Perfect Blue
Kona Macphee
 
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Introduction to the commentaries

The professional poetry world is a curious place: despite regular laments about being neglected by (for example) mainstream print media, it frequently seems to relish its own marginality, wearing it like a badge of distinction. Poets interested in broadening the audience for poetry can be accused of "populism" and "dumbing-down" - as though poetry ought to be exclusive, and the only way to bring in new, "non-expert" readers is to compromise proper artistic principles and write anodyne pap. I disagree vigorously with this point of view: I think it does a disservice both to poetry as an endeavour, and to the so-called "general reader".

Why should we concern ourselves with "audience development"? I believe poetry at its best can serve some of the same human needs that music does - and yet compare the number of habitual poetry readers with the number of iPod owners! Poetry will never be for everyone, but there are large numbers of readers out there who enjoy well-written fiction, but were put off poetry in their school days (or simply never given a decent chance to switch on to it.) These readers are missing out on something that might provide a great deal of enjoyment, consolation and stimulation - and without the participation of this literate mainstream, poetry will remain marginalised to the remote fringes of contemporary culture. Since one of the salutary virtues of poetry has always been to give contemporary culture the occasional good kick-up-the-arse, this is something of an unfortunate place for it to be.

My own interest in audience development is relatively recent. In 2008 I started selling the remaining copies of my first collection to raise money for UNICEF. As part of this fundraising drive, I cozened various "real-world" friends and acquaintances - people who would never normally read poetry - into buying a copy and coming to readings. They often commented that they were able to get into poems more easily at readings because of the preambles: those little bits of background context, or explanation of motivation, that a poet will typically provide when introducing a poem. Even that small amount of informally-delivered information was enough to give this somewhat ambivalent new audience a "way in" to poetry (and yes, some of them retained this newfound interest, borrowing anthologies and exploring further in their own time).

Too often, formal education leaves people with the impression that contemporary poems are cryptic, mocking little devils with (only) complex meanings that must be tortuously unpicked. Combine this perception with the cultural mysticalisation of the poet as a tormented and unstable artiste inhabiting some exotic bohemian niche - wholly "other" - and it's not surprising that people consider poetry with a sense of mistrust, expecting to be tricked by it and made to feel stupid and excluded. It seems to me that a poetry reading will sometimes help to overcome this mistrust precisely because an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust: they can see that the poet is just another ordinary person, who is not attempting to deceive, mock or belittle them but rather to communicate. This allows them to listen neutrally - or even positively - rather than defensively, and be pleasantly surprised by their own enjoyment.

In writing commentaries for the poems in Perfect Blue, I'm hoping to provide the same kind of informal preambles that I might offer when introducing the poems at a reading. I'm not trying to set down some "canonical interpretation" for each poem (readers often interpret poems differently from the poets that wrote them, and fair enough too!), and nor am I trying to "explain" it in some tedious line-by-line dissection - though I might explain the occasional potentially-non-obvious allusion. The commentaries aren't aimed at other poets, critics, literary academics or "professional" poetry readers, but rather, they are explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry. I hope that at least a few such readers, thus encouraged, might go on to develop an enjoyment of poetry-in-general.

I have no idea whether these commentaries will succeed in their aims, but I do believe that the experiment is worth doing. If you enjoy them, and particularly if they end up whetting or re-invigorating your interest in poetry, please do let me know by leaving feedback on my website at www.konamacphee.com/feedback.php or emailing me directly at kona@konamacphee.com.

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