Conflict of Interest?

by Posted on September 20th, 2010 at 5:22 pm

President Obama carrying a book of poetry by Derek Walcott in November 2008

A friend of mine who teaches at the local university likes to say that he’s the only person in America who reads poetry but doesn’t write it. While he obviously overstates his point, the premise is correct: as a percentage of America’s general population, more and more people now write poetry intended for a public audience while fewer and fewer read that same poetry. (By “public audience,” I mean an audience including individuals that the poet does not know personally.)

I would attribute the increase in poetry intended for a public audience to three primary influences. The first is the democratizing influence of increased public education. As access to education increased, more people felt comfortable writing in a public forum. Their poetry employed themes and approaches that had not been featured in the poetry that preceded widespread public education, which in turn inspired more people, who might not have previously, to try their hand at publishing poems. In short, one of the effects of increased public education is an ever-expanding snowball of poems intended for publication.

The other two reasons, which are closely related, for the increase in poetry intended for a public audience are less high-toned. The academicization of public poetry, whatever else it has done, has given a lot of people a strong incentive to publish as many poems as they can. I, for one, admire Delmore Schwartz’s dictum that a poet should try to write as many great poems as possible while publishing as few as possible, but at the same time am certainly not following it because I want to get a job when I finish my PhD! And at the same time as publishing poems has become, for many people, a matter at least as professional as artistic, the Internet has transformatively democratized the publishing process. There was a time in the not-so-distant past—I can remember when I held to it—when it was a given that a print publication was, for professional purposes, more “valuable” than an online one. But the notion that print is somehow more serious than online no longer obtains with most people, which is why, with not too much effort and money, any of us could, with talent and luck, publish a world-class journal.

Increased public education permits more people to feel capable of writing poetry for publication. The academicization of public poetry then gives more people the incentive to publish more often, and the legitimization of online journals gives more people the ability and incentive to publish poetry. There are more people writing poetry for a public audience and more places for them to publish. And as those of us who surf Duotrope know, the result can sometimes feel like a lot of publications publishing a lot of poems in an endless feedback loop of mediocrity.

So far I’ve argued that, in America, more poems are being written for a public audience now than ever before, and that more of those poems are being published because of the Internet. But my professor friend’s joke posits not only that there are more writers of public poetry than ever before, but also that there are fewer readers of it. It’s impossible to gauge the readership of public poetry in the same way as the writership, because while we can see the poems on the page or screen we have no way of knowing who reads what, but there is anecdotal evidence for my friend’s position. In the Summer 2010 issue of MELUS, for instance, Matthew Shenoda, who is thirty-three, states:

These people [editors] know and more importantly love poetry and literature, I would argue, more than most writers I know, who may love to write the stuff, but rarely read it with the same depth and breadth… our generation [is] terrible in the cases of writing reviews and entering into the larger critical dialogues about poetry. Many of us wish only to write creatively and receive praise, but rarely do we want to get our hands dirty (and our minds working) to enter into and ultimately help define the larger conversations of the genre. Having worked in various forms in the publishing industry, I can say a trend I’ve noted is that many of the writers who often complain of these things [lack of demographic diversity in editing] are the same writers who do not buy many books or read a great deal outside of their own aesthetic leanings. I have often argued that the first year of an MFA program should include little to no creative writing workshops, but rather should be a time to concentrate on reading and criticism. This, I have found, is a very unpopular idea!

I’m currently getting a PhD in English with an emphasis on creative writing. I take a workshop every semester, but I also take at least one, and usually two, literature classes, and spend significantly more hours per week on my literature classes than my workshop. In such a setting, stories about the MFA who had never heard of Sherwood Anderson are legion, but for the purposes of this essay I’m going to assume that my professor friend’s formulation can only be partly proven: there are more people writing public poems than ever, but there is no way to know how many people are reading them. But while I’ll assume, for the sake of logic, that I don’t know how many people read poetry and in what volume, I have to admit that I suspect that writership and readership are headed in opposite directions.

Next time: I’ll turn more concretely to print and online publications—where public writer and reader actually meet—and the aesthetic effects that today’s writership and readership are having on each.