Friday, December 23, 2011

10,000 Poets: The Problem of the Multitude in American Poetry

Not long ago the poet Alfred Corn noted that “Year’s Best lists are strewn all over the print and electronic media. One publication I saw asked three perfectly plausible deciders to list the top ten poetry books of 2011. They did. And there was not a single overlap. The same thing happened to me years ago when myself and two other poets more or less in the same ballpark were asked to judge an annual prize. We each submitted ten names. There were no overlaps.” Corn then went on to ask a deceptively simple question: “What to make of this?” It’s tempting to answer by saying something about the infinite variability of taste, to sort of shrug and mutter "de gustibus non est disputandum."  It’s even more tempting, if one is in a foul mood, to say that the differences probably have their root in the different tribal loyalties of the poetry demimonde, to shrug and mutter something about the folks at Foetry, with their documentation of poets giving prizes to their students and lovers, having been right all along. But neither shrugging-off of the question really takes it seriously enough. What are we to make of the lack of consensus about the best books of poetry? What does it say about the conditions under which American poetry is produced and consumed?

The dissensus about poetry is linked to another phenomenon people have been talking about lately: the sheer bulk of American poetry. Two of the most voracious poetry readers I know, Stephen Burt and Mark Scroggins, have both noted the enormous bulk of contemporary American poetry and the chatter—promotional, critical, gossipy—that surrounds it. “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up” says Burt on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. “It feels like there’s been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it,” says Scroggins on Facebook. And it’s not just people I know who’ve been feeling the enormous weight of America’s poetic output. When I attended the ALSCW conference in Boston this fall, Mark Halliday gave one of the best-attended talks, a lecture called “10,000 Poets,” in which he addressed what we might call American poetry’s problem of the multitude. The term (mine, not Halliday’s) shouldn’t be taken to imply that it is a bad thing that so many poets are writing and finding their way to publication—only that this particular cultural situation, like all others, presents its own unique set of challenges and conundrums, along with its positive qualities. And I believe some of the problems Halliday outlined give us a way to answer Alfred Corn’s question.

Halliday began his address to the crowd in a big, dark Boston University auditorium by noting that Alexander Pope’s England had some five million inhabitants, while the United States of our own day has some 300 million people, half of whom had MFAs in creative writing. He was joking, of course, but the point was made: those of us concerned with American poetry today must deal with gigantism of scale in both population and education. Defining a poet as someone who has published a book, or aspires to do so, continued Halliday, we might conservatively estimate the number of American poets at 10,000 (“or,” he added, “30,000 — when I’m in a bad mood”). But is the number of poets really a bad thing? Isn’t it an embarrassment of riches? So what if no one person could possibly read all of the worthwhile poetry? From one point of view, this isn’t bad at all—and what would one do to change it? Repress poets? “But this isn’t an ambitious poet’s point of view,” said Halliday, “and I have been ambitious since 1971.”

Ambitious poets, according to Halliday, are bothered by the multitude of poets, and those who say they are not are merely pretending to a serenity they do not in fact possess. But what is the response of the ambitious poet to the problem of the multitude? What do poets do with their agitation and frustration? According to Halliday, the situation generates five behaviors among ambitious poets:

1. A Proclivity for Ignoring. If there are too many poets with whom to keep up, one response is simply to rule out whole swathes of the poetry landscape. Online poetry? One can tell oneself it’s not serious stuff. Journals with small readerships? Not worth reading. Alternately, one might tell oneself that journals with large readerships are compromised and unworthy of attention. Or one could simply label whole schools of poetry as unworthy of attention, kicking them into the dustbin with a hostile label (“School of Quietude,” anyone?). It’s not just poets who do this: when Helen Vendler recently opined that there can’t possibly have been 175 American poets worth reading in the entire 20th century, she was revealing a fairly strong proclivity for ignoring. [The examples here, I should note, are mine and not Halliday’s—I was taking notes quickly in a small notebook in a dark room, and didn’t manage to get all of his explanatory detail down].

2. Dependence on Mutual Praise Networks. Whether it’s the crowd with whom one went to graduate school, or a group with stylistic affinities, or just a set of people with a habit of blurbing one another’s books, there’s a strong tendency for poets in the age of the multitude to seek not safety, but recognition, in numbers. People in the tribe are bound to end up editing a decent journal, or a magazine review section, or heading a writing program, or handing out prize money, or editing an anthology. Best, thinks the ambitious poet, to stay on their good sides, and praise the other poets proleptically and profusely. If you’ve ever been at the AWP convention, you’ve actually seen these networks in their re-enforcement phase, like some primitive mating ritual. And if one combines this network-oriented way of operating with a good dose of ignoring whole swathes of American poetry (see item one, above), one can begin to think that recognition from one’s tribe is the recognition of the world. “Corruption of the soul,” said Halliday, “lurks for the writer of blurbs.”

3. Buzz Susceptibility. In the great deluge of poetry, one comes to passively accept the importance of some other poet simply because of the publicity buzz his or her work has generated. “Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney—even if you don’t care, or have ceased caring, for their work, we desperately want someone to be famous,” said Halliday, and we’re willing to take it on faith—faith in publicity buzz, rather than our own judgement, since judgment implies comparison, and there’s no way of comparing any one poet with the whole of the enormous poetic field.

4. Quickie Responses. When confronted with new poetry, one relies on email or brief conversations to make a judgment: there’s no time, in the great deluge, to give any broad selection of new work our serious consideration. Under these conditions much bad work gets praised, much good work ignored, and much subtle work misunderstood.

5. Self-Mythologizing. “If you love the idea of greatness and are ignored,” said Halliday, “self-mythologize. Suppress any sense of humor about yourself. You may imitate self-deprecation, but you may not mean it in earnest. Act like someone whose greatness is about to be recognized. This will create an aura for you and, much more importantly, for your favorite students, who will be young enough to believe it.” These students will then bear your name out into the world and onto the syllabus, where others among the young and naive will come to see you as a great poet. [In the margin of my notes to Halliday’s talk I have scribbled something that looks like “Warhol’s ‘famous for 15 minutes’ is now ‘famous to 15 people.’”]

So, to return to Alfred Corn’s question about dissensus: “what to make of this?” With the exception of buzz susceptibility, the behaviors Halliday describes can all be seen as contributing to the critical dissensus Alfred Corn noted on prize committees and “best books” lists. When there is so much to read, many people will simply tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations. With no way to keep track of the multitude of new books, many will come to rely on their own closed networks for advice. Fast responses will lead to a failure to appreciate complex or subtle work outside one’s own network, further reinforcing closure to voices outside one’s own idiosyncratic network. The self-mythologizing process, which sends acolytes into the world to create more acolytes—in the manner of the critic F.R. Leavis, who literally kept a map with pins indicating where he’d planted disciples—creates little cults of personality, invisible from the outside. All of this adds up to individual insularity, to a world of top-ten lists without overlap.

Of course many things have led us to this place. Technological changes make publishing more accessible and books more affordable; the spread of education has created a huge number of people who want to write poems, and can (we are only a few decades beyond a time when the big disputes in American poetry were disputes among Harvard classmates).  I believe that overall, the scale of American poetry is a good thing. But it does create certain problems for the kind of poet who wishes for recognition. Such poets (the ones Halliday calls “ambitious”) react to the situation with a set of defensive behaviors that have as a side-effect the sort of critical dissensus described by Corn. We see this across the poetic spectrum. If Helen Vendler, with her refusal to believe there could possibly be 175 poets worth reading out of the untold thousands of 20th century American poets, suffers from a kind of “proclivity for ignoring,” so also does Kenneth Goldsmith, who has argued that his kind of poetry is more “relevant” (to what, one wonders?) than other forms, which presumably no longer have any claim on our attention.

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

*Update December 28: D.G. Meyers at Commentary magazine takes a different view of the issue.

*Update January 3: Johannes Göransson takes yet another view of the issue.


  1. Number two's the one I feel most strongly about, especially as a reader. When you're friends with the people who are supposed to be critical of Poetry (including your own), a butt-ton of mediocrity gets rushed onto the (web)page with huge glossy friendly effort. Editors (reduced to middlemen) are investing in relationships, not poetry.

    ...So, at this point, I'm guilty of ignoring whole swathes of poetry. But at least that's based on personalities more than styles of poetry. The less I know about a poet's personal life and professional associations, the likelier I am to read their work and not be suspicious of myself when I enjoy/admire it. :)

  2. I think we're all guilty of some of this some of the time. I'm just afraid of the people who do all of it all the time.


  3. “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines"

    I was wondering if you knew what websites/blogs he was referring to. I'm looking for more reading material on this type of subject.

  4. The next list I'd like to see: the poet's top ten best alternatives to ambition. Seriously! ...maybe I'll have to write it.

  5. Hi Charlie,

    Burt names some in the post from which the quote came. You can find it here:


  6. Jeremy -- I'm practicing alternatives to ambition right now!

  7. Unfortunately, and not just for poets, the predominant technology of the age does not very handily encourage local artistic arenas. If we had 60 5-million person areas in the US instead of one lump, maybe we'd have something like a middle way.

  8. Nice post!

    Note though that this is a condition for criticism already identified in the 1970s by Samuel Delany. Cited by Anselm Hollo in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine: (see bottom of the page)

    So our coming to terms is long overdue.

    Ben F.

  9. Thanks for the links, Ben!

  10. It's the cry of the claque to claim more relevance for one's own work than anyone else's. Most artistic groups or schools or -isms do that sooner or later. I'm certainly as guilty as anyone else of believing that the poetry I care about, and care about making and nurturing, matters.

    But it's also just the narcissism of these Mannerist post-modernist times. Narcissism based on fear of being without meaning or purpose. It's no newsflash that poets have some of the worst self-esteem among all the various kinds of artists, and some of the worst table-manners in their criticism and critique. In truth, hardly anyone other than poets cares about any of this: rarely do they even know it's going on.

    Perhaps it's better to be unambitious about public fame and personal fortune, and just do what you do for its own sake, and for the probably small circle who actually care about it. A society of niches rather than a dream of world domination. I even wrote a poem about that once (oh, look, self-promotion!) in which I chose the small gods over the greater ones. Rats eat away even at the statues of geniuses, after all.

    Of course, ambition and unambition are both niches. The Buddhist viewpoint is that both praise and disparagement are the same level of attachments, and therefore both likely to lead to suffering.

    I know I'll never be a Famous Poet. For one thing, I don't have an academic position to support my efforts at self-promotion, nor am I likely to be published anytime soon by any of the "big" poetry presses (as much as I have come to trust some presses for almost always giving me a good read). My self-esteem and my confidence in the quality of my own poems is just fine and healthy, thank you. That's not the point. It's that I don't want to play the games that one is required to play to be "successful" in the poetry world—and the list of five tendencies are really rules of a game.

    More players of the poetry world's games would do well to read and learn from James P. Carse's excellent book, "Finite and Infinite Games." For myself, by his definitions, I have always been a player of infinite games, one who believes that abundance in the arts is a good thing, and that scarcity in creative pursuits is an illusion. It can be a bitter one, that compels people to both treachery and sycophantism (as in any royal court), but it remains an illusion.

  11. As someone who is undergoing various trial-runs at alternatives to ambition, this is a question I'm very concerned with. A problem that I've hit upon, though, is the place of the big Other. When one is convincing oneself that the only thing of importance is doing the best work, and that its being read and understood is a secondary factor, is one not secretly writing for that ideological vanishing-point some call the big Other? (And probably hoping that this turns out to be a much more concrete addressee.) It's rather like when people post political rants on Facebook: who cares? Who (and, as Donald Davie wrote, "not nobody, but who") is listening? And what influence do they have? By addressing no one particularly, one hopes to address the world in general, and to wield some incalculable influence. How to get out of this, I am not yet sure I know. Subsidiary question: what is the status of Horace's odes and epistolary poems now that their addressees and receipts and unknown? Time I went to bed now...

  12. Endorsing Nikki

    At a party last night I saw
    A forty-something teacher and poet,
    Handsome, loofahed, barbered, LL Beaned,
    Listening politely as a pretty woman
    Enthusiastically recounted Nikki Giovanni’s scathing comments
    Dissing Condoleeza Rice:
    how Rosa Parks’s casket must have moved away
    from Rice’s touch,
    how is it that the best Rice can do now,
    and her a Birmingham girl who knew
    the families of those little girls,
    is carry water for George W. Bush?

    There was the kind of pause
    That lasts a beat too long until the poet said
    “Oh, yes, I agree,
    and I agree across the board with everything she said,”
    and shifted his weight
    from one tassled-loafered foot to the other,
    “but if it were me, I’d have to consider that I
    have got to get invited back.”

    In our local silence
    He scooped some crab dip
    On a cracker, and put it on his plate beside
    The chunk of Brie.
    I followed his gaze around the room,
    And saw a redoubt of editors;
    his eyes,
    gently crinkled at their corners with his smile,
    and shone like two shiny nickles.
    He turned his back on us
    And walked toward them.

    1. scrit7:36 AM

      Perfect response and a wonderful poem too!

  13. I would propose option number six: those determined and dedicated to the art itself, completely unaware of the contemporary controversies, that busy bee hidden in the forest, invisible and unknown, working, working, working, producing the honey that, when eventually discovered, will bring such sweet savor to the world.

    For You Not Yet

    As I write, right now, your mother
    is the size of a pea.
    She will grow and be born
    and not hear of me.
    You at this time
    do not even exist and only
    by luck and grace will you be
    if your mother survives
    and gets married.
    But I write not for your mother
    or even right now.
    Now knows nothing of me.
    Now knows not what I do.
    I write for tomorrow, for they
    not yet here.
    I have written for you.

    Copyright 2010 – Ponds and Lawns-New and Corrected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  14. "The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading."

    No, the problem--or at least the related problem of dissensus--exists for readers who wish to know that they can read *something* worth reading.

    Has there been a single poem written since (say) 1960 which, in competition with the abundance written before, is worth reading? Are you sure?

    I select a time cutoff rather than some other filter because the last generally accepted criterion of greatness was survival over time.

    As you note, most of us are willing to use some other filter, but (as you note only by implication) there is no option of using no filter.

  15. Well, it seems fair to say that you find the multitude to be a problem, and not because you want to read everything worthwhile, so let's expand the notion to include "the multitude is a problem for those who seek authoritative guidance about what to read."

    I am not sure when the test of time was last generally accepted as a criterion of greatness. David Hume liked it, but Chaucer, in "The House of Fame," saw it as capricious, and that was in the 14th century.

    I have found plenty of post-1960 poems worth my time, in or out of competition with the abundance of poems written before. I am sure of that. But I don't imagine you mean "poems worthwhile to Archambeau, in competition to the poems written before." I think you want "worthwhile" to pertain to some large number of readers. But who?

    On another note: the notion of the relative value of poems from earlier times and poems written in our own time is quite interesting, I think. I always tell my students that the things we find most alienating or upsetting about poetry from earlier centuries (they express beliefs we find repugnant, or use language in ways we don't, or use conventions -- melodrama, full rhyme, whatever -- that we dislike) actually make those poems more interesting, since they open gateways to understanding experiential worlds very different from our own. Then again, poems addressing contemporary conditions can speak to us directly, and a lot of people like that, or even feel a deep need for it.

    To return to the question of the worthwhile, especially "in competition with" earlier poems. I think the real problem there is the notion of competition. Surely you're on to something in that things compete for our limited time. But this isn't a competition like weightlifting, where the competitors are working at the same, measurable task. It's more of a competition in the way that asking "what's the best pizza topping?" is a competition. Subjective. And also ill-defined. Best for what? For health? Spinach beats sausage hands down. For filling one up to the point of satiety? Other way round.

    Anyway. What I take away from your post is this: the multitude presents a problem for those who want to be assured that what they are reading isn't a waste of time better spent elsewhere, and don't want to, or can't, rely on their own judgment.



  16. Anonymous6:16 PM

    The time is right to re-read Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Contingencies of Values, recalibrate, and seriously re-engage issues of evaluation and assessment....

  17. scrit8:15 AM

    I thought this was a great post. In the end, Vendler's assessment will undoubtedly be proven true. But every generation has thousands of poets and would-be poets. Imagine what it was before TV and radio became major distractions, when writing was the main form of communication. Every other Elizabethan, man and woman, who could read, wrote some form of poetry at least once in his/her life. Of his lesser contemporaries, Pound commenented (in substance) that, even if a given poet got lucky and wrote something worthwhile, the bulk of poor quality work would eventually doom him/her to obscurity. Frankly, how many Stevie Wonders, Paul McCarneys, John Lennons, etc. exist in pop music? I would venture to guess that there are the same small number of geniuses in a given generation of poets. Not everyone is blessed with a muse that inspires a Divine Commedy, or The Cantos. But the hard part is getting your contemporaries to recognize you and spread the word. Every kid in a rock band know this hard lesson. [You've got to be the best on your block before you can be the best in your town, and then the best in the country. Are you the Eddy Van Halen of verse or some local guy good with rap?] I take the fact that there are ten thousand poets (or more) as a good sign that people are reading poetry. It's certain there are more poetry magazines (including e-magazines), more books of poetry and more poetry criticism being published than ever before. Somebody is reading and writing poetry all the time. Similarly, I think the poetry being written today is as good as and in certain forms better than anything ever written. Yes, I could name a hundred poems that "compete" with Eliot, Pound, or Stevens, not on their terms, but on the terms that the contemporary poet has set. So poetry is alive and well. Poets are terrible promoters of their own work, for the most part. There is no guarantee that anyone's clique is going to survive in a hundred years. I would bet that only one or two of the Language poets will be read in a hundred years, and only because of natural talent and hard-won skill. J.S. Bach was a virtual unknown during his time. The important thing is that, as long as there is poetry, there is an interior life worth living.

  18. Though ten thousand poets dance on the head
    of a needle, weaving lost dreams in fabric
    of words that warm our souls on winter nights,
    their feathers falling from wild flapping wings
    cover highways of rumbling cars in snow.

  19. I think a lot of poets who actually read just stay within a certain range of material. For me, who's only approximate or imagined association would be with Small Press or Outsider, or even Outlaw poetry, I know where to find that type of work. Other scenes I might read only in anthologies.