Is declining trust in journalism related in some way to the recent boom in poetry sales? Can you break news for an audience of one?
By Benjamin Aleshire
It is difficult/to get the news from poems/though men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there, said William Carlos Williams, a quote familiar to both journalists and poets. Williams implies that both forms of writing carry their own distinct limitations. There’s the abstract nature of the lyric, where reality might be embroidered by metaphor or left out altogether, followed by a subtle criticism of journalism’s focus on objective facts, which often leaves a different kind of void in its wake.
As a poet, I’ve never considered myself a journalist. But lately I have come to feel that the two genres of writing are linked, as Williams suggests. The fact that I’m a bit of an unorthodox poet plays a role. For nearly a decade, I’ve made my living by traveling around the world and composing poems for strangers in the street, on a manual typewriter. I sit at a small folding table and wait for passersby to approach me with a topic. Ten minutes later, they come back and pay whatever they feel the poem is worth, usually ten or twenty dollars. The subject of the poem can be anything, from the mundane to the philosophical, from the irreverent to the truly disturbing. One moment, I’m hammering out an elegy for a still-born, and cataloguing a litany of psychedelic exploits the next. When it’s busy, I scribble a queue of bewildering topics onto a scrap of paper:
Keenan — nuclear holocaust seen thru the eyes of a puppy
Joanie — virginity deflowered via cucumber
Cathy — (KATHY?) — Scorpio rising & moon in Taurus
Maria — digging to China
Marc — Petrichor (smell of earth after it rains)
Bo — tattoos covering up evidence of slashing wrists
Is this journalistic? At its most essential, what I do is a daily reportage of strangers’ raw joy and pain. Their hopes and triumphs, their failures and fears. Their flocks of griefs. There are moments when, listening to someone breathlessly describe their house burning down, it feels as if I’m the first reporter on the scene, recording an eyewitness account, albeit on an obsolete machine instead of a microphone.
Away from my street-office, poetry is usually a private experience. Like the protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, many of America’s poets write without seeking any readership at all. Even the work of our most popular poets typically reaches marginalized demographic niches — oases inside university English departments, café open-mics, and, more recently, on social media. Journalism, too, is stratified and marketed to certain demographics. Yet most news, by definition, remains remarkably public. People sit in laundromats, bars, senior centers, subway tunnels, reading the papers and watching CNN or Fox, sometimes at the same time.
Curiously, the rise of fake news, the downsizing of both print and digital news outlets, and the declining trust of recent years correlate neatly with a surprise boom in poetry sales. The obligatory perennial Times article asking “Is Poetry Dead?” has been replaced by articles probing a doubling of the trade in books of poetry between 2016 and 2017. It’s not just America. This January, a Guardian headline gushed, “Poetry sales soar as political millennials search for clarity,” with the sub-head, “Record £12m sales last year were driven by younger readers, with experts saying hunger for nuance amid conflict and disaster were fueling the boom.”
As politics polarize and drag the media with them into opposing screaming camps, is it any wonder people are turning to poetry for a more personal, subjective, quieter way of interpreting the world around them?
My writing in the street straddles the public and personal worlds — albeit on the miniature scale of one-on-one interactions. Complete strangers, outside of the closed circuit of the literary world, are my paying customers. The poems are part of a private business interaction, which is simultaneously a public service, available to anyone. My poems have no paywall or sponsored ads, and I write them for homeless people as often as I do for Wall Street hedge fund managers.
Another reason people are moved to order poems from a man sitting in the street with a typewriter and no visible credentials is because this direct connection between writer and subject can produce results that traditional media cannot. For example, the difficult topic of suicide. My typewriter functions as a magnet for these tragic stories, perhaps due to the anonymity that insulates our exchange (compared with, say, appearing on the nightly news.) By now, I’ve lost count of the number of these poems I’ve written, both the ones reckoning with grief over a loved one taking their own life, and the ones composed for someone weighing a decision between life and death themselves, and have approached me as an oracle, hoping that I can guide them one way or another, a duty that no journalist, or the juiciest piece of click-bait, can perform.
Media, compared to poetry, is hyper-public. A suicide merits an obituary, but one so heavily redacted and veiled as to render it nearly meaningless. The who is reported, and the when, but not the what. And never the why, the question impossible to ever answer completely; and certainly not how, that one detail most people want to know more than any other. In the viral environment of social media and the digital news cycle, the answers to these questions would be so public as to become grotesque, and so they go unanswered. For this, readers come to me instead (and pay me the same amount as they would for a year’s subscription to a magazine).
In Washington Square Park, a young woman told me she was once suicidal, and asked for a poem with the title, “Why I Didn’t Do It.” She said she couldn’t bring herself to end her life because she loved her grandmother so much, a woman so selfless and kind that her very presence precluded the possibility of such a thing. But now, she said, her grandmother was very sick. Naturally, this worried me. What would happen if, when, she loses her grandmother? Here’s what I wrote for her:
She burst into tears while reading it. “I was lying to you,” she said. “I still think about doing it!” I got the impression she had expected from me a pat, inspirational quote — a Hallmark card of a poem, using the sort of glib encouragement often found in articles about suicide. Instead, the poem told her the truth — that her grandmother’s passing is inexorable, and one day, perhaps soon, she’ll have to face the existential abyss without her. This truth was what allowed her to pierce through her own layer of self-protective dishonesty. I’m not speculating. We talked about all this until dusk. We embraced and cried together, as other strangers looked on, not knowing what had passed between us. We still keep in touch through social media. Later that night, she posted a selfie with the poem, saying it had, “Changed her DNA.” The post captured a fusion of worlds: one (the internet) that is digital, performative, and hyper-public, and another (poetry) that is analog, anachronistic, and intensely personal.
How do you know that what I’m telling you is true? A real journalist would be bound by a duty to collect empirical evidence: what’s this woman’s name, what about the grandmother’s name, address, medical records? Where’s the hard-copy of the original poem; where’s the time-stamp of her social media post? Not that it’s newsworthy, but an editor or series of editors would have to review this information before publishing a single word, perhaps even consult with a legal team if she were a celebrity or politician. This crucial process, of course, is what separates fact from fiction, evidence from opinion, fake news from news-news.
And yet — all the facts in the world can’t change someone’s DNA. It takes poetry to do that. Writing poems for strangers in the street dissolves all distance between author and reader, between subject and object, between headline and emotion. In one sense, poetry can act as the most direct form of journalism: a highly compressed laser of information, straight from writer to reader. No intermediary, no advertisers, no redaction, no editing for space — just human intimacy, the communication of news, uninfluenced.
William’s poem ends with a plea for urgency: Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides. Every poem is a micro version of a newspaper. A newspaper with only one page, with only one urgent headline.
Benjamin Aleshire lives in New Orleans. His work has been featured in the London Times, El Mundo, the Boston Review, and the Iowa Review. You can find him on Instragram @benjamin_aleshire or in the flesh at the corner of Royal and Toulouse.
Production DetailsV. 1.0.1 Last edited: May 19, 2019 Author: Ben Aleshire Editor: Alexander Zaitchik Artwork: Photo courtesy of Ben Aleshire