My title is taken from the comments stream of an article recently published by The Chronicle of Higher Education
, David Alpaugh's "The New Math of Poetry
. The article at first seems to be rehashing the tired conservative complaint about the proliferation of poetry and its venues for publication—a lament for the gatekeepers. But it becomes more interesting when Alpaugh begins speaking out for what he calls "independents": poets like himself who are unaffiliated with any institution. His real argument, it turns out, is that because it's impossible to sort the poems and make sure each receives its just reward, that the existing institutions (MFA programs, literary magazines, the Poetry Foundation, all the usual suspects) resort instead to sorting poets. It's easier to recognize a colleague, in other words, than it is a genius poem. This is the money paragraph:
Perhaps the most sinister fact about the new math of poetry is that it allows the academic oligarchy that controls poetry to impose a nonaesthetic, self-serving scoring system without attracting notice or raising indignation. Since no one can possibly read the vast number of poems being published, professionals can ignore independent poets and reserve the goodies—premiere readings, publications, honors, financial support—for those fortunate enough to be housed inside the professional poetry bubble.
This is a fair criticism, and an intelligent articulation of the protest that curdled into ressentiment in the days of Foetry. The publication possibilities for poets have exploded, but the oligarchical apparatus of recognition and initiation has not. These institutions exert the power they do because there is no market for poetry—the market being the only extra- or hyper-institutional force that our society recognizes as the ultimate court of appeal. Many poets celebrate what they see as the decline of the power of gatekeepers because that means there are no more barriers between their work and readers. But the common reader of poetry probably does still rely on some kind of middleman, be it the imprimatur of a famous poet or just a website like Poetry Daily, which as Alpaugh points out is a largely uncritical distributor of oligarchy-approved poems.
Still, I find it strange that his touchstone poets—his examples of poets whose work would never have survived without institutional support and rescusitation—are Blake and Dickinson. They make for a strange pair. Blake, you will recall, was a print-maker, and thus very much the owner of his own means of production and reproduction. Dickinson, of course, famously declared that "Publication - is the Auction - / Of the Mind of Man -" and in a sense was also her own "publisher," sewing up her fair copies into fascicles so as to, like Berryman's Henry, "hide the pieces, where they may be found." In their eccentric way, they might offer better paths forward than tsk-tsking over the problem of poetic overproduction.
Commenter "markleidner" gives my post its title. His full comment:
don't worry... today's dickinsons & blakes won't sit idly around, waiting, hoping for attention to descend on them... and thus remain uknown... they will know the world needs to hear their voices, and they will be consequently burdened with the responsibility... to take its ear by force... and master the poetry of self-promotion
Yesterday a student came to talk to me about grad school. Mindful of the dismal prospects, I urged her to think carefully about the decision, to recognize its likely economic consequences, and to take a year or two off after completing her undergraduate degree before applying. But the best advice I gave her—advice I would have liked to receive when I was in my twenties—was not to put her trust in institutions. Instead of waiting to be recognized, Lana-Turner-at-Schwab's style—or worse, disciplined
, shaped into a round academic peg that may never discover any holes, round, square, or otherwise—any writer today needs to DIY
, even—perhaps especially—those who have
found some kind of institutional niche.
To succeed as a writer—and I define "success" quite simply as being able to continue in one's work
—you not only have to "create the taste by which [one] is to be relished" (Wm. Wordsworth) but you have to create relationships and infrastructure and paths of distribution. Start a press, start a blog, form a reading group, start a reading series. If you can synergize with institutions, do so, but don't sit around waiting for them to recognize or rescue you: they can offer you everything but initiative. This is the best path I've found for resisting the otherwise inevitable alienation from one's own creative labor that comes from permitting oneself and one's work to be processed by workshops and editors and tenure committees.
"Self-promotion" is a crass phrase, or rather a class phrase: I was raised to be squeamish about such things because I grew up in the middle-class "meritocracy" with the assumption that the privileges I was born into would be continued automatically, provided that I did well enough on standardized tests to go to the "right" schools. Needless to say, neither I nor many other people from such circumstances can afford to go on thinking this way. This is not something to be regretted. At the same time, I'm not advocating that writers shrug their shoulders and just convert to the cult of self-commodification. I'm not quite sure that the phrase "the poetry of self-promotion" will ever enable me to see self-promotion itself as poetic. (Though I can't help but be skeptical about the corollary saying of Robert Graves', "There's no money in poetry but there's no poetry in money either.") But I do think that what
poetry you promote and how
you promote it matters, and that ultimately we can't and shouldn't separate a poem from the context of its production and means distribution.
Here I recall a crucial paragraph from Vanessa Place's and Robert Fitterman's endlessly thought-provoking primer Notes on Conceptualisms
(parenthetically, I am very much looking forward to Place's participation in next week's Lake Forest Literary Festival
, which promises to be epic):
Pure conceptualism negates the need for reading in the traditional textual sense—one does not need to "read" the work as much as think about the idea of the work. In this sense, pure conceptualism's readymade properties capitulate to and mirror the easy consumption/generation of text and the devaluation of reading in the larger culture. Impure conceptualism, manifest in the extreme by the baroque, exaggerates reading in the traditional textual sense. In this sense, its excessive textual properties refuse, and are defeated by, the easy consumption/generation of text and the rejection of reading in the larger culture.
Note: these are strategies of failure.
Poetic overproduction here is no longer cause for nostalgia for an imaginary past in which there was "just enough" poetry, Goldilocks-style, and only the right sort of poems received prizes. Instead, "the new math" that Alpaugh laments takes its proper place as a symptom of the larger crisis/"rejection" of reading, which is in turn contextualized as a symptom of technological change/acceleration ("the easy consumption/generation of text"), which in turn may be conceptualize as a symptom of the current state of capitalism, which finally leads us to something resembling reality. That is, poetry's problem is everyone's problem: there are more and more people on the planet every day whose participation in labor or collectivities of any stripe are becoming less and less meaningful, as we trade our labor and agency for the false freedom of consumer choice and the increasingly tattered illusion of "security." Or as Richard Greenfield puts it in his poem "Harm": "one is so small in the age of terror as to be vast...
The paths of conceptualism that Place and Fitterman describe confront this logic head-on via "strategies of failure" which are also "assassination[s] of mastery" (a strongly political move when these strategies are in the hands of anyone not historically a "master"—that is, anyone not white, rich, heterosexual, and male).* This is, perhaps needless to say, not a path likely to appeal to Alpaugh. I don't know his work (but I see he's published one book with the New Formalist house Story Line Press), but everything about his essay points toward nostalgia for mastery and the hierarchically controlled access to mastery that a smaller world of poetry would provide. Yet his touchstones, Dickinson and Blake, were both strategists of failure, not only in their eccentric paths to publication, but in their highly allegorical and linguistically/imagistically excessive work.
There's an intrinsic connection, there to be discovered, between these poets' production/reproduction and their historical experiences at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (Blake) and the rapid economic and territorial expansion of the U.S. (Dickinson). And I would suggest that writers today need to think closely the connections between what they write, how they publish it, and the scene of writing at this moment of textual—and human—devaluation.
* It's hard for a white male heterosexual to pull off conceptualism without the gesture being recuperated into his pre-existing privileges: Kenny Goldsmith's career is certainly not suffering for his being the poster-boy for "uncreative," "de-authored" writing. Even Kent Johnson, whose heteronymia offers perhaps the most promising means of attack on mastery, hasn't done too badly for himself in terms of notoriety, as well as the more meaningfully narrow terms of "success" as I defined it earlier. This is not to denigrate the work of Goldsmith or Johnson, both writers I admire; I just want to acknowledge that their apparent subject-positions create meaningful difficulties.