Sunday, April 19, 2009

Four deaths in and around the poetry community in one week feels like a lot. Three of the deceased were poets, one a critic. Two of the poets also had substantial roles as critics and as translators. Yet what struck me, more than anything, was how each operated within a social world in which the other three were more or less completely absent. If you read the responses to the notices on the blog, it would appear that the death of Franklin Rosemont was the most significant, but it has been entirely unacknowledged in the daily press in this country, while obits for Deborah Digges have started to pop up there, though not as widely nor as quickly as those for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. In France, the death of Henri Meschonnic is being treated as a similar big deal.

All of these I take as signs just how large the literary community has become. In a city of 50,000 (to use Seth Abramson’s figure for the number of poets publishing in English), one would anticipate 12 deaths on an average week, even if everyone lived to be 80, which not one of these four did. Of course, neither Sedgwick nor Meschonnic would be included in a strict counting of Abramsons’s census. And most poets don’t begin publishing until they are 20 (David Shapiro & I were precocious), so that 50,000 figure really has to be amortized out over 60 years even if we all make it to 80 – actuarially, you would expect 16 such deaths a week.

This leads me to think (once again) that Abramson’s number is too high, though his underlying point is well taken. And one could respond that my calculations in the paragraph above presume a relatively even age distribution of the 50,000, which I think Abramson & I would both agree there is not. At least half of the 50,000 are under 35, possibly much more than that.

But what I think this suggests is that weeks like the past one will become much more common as time goes on, not only in the numbers, but in the fact that the poets who pass may well appear to operate in entirely different universes with very little overlap. As this becomes more apparent, the fiction that there is such a thing as poetry will become increasingly transparent. Instead there are poetries, a word that perhaps should never be used in the singular without a hyphen in front of it.