / reads my poems by his locker / instead of the sports page” – Linda Pastan
  • “My ideal reader has always been some concerned person.” – David Ray
  • “Thank God, there are…likely readers and enjoyers whom I can’t designate.” –Richard Wilbur

PS. Alberta T. Turner, the editor of 50 Contemporary Poets, the Creative Process, passed away in 2003. She was a remarkable person: a poet, longtime professor, and the co-founder, in 1969, of the journal Field. Read her obituary here.

4 replies »

  1. wonderful insights – thank you so much for this!

    May you live all the days of your life. ~ Jonathan Swift


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