In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh bewails the proliferation of poetry in America. He notes that, at a conservative estimate, American journals, print or on-line, will publish 100,000 poems this year, and that’s a bit much. Like, about 99,900 poems much.
My first reaction to Alpaugh’s thesis was: OK, let’s also crack down on the millions of Americans who play musical instruments. Some of them really should be stopped. And while we’re at it, there are way more than 100,000 Americans painting in watercolors or tempera or oils. Surely they could do with a little reining in.
But Alpaugh isn’t steamed about people merely practicing an art.
Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering. . . . Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.
But there’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders.
And that, for Alpaugh, is the rub. Lots of poetry = good. Lots of poetry getting published = very, very bad.
Alpaugh is anxious about bad stuff getting published, good stuff getting lost in the welter of bad stuff, and the impossibility of sorting the good from the bad. At the heart of his anxiety is the notion that getting a poem published should be like breaking 80 from the championship tees. After all, when you pick up a publication, you are reading something published, and “published” implies a certain hallmark of quality, like the gallo nero on a bottle of Chianti.
People take the notion of “being published” very, very seriously indeed. Several times a month, I get a phone call from some prospective graduate student who confides that they “are published.” They suggest an aura somewhere between being “a made guy” and being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Personal investment in the mystique of publication is tremendous. Publishing just any old thing, we feel, would be like giving the Congressional Medal of Honor to anybody who shows up at a recruiting office.
It’s easy for me to snark, because, after all, I too am published. It’s true: every morning, I rise, admire the publications on my bookshelf, and then scrape up $1.89 for a Tall Decaf. I don’t mean to mock writers’ ambitions, or editors’ dreams, or readers’ appreciation of published writing. I just think that every writer and reader, from David Alpaugh to the most print-thirsty novice in a neighborhood writers’ group, should get a little perspective on the issue. And so, I’ll propose a principle that might make everyone less anxious:
Publication Does Not Guarantee, and Has Never Guaranteed, That a Piece of Writing Is Any Good. Even aside from the vexed question of telling what’s good from what’s bad. Let’s say we can. Fact is, bad poetry has been published ever since some stonemason gave in to nagging and carved his brother-in-law’s fan-fiction sequel to Gilgamesh onto a temple wall. Bad poetry filled the bookstalls of Elizabethan London and the salons of the Sun King and the chapbooks of Beat-Generation San Francisco.
Take The New Yorker, synonymous in the U.S. with literary “publication,” because it is the only magazine on most newsstands that publishes poetry and stories (as against 50 magazines that advise how to publish poetry and stories). Well, here’s an open secret: the poetry in The New Yorker has always been bad. Not that a good poem has never appeared there – what would be the odds of that – but that nearly every poem there is bad. There have been whole identifiable eras in the badness of New Yorker poetry, from the 1980s/90s “Dull poem that mentions a summer resort that Upper-East-Siders frequent” era to the current “Drab poem that self-consciously mentions something plebian” era.
It is OK to say things like this, by the way. It’s not sourly grapish. Even if you’ve gotten six or eight rejections from The New Yorker. It’s even OK to knock New Yorker poems if you can’t produce a line of poetry yourself. As Samuel Johnson pointed out, “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.” You may even scold the magazine that features it as Table of the Year. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The world is not falling apart because the most prestigious American magazine publishes bad poetry.
If we step back a bit from the fetish of being “published,” we can perhaps be more sanguine about the fact that 100,000 poems are published each year. Very many of them are bad. No appreciably higher percentage of the ones that appear in prestige venues are good than those that appear wherever, and that’s been the case forever. Poems are not chosen for publication because of any replicable standard of quality. Poems get into print because editors, with widely different subjectivities and attention spans, actually like them, or just have pages to fill, or are inveigled by their authors’ names, their provenance, the pretty stamps on their return envelopes, who knows. Some of these poems are good, and due to their sheer volume, perhaps more of them are good today than ever before.
Which brings us to another of Alpaugh’s fears: how can we know which ones are good? The world of American poetry is a lot more decentered than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago. But that’s another post, perhaps, and another principle to discover.