Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Poetry Foundation has sent me a questionnaire. It is part of a joint project on the part of the foundation and the Aspen Institute, and is intended to “inform discussion and debate at a Poetry Foundation-Aspen Institute conference” sometime in the future. It is very straightforward with six open-ended questions. No multiple choice or yes/no queries in which all the alternatives are atrocious (cf. elections, national, US 2008). So I’m inclined to respond. Herewith are my answers:

1. What is your connection with poetry (read, write, teach, buy books, publish, etc.)?

I write poetry and write critically about poetry as well as write a weblog on contemporary poetry and poetics. Sometimes I teach it, but rather rarely – I’ve turned down the majority of offers I’ve had to teach writing at the college level, including two tenure-track positions. Through my various interactions with poetry, I get something in the range of 1,000 books of poetry each year these days. I have edited small magazines and anthologies, as well as larger trade journals not directly related to poetry.

2. What are the most pressing needs of poetry and the poetry community?

The relationship between poetry and its possible audience(s) has changed dramatically in recent years, yet the institutions that package and process poetry – and especially the expectations both of poet and reader alike – have not kept pace.

There are presently at least 10,000 publishing English-language poets. There may in fact be twice that number – it really depends on what percentage of publishing poets you think have active weblogs dedicated to the subject (if it’s ten percent, then the number is 10,000, but if you think the percentage is lower – as I believe – then the actual census of publishing poets would be greater). There are over 400 creative writing programs turning out new graduates each year. The annual AWP convention sells out at a maximum figure of 7,000 attendees. These consist almost exclusively of poets in academic programs – a tiny fraction of the number of poets – their counterparts in the other genres of creative writing, and employees of the programs and presses that have sufficient critical mass to afford to attend an event like the AWP. If even a quarter of attendees are active in writing poetry, this would suggest that the actual numbers are much higher than we might imagine.

In the 1950s, there were at most a few hundred poets publishing in English. In 40 years, I have never even read one estimate that put that figure above 100. While I think that those estimates were almost all low – Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery suggests that a larger population of publishing poets existed who were not critically taken seriously even between the first and second World Wars – I doubt that the real number could have been much above 500. One of the poetry trade groups – I forget if it was Poets House or the Poetry Society of America – received over 4,000 different books of poetry in one year recently. The thousand I get really are just the tip of an iceberg.

The population in the US has doubled since the late 1940s, but the number of book titles of all kinds published each year has increased from 8,000 per year in the immediate postwar years to just under 200,000 per year today. What that means in practice is that there was one title for every 18,750 Americans when I was a toddler, while there is one title for every 1,500 Americans today. Considering what percentage of the populace actually reads for pleasure, and of that the tiny fraction that reads poetry, we find ourselves in the century of niche markets. And poetry is not one niche market, but many.

The consequence is that there are more active poets now than ever, but that the total addressable market for any given book of poems is likely to be much smaller. The trade presses have acknowledged this by largely abandoning the publication of poetry altogether, because for most the economics are not there to support the infrastructure required for a major trade publication.

A handful of poets have had the opportunity to break through and obtain generally large audiences, but the Billy Collins and Ted Koosers of today may well experience the same problems sustaining their audiences after they have gone that their predecessors, Ogden Nash and Edgar Guest, have had. From this, I do not conclude that we should think of such popularity as “dissing” Collins or Kooser, but rather suggesting that we might want to pay more attention to the fate and heritage of the likes of Nash and Guest. For those who are not a Collins, Kooser, Angelou or Giovanni, the experience of being a poet can be quite a bit different. Not only are there not enough colleges to absorb all of the new poets coming out of MFA programs with teaching jobs, there are not even enough college reading series for each of them to get one on-campus reading per year. Poets who may have published an early book with a trade press may well find themselves no longer able to do so, and may experience this as downward aesthetic mobility, like a terrific actress who turns 40 and discovers suddenly that nobody is interested in her skills going forward. Poets who publish with university presses often experience a parallel fate, finding themselves “reduced” to small or independent presses, moving from book publication to chapbooks. Poets who publish one or two small press volumes, may find it harder, or impossible, to find publishers at all. I know several poets who now self-publish small run chapbooks of their work that they simply give away to friends. Others are doing what is functionally the same thing over the web, using PDF files instead of print. Some of these poets experience this new potlatch culture as “failure,” even tho they are producing excellent writing, even when their audiences are completely appreciative of their efforts.

To speak in this social context of “the decline of poetry” strikes me as completely missing the mark. It is possible that fewer people are reading certain types of poetry and/or certain types of poets, but there has never been so much poetry being written in the United States. I suspect, but can’t prove, that there has never been so much poetry being read in the U.S. as well, only that it is in a far more decentralized and fragmented fashion than before. We do not have a single national poetry audience, but rather hundreds if not thousands of smaller audiences, some of which overlap with one another, but many of which do not.

This I think changes many of the expectations that we have had about what a life in poetry might mean. I also think that it changes the roles and responsibilities that the institutions of poetry have.

I do think it is the responsibility of individual poets to become much more widely read than has been typically the case. My own sense is that they need to read more on more subjects, from science to linguistics to politics to literature to sociology to art history to you name it, but they also need to read much more poetry, and more kinds of poetry, than generally they have. I am not at all certain that any MFA program should admit a student who cannot name a minimum of 100 books of contemporary poetry – published in the past 25 years – and say a little about each. And I am not sure that I would graduate any student who did not then seriously read 200 more such books over the next period of time – some schools require as few as 25 – and again could say a little about each. This would lead to far fewer students coming out of these programs with only barebones knowledge of what is being done today, far fewer students having to reinvent the wheel, and a much richer sense of what is actually possible in contemporary poetry, from slams to the new formalism, from flarf to narrative, from the prose poem to visual poetics. In both cases, before and after, I would only permit applicants and students to use trade books for one-quarter of the requirement. And I would expect their teachers to be at least as well read.

More tomorrow