The poetry mainstream

This note was triggered by some recent comments (noted below) about the alleged mainstream/non-mainstream rift and how to deal with such perceptions. It's an issue that frequently arises in discussions. Even if one doesn't believe that there's a rift, it's advantageous to appreciate the viewpoint of people who do, especially if you're running workshops.


Using the term "mainstream" is asking for trouble. Some people think it's not useful, challenging with borderline cases - "Is X mainstream? Is Y mainstream?". Other's think that the term's used by people who like pigeon-holing, marginalising or labelling in an anal-retentive, simplistic way.

I think it's a convenient short-hand that even the detractors end up using. It may be less helpful in the USA than the UK because in the USA mainstream poetry is a smaller proportion of serious poetry than it is in the UK. It doesn't have a firm definition (nor does "raw/cooked", "hard-edged/soft-edged", "poetry/prose", etc). Some poems are clearly mainstream, some are clearly non-mainstream, and few people argue when extreme examples are categorised.

Mainstream poems tend to have certain characteristics, some of which non-mainstream poems lack, and vice versa. An alternative formulation is that a mainstream poem is one that benefits from a set of skills similar to that used with non-literary texts.


Words summon contexts which in turn affect interpretation of the words. Hearing "bishop" I might load in the context of Chess or of Religion. But also I load in a set of interpretative tools appropriate to the task. We become used to employing different sets of skills for different types of text. Poetry and prose typically use different (though overlapping) skill sets. So do different types of poetry.

Carrie Etter wrote
Describing and classifying poetry I've noticed that a couple commentators on "The Tethers", knowing of my "experimental work," seem to struggle with TT's "mainstream" qualities, but where they see a vast difference between the two areas, I see continuities, a spectrum
. As far as the arrangement of skills is concerned I think a spectrum isn't the best analogy. Mainstream and non-mainstream works share some effects (alliteration, for example) more than others (e.g. fragmentation). The effects tend to cluster, so meter is likely to be associated with rhyme and paraphrasable meaning (because these features are often found together in people's experience of poems). I think the struggle that Etter's readers mention might be because the skills required don't all come from a standard skill set. Maybe some people have a limited, rigid number of skill sets to use whereas other people ("sophisticated readers") can mix'n'match the reading skills (and the modes of understanding). There are disadvantages to this "sophistication" though, so such readers needn't feel guiltily superior.

On Etter's blog Christodoulos Makris wrote
"There's comfort in labelling. It's also easier to "sell" or "understand" a writer or artist if s/he can be bundled into a category". I agree, but I don't see a problem with that; it's how perception works. If one needs to use a collection of reading strategies that you've not used together before it's like tackling a multi-disciplinary work.

Steve Waling wrote
"I wonder what it is, though, that sees some people reading nonmainstream poetry and seeing only confusion, while others 'get it' (whatever 'it' is) almost immediately". Some factors are

The rest of this note suggests ways to reduce the differences between the two types of readers.

How the two sides view each other

When meeting those from other arts are you ever embarrassed by poetry's mainstream - its readers and writers? Do these quotes sound fair?

Mainstreamers criticise non-mainstreamers.

Widening the mainstream

How does one offer new directions to mainstream reader? Giving them theory (even in watered down forms) is unlikely to get them moving. Is there a gentle path to enlightenment or is shock therapy the only way? Whatever the pros/cons of non-mainstream poetry I think mainstream readers can benefit from questioning their tastes, which may initially require a devaluing of what they like before they can acquire new tastes. So I'd say start with the stick - it's more likely to provoke action - then hit them with some carrots.

Sticks for mainstreamers

If they like rhyme, or confessional poetry, encourage them to say why, then challenge them, using quotes from famous (preferably ancient) people. Or one can query more generally the source of their tastes, and how conditioned they are. Non-victimising ways of doing this involve

If people can handle a discussion about "What is Beauty" so much the better. Is beauty "Eternal"? What are the differences between Beauty Competitions and Poetry Competitions?

Common conceptual stumbling blocks include

You need to have at your disposal some arguments (devil's advocate or otherwise) against some traditional poetry assumptions

If they're still resisting, look at corruption or back-scratching within the Poetry Establishment. Look at who puts anthologies together and who's left out. Look at the work of those who claim to write Real Poetry. Somehow try to unsettle them.

Carrots for mainstreamers

Once you've chipped away at preconceptions it would be useful to be able to suggest transitional poets; poets whose work has widened out from the mainstream. In the UK, candidates are hard to come by. Eliot reverted back to late classicism after a brush with modernism. John Kinsella keeps a foot in both camps. Perhaps Don Patterson's work will appeal to them. He's not avant-garde, but he strays far enough from the mainstream to offer a challenge. Perhaps with some people it's easier to refer to Picasso.

It's worth pointing out that non-mainstream poetry may have the same features as mainstream poetry, but the proportions are different. In extreme cases some prided features of mainstream poems may be absent altogether. Sometimes one feature (e.g. sound effects, fragmentation, repetition) is taken to the extreme, no longer masked by meaning or narrative - nothing's in the way. When mainstream poetry uses these features, readers (even avant-garde readers) might not see them, being blinded by the glare of other, more obvious features.

Then offer them a non-mainstream poem. The chances are that if you succeed in getting them to like it, they'll say it's not really avant-garde at all. I'm not sure what to offer though! "The Wasteland" is old, but it's probably avant-garde enough and it's widely available - see Exploring The Wasteland.

You could introduce them to Hybrid poetry, which supposedly combines the best of both worlds. I'm not convinced, but it might be worth a try. A description sounds promising -
"Today's hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with "conventional" work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of "experimental" work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools".
So what does the resulting poetry look like? There's much variety. Here's part of a sonnet by Karen Volkman (from "American Poets in the 21st Century")

    Lifting whither, cycle of the sift
    annuls the future, zero that you zoom
    beautiful suitor of the lucent room
    evacuating auras, stratal shift

    leaping in its alabaster rift.
    Lend the daylight crescent, circle, spume,
    ether from your eye, appalled perfume,
    ash incense to boundary when you drift

There are many books explaining A level and GCSE poems line by line, but fewer that tackle modern poetry in the same way. 3 options are

Mainstreamer ab-reactions

Even after all this, mainstreamers may remain unconvinced. Typical responses include

Widening the non-mainstream

Sticks for non-mainstreamers

This isn't easy. One could point out that many of their tricks aren't new, but they know that already. Some brain-scan research is coming up with interesting findings about pre-disposition to appreciation of types of art, but it's early days.

Carrots for non-mainstreamers

One could encourage them to assist readers who aren't familiar with non-mainstream poetry. Options include

Updated September 2010
Tim Love