poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Poetry’s Ghetto

Here’s what Wikipedia, after a nod to slam and identity poetics, says about poetry in the United States:

In general, however, poetry has been moving out of the mainstream and onto the college and university campus. The growth in the popularity of graduate creative writing programs has given poets the opportunity to make a living as teachers. This increased professionalization, combined with the reluctance of most major book and magazine presses to publish poetry, has meant that, for the foreseeable future at least, poetry may have found its new home in the academy.

I’ve long argued it’s a disfunctional home, so concerned with internal politics and status that poets stuck there forget they should be writing for ordinary literate audiences, and now it seems to be going broke. I doubt there will be a bailout.

But even if university presses keep printing poetry, who besides the poets and their parents will care? Look at a pair of stats reported here nine years ago:

  1. The average print run for a book of poetry is 1,000 copies, and most titles are out of print the same year they are published.
  2. Poetry sites on the World Wide Web are, by one estimate, the sixth most frequently visited of all Web sites, well ahead of David Letterman’s Top Ten List and ’N Sync’s home page.

Nothing’s improved concerning the first item, and while I’m willing to bet a small sum that this site alone gets more hits than ’N Sync these days, even the cited article admits there ain’t no money in it.

Money, of course, is the great attraction of the university for poets. Very few have ever made a living entirely from their poetry, and the university is one of the very few workplaces where you can, at least, talk about poetry and not cause your colleagues to avoid you at lunch — though the kinds of poetry you can talk about may rather limited, and so may be the kinds of things you can say. An admiration for Longfellow doesn’t seem to be now as completely outré as it was in the 80s, but the vitriol recently heaped by some academic poets on Robert Service and his readers in discussions at the Poetry Foundation‘s Harriet blog was truly astonishing. Here’s part of one of the mildest comments:

The example of Robert W. Service is very shabby. As far as Robert W. Service goes I would be more than willing to wager that his work is NOT bought by poets during serious study, but rather by Moms and Dads buying the illustrated versions of their children. I would not hold children up as part of a serious readership of poetry, not as an example. I could be wrong but I doubt it.

Let me be clear: those who derided Service (certainly not all of the commenters, and certainly not Annie Finch, who originally posted on Plath) frequently mentioned a young readership and the existence of illustrated editions as points against him, as evidence that he isn’t valued in the academy, which means he isn’t taken seriously as a poet by the people whose opinions count, those whose views control the canon (but hasn’t the canon been burst open!?!).

Who do they think they are? Who do they think will read their poems in 30 years when most of those 1000 copies of each book have been recycled into paper picnic plates and garden mulch? Certainly not those no-longer-children who are now reading illustrated editions of Robert Service. May Google preserve them — which their presses seem unlikely to allow.

This past weekend, in Marilyn Nelson‘s workshop at West Chester, I was granted (well, I paid a lot of money for it) a revelation about just who they might be reading, and about a possible way out of the ghetto poets seem to have created for themselves. Tomorrow I’ll share that revelation — hey, I’ve blathered enough already!

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2 comments

1 Patrick { 06.17.09 at 9:41 pm }

Hey Mike, this sounds like an argument I made way back when David Orr’s article came out. Fact is, contemporary poetry is a failure. I continue my unscientific poll, asking individuals if they can name a single poet from the latter twentieth century. I recently asked an English Teacher this question and she immediately responded – Robert Frost. “Er,” says I,”he’s from the *first* half.”

“Oh…” says she. “That’s right.”

Then she was flustered because she couldn’t think of anyone from the latter half – at least initially. So it goes. The word “mediocrity” comes to mind when discussing the baby boom generation.

Meanwhile, poetry in meter and rhyme sells steadily in the form of Mother Goose, Silverstein, along with illustrated editions of Frost, Yeats, Millay, Eliot, Dickinson, Longfellow – all for children.

Whenever I read comments like those at Harriet’s Blog, it becomes apparent that every poet is trying to define great or “serious” poetry in the image of their own poetry or the poetry they love. I get so bored with it.

Look at the facts. There’s a way to know what poetry is good poetry and what isn’t – and that’s by watching what sells or what appeals to the rest of humanity.

But the mere mention of such commodification sends contemporary poets into fitful paroxysms of indignant and righteous outrage. No surprise there – since modern poetry is a market failure; and if the value of art is decided by its ability to appeal to other human beings, then that undercuts their whole universe of self-love.

Their response can be contemptuously wrathful.

2 Mike { 06.22.09 at 8:03 pm }

Patrick, I heartily agree with this: “There’s a way to know what poetry is good poetry and what isn’t – and that’s by watching what sells or what appeals to the rest of humanity.” But if you don’t push back at the market, if you go strictly for the biggest market bang, calculatedly attempting to serve whoever happens to be spending the most money right now, you’re unlikely to do anything of interest to the next bunch of big spenders. I’m sure that’s not what you’re saying — and my next post may sound a lot like I am saying exactly that — but there is an important difference between writing from and to a deep understanding of essential human feeling and writing for the current or next commercial fad.

And yes, you’re right that contempt for the market is also contempt for humanity, and is itself contempible

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