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 http://www.davidalpaugh.com/
“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.”