I may well be one of them. In the decades since I began to publish (my first book appeared in '82), one unsettling development seems to have followed another. Chief among these is the disappearance of many poetry publishers--but there's also the disappearance of various magazines, and newspapers, and a slow strangling of reviewing space, etc. Discussions about the direction of poetry (whether it's a couple of poets in a bar comparing professional indignities or a formal symposium entitled Whither Verse?) soon turn wearisome, alas. Like most sane people, I'd much rather hear about the future of pretty much anything--Major League baseball, fast food, even the Democratic Party--than about the future of poetry; the tone is apt to stay less contentious and defensive if you avoid poetry.
Still, nobody who writes poetry seriously and devotedly can altogether avoid speculations about a common destination: Where is poetry going? These days it's a question that leads us to broader questions: What's going to happen to newspapers--will most of them still be around in ten years? Magazines? Ultimately, the issue is the printed word--or perhaps it's simply the Word, printed or electronic. In the beginning was the Word, perhaps, but I'm not sure, in an age of film images, the Word will be completely present at the end.
Which is to say, I'm less hopeful than many of my poet-friends about the degree to which e-poetry can satisfactorily replace print-poetry. I seem to spend as much time on my computer as most writers do, and I've welcomed opportunities to write for on-line publications--including this invitation to be a one-week guest-blogger for Best American Poetry. And yet--perhaps a generational difficulty--I can't utterly shake a deep-held conviction that "publication" implies a physical object. "Virtual publication" feels somewhat oxymoronic to me, like "virtual sex": neither can be truly itself until a tactile element enters in...
We may be ushering in a world where there is no choice about these matters, where poetry--which is able to survive, as Keats demonstrated, when "writ on water"--is chiefly writ on the ever-extendable blackboard of cyberspace. One adapts as one must. Okay, you can no longer be an old-fashioned local newspaperman where there are no longer old-fashioned local newspapers--so find another way to do your reporting. The typewriter repairman moves on, into a future where there are no typewriters, and so does the poet.
I teach in an MFA program, and enjoy doing so--even as, perhaps inconsistently, I note with real alarm just how many such programs there are in this country. Surely some of these aspiring poets ought to be studying marine biology or epidemiology or number theory? Generally, the vanishing of a dozen MFA programs would disturb me less than the loss of one more independent bookstore.
Theoretically, the presence of so many MFA programs ought to make poetry more commercially viable: it ought to help keep independent bookstores open, it ought to make the conventional trade publishing of poetry more feasible. And to the extent that it does so, I'm wildly enthusiastic: let's see another dozen new MFA programs!
The future of American poetry? Who can say, but if we stick to the present moment, it does seem obvious that any serious contemplation of this question inevitably leads to ambivalent and inconsistent feelings. I guess I'm saying that I distrust with equal unease both those who see imminent catastrophe and those who see an ongoing renaissance for American poetry.
I'd close my week's stint as guest-blogger with two observations.
Poetry is a hardy plant, as history confirms, and if it can survive destitutions and disease, pogroms and gulags, it can doubtless weather an economic recession and a shifting of commercial realities.
And yet if poetry is a plant, it flourishes best, like most plants, when skies are clement, soil is fertilized, and there is conscientious watering from--human or divine--an unseen ministering hand.