Thursday, February 25, 2010

They Get Grumpy Sometimes, Those Poets


Every year brings another article like this one, full of numbers and projections and questions and consequences. This year’s installment comes from The Chronicle Review, February 21, 2010. You can find the full article here:

The New Math of Poetry, by David Alpaugh

“It's hard to figure out how much poetry is being published in America,” he starts out, and then goes to a beautifully absurd projection (that might turn out to be accurate, or as he suggests, conservative) of how many poems will be published in this century: “If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century!”

That could be true. I’ve no idea. But what is the point of all of this? Is this article just an interesting foray into number theory? Nope. He’s gunning to make a statement. And the statement is this: The Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize series are corrupt and terrible, and that the MFA system is producing a hoard of wannabes (I think that’s what he’s saying) all at the service of a few elites in academia who give each other publication and prizes. It’s not a new argument, but it is one that is made new every year. Here it is, at length:


“Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering along with the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, poets in the schools, poets in the prisons, and hundreds of other state and local advocates. Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

“But there's a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders. None of the golfers who end up on the green with Tiger Woods or Annika Sörenstam are there because of collegial or personal connections, or a judge's subjective judgment, bias, or laziness. They are there because their scores prove them to be superior golfers.

“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.

“Marginalizing independent poets and the diversity of life experience they bring to poetry may help bolster M.F.A.-teaching careers; but how healthy is it for the art? Almost all of the world's great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today (myself included) remain unaffiliated with any institution. Still, when it comes to the major awards and premier publication essential for wide readership, there seems to be little room at the top for independents. Apparently "Where does this poet teach?" is an easier question for committees to answer than "How good is his or her poetry?" (Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States, is the exception who proves the rule.)”


Well, Kay Ryan, while not teaching at a premier institution or MFA program, has hardly been an outsider, at least when it comes to publication, for at least the last 15 years. But that’s beside his point. His point is that there’s a sort of conspiracy out there, and at the heart of it are those poets who teach at prestigious MFA programs. So, is he right? Well?

There’s always going to be a point to such a criticism. In the face of the million thousand poems that are published each year, any editor is going to be unable to get anywhere close to reading them all. Same with book publishers and awards committees, right? That’s part of his point. The other side though, is what to do about it. What poets tend to do is to rely on what they already know, who they already know. It’s not evil, but it is a little boring.

When he writes that “Almost all of the world's great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today (myself included) remain unaffiliated with any institution,” it makes me want to reach for the bar graph. What is the life of a poet these days? What does he mean by “independents”? I get the feeling he has a special axe to grind on the stones of academia.

So here’s his bio note, from

“Poet, Teacher, Editor, Book Designer, Printer

David Alpaugh’s poetry, fiction, drama, and criticism have appeared in more than 100 literary journals and anthologies. His first collection COUNTERPOINT won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press and his chapbooks have been published by Coracle Books and Pudding House Publications. His controversial essay “The Professionalization of Poetry” (serialized by Poets & Writers Magazine in 2003) drew hundreds of emails and wide discussion on the Internet. A graduate of Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley, he has taught at the U.C. Berkeley Extension; was publisher of the Carquinez Poetry Review; and hosted two San Francisco Bay Area monthly poetry readings in Walnut Creek and then in Crockett. David Alpaugh's HEAVY LIFTING (Poems 1995 through 2006) was published by ALEHOUSE PRESS in 2007. Noted for his wit and humor, David Alpaugh is one of the most popular poets in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a featured reader at book stores, cafés, colleges, civic centers and other venues more than 100 times.”

Seems to me he’s doing all right for himself. But again, it’s not really his point. His point is this:

“If Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" were published next week by The New Formalist, Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" by Gnome: the online journal of underground writing, and Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" by Women Writers: A Zine, but none of those three poets held teaching posts in creative-writing departments, I'd wager that their poems would not appear in The Best American Poetry 2010 or The Pushcart Prize XXXIV or make their way into a Norton anthology. Three of America's most widely read, genuinely loved poems would be published—but the event would be more like a funeral than a birth.”

Maybe he’s right. But if he is, what he has to say to people about these hidden poets is certainly a cop out:

“Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable.”

Really? In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it. I know the writers I think are the best writing today (that I know of—as of course some might be buried), and if anyone asks me, I say, “John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout.” If they ask for a couple more, I say, “Martha Ronk and Michael Palmer.”

Really I can go on like this all day, I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I challenge each of us who write about poetry to keep saying the names we believe in. Maybe the future will hear us.

The problem with this essay is it seems less to do with assisting the future in dealing with all the poets of the present than it does to get us to talk about its author, as his website says:

“David Alpaugh's essay The New Math of Poetry was published on February 22nd in both hard copy and on-line versions by The Chronicle of Higher Education. As with his earlier essays on Po-Biz it is stimulating much discussion pro and con on the internet and beyond.”


At 2/25/2010 4:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The academic oligarchy that controls poetry!

At 2/25/2010 5:16 PM, Blogger DGW said...

Ugh. Since Genoways wrote that ridiculous article back in January (I think?), I've been wanting to write one, the gist of it being that if more editors were shouting from the rooftops about literature they love and the reasons they love it, rather than bemoaning the fact that literature is dying and no one reads it, we'd all be better off. Indeed, perhaps some of the folks on the fence about reading would think, "Hey, I should read that," as opposed to, "Oh, it's dying? Well then why waste my time trying it out?"

Every time I hear someone say literature/fiction/poetry is dying, I think of Jon Stewart on Crossfire telling the two talking heads that they're "hurting America." Similarly, the howling masses are hurting poetry/fiction/literature in general.

At 2/25/2010 5:18 PM, Blogger DGW said...

Addendum: saying only what's wrong with literature and the folks who care about it is the same, for these purposes, as saying it's dying.

At 2/25/2010 5:30 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I agree. It is a form of "dying," this line of thinking he's going down. "The academic oligarchy that controls poetry" is only producing bad poetry for selfish ends, right? And therefore people should not participate . . . but then there is no alternative but a weak idea that some Whitman or somesuch might be out there hidden somewhere.

I challenge Alpaugh to find that poet and to then write essays proclaiming his or her work. That would be a much better use of his time.

At 2/25/2010 6:58 PM, Blogger Jason Crane said...

Thanks for this response, John. I knew somebody smart would have something smart to say about that piece.

Jason Crane

At 2/25/2010 8:29 PM, Anonymous jameshoch said...

This article suffers from the same problem that all articles like it do: Failure of scope and purpose. If this article is an attempt to capture the state of poetry today, it is a poor sketch where a mural is needed. If it is an attempt to somehow indict the academy as being non-inclusive of non-academic poetries, it fails to consider the breadth and diversity of poetry in the academy, the history of poetry, and the history of poetry in the academy. It does not hold up to scrutiny. However, it is just the kind of shallow engagement that could get published in this forum. I guess that is what we got here: An example of an argument that is remarkably similar in quality as the state it claims that poetry occupies.

At 2/26/2010 4:30 AM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

See also, if you haven't already, Josh Corey's response at

At 2/26/2010 11:47 AM, Blogger morescotch said...

I think my comp students would say this argument's underlying assumption is a poetry reading audience without any level of engagement in the poetry world, or the independent ability to discern quickly between what's possibly interesting and what's likely shit.

Ok, in my dorky dreams, that's what they would say.

At 2/26/2010 5:23 PM, Anonymous David-Glen Smith said...

--and I would add to your list of strong poets: Mark Doty, Susan Mitchell, and Cyrus Cassells.

At 2/26/2010 6:34 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Does no one here see the irony of criticizing an article condemning the insularity and partisanship of poets with their publishers and the academy by proposing poets fully embedded in the culture of publishing and the academy?

My heart is just breaking for those poor, complete unknowns Ashbery, Armantrout, Palmer and Doty.

Jeez...gimme a break!

At 2/26/2010 7:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I admire your ornery streak, but I think it’s misplaced here. It’s true that the typical accusations go this way: if someone is writing “against” things like BAP and awards, etc., they can be accused of sour grapes and self-aggrandizing, while those who then argue against those people can be accused of being sycophants.

No one here is mentioning Ashbery except me, and I’m being honest, I swear, when I mention him (as well as when I mention Armantrout and Ronk and Palmer, etc.). I am mentioning him (and them) because I feel it important to not just complain about “the way things are.” I also think it’s important to be positive, to keep naming the poets one values. I would have had a very different view of this article if he would have turned somewhere other than “I don’t know” when talking about poets of value.

So here are three poets I value very highly who are still early in their careers and who are not in the academy: Rachel Loden, Kate Greenstreet, and Paige Ackerson-Kiely. I think they’re all wonderful poets. It’s really not hard to find poets of value. They’re all around us. If Alpaugh was really serious about anything other than touting Alpaugh, he could have easily mentioned people other than himself. Now it’s your turn.

At 2/26/2010 9:46 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

After having spent the last hour or so reading Alpaugh's entire article and all 53 replies, I just don't know what else there is to say that hasn't been said, pro or con.

I am not, however, "ornery". I simply object to hypocrisy when I suspect it. Alpaugh is right on and we both know it.

At 2/26/2010 10:38 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I agree with Alpaugh's stance on the insular BAP/Pushcarts and the notion of the best poetry possibly being lost in the small journals (though I sincerely doubt he meant the second half of that for reals). I wish he had researched The New Formalist before using it as his random example, since the editor is a virulent anti-gay/anti-Semite/fuck-knows-what-else.

John, you're 100% right to call him out for being unwilling to name names, either pro or con. What a lazy cop-out by him, and one that suggests he has a little more invested in the system than he lets on.

Gary, please.

At 2/27/2010 6:01 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Point taken, and agreed. But on the other hand, things like BAP and Pushcart and Breadloaf are not contests, so they can do whatever they want.

That's a very different situation than a blind manuscript contest, etc., and the two should not be conflated.

I've read issues of BAP that have had some absolutely amazing poems, and I've read some that were so bad I wanted to move to Pluto, which isn't even a planet anymore. You know? So what?

In that way, I feel Alpaugh is just wanting to flip the ladder over without naming which rung should be the new top. It's disingenuous to the extreme. He's just being obstructionist, which is often successful in getting one noticed, but that's all it does.

At 2/27/2010 6:16 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


No, I don't know it. Sorry. He's right on in what way? When he says that a former editor of BAP chose a spouse for inclusion? Sure, OK, he's right. So what?

That assertion of his is used as proof that there is an "academic oligarchy that controls poetry." OK, name it. Tell me who they are and where they meet.

And what IS an academic. These accusations are almost ALWAYS, at some point, against The Academy. Who are these people? Where does The Academy start and stop?

Yes, once a poet is well-known, that poet gets folded into things like The Academy of American Poets, and they are then asked to nominate other poets for things, and so they do, but every few years almost ALL the names change. What is Alpaugh suggesting we do? What are you suggesting we do?

My suggestion to Alpaugh and to you is to start a blog or website, and call it THE REAL BEST AMERICAN POETRY and just start typing out poems you think are the best. Trust me, you or he will get readers.

And what about the power of Ron Silliman, who, in his way, has done just that?

At 2/27/2010 1:17 PM, Blogger Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Steven D. Schroeder said:

“John, you're 100% right to call him out for being unwilling to name names, either pro or con. What a lazy cop-out by him, and one that suggests he has a little more invested in the system than he lets on.”

John Gallaher said:

“What is Alpaugh suggesting we do? What are you suggesting we do?”

I think you’ve missed the point of Alpaugh’s article. We can not name names because the names are still unknown. The question he posits is simply why and all he is basically saying is that it’s not what you know but who you know. Wow . . . what a shocker! But it’s true, isn’t it?

Do you remember Studio 54? It was the hottest place in Manhattan because all the famous people went there. So, naturally, everybody wanted to go there. Of course, all the famous people got in first and then the club was at capacity so everybody else just stood around in the street smoking cigarettes hoping they might get in.

The decision on who got in, though, was made by the bouncers (read ‘gatekeepers’), and if they had never heard of you, well, tough luck. It went something like this:


“Frank Sinatra.”

“Hey! I know you! Okay, go on in. Next? Name?”

“Jimi Hendrix.”

“Sorry. Next? Name?”

“Elvis Presley.”

“Hey! I know you! Okay, go on in. Next? Name?”

“Bob Dylan.”

“Sorry. Next?”

Get the picture?

I am suggesting only that we continue to write our poetry and publish our books. If you put on your very best suit and came out tonight but the bouncer wouldn't let you in, what can you do?

At 2/27/2010 1:55 PM, Blogger Jason Bradford said...

If one is so offended, or turned-off by the way a system oporates, why would one want inclusion in that system? Does one want inclusion in that system? If not, then go about creating your own system, which eventually, will turn into a replica of the old, resisted system. I think Gary/Aplaugh are imaging idealistic worlds. If it were possible, Hendrix and Dylan would both be allowed into Studio 54 today, because both are infamous.

At 2/27/2010 1:57 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Many aspects of art are social, yes. So it is true that friendship ties matter. But to say that's all that matters is to miss the point that many of those friendship ties are forged out of respect for art.

In other words, I refuse your metaphor. And I refuse to pretend that there are no names to mention.

I can name names all day of poets that I think don't get the attention they deserve. Wayne Dodd, for instance.

At 3/03/2010 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, we meet every other Tuesday at Jim Tate's. BYOB. See you there, The Academic Oligarchy

"then we'll get us some wine and spare ribs"

At 3/03/2010 6:44 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Does this mean I'm IN?!?!?

Thank goodness my little black dress is back from the cleaners!

At 3/03/2010 6:46 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

PS. Does that mean Lewis and Clark will be there?


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