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David Alpaugh on "The New Math of Poetry"

The notion that writing and performing "poetry" is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider culture. You can't pick up a violin or oboe for the first time on Monday morning and expect to play at Lincoln Center that weekend, but you can write your first poem in May and appear at an open mike in June waving a "chapbook" for sale. The new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill of "publication."--David Alpaugh in "The New Math of Poetry"

 
Poet-critic David Alpaugh, whose 2003 essay “The Professionalization of Poetry” first roiled the waters of controversy when it was published in two parts in Poets & Writers Magazine, and, subsequently, a contentious debate when he presented it at the 2004 Associated Writing Programs Convention in Chicago, is back with The New Math of Poetry, a provocative new critique in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
 
In it he argues that the enormous proliferation of published poetry over the past two decades in online magazines and journals, independent presses and print-on-demand books, as well as in poetry related blogs only serves to reinforce the control of literary culture by an oligarchy of elite, professional degree-conferring creative writing programs, their high profile professors, and career-conscious graduates.
 
To support his case, Alpaugh cites publishing industry statistics that document the exponential growth figures for published poetry in both new and traditional media over the past five decades.  While he expresses skepticism that more published poetry necessarily leads to "better" poetry--the traditional "quality" versus "quantity" issue that seems borrowed from an industrial model--he stops short of invoking the literary equivalent of  "Gresham's Law" in finance--the idea that increasing the circulation of "bad money" (or "bad" poetry") necessarily drives out "good money" (or "good" poetry). 
 
Instead the main force of his argument seems directed toward showing how the apparent "democratization" of literary culture over the past two decades is, in fact, an illusion.  So-called "outsider" poetry written by independent, "non-professional" poets is no less marginalized today than it was in the 1950's, while the major literary awards and fellowships, the best teaching jobs, access to larger literary markets is restricted to a fairly narrow and cliquish elite, most of whom have easily traceable personal or professional relationships with one another and seek to promote their influence by promoting the careers of their students and acolytes. 
 
While some of Alpaugh's argument has the astringency of sour grapes, he cites a number blatant examples of conflict of interest in the best known and widely circulated annual poetry anthologies that strongly support his case.  Anyone familiar with Scribner's annual Best American Poetry anthologies compiled under the general editorship of David Lehman understands that each of the guest editors he employs on each issue brings with himself or herself not only a strong set of ideas about poetics, but also a like minded circle of fellow poets, professional colleagues, former students and friends who will be strongly encouraged to contribute to the project. 
 
What Alpaugh points out, however, is how little transparency and "full disclosure" there is in the poetry world.  In one recent BAP anthology Robert Hass--a former poet laureate of the United States--selected a number of poems by his wife Brenda Hillman for inclusion in the anthology without ever mentioning, however succinctly or matter-of-factly, that they were married.  Was his decision based entirely on merit?  Quite possibly--Hillman is an award-winning poet--but given the fact that well over 100, 000 poems a year are published by small presses and in literary magazines and journals, are we to believe he picked her manuscript from tens of thousands of others?
 
An even more eye-opening disclosure concerns the annual Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses anthology, a nomination for publication in which is a sine qua non in the career of any aspiring poet.  According to Alpaugh, series editor Bill Henderson reported that Pushcart received "4,000 to 5,000" nominations for 33rd edition of the anthology.  When it comes to the actual award winners, however, Alpaugh claims that 28 out of the 30 poets chosen for inclusion in the 2009 edition of the anthology are college teachers or retirees, in most cases from creative writing departments.  A considerable number have traceable ties to the guest editors of the 2009 anthology Phillis Levin and Thomas Lux..
 
"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," writes Alpaugh.   "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.
  
While Alpaugh, a who is himself the author of two collections of poetry and the proprietor of a small chapbook press (and thereby, a contributor to the very "overproduction" of poetry he finds problematic), concludes by quoting Ezra Pound  ("The weeder is supremely needed, if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden."), he admittedly hasn't got a clue about how the pruning should begin:   
 
Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry...
 
Although Alpaugh's arguments speak to the raw numbers of the "poetry marketplace," as a fellow "independent" writer I would beg to differ from him on several key points.
 
However else one might wish to characterize those who teach in creative writing programs at colleges and universities around the country, I suspect the majority are in non-tenure track teaching positions.  Some may, in fact, be adjuncts.  Most are struggling just to make ends meet and pay back their college loans.  They do not, in any meaningful sense of the term, constitute an "elite."   The fact that they feel obliged to continually bolster their professional credentials with publications in the ever increasing number of literary magazines and journals says more about their vulnerability in a shrinking job market than it does about their junior officer status in some vast poetry oligarchy.
 
Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, Alspaugh seems to think that "self-validation" or some similar vaguely narcissistic permutation of the impulse toward individual fame and self-expression is the primary driving force behind the desire to be "a published poet" in America.  Based on my twenty-three years of choosing poems by what are for the most part "non-professional" poets for publication in this newspaper, I would argue precisely the opposite. 
 
Most of the poets we've published over the years have no illusions about fame and success.  They know that writing poetry is a sure ticket to obscurity in our multimedia driven consumer culture.  They persist in their craft in order to explore the capacities of language to engage with their experience and participate in a community of shared values.  They desire neither "literary immortality" nor their "15 minutes of fame," but rather the opportunity to enter into the larger conversation that is literature across the generations and historical epochs.  In the end, they merely seek to contribute the most essential trace of human presence: the word, the sign, the voice. 
 
--R.D. Pohl
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