Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Philly Poetry

David Alpaugh ( New Math of Poetry The Chronicle Review of Higher Education) goes over what’s become all too familiar in both print and the blogosphere —another end-of-the-world-of-poetry-as-we’ve-known-it article. To his credit, Alpaugh goes into considerably more detail than is the norm, and while he avoids lamentations for the fallen hierarchy, doesn't cry for a new order of gatekeepers, he still locates contemporary poets as dislocated exiles from a world that no longer exists, which—even though he doesn't particularly hanker for its return, leaves him without a sense of what has happened or what it means. Not surprising, absent a secure idea to guide him (or maybe more important--without the kind of vibrant community we have in Philly), so he turns to statistics… and is dismayed. By the sheer numbers. An inundation of Biblical Proportions… Billions and Billions of poets, god help us!

I’m not going to summarize. If you're interested, I recommend you read the article. What Alpaugh shares with the more pessimistic and deprecating commentators is an implied assumption that poets are helpless ninnies quite unable to sort matters out and define our proper literary role without the aid of our Betters, who can be almost anyone as long as they are not themselves afflicted with the lamentable condition of being poets.

The broadest category of fixers are all those people who don’t read poetry… or read at all (you see, I wasn't exaggerating... any and everyone). If only, the argument goes, if only you poets would write stuff that anybody could understand and enjoy—you would be saved! Poetry would be saved!  As though people who don't like to read aren't swamped with opportunities for entertainment. How raising a few poets to Rock Star celebrity status is going to save anyone, I have no idea. Celebrity sure hasn't helped Britney Spears be a better singer—or Lindsey Lohan an actor, or saved either drama or the musical arts by opening a pipeline from artists to the masses.

The other, only marginally more sophisticated complaint (though favored by the relatively well educated) is the Lost Gatekeeper Lament. What you poets need are Cotton Mather critics—to sort out the wheat from the chaff (god knows, poets can’t tell trash from treasure!), to chastise the wastrels, drive the sinners from the fold—till only the Pure and Righteous Laborers in the Hallowed Fields of Litrashur are left to lay the Golden Eggs of Everlasting Poetic Merit. As religion masks for class, so too the Gatekeepers, who,  claiming their sole concern is aesthetics, ignore how closely their tastes define class fault lines.

Then there’s those damn MFA programs churning out poets like … I don't know, metaphors fail me.I can work up my share of indignation on this one, for different reasons--but I won't. Cause that's not where I see the real action. Alpaugh has quite a bit to say on this in his essay, The Professionalization of Poetry.
Here in Philly I view this from a different perspective. There are a lot of poets in Philly—but ya know what? Most aren't MFA grads. Many weren't even English majors, and those who were—the best of them—the ones who are serious—not about being poets—but writing poetry, hang out at the same readings with poets who found their way to poetry from anyplace but academia—and it doesn’t matter. Where you came from, I mean. Where or whether you have a degree or a teaching position. There are overlapping circles of poets in Philly—it would take a multi-ringed Venn diagram to map them all out. In the last year alone I’ve heard more than 40 poets at readings (not counting the 56 who read at the MLA Offsite event)—I can name dozens off the top of my head, and not one has ever mentioned how worried they are about this really scary lack of gatekeepers, or how lost they are without Cotton Mather Critics to show them who counts and who don’t.
What do we do? We listen to one another. In public readings and private gatherings. We read poetry, search out our contemporaries, search for voices and critical ideas that excite us to write, that challenge us to emulate the best, to go beyond what we were doing last year and the year before. There is a process here of self-winnowing that the Woeful Lamentors don’t see, don’t get. Isn't this what poets have always done—judged themselves, sometimes alone, often together, where the one goal that matters most everyone holds in common, no matter how diverse our voices and styles: where is the next poem coming from? What have we done lately and where are we going, and how can we help each other to get there? Yes, there’s competition—but there’s no point system, no measure but the needle of that internal compass that each poet must read alone.

Maybe years from now people will talk about a Philadelphia School, or movement—a Philly Renaissance—who knows. If so, it will likely be defined by a select few of the many poets who are part of this moment, and the Gatekeepers of the dead will hold them up and ask—why oh why aren’t there real poets like that now! What we need, they’ll cry, are ideals, standards, rules to cut the bad poets from the heard! But the living poets will know better. They will listen. They will read. They will challenge and inspire one another—and if there are more poets than can ever be published or rise to fame—so be it!

You say, (counting and counting), what are we to do? There are too many poets!

I say, with William Blake: Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth.

In the year 2010, in the City of William Penn and Ben Franklin and Louis Kahn and Thomas Eakins and Philly Jo Jones and CA Conrad and Frank Sherlock and Rachel Blau DuPlessis and… and…and… and… and… and …

Ain’t no fucking dearth in sight!


  1. So pleased I stopped by this evening, Jacob. It was the most invigorating pour of Malbec I've ever had the pleasure of imbibing. Is that Saturn's moon Titan I can see from your porch?

    (Your post would make a classy preface for the paperback edition of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist.)

  2. I'd like glass of something about now... if I can scrape up a few more quarters. Yes!

    And strike up a conversation and maybe get a free one!

  3. I'll buy you a glass of wine for that excellent post!

    Also, see at Cosmopoetica “The New Math of Poetry” Does Not Compute at http://cosmopoetica.com/blog/story/the-new-math-of-poetry-does-not-compute/

    "We can mourn the passing of artificially, extremely limited channels of publication… or we can undertake to participate in a new model based on a culture of abundance."


    "If the answer is to reach readers, then (the first steps of) the solution are obvious: stop trying to publish within the new mechanism as if one is inside the old. Stop “publishing” with the idea in mind of one-off, static publications that appear slowly and disappear quickly. Think instead of participating in your publication, allowing for (and responding to) comments, creating anthologies and remixes, and publishing and promoting the work of others alongside your own. If you publish in traditional outlets, ask for the right to publish to the web using a Creative Commons license—simultaneously or later. Create a presence through social networks and social media to get the word out about your work and, more importantly, to facilitate (mostly incidental) promotion of your work by others."

    Wine all around!


    P.S. Fix link to original [sic] article; should be: http://chronicle.com/article/The-New-Math-of-Poetry/64249/

  4. Thanks for the heads up on the link, Paul. Repairs after shower and coffee!

  5. Frances,
    Was looking at David Orr's review of The Anthologist... Orr is no more aware of the poetry 'infostructure' than Nicholson Baker or his Chowder character. He raises a metaphorical eyebrow at Baker's neglect of such stogy old widows as Ploughshares, Poetry and the Paris Review, while (chuckle chuckle)treating that obscure zine, Raintaxi to marquee billing.

    At least with Raintaxi, Baker got it right. The bulk of the stuff in those major lit mags is to Modernism what Victorian poetry is to the high Romantics. Josipovici's criticism of ELF is as much on target for the poetry of those journals as for fiction... they have abandoned the modernist project, rather than continue and advance it... though in the case of poetry, it's more like a perpetual stall.

  6. ... I left out what I had in mind to say when I started that comment, that there are clearly marked class lines at work here--distinctions as important in defining the poetries of fermentation from the Pasteurized intelligentsia as the kinds of poetry they produce--maybe more so, as there's a lot of overlapping of styles... Venn circles again, but the establishment figures self-exclude themselves from the fermenting class--don't even seem to know it exists.

  7. I found Baker’s book insufferable. I think he took the poetry population as a captured dupe audience demographic who would be so flattered by his attention that they would buy his book even in hard-up economic times. Lining the retirement coffers, that sort of thing. I meant what I said. You, Jacob Russell, would class it up.

    If I were repping you in the deal, however, I would take Baker’s cut as the baseline denominator and at least square or treble it. (Right, Jim H?)

  8. Didn't read Baker. Amused at the review--that Orr was as clueless as Baker but thought he was on to him. Neither aware of what's happening under their noses--maybe if they weren't pointing them at the clouds they could see what people are doing on the ground.

    Laura Jaramillo at Kelly Writer's House tonight.

    Now that the weather's warmed somewhat and the snow gone from the yard, my cough is back.

    Take a hot shower and three poems in the morning.

  9. I'm not happy about the cough at all, Jacob. Did you have it before you went to jail for the casino protest? The reason I ask is the jails here are incubators for TB. Do you think maybe it's time for a chest x-ray?

  10. Not to worry. I have in fact tested positive to TB--years ago. Latent. As likely to be exposed riding public transit and sitting in a jail cell. But when I went to my doctor a few weeks ago about this, there was no indication of anything more than perennial allergic sinusitis, this is always the worst weather for me and the two worst times of year... November and February-March. I have a follow up appointment April 1. I do take these things seriously.

  11. I see your girl litlove is tearing up the pixels over at Tales From the Reading Room. Haven't read Müller yet but I learned a new word over there--rebarbative. Not sure how I've gotten this far in life without that one in the arsenal. She made my day!