The Most Important Person in the World

In my General Theory of Poetry, here is “Point #2) The reader is the most important person in the world.”

Writing is never about the writer, except in the boring (auto-)biographical sense. That’s true in all writing, of course, but more true in literature and most true in poetry.

Even Emily Dickinson, notoriously secretive with her poems, publishing only a handful and hiding a thousand more, would likely agree that poems must be meaningful to readers, especially since poems she wrote for herself still speak to millions.

The purpose of writing is communication. Any poet who forgets that reaching the readers is the goal will not long have readers and, in my not-so-humble estimation, is a bad writer.

Your first question for yourself, as writer and first reader of your work, should be the one you might ask a drunken uncle at any obligatory family assembly: “Why are you telling me this?”

Look: literature is written for other people. Their attention is your goal, so your skills and techniques and knowledge and wisdom are best used to interest readers and communicate something significant. Whether you’re in your office writing, in a classroom speaking, in an auditorium presenting your work, the audience comes first, and everything you do should be geared toward their enjoyment and illumination. Everything.

There is no reason on Earth, or anywhere else in the universe, to write poems that make no sense to readers. Forcing readers to “figure out” your poem is disrespectful and, worse, really annoys your audience. Obscurity is not eloquence. Complication is not elegance. Ingenuity is not art. Those are bad ideas. Let’s just turn our attention to the only person in the world who really matters in literature. And it’s not you.

So who’s the most important person in the world? The reader.

Eric Shaffer