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Old 12-10-2010, 04:47 PM
R. S. Gwynn's Avatar
R. S. Gwynn R. S. Gwynn is offline
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Default Once again: the State of Poetry
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Old 12-10-2010, 08:08 PM
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Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
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One can’t expect poetry to be other than a business when it is a set up as a business from day one when the student pays his/her university fee with some kind of expectation of preparing for a career. The teachers are salaried, seek tenure, are rewarded (or not) from their teaching abilities, the university wants success from both professors and alumini so they can get more students. All this results in a market situation. Publish or perish, to use an old saw. Or as one of the speakers in this article says, "Carve out a niche and become a brand name."

It is a scam market too, because the distribution channels totally flood the market. The supply to the showcasing venues is far greater than the demand from the showcasing venues. I don't mean that the wonderful, admirable, excellent editors are scamming anyone, I mean the situation is "mission impossible" Of course it is impossible for everyone who has completed a university education in poetry to earn a living at it. Even the available teaching slots must be glutted by now when even the tiniest community college offers a course in creative writing. It is a pyramid scheme.

Sometimes I grow dizzy at the thought of how many get an BA in creative writing each year, and how many get an MFA, and how many former students and professors are sending off their stuff to the same journals.

And though there are more journals of all kinds than you can shake a stick at (just look at the duotrope listings) there are far more submitters than slots. So everybody and his brother starts yet another journal and the upshot is that the market (it is a market even though it doesn't pay) is so flooded with poor and mediocre writing that no one notices who is published except the writer him-herself. When supply exceeds demand, the very idea of paying becomes laughable.

Not only do they not pay, now the trend is becoming to charge for even submitting. I'm not talking about the fees that correspond to postal costs the submitter would have anyway, I am taking about the idea that a submitter should pay a reading fee for being read and judged. The contest fees are in many cases prohibitive.

And this is not a complaint to any labor-of-love editor. I know what the costs are for you in time and money and strain on your good humor and I am humbly grateful. Often the "little magazines" contain more gems than the "biggies". I am talking about the upper echolons of the system where the air is rarified.

The few university-funded journals or high-brow commercial magazines who do pay may take in an occasional outsider on recommendation of a friend or someone may discover a prodigy in the slushpile, but the same names make the rounds of the exclusive places and often the work presented isn't that different, one from the other. How could it be otherwise when students across the nation, perhaps across the world, are being taught the same rules and tricks from the same cirricula.

But we all know that, so why would anyone ask the question “Is American Poetry at a Dead-end?” unless it is to give a PR platform to some of those seeking to become a brand name, a household word. Note, I don’t begrudge them the platform. Not at all.

This is not sour grapes, because I have always had a good reception from the little magazines even back in the days when editors had time to write friendly notes on rejection slips. But I am not so foolish as to imagine a career or that it would make me rich and/or a celebrity. There are some awesomely good poets writing today, true craftswomen and craftsmen but they are fewer than one would think from the hype on, say, Amazon.

My point is: How can it not be a business when education of poets is a business. And when it is a business with a glutted market how can it be other than a dead-end.

(The apalling idea that education is a business rather than a right that a nation must provide for its citizens for the nation's own survival has spread to the EU, and free education will soon be a thing of the past, but that is another soapbox.)

Last edited by Janice D. Soderling; 12-11-2010 at 10:54 AM. Reason: fixed some sloppy sentences
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Old 12-11-2010, 01:16 AM
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Richard Meyer Richard Meyer is offline
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I took a quick look at the articles. Ho hum. I will confess my sins, if they are indeed sins, and admit to my vast ignorance. I read very little contemporary poetry. I don't ignore it or flee from it. I read it here and there, but I don't subscribe to any periodicals or journals, don't spend a lot of time hunting up contemporary poetry. I read it when it comes my way.

Modernism. Post-modernism. I'd be hard pressed to give you a definition of these terms, and I could give a rip less. I know nothing of the battles and bickerings of the current poetry world, of the personalities involved or the nature of the feuds. It's all stuff and nonsense to me.

If someone has a passion for words, a love affair with the language, a desire to express an experience or idea or emotion, he may well find himself reading poetry from many different authors and time periods and even try to write some poems himself. This is the best we can hope for. If a person writes, he should write for himself and forgo any illusions of literary fame or lasting recognition.

Consider this internet site, this Sphere. Maybe a half dozen or so people whose names appear here from time to time have made some sort of mark in the contemporary poetry world, have published books of their poems, and appear in periodicals and textbooks. But how big of a splash have these people made? Outside of a very narrow circle, who knows them or their works? And in a decade or two or three, oblivion will swallow them.

I suppose anyone who's tried to write anything has dreams of reaching multitudes with his words and achieving wide recognition or acclaim. That's typical and to be expected, because we humans are dream machines. And it's easy, I suppose, for those who have had some momentary measure of success to get caught up in the machinations of the literary world.

But if we face things with a clearer set of eyes, we will be satisfied to spend time now and again reading some poems that appeal to us and perhaps labor over some words of our own, not for book dreams or posterity or literary fame, but just for the joy of doing it.


Last edited by Richard Meyer; 12-11-2010 at 01:18 AM.
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Old 12-11-2010, 02:49 AM
Philip Quinlan Philip Quinlan is offline
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Yes, yes, yes.

Elegantly and temperately expressed.

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Old 12-11-2010, 05:23 PM
Cally Conan-Davies Cally Conan-Davies is offline
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Yes. Thank you for saying this, Richard!

Australian artist/poet Michael Leunig expresses what I feel about the whole business:

Artist, leave the world of art,
Pack your goodies on a cart,
Duck out through some tiny hole,
Get away and save your soul.
Leave no footprints, don't look back,
Take the dark and dirty track;
Cross the border, cross your heart;
Freedom from the world of art.

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Old 12-11-2010, 05:27 PM
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Richard Meyer Richard Meyer is offline
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That's terrific! I like the verse and what it says.
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Old 12-11-2010, 10:57 PM
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Ed Shacklee Ed Shacklee is offline
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I love that poem, Cally. What all of you have said feels right. There's no war to fight here, or at least not one worth fighting as far as I can see.

I suspect most things equal out, and just as the perils of past and present are more or less as perilous, the jeremiads of then and now are roughly equal, too. To me MFA programs are like fabulous beasts drawn at the edges of old maps -- maybe they swallow people alive, maybe they guard shining treasures that are bestowed upon the worthy: I couldn't say for sure. But in the old days there were fewer people and not as many could read. They lived hard and not as long. It's always something that mucks up the chance for poetry to happen, or that we let muck it up. I'm heartened to hear poets and friends I respect hold forth, and I don't think we should ignore the problems of today, but the bottom line is to give it our best. There's a line from Roethke: 'I fear those shadows most that start from my own feet.'

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Old 12-12-2010, 01:01 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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I will sound an unusual note of cautious optimism. As people read less and their attention spans shorten, they are likely to read fewer novels. That is a window of opportunity for poets, who tend to write short works. People are still going to want literature to give them what it has always given: a temporary escape to somewhere better, where things make sense; a glimpse of beauty, wisdom, humor, balance, or transcendence; something that does not appear to be manufactured to make a quick buck. If poets can just manage to connect with their potential audience, by writing in an understandable way about things that their audience can relate to, they can win back some of the audience that has been disaffected by poems that they can't understand or that seem to have nothing to do with their own lives.

Sherman Alexie has written that the largest part of the reading public right now consists of college-educated white women. And more people are going to college now than ever. Poets are never going to make much money from poetry or gain fame in the general public. But I think that the Internet is one way to gain back some of the audience that has been lost, and simply by giving people, for free, what they want.

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Old 12-12-2010, 01:29 PM
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Catherine Chandler Catherine Chandler is offline
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Sam, Thanks for the link, and Susan, thank you for your optimism, which I, too, share cautiously.
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Old 12-13-2010, 01:56 PM
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Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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(Is it shallow of me that I'm so distracted by the repeated misuse of the hyphen in "dead-end"? I suspect it is. So be it.)

I was pleased to see that, like me, most of the essayists just couldn't seem to summon the proper alarm over the demise of the old, monolithic conception of poetry in the broader culture.

For example, I'm not particularly alarmed by the fact that I've never heard of any of these "acclaimed" poets before...nor by the fact that I don't particularly care for the poems linked to their articles. Ironically, this is the very phenomenon to which alarmists point when they say "Poetry is at a dead-end [sic]."

Where is the modern poet whom the entire culture--or even the entire poetry world--worships and adores? Alas, alack, that pedestal no longer exists, and I, as a modern poet myself, can no longer climb atop it.

True, modern poets just don't become cultural icons in the way, say, Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost once did. Or, if you're not a fan of Maya Angelou, perhaps the complaint is that the "wrong" poets are becoming cultural icons. Either way, it boils down to disgruntlement over poetry's tent becoming too large for everyone to hear the same poetic voices at the same time. Instead, the tent houses tens of thousands of smaller poetry circles, most aware only of themselves and of the circles immediately adjacent to them.

Part of the nature of big tents is that they're a bit drafty in some places and a bit stuffy in others. You have three options for dealing with that.

The option that most of the culture takes is to abandon the tent entirely, after failing to find value in what is produced here. This is a perfectly legitimate choice, just like the choice not to tip for lousy service. Poets really need to stop whining when people exercise their right to seek entertainment and enlightenment outside the poetry tent...especially if poets have no intention of making their own work more entertaining or enlightening.

Another option--the one most poets take--is to move around and find a niche within that big tent that is more comfortable, often with the help of journals whose editors have similar tastes, or forums like Eratosphere.

A third option, and a very popular one, is to continue to sit on the decrepit old "main stage" area and loudly decry the fact that the tent is not as small and cozy as it used to be. These are the folks who mourn the fact that the traditional taste-making institutions no longer control access to audiences, and who write innumerable articles that ask Is Poetry Still Relevant, because the culture no longer worships the same small handful of poets.

I don't really understand their thinking. Aren't we all accustomed to only finding four or five poems in any issue of any poetry magazine that really float our personal boats? It didn't take me long to accept the fact that I'm not going to like the vast majority of what is published, and that the most acclaimed poets tend to be acclaimed for things that don't appeal to me personally. (That much-ballyhooed quality, "edginess," often strikes me as simple, blunt pessimism. I personally think of sex as something fun and joyful and fulfilling, so I can only read so many "edgy" poems and stories about desperately unhappy, depressing sex before I've had enough. But lots of other people seem to love that type of poetry. There's room for all of us under the tent.)

Likewise, don't we all accept the fact that not every reader is going to praise and adore what we produce, either?

I guess I see poetry as something analogous to television. Do I wail and moan and wring my hands about the state of television, because there are only two or three shows that appeal to me personally? No. I just enjoy those two or three shows, and find other things to do with the rest of my time.
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