… and saying it. Is too much poetry being published?
Hugo Williams, judging the 147 entries for the Forward Prize 2010, wrote in the Guardian that “an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. That’s too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out.” Williams is not alone in his sentiments. “There’s too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool” Robin Robertson, poetry editor at Jonathan Cape, has been quoted as saying. And Don Paterson, Picador’s poetry editor, says, “There are only 30 poetry books worth publishing each year.” What’s this – poets asserting that there is too much poetry being published? Some mistake, surely?
It is certainly true to say that there is more published today than ever before. Poet and editor Roddy Lumsden said in 2009 “we now have a full debut collection being published every three days or so in the UK – maybe 60% more than 20 years ago and probably well over 100% more than in the 1970s.” And that was ten years ago. The last couple of decades have seen a vast increase in the number of creative writing courses in the UK and USA, at all levels of ability. There are more poetry competitions and awards. More pamphlets and more anthologies are published, and interest in performance poetry and slams has expanded. There are more festivals; the Oxford Woodstock Bookshop has just announced the line up for its first festival to run in November 2012. “The phenomenal growth of interest in poetry of all kinds since  has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Forward Prizes” wrote William Sieghart in 2008.
Beyond the more traditional methods of publication, advances in digital publishing have led to a massive growth in internet magazines, webzines or e-zines. And anyone (well, anyone who is slightly internet savvy) can make themselves a website with their poems on, or blog, or set up their own magazine and solicit poems from around the country, or around the world. Poetry subcultures are no longer hidden; the web makes everything available, and readers can slide from one site to another and discover poetry which they might previously never see. This also enables the move from reader to writer; starting out as a poet has never been easier, with a multiplicity of outlets, many places accepting email submissions, and even websites solely dedicated to listing the various outlets available. Digital publishing means that anyone can upload their book in a number of different formats for e-readers and get a few copies printed for sale or gift. Publishers can, and do, run their operations on a print-on-demand basis, so can take a punt on a wider range of books. Shearsman, for example, converted to print-on-demand for most titles in 2003. Shearsman editor Tony Fraser says “It means that a publisher can take a risk on titles that (in other production methods) were too difficult to justify doing”. Salt prints on demand. Salt editor Chris Hamilton-Emery says, “Poetry publications will exponentially increase because anyone can, and should be able to, publish. There will be a self-publishing explosion in years ahead and we’re already seeing thousands of poetry ISBNs being made available each year and I’m certainly part of that.”
The Arts Council Thrive! Poetry Project produced a strategic development report in 2009 which looked at the state of poetry at the start of the 21st Century. It says “Poetry writing is increasingly popular, with growing numbers of creative writing and related courses offered by universities, colleges, private and voluntary sector organisations. The quality of much of the ensuing poetry generates debate within the sector on the merits of supporting the ‘many’ versus the ‘best’.”
So this is the question. Assuming limited resources (note recent Arts Council cuts), do we want to support the many, or the best? Do we want more poetry, or do we want better poetry, and are they mutually exclusive, or does one follow from the other? Should we limit the books published to those judged worthy by our respected elder statesmen, or open the floodgates of e-publishing, and if the latter, will we sink or swim? Williams, Robinson, Paterson et al are clearly in favour of supporting the best, rather than the many. Of course they speak from their established positions within the literary canon – of which more later. The objections of Williams et al to supporting the many seem to boil down to three main points. Publishing lots of poetry means that there is more competition in an already small market so everyone loses out (the ‘small market’ argument). Publishing lots of poetry means that there is so much around that some good work may be lost (the ‘drowning in poetry’ argument), and people may be put off poetry because so much of what they see is so bad (the ‘polluting the pool’ argument).
First the ‘small market’ argument. Salt editor Chris Hamilton-Emery posts “It’s a huge battle for market share in an over saturated market. Even if you get the breaks, the reality is very few people will want to read you and finding them is harder than ever.” But Robert Archambeau, in his essay “The Discursive Situation in Poetry”, asks when was poetry ever actually popular? In the mid-Victorian period, he says, poetry had much more popular appeal, more market viability, and a deep affinity with the values of the reading public. Archambeau quotes Epstein as saying, “The crowds in London once stood on their toes to see Tennyson pass; today a figure like Tennyson probably would not write poetry and might not even read it. Poetry has been shifted — has shifted itself? — off centre stage”. Will these conditions ever be replicated, and should we seek them out? Archambeau argues not, explaining that among people oppressed by their governments and unable to find expression in the institutional life of their countries, poetry takes on a great social importance. We do not live under those conditions now, and would not wish to return to mid-Victorian levels of literacy and social development or fall victim to colonisation just to generate a new Tennyson or a Celtic Revival. In a sense, the fact that we live under conditions which keep poetry unpopular is a good thing. So we may be stuck with a small market. But keeping poetry as an elitist pastime practised by an elite group is more likely to shrink it than grow it. If more people get involved with poetry as writers, more poetry will be read, which may in time expand the market for poetry.
The ‘drowning in poetry’ argument is, basically, if everything is publishable, then how will people know what to read? And, more insistently for poets writing today and keen to build an audience, how will readers know to read me? Roddy Lumsden posts, “Again and again, I encounter friends and acquaintances who after so much striving get a collection out, only to find they barely sell, get few if any reviews and lead to few if any readings. In the midst of this, fine books are going missing, unnoticed, unrewarded. And – to play this stuck record again – the numbers are getting so high that the prize judges are simply not able to read all the eligible books and are simply selecting from the poets they are already familiar with.” J Salemi in his essay Why Poetry is Dying, says “What chance is there that an overworked editor will notice a good poem in the deluge?”. David Alpaugh, in his article The New Math of Poetry, says, “Time has never been asked to test the astounding number of poems being published today, let alone what promises to be published in the future.” Rob Mackenzie says, “If you walk into a room, find ten books on a table, and you have to choose one, you might have a flick through all of them. If there are a hundred books, you might still flick through ten, but the perfect book for you might be among the ninety you never set eyes on.”
There are two responses to this. First, it must be said that the process of literature has always involved lots of ephemera, one just never knows which bits of the literary output of a culture will, in the long term, be judged as worthy and which will eventually fail and fall by the wayside.
Second, where there is a flood, there will evolve waders. This crisis in discrimination requires a renewed engagement with criticism, which is vital to distinguish what is really good. It is proper, deep criticism, and lively reviews that keeps culture alive and vibrant. Many think fear of drowning is overstated. Chris Hamilton-Emery says “Readers ultimately sort this stuff out.” One possible future for poetry is demonstrated by the massive increase in peer review online, on Spotify, Amazon, itunes, everywhere – and reviewers are then peer reviewed themselves. We have indeed never dealt with a proliferation of poetry on this scale before, but the thing which has allowed this proliferation to take place – the internet and digital publishing – is the very thing which also equips us to deal with it.
The ‘polluting the pool’ argument is an interesting one. Responses to Robinson’s comments generally take the form of “sounds like established poets pulling the ladder up behind them”, “astonishingly mean-spirited” or accusations of elitism. And it’s hard to disagree. Which brings us on to whether poetry is – or should be – an elitist thing, and thence to who gets to decide what is good and what is not. Williams, Robinson and Paterson et al claim that job for themselves. They are the gatekeepers, or the would-be gatekeepers, much like F R Leavis at Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s, who pretty much established the English canon of literature. But is it really OK to leave it to so few people? It means that a dozen or two editors and publishers effectively determine what will constitute the complete exposure to poetry for most high school and college students in the UK. Are they the best people to do this, are they right and are they infallible? And aren’t they open to charges of elitism?
Many people feel that the suggestion that they need a ‘literature professional’ to tell them what has aesthetic value to be insulting and elitist. Others agree that people who are scholars of literature, who work in the profession of literary studies, have specialised disciplinary knowledge and actually are trained in literary aesthetics might indeed have something to teach people without that training. While I would have to agree that study of and training in poetry does make one more capable of assessing the quality of poetry (or else what’s the point?) we clearly can’t rely on the experts to allow only the best poems through. Over the years the so called experts have missed great poems and great poets. Partly because new poetry – radically new poetry – won’t appeal to those bound up in the poetry of the establishment. Partly because part of the gatekeepers selection process comes from their personal preferences. And partly because the white middle class men (and, let’s face it, they constitute most of the publishing and editorial gatekeepers) tend to give jobs, awards, publication and preferential treatment generally to other people like them. Even Don Paterson agrees with this, saying, “With the best will in the world, there’s always a danger that an editor will end up with a list that reflects only their own narrow predilections.” Gatekeepers must recognise that they didn’t spring fully formed into the poetry world complete with expert knowledge; they too worked their way up from a position of trying things out. We need a variety of forums for newer poets and critics to practice in.
So arguments against a proliferation of poetry don’t seem to hold water. In fact, if there is more poetry published it may well extend the market and improve the quality of poetry output. If the base of the pyramid of writers is widened, one might argued, the height will be increased; therefore we will get better poetry. Some might choose to debate this, but it seems feasible, even probable, especially if one considers the converse. If less is published, we’ll certainly get less diverse poetry. If there are only one or two gatekeepers then they are likely to miss good poetry if only because it doesn’t suit their particular tastes. We will get a less active poetry culture, less experimentation and a less wide ranging discourse. The new, today, is the mainstream tomorrow.
The digital world introduced opportunities to create and communicate without control from the gatekeepers, the establishment, those who choose what enters the canon. If anything, the professional critic is now read alongside bloggers, ezines, and creative writers and readers who exchange poems, information and opinion directly. This world is increasingly about empowerment, engagement, experience and exchange, rather than trying to squeeze past a few gatekeepers with very particular views of what is good and what is not.
Chris Hamilton-Emery says, “I suspect in the end there is a binary position around literary publishing. For some it’s about keeping people out in order to build value, but, certainly in my own life, it’s been about getting as much great writing in to print. If there is a gate, I’m all for unlocking it and bringing people in … Perhaps it’s ultimately about sensibility and largesse.”
I believe that, mostly, in the end, good writing will make itself heard. Most competitions are judged blind. Readers are rarely influenced, when reading a poem, by the gender or colour or sexual orientation of the poet; we are fairly invisible, or we can be so, behind the page. And publishers are keen to make money, so if there is a market for a certain type of poetry, or a certain type of poet, then these will come to the fore. But there has always been good writing which doesn’t fit with the established channels of getting noticed. Establishment culture and extra-establishment culture have always co-existed side by side, and each has always fed on and supported the other. With the web, it becomes even more possible for writers to publish and for readers to judge for themselves. Critics and reviewers assess and pass comment on work, and will be reviewed themselves. In a culture where an audience is increasingly engaged and participatory, good poetry will make it through.