Out of the Deluge

Posted on May 18, 2010

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There’s been some talk (a nice way of putting it) about too many poems being written these days. (See here and here for a couple takes.) Everyone seems to point the finger at the proliferation of MFA programs (since the “idyllic” 1960s). More MFA programs each year churning out more wannabe poets who churn out poem after poem after poem after… you get the idea.

It’s all the fault of these MFA programs. Well, I don’t disagree with the apparent causal linkage there as long as you add in the concomitant rise of the personal computer, desktop publishing software and the Internet. There’s a good deal of “blame” to spread around.

I’ll save dealing with the “blame” factor for another post down the line. What concerns me right now is that this phenomenon should raise discussion on two other, related questions: How can poets make a living in this world? AND just what white knight (or literary prophet) is going to come charging onto the scene and rid us of all that nasty bad poetry being foisted on the world?

I’ll retain the first question in hand and think about it for another post down the line (promises, promises). The second question has disturbing connotations. If there are too many poems, then how do we rid ourselves of the dross? Implicit in this question is the consideration of censorship.

By virtue of running a small press I am actively involved in censorship on one level. There are only so many books I can publish in one year (from 4 to 6). For every book I publish, there are hundreds, nay thousands, I don’t publish. Quale Press is not open to unsolicited manuscript submissions. In one sense, that is a form of censorship — one that I can live with. I only have so much time left after teaching (publishing) full time and doing freelance publishing services work part time. I also try to write (poetry and blog). With whatever excess time I have, I publish others’ work. (We’re not even factoring in here all those things just living as a half-way decent human being requires.) So I don’t have the time to read hundreds (nay, thousands!) of unsolicited manuscripts. I know — full well — that some gem will evade my publishing paws. Such is life.

Instead, I only read what work I solicit. Usually, from writers I know, and who I have published in the past (yes, cronyism). Sometimes I find work on the net, or in a print journal, or by word-of-mouth recommendation and ask the writer to send me a manuscript to read. Of the work I solicit, maybe  25% gets an offer to publish. Again, censorship.

I mean no ill by the censorship I exercise, though I am sure ill can be construed. I supremely regret not having the resources (in time and in finances) to publish all of the books I’d like to publish, and I like to think that I publish those books that would have a hard time finding a home even among the smallest of other publishers. I mean well, and possibly by meaning well, do most harm…

But what is most troubling are those who decry that there are too many poems in the world (and that the flood of poems needs to be staunched). These voices then don’t offer up any solutions; they are just offended by sheer quantity. They hold their ground for “standards.” But whose standards? Of course, as the output of poetry increases, the output of bad poetry will increase too — as well as good poems. But who is to determine what is good and what is bad? Who will be our Solomon of poetry? And will we abide by him or her? And do we want to?

Those same voices that rail against quantity also rail against what they feel is bad poetry. But this railing is worrisome because it often declaims that this “bad” poetry does not have the right to exist, that the world would be better off if that mass of “bad” poetry should cease to be. It has no right to be out among the world (where the defenseless or senseless reader can happen on it and read it, causing unheard-of damage to that reader). At least, when I choose not to publish a manuscript I do not purge the world of it.

This form of censorship — where a poet would feel so irked by one type of poetry that s/he would want to see it eradicated from the world and from memory — is very reminiscent of the type of artistic purges Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were famous for. They felt so threatened by what they could not, or would not, understand, or like, that they felt the need to destroy, to burn.

If you do not like, or understand, something, no one is forcing you to read and like (or understand) it. If you find no value in something, that does not mean someone else may not. Let that be someone else’s choice. If there is truly no value in a poem, no value will come to it.

The prophet may say we will all drown in shit, but I’ll put my money on evolution, that we will find better and quicker ways to cut through the crap in the future. Let the poems come. I, for one, am not going to become afraid of them. I’ve got my BS detector fully charged and my survival suit donned.

Note: When I refer to "bad" poetry here, I am not talking about the
Hallmark-type of bad -- what all schools of "professional" poetry would
consider bad. But even that type of poetry serves the purposes of those
who respond to it.
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