in reality, the mainstream reader does not respond to those attempts,
perhaps because the mainstream is difficult to reach except through
advertising. Instead, a small new audience has been created: the
average person who writes poetry.
problem for the potential “great poet” is that the average-person
poet is not generally as well schooled in the art and craft of great
poetry as members of the postmodern tower. Even many MFA’s have
not read, much less studied, universally acknowledged great poets,
like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or Dante, for starters. I have
known MFA students — fine poets, with high GPAs — who had never
heard of Herbert, Hopkins, or Henley. “Great” for the even less
refined is the poem-as-punch-line, poetry recited in Latin to impress
the gullible, the masturbatory peeping-tom poem whose shock-value
quickly stales to a bland, adolescent sound-bite.
we blame our educational system for our ignorance? To some extent,
certainly. But more than anything we must blame our faithlessness
— a faithlessness, of course, instilled in us by that cool postmodern
intelligentsia. With no absolutes but a tangle of possible meanings,
with no criteria for distinguishing quality, with no shared “truth”
but differance (Derrida), with privatized experiences we
can convey to no one, we ignore the masters and become not only
alienated from each other, but preoccupied voyeurs of our own life.
Today, the typical reader of poetry is more interested in versified
gossip than any dark night or bright afternoon of the soul, especially
if that poet is oneself.
true poet must reckon not only with being exploited by academia
(postmodern and otherwise), superficially reviewed by the mainstream
press, and, despite some poets’ outreach, ignored by the mainstream.
Even most of her fellow poets will not appreciate her exquisite
craft, her erudite allusions, the expansive depth of her vision.
Who has the time? Poets writing in a prosy free verse style are
usually the most accessible. Formal and highly experimental poets
take more work than the average reader is willing to invest.
true poet must accept her position as outcast. It would seem that
her only choice is to defy pressures that would squeeze her into
the collective anthology (and by anthology I do not mean a print
collection of poems), where poets are stored as text samples for
analysis to be summarized in a discourse devoid of wisdom or even
conventional good sense.
poet develops a distinctive style distinguishable from the generic
anthologized hum, how can she expect to ever be read?
and poetasters alike must shuffle toward the same elusive goal:
Attention. The poetaster has everything to gain. But the true poet
is forced into balancing high literary possibilities with accessibility,
and trading in hope of genuine appreciation for simple attention.
Then she must find a readership though publication — which inherently
demands compromise, because only limited poetry is filtered to the
public by publishing power players.
book of poetry published by a big house is scrutinized and chosen
by editors of questionable qualifications: Are they poets? Are they
good poets, good readers of poetry, or even good editors?
According to whom? Even poetasters complain that many famous poets’
books published by big houses are not worthy of big house prestige.
And one can scarcely imagine what works of poetic art have slipped
into oblivion through the fingers of shadowy editors with their
own agenda. If a great poetry book makes its way into the world
via a small house or as a self-publication, it will never win a
Pulitzer — the ultra-elitist American award reserved for books published
by a few select houses. Whitman, the grandfather of American poetry,
would never have merited such an undemocratic award.
house editors will not even glance at a poet’s work until he has
racked up several “really good” journal credits. Working poets know
that there are numerous journals equal in quality to Poetry
and The New Yorker — journals that head the short list of
“really good” credits. Most of the handful of “really good” journals
got their start back when producing a magazine was not as easy as
it is in our age of desktop and online publishing. There were fewer
journals to choose from, so most of our famous early poets were
at some point published there, and of course every poet dreams of
standing beside them. Since those journals have been around for
most of the last century, they have had plenty of time to establish
their “brand.” Their inflated prestige is due less to lofty quality
than to longevity.
is nothing inherent in designer label journals that makes them truly
superior to all the others, yet in order to distinguish themselves,
poets still judge each other, and themselves, in large part by where
they’ve been published. The prestige mystique then becomes self-perpetuating
in that the more poets try to get into those journals simply because
they’re prestigious, the more those journals gain prestige. The
prestige of literary journals advances like prices on the stock
market; value is determined by psychology. Where but America would
poets be so preoccupied with pursuing the myth of quality to validate
all due respect to poets seeking an audience, does it really benefit
any poet to wait six months or a year or two or three for a journal’s
rejection of his allowable three to five poems? And if a poem is
accepted, should he meekly bow, good bastard of the arts that he
is, unworthy of equal pay for equal work, and humbly accept his
one or two free copies, which should arrive within a year or so
of acceptance? Does it help his writing to play the game? Is it
in his interest as an artist to publish a book with a mainstream
publisher, who prints maybe a thousand copies, spends no money to
advertise them, invests little or no effort to market them, then
lets them go out of print before most readers of poetry have even
heard of them (and certainly no one else has)? Unless, perhaps,
he is a celebrity poet. Does it benefit a poet to be an aggressive
self-promoter just to turn his soul (isn’t that what his art is?)
over to an editor, a tiny coterie, and a few dilettantes that rarely,
if ever, truly read his poetry? Is it not demeaning to play
the poetry contest lotto, in which you have to pay hard cash to
have your work considered, and if it is good, picked, perhaps randomly,
from among the other equally good choices (unless, of course, the
choice was, shall we say, predestined)? Is it really a sign of failure,
rather than a stance of defiance, to self-publish? Is it not dangerous
to one’s soul to win, to flaunt, that Pulitzer?
to sell themselves to book publishers, or once they have published,
in order to sell their books and the journals in which their work
has appeared — in order to sell themselves, to really “make
it” — poets are expected to give poetry readings.