Silence is all we dread.
There’s ransom in a Voice–
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
— Emily Dickinson, poem #1251
Dan Bellm put it succinctly in a recent panel discussion at the Marin Poetry Center: “Publication is not the point of poetry.” It was an Aha! moment for me, akin to when the psychiatrist in the film about New Zealand writer Janet Frame tells her: “You don’t have to mix,” as the shy poet and story-writer feels the pressure lift from having to take part in literary society. Yet, by the sheer numbers of poems being published today, it would seem that many poets feel they must publish every utterance and poetry experiment.
Last Thursday, February 17, 2011, three excellent poets and about 40 lively audience members took up the issue of whether or not too many poems were being published. The program, coordinated by Roy Mash and Rebecca Foust, was created in response to an article published a year ago by David Alpaugh, a small-press publisher in the East Bay and a poet of largely satirical and humorous verse. “The New Math of Poetry“ (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 2010), was a numbers-crunching exposition on the exponential expansion of poetry publication (say that 10 times!).
In his saucy way, Alpaugh’s article sounded a “sky is falling” alarum totting up hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of poems that receive publication these days in printed magazines and journals, themed-based anthologies, poetry contests, and online in blogs, webzines and on websites. In so many words, the notion that cream rises to the top is being thwarted by the vast quantities of nonfat milk overwhelming it. “Time has never been asked to test the astounding number of poems being published today, let alone what promises to be published in the future,“ asserts Alpaugh
Mixed into this anxiety–and Alpaugh is not the only one expressing it–are a few other issues.
1 Are too many dang poems getting published?
2 How can readers find “good” poems in a big mediocre pile?
3 Is poetry a profession worthy of bestowing a higher college degree?
4 Are the few poets who achieve anything resembling commercial or critical success as good as the arbiters of taste–media and academic gatekeepers–say they are?
Before I report on the MPC event, I will fold in two other freak-outs in the poetry zeitgeist. One was recently expressed on “The Huffington Post“ by Harvard graduate, Houston-based writer, Anis Shivani whose list of the 15 most “overrated” writers stirred ire across two continents. Not worth the attention they merit, says Shivani, are Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jori Graham, Louise Glück, John Ashbery, and Billy Collins. Shivani’s beef wasn’t so much that too many poems are being published but that those poets who do receive attention are not producing THE GREAT WORKS.
A third combative take on poetry publising has come through the establishment of Poetry magazine, the prestigious perfect-bound monthly launched in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, which brought to a broader public the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, James Merrill, and Ashbery. Chris Wiman, editor, set out to shake up the poetry establishment from a self-serving complacency by printing provocative and (mostly) negative reviews of poetry books. His intention was to return poetry to the “people.”
I daresay that most people have never heard of Poetry magazine, or would be repulsed by the whiff of in-fighting if they chanced upon it in a literary bookstore–and since those are dying out, the large numbers of people imagined as an audience for poetry is a moot point.
So rather than attending to why people feel poetry is beyond their ken . . .
* why there is zilch funding for poetry projects,
* why mainstream publishers rarely publish it
* why the small presses that do are gasping for air,
* why the educational and mainstream media largely ignore this ancient art,
* why teachers are being attacked for fostering even more poets. . .
Instead of all these issues, we are wondering whether there are “too many poems are being published.”
In the words of Bellm again: “Are poets hurting poetry?”
Heretofore, my report on the discussion, led by Rebecca Foust with invited panelists: Bellm, Camille Dungy, and, Dean Rader. All three teach in universities. It was an unfortunate aspect that the panel did not include one or two publishers of poetry (although Dungy has put forth three anthologies), and that Alpaugh was not there to defend his side of the argument. The presentation was held at the MPC’s Victorian Falkirk Center in San Rafael. It was a dark and blustery night . . . a quiet audience sat expectantly on padded cushions and hard-back chairs in the crimson octagonal room . . .
“IS PUBLISHING HURTING POETRY?”
Foust framed the argument, invoking Alpaugh. She mentioned something she had read in a biography of Dylan Thomas, that everyone in his Welsh homeland was a poet: even the local cobbler recited and spoke verse. As counterpoint to Alpaugh’s argument, Foust elicited the feelings of another recent speaker at MTC, Brenda Hillman, who was exuberant that so many poets were getting published: ‘the more the merrier.’
Bellm jumped into the ring first by rights of his last name beginning with “b.” He described a brawling scene in Jean Cocteau’s film “Orpheus,” furniture was being tossed all about. He pondered how a poetry controversy could reach such proportions. “Too much poetry? In relation to what?” asked Bellm. “What if the cobbler started writing poetry,” he quipped, “where will it end?”
Referring to recent events, specifically the uprsising in Egypt, Bellm described how poets were among those in Tarrir Square proclaiming their freedom, chanting their poems, alongside fellow protestors. There are too many really important things to be concerned with, Bellm suggested, and the truth is “Too much of everything has been published since the invention of the printing press . . . so what?”
Hitting the underlying nail on its obscure head, Bellm asked, “What would I begin to suppress?” There are those who would like to can Garrison Keillor and his anthologies of “good poems.” There are “acres of soulless, theoretical, experimental, impenetrable academic poems” that Bellm said receive many critical hoorahs. There are poets like “John Ashbery who has turned out way too many John Ashbery poems.” Nevertheless, if given the power, Bellm said he wouldn’t put the kibosh on poetry publishing.
Bellm reminded the audience, “Mao said ‘let a hundred flowers bloom,’ but it ended up scaring him.” The crackdown on personal expression that followed is “where we could end up when we start saying too much poetry is being published.”
“I think the only honest thing I can address,” Bellm went on, “Is publishing hurting my poetry?” Bellm is often asked by eager writing students about getting into print. He tells them “publication is not the point of writing poetry, it is not the measure of success.” He was 47 before he produced his first book, and there are many writers who chose to print only a few of their poems, such as Elizabeth Bishop, or poets who undertake long silences, such as Marie Ponsot and Emily
Dickinson. They are still writing all the while.
Dickinson, probably thought that “publication just wasn’t worth it,” after Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor of Atlantic Monthly, told her in so many words that her poems were not ready for prime time, then tried to “correct” her verse. If not for posthumous publication (Higginson and Dickinson‘s sister, to be thanked), we would not have her work: “Would we ask not to have those poems now?,” asked Bellm.
Camille Dungy began her discussion of the topic by reading several persona poems, one in the voice of novelist Richard Wright. As a writer, creator of three poetry anthologies, and fulltime instructor at San Francisco State University, Dungy sees her work as “helping people find their voice, find their future place.” In such a way her grandfather, a tailor, created her father who became a doctor, who in turn had a daughter, who became a college professor and a poet. Each generation’s dreams fed the prospects of the next.
Dungy described the voices of past generations who did not have access or opportunites to publish, whose voices were more vigorously blocked from the larger cultural discussions: “I know who got lost.” Such knowledge became particularly acute as she worked on Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, an unprecedented collection of poets who are still not as well known as they should be.
When writing students ask Dungy about publishing, she gives them something of a formula by which to gauge the worthiness of each endeavor: “Ask yourself if, in five years, you would still be happy to see that piece in print? If so, then by all means, send it out.”
But not every published piece must meet the highest degree of excellence, she suggests. It’s important, particularly for younger writers, to see work they can identify with, or could imagine having published themselves, “just a rung or two above their own writing level.”
Publication is to writing, she says, “what the maternity ward is to that first dark kiss.” Both the kiss and the maternity ward are a crucial part of what we are doing when we write.”
Dean Rader suggested that the question, “Is publication hurting poetry?” was peculiarly American, implying both democracy and elitism. “People who are worried about too much publication are worried about poetry getting diluted, watered down, about the end of ‘master texts’ that instruct readers on what good poems should look and sound like.”
Those in fear of an avalanche of published poems may be concerned with a “lowering of the bar” or devaluing of their own “membership in the club.” Poetry is already marginalized, says Rader. Even Oprah Winfrey, whose television “book clubs” have brought many new readers to the works of novelists, has still not assigned a poetry book. In spite of these assessments–and while pundits wring their hands over the “end of reading“–says Rader, he is hopeful: “At no time in history have more people been reading more poems than now.”
“I think we are at an exciting moment when poetry is no longer an exclusive genre.” He asks his students to consider their audience: “Who are you writing for?” Emily Dickinson “wrote for an audience that had not yet been born, who would only later be able to appreciate her poetry.” In their own day, some of our most esteemed writers had only a few readers while other, more popular writers had runaway bestsellers and changed history. He compares Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne to James Fenimore Cooper and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and suggests there may need to be a different standard for judging works that play a crucial cultural role, rather than relying on the critical judgments of a few publishers and professors.
The panelists discussed some of the ideas they had presented. Dungy said she had recently come across a book of poems written about geology in the 1930s. Hoping it might contain a few gems, metaphorically speaking, she found instead lumps of poetic coal (ED: my bad metaphor, not Dungy‘s). The poets in that book are no longer read, their names unrecognizable.
“Hindsight tells us more about who should or shouldn’t be published,” Dungy said, and perhaps, there is something in the critical apparatus that operates through time that “is smarter than we are.” Rader posited that the book of geology poems may have thrilled some readers when it first came out. Imagining a group of geologists sitting around in a room, Rader said, “Finally, a book of poems we can relate to!”
Bellm tossed in, “Schist!”
After some final panel and audience comments, Rebecca Foust read from the Holy Grail of poetry-writing instruction manuals, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet. A few ideas from the evening wrestled in my mind on the drive home. Here is a sampling of some last things said:
“Based on the poetry you want, you get the poetry you deserve.”–Rader
“Lucille Clifton did not call herself a poet for a long time–poetry is not a profession.”–Dungy
“Why am I bothering to write this poem and the next one?”–Bellm
From audience member Richard Lloyd, writing for more than sixty years and publishing only a few poems–“This guy named Robert Hass kept beating me out.“–came the last word:
“So many poems
When I croak
Up in smoke.“