Swimming in the ‘Drowned River’ of Contemporary American Poetry

For the Valley News
Published: 8/11/2016 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 8/11/2016 10:00:12 PM

As a poet, essayist, and interviewer for the past 25 years, I have struggled with a compound question that too few of my colleagues have felt emboldened, for understandable reasons, to address, namely, what is the state of poetry in America today and what is the best way to talk about it with potential readers who feel both lost and intimidated?

Yes, poets enjoy writing for other poets who understand the inherent difficulty of their art, but what of the non-poet who is hard-pressed to hear “a voice among the crowd,” as Walt Whitman wrote, for the myriad other voices shouting over each other?

I understand my fellow poets’ reluctance to talk about poetry’s status in the marketplace. I, too, am befuddled and discouraged by the imbalance between poetry’s runaway production and its actual readership. If poetry were a river in America, it would be a drowned river, that is, a river that has overflowed its banks.

So how to approach this conundrum as both a poet and a reader of poetry? How to preserve poetry as ongoing essential language?

I’d like to first address the unmanageable surfeit of poetry in the marketplace today, then proceed to a suggestion for pursuing a readership strategy that is both practicable and rewarding.

Over the past 30 years, the industry of American poetry has burgeoned to an unprecedented level of trade and online publications. While it is impossible to know exactly how many books of poetry are published annually in this country, most poetry books and journals sell outside regular distribution and bookselling channels. Lee Ballentine, a writer for Quora and former publishing CEO, has observed correctly that “most entities that publish (poetry) do not report their print quantities or sales totals anywhere.

“Even quantifying the number of titles published in a year would be nearly impossible, as many, perhaps most publishers are individuals, small groups, poetry clubs, etc. who often do not participate in the ISBN program.” As for those publishers who do report their sales and are registered with an ISBN program, the numbers are still staggering.

According to an article by David Alpaugh that appeared in the Feb. 10, 2010 issue of The Journal of Higher Education entitled “The New Math of Poetry,” “the online writer’s, resource, Duotrope’s Digest, lists more than 2,000 current markets that accept poetry, with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months. Some of these journals publish 100 poems per issue, others just a dozen. If we proceed cautiously and assume an average of 50 poems per publication per year, more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010.”

Desktop publishing and the Internet have now made it possible for anyone who wishes to publish their poems to do just that. The publishing floodgates have opened. Ezra Pound’s caveat — “the weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden” — has itself been mistaken by amateur editors for a weed itself and removed.

Conversely, one might initially sympathize with Alpaugh’s opinion that “perhaps the most sinister fact about the new math of poetry is that it allows the academic oligarchy that controls poetry to impose a nonaesthetic, self-serving scoring system without attracting notice or raising indignation. Since no one can possibly read the vast number of poems being published, professionals can ignore independent poets and reserve the goodies — premiere readings, publications, honors, financial support — for those fortunate enough to be housed inside the professional poetry bubble.”

While this may be somewhat true, I would add that most “academic” readers and editors (many of whom are also established poets) have spent their careers developing brilliant, open-minded aesthetics for strong poetry and should not be dismissed so easily as effete arbiters of a “self-serving scoring system.” The so-called “professional poetry bubble” resonates more as a facile shibboleth than an accurate term for the diverse range of superb literary journals in that corner of the poetry market where both editorial expertise and poetic talent meet. I’m thinking of such journals as Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, The New Ohio Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, Bomb, Five Points, The Antioch Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Tin House, Yale Review, The Harvard Review, New England Review and The Iowa Review, to mention only a relative few.

The problem for readers unfamiliar with the contemporary poetry world is that unless one attends one of the 212 MFA programs in this country, or majors in creative writing, it’s difficult to know just where to turn for strong contemporary poetry. But it is there in greater numbers than ever before, primarily because more people are writing than ever before, many with the intent of publishing their work. As for those geniuses who are writing beautifully but secretly, like Emily Dickinson, one can only hope their work comes to light in time, for they, as essential outliers, often prove to be the very best poets.

Unlike other genres of literature, poetry indulges in riddles and for this reason is often viewed as a difficult, even hostile art form. Robert Frost acknowledges this truth about poetry in the conclusion of his poem Directive with this metaphorical confession: “I have kept hidden in the instep arch/ Of an old cedar at the waterside/A broken drinking goblet like the Grail/ Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,/So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.” Such lines corroborate William Carlos Williams claim that “it is difficult to get the news from poetry.”

Is it no surprise then that despite the abundance of poetry being published today, its readership, according to the most recent National Endowment for the Arts poll, has plummeted to 6.7 percent of the reading public? Not at all, I would answer, especially in this cyber age of text messaging and social media when most people view news as an immediate, accessible commodity.

But does this mean that poetry has arrived in the age of its own swan song? In responding to an article by Christopher Ingram titled “Poetry Is Going Extinct, Government Data Show” that appeared in the Washington Post on April 24, 2015, I wrote the following response in an essay for The Cortland Review that begins, I hope, to answer my own question about both the present state of poetry in America:

Nothing has changed about the character or necessity of poetry as “the news that stays news,” (Ezra Pound) as “the best words in the best order,” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) as “memorable speech,”; (W.H. Auden) as “prayers to the unsayable” (unknown), as “the maximum efficiency of language” (William Corbett). Poetry is like a jealous lover; it demands full and uninterrupted attention. It insists on being memorized and studied over and over. Like Eros, it was born poor and has remained so to keep its blessing. It is archetypal at its core, dismissing mere information as a potentially fatal distraction when viewed as more than subject matter…I hear poetry kicking and screaming as our high-tech culture lowers it slowly into the acid vat of synchronicity where no news remains memorable for long as mere information. Strong poetry is still being written, but how to preserve it in the blue light? How to keep up with our wizardry without sleeping with it? How to remember that just a few good lines are worth more than a million bytes?

With regard to a strategy for reading poetry today, I would simply suggest slowing down instead of speeding up, finding one poet who suggests another, then reading him or her closely. Here is a very partial list of Vermont poets with whom one who feels alienated from contemporary poetry might begin: Robert Frost, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Mary Ruefle, Stephen Sandy, Major Jackson, Martha Zweig, Jay Wright, Jay Parini, Sydney Lea, Ellen Voigt, Hayden Carruth, David Budbill, Paige Ackerson-Keily, Karin Gottschall, Cleopatra Mathis, Verandah Porche, Cynthia Huntington, Grace Paley and Louise Gluck.

A small culture of poetry exists inside the cacophonous culture of “po biz,” a deeply personal culture that every reader of poetry must create herself in the privacy of her own reading chair. In what Ralph Waldo Emerson would call the realm of “one’s own genius.” The great paradox of this culture lies within its power of one that transcends the dire statistics of government data.

Chard deNiord is the poet laureate of Vermont. He lives in Westminster West.

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