“Hello America let’s tell the truth!”
-- Peter Schjeldahl, “To the National Arts Council”
The correct answer, when asked about any poet living or dead, is “I love them.” Ask any poet you’ve ever heard of about any other poet you’ve ever heard of, and if they know what’s good for them, that’s how they’ll respond. (If they don’t, you probably won’t hear of them much longer, at least not about their poetry.)
That said, I have never yet met a poet entirely satisfied with the state of affairs in Poetryland, myself excluded. I love it and know it to be the best of all possible worlds. I’m fascinated when anyone is discontented in the Republic of the Imagination.
Over the years I’ve collected a few hundred complaints, which I’ve analyzed, removed references to individuals and institutions, and reduced to their essences. In all but a few cases, I can demonstrate that these conditions are not only unavoidable manifestations of the larger culture, but are also for the good of the art.
I've also collected a few hundred variations on cole slaw. I asked the readers which they'd rather see -- complaints or cabbage (therefore the title of the post). Complaints won. Enough preamble. Here is the whine list:
Fatalism. Not the philosophical kind that freshmen everywhere debate (if anyone tells you there's no free will, tickle them), but the belief that the game is rigged, it’s not how you write it’s whose influence you demonstrate, the editor has to know you, the big magazines / presses / anthologies simply aren’t an option for that kind of work, the Nineties tried your game, why bother sending work. Look. Rejection is an occupational hazard of poetry. You could win the Bollingen and still get a form slip in the mail with “Sorry” scrawled in pen. It’s terrible but what are the editors going to do, print everything? Besides, if you’re thinking more about your CV than about what makes a poem undeniable, you’re working too hard on the wrong thing.
A poet I used to work for said he wrote every day not because he thought he was going to write something good every day, but because it was the best way he knew to have a chance at having written something good every year. Eye on the ball.
More complaints after the jump. What are your (generalized, no names please) complaints about Poetryland?
The Glut. Too many books. Thousands each year. As Yogi Berra said (about a restaurant), ”No one goes there nowadays, it's too crowded.” You would think we could count on basic Economics to work this one out on its own. Maybe it will.
How did we get to this state of thousands of books of poems each year? Print-on-demand, the proliferation of MFAs, tenure, and the internet are yada yada answers. The cold true question is, who doesn’t want to bring out a book? And tell me in advance which books we can do without. Yours?
The proliferation of MFAs. Workshops might make sense if at the end of each episode the teacher turned to one of the students and said, “You’re fired.” Or maybe if everyone dressed in American Gladiator costumes. But it’s not like these programs promise a job or a book or even basic cable at the end. It’s just time to write, and to get used to how poets treat each other. Everybody involved is a consenting adult, right? In this economy, they should be getting a law degree? An MBA?
What I am saying: It’s not for me, and I’d have a hard time justifying the expense, but I can see how an emerging poet might do what it takes to get a few years to publicly declare that they’re concentrating on writing poetry. As long as they know what they’re getting into.
Nepotism and cronyism. Tough one to defend, but let’s reframe the question. You go read every book published this year and choose the five best, or read every poem in every magazine and find a bunch you want to show other people. Let me know if there are no friends, acquaintances, teachers, or friends of teachers on your lists. I predict also that a large proportion of your choices will be by people you’ve never met. Give that one time, too. Stick around long enough and if you’re lucky you might get to be friends with some writers you admire that you didn’t happen to go to school with.
Prizes have gotten much better about blocking obvious abuses, but they’re still lotteries. As Robert Lowell once said in an acceptance speech, one likes to think that books that win prizes are reasonable choices among several reasonable choices. Think what you will about the repetition of the word reasonable, it’s a statement rich with meaning.
Projects / concepts. Here is my concept, or project: I want to write poems that can be re-read indefinitely by people who read a lot and therefore have calibrated their patience and impatience. All other conceptual writing projects are bunk, as is my concept / project. It comes down to which kind of fool you want to be -- Blake (“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”) or Emerson (“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”) -- which is to say, which one you understand better, wisdom or hobgoblins.
The Internet. This one is valid.
Number one or nothing. The intellectual rationale for income disparity is a tournament mentality: everyone agrees to let the winner take all because everyone believes they have a chance to win. I don’t believe it, but I don’t think number one has it so great either. And why does number one keep changing? Better to keep your head down and find some friends you trust to confirm when adrenaline is coming through.
Airburgers. See also, “The Nothing,” “The Silence,” "White Noise." Any two readers are likely to have dramatically different senses of when this complaint might apply, but in my experience nine out of ten readers will make it: some poems say so much nothing it prompts the reader to wonder a) why did someone want to publish this and b) why did someone else agree to do it?
Make, to quote the commander in chief, no mistake: everyone who writes is entitled to commit empty text from time to time. But check it before you send it out! Revise. Please. Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Byrne wrote some of their best work by replacing the empty counters with better phrases.
Anthony Madrid’s method for detecting the hollow spots sounds sound -- to memorize one's poems and recite them until every phrase passes the sniff test.
Holier-than-everyone. I'll go in depth about this complaint tomorrow.
Predators and Prejudice. These are the only complaints I've heard about Poetryland that have brought the words "Attorney General" to mind. Shame.
Jordan Davis is poetry editor of The Nation. His chapbook, POD | Poems on Demand, was published this fall by Greying Ghost. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Poetry, and his prose in Chicago Review, Boston Review, Slate and the Times Literary Supplement.