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.