I understand the trend of popular readership through my family. They are not literary people. But they've always been readers. My father likes art books, he's a high school art teacher, went to school for sculpture. My mother consumes romance novels by the truckful. My Aunt Louise reads a lot of nonfiction, mostly things about the natural world. When my aunt tells me she likes Robert Frost and 'isn't smart enough' to understand contemporary poetry, I understand she's smarter than she thinks.
Some call it putting random thoughts together, a friend recently referred to it as the 'smart-aleck' school of poetry. Contemporary leanings in poetry and fictive prose have been about seeming either smarter than their readership in making references the general population won't be privy to or cultivating a camaraderie of 'you get this, don't you? look how smart and funny we are' geared towards the other smart alecks of their trade.
My aunt says she's not smart enough and I tell her it's not her, it's writing right now, poetry, the contemporary drag. That's just where we are right now. The smart clothes we're putting on. Maybe it's the Bush years, the war years, how we were attacked 'right on our own soil,' the years of upping alerts, packing small vials to get on planes. Our culture of fear. There's so much that's so important that needs to be looked at, that perhaps we as a tribe are overwhelmed and so write about very little. We want to be smart enough to outrun the fear. We don't want to look at it. (And I'm only marking it from W's reign because I wasn't enough aware of the contemporary poetry scene prior to about 2000. I am ready to stand corrected.)
That said, there are some excellent contemporary poets and prose writers who are getting down the important things about the way we live now in understandable terms and with beautiful care to language. Richard Siken, Heather Derr-Smith, Shane McCrae, Brian Turner, Patricia Smith, to name a few. It's just that they're hard to find if you don't know where to look. And looking from the outside, most contemporary writing is not for the populace; it's exclusionary. With that in mind, I would tell my aunt to read Robert Frost and not to try to bust in and find some meaning in what's being done today. If I see something I think she'll like, something that will mean something to her, I'll send it her way.
This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately; it relates to much of what Codrescu's The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans talks about. The book is from more than a decade ago, but is still vital thought on what's going on.
Ted Genoways (Virginia Quarterly Editor) has some smart things to say about the current state of fiction and literary journals here: The Death of Fiction, including:
But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.