SWIMMING IN THE DROWNED RIVER
OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POETRY
As a poet, essayist, and interviewer for the past twenty five 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 in the aisles of contemporary poetry? Yes, poets enjoy writing for other poets who understand the inherent difficulty of their art, but what of the non-poet who simply wishes to “get the news that stays news” (Ezra Pound) from poetry and is hard-pressed to hear “a voice among the crowd” (Walt Whitman) for the myriad other voices shouting over each other? I understand my fellow poets reluctance to talk about poetry’s status in the market place. 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’s overflowed its banks. So, how to approach this conundrum as both a poet and reader of poetry? How to preserve poetry as ongoing essential language in a way that saves its salt? I’d like to answer this question by first addressing the unmanageable surfeit of poetry in the market place today and then proceed to a suggestion for pursuing a readership strategy that is both practicable and rewarding.
Over the past thirty 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 February 10th, 2010 issue of The Journal of Higher Education entitled “The New Math of Poetry”, “the online writers’ 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 David 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 non-aesthetic, 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, Plume, 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 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 strong poetry 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 the most recent NEA (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 24th in 2015, I wrote the following response in an essay for The Cortland Review in an attempt to answer my own question about 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’s 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?”
The distraction of today’s “po biz” and the enervating prospect of trying to stay abreast of the sheer quantity of poetry that’s published daily in the U.S., either in hard copy or on the Internet, challenges poets and readers alike as never before to simply keep reading and writing. How to find good poems without feeling overwhelmed by the vast array of voices in the literary marketplace that need thinking about? By trusting good editors, of course, but what of the “small quiet voices” that resonate so loudly when fully apprehended?
In interviews with Philip Levine and Maxine Kumin ten years ago, I asked them both what they thought about the disproportionate relationship between poets and their readership, to which Levine responded, “You can’t worry about it. Where three or more are gathered, that is enough.” Maxine Kumin responded even more positively with this opinion: “I think it’s so healthy to see this burgeoning. And as I said, 99 percent of it may turn out to be trash, but that’s not for us to say.” This was heartening news from two senior poets whose work grew from strength to strength over the course of last six decades.
If poetry is like prophecy, difficult but necessary to hear and understand, then we live in a time very much like the prophet Elijah’s time when very few readers, if any, at least in Elijah’s surmise, seemed interested in listening to his “poetry”, his witness. With no visible support from his fellow Israelites, Elijah fled to the holy mountain where a “still, small voice” disabused him of his misprision following an earthquake and a fire, whispering, “Return to the wilderness of Damascus…I have left 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” And so it must be with readers of poetry today who absorb contemporary poets as affectionately as they—the poets they are reading—absorb them (to paraphrase Whitman), but often so quietly in America, unlike readers in Europe, Russia, and South America where poetry is embraced as popular audible language.
So much poetry, way too little time. But as boundlessly as American poets and editors of poetry flood the literary market, poetry continues, despite its surfeit, to preserve its savor by virtue of strong original poems that rise to the surface and sing like Orpheus’ head on the Hebrus. “’Poetry is dead!,’” someone shouts happily every now and then,” Charles Simic wrote in a blog for the New York Review of Books in August of 2012. “ No such luck,” he continues. “One just has to see the number of poetry submissions the magazines, including ones that never publish poetry, receive every day. Today more than ever, there are thousands and thousands of people writing poetry in this country, some of them attending one of the hundreds of writing workshops being given in universities, colleges and various other venues, and others writing their own, most likely in complete secrecy and with the modest hope of publishing in a literary journal of some repute and perhaps eventually having a book that will be read and admired by fellow poets and a few others who care for poetry.”
The great paradox of American poetry at the end of the last century and the start of this one, even as it overflows its banks, lies within its power of one that transcends the dire Government statistics that Christopher Ingram cites above. In the past week I’ve read two timely poems that resound with all the verbal force that T.S. Eliot argued emerges from a well-read, gifted poet in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. They are “The Boatman” by Carolyn Forché and “Trailing Clouds of Glory” by Vijay Seshadri, both of which can be found on the Poetry Foundation website.
We live too close to our own time to know what poetry will survive, and there is no sign, other than omens of apocalypse, that subsequent generations will be any less inundated with new poetry. But some poetry will survive, as it always has, and it will speak to a much larger and more appreciative audiences than the ones it speaks to today for having survived the currents and debris of its own drowned river.
* An earlier version of this essay appeared in two Vermont newspapers, The Valley News and The Tines Argus.
Chard deNiord is the Poet Laureate of Vermont and author of six books of poetry, including Interstate, (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), Speaking in Turn (a collaboration with Tony Sanders), Gnomon Press, 2011, and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). He teaches English and Creative Writing at Providence College, where he is a Professor of English. His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall. Maxine Kumin, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets was published by Marick Press in 2011. His poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, the American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, New Ohio Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. He is the co-founder and former program director of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry and a trustee of the Ruth Stone Trust. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.