The MFA vs. Singular Voices?

Every system, including the MFA-centered poetry ecosystem we have today, has a dark side. While I don’t agree that there are no poetic voices out there worth listening to, I do worry that growing poetry’s audience may be difficult to impossible when the current audience for poetry is largely other poets.

Poets go into poetry knowing that their audience will be a relatively small one. They have been doing so, I would argue, since the supremacy of prose became apparent by the mid (or at most late) 1800’s. In the only half-kidding words of Don Marquis, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”

​In the absence of a large general readership, the real audience for poets is the people who have the most influence on the poets’ future: the people who will publish the poets in journals, poetry chapbooks, books, and anthologies, the people who will write good reviews, the people who will sit on hiring committees at creative writing programs. Most of the members of that audience have been trained at an MFA program and work for a university. Their poetic taste, as Marjorie Perloff writes when discussing the exclusion of Conceptualists and other experimental poets from the established journals and presses, dictates who gets published and who doesn’t. (See Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric (Boston Review), and A Response to Matvei Yankelevich (The Los Angeles Review of Books) by Marjorie Perloff).

The incentives for poets to experiment and try to reach a broader, less stratified audience, I would argue, are low. The incentives to keep doing what is getting other poets accolades, on the other hand, are high.

​I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing with a particular audience in mind. It’s just that the target audience for a poet who wishes to publish, receive awards, and be recognized by his or her peers has a well defined and strict taste in poetry. To write against that taste is to risk being considered “low-” or “middle-brow,” and that’s not a good thing; it means, ultimately, you are writing for the “wrong” audience, but it’s interpreted to mean you don’t really know what’s going on with the people who matter in poetry and therefore with what’s going on with poetry (let me add, the two are not synonymous).

Writing poems that may prove to be popular with an audience who isn’t paying attention to begin with, and which has no influence over the poet’s reputation and career, is not an attractive option, particularly when writing for the “right” audience is a strategy that the poet can see working all around. To paraphrase Stalin, it doesn’t matter who writes the poems; what matters is who chooses to publish them. Of course, who chooses to give a poet good reviews, fellowships, awards, grants, and inclusion in the right anthologies matter a great deal too.

​And to paraphrase Chairman Mao, fellow poets, journal editors, prize judges, book publishers, and poetry critics are the sea in which a poet swims. Depending on your point of view, it would be principled, quixotic, a waste of time, self-defeating, brave, or foolish for a poet not to pay attention to those waters. And taking to land to reach a new sea would come to the same, only with an increased level of risk and an even more uncertain reward.

I do see a great variety of poetry being published, even in the most prestigious journals, but I wonder if our biases are preventing us from recognizing and publishing poetry that challenges our definition of poetry itself. I believe that’s just what the Imagists and Eliot did when they put forth their poetics. Perhaps what has kept Modernism around so long is not that alternatives have not come forth, but that they have not been given the attention and recognition necessary to challenge Modernism’s grip on poetry, still strong almost 100 years later.

​I don’t see an easy solution, however. One could argue that to eliminate the university-sponsored poetry system in place would, besides thinning the ranks of those writing poetry, create more competition to reach the largest audience possible. Such competition would allow the “best” poets to sell the most books and would free poets to write for the “right” audience, meaning the largest one possible. And hopefully somewhere in there great poetry will be produced as well.

​But as I mentioned earlier, every system has its dark side. In a free market where profit was the motive and measuring stick, the goal of those publishing poetry would be to publish what sells. Such a model (for example, that of Hollywood movie studios) would also emphasize safe and conventional poetry; it would simply be a different kind of safe and conventional poetry than we have today. Would it be any better? As I mentioned in the previous entry, we have no way of really knowing.

​I do know wishing for a different poetry world is not productive, and changing the current one will be slow at best. But we do know its flaws, and we can try to work on them. Plentiful as poems, journals, books, and coverage of poetry are today, we have to be on the lookout for the dangers of uniformly trained poets writing for their similarly-trained fellow poets, with the resulting poems failing to push the art in any meaningful way and not offering much to a potentially larger audience. It’s sort of a double Catch 22, really, if you think about it.

​I don’t agree with Perloff that the poetry being published today is “self-regarding sludge.” Sure, there’s some of that; there’s just a lot of journals with room to fill. But those same journals do publish gems, and I am willing to live with the costume jewelry if it means more gems will have a chance to be published somewhere.

​I do, however, agree with Perloff that we must “look closely at the alternatives” to the poetry being published today. If anything, I would wish for an American poetry where everyone kept looking for the alternatives, from the poets as they sit down to write, to the editors as they select what poets to reward with publication, to the critics who will help sort out who’s worth reading out there.

We may not get a much bigger audience to pay attention in the process, but at least we’ll keep pushing the art forward and trying to ensure we don’t miss the next leap forward when it comes. Sometime in the late 2010’s or 2020’s, perhaps.

​Or perhaps sooner, if all of us, including Perloff, keep our eyes open for the alternatives.

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