I don’t think I have it me to provide an adequate response to Seth Abramson’s post, The Sociology of Poetry, or Joshua Corey’s response to it, each of which is impressively thorough in its argument. I can say I empathize with Corey’s points more. I don’t see any chaos, which is Abramson’s refrain, in the national poetry scene. I see a bunch of different people each of whom is doing his or her own thing, trying to fulfill the needs of an obsession. That’s as chaotic as any other human endeavor, but I wouldn’t call it chaos—if I let myself term all human endeavors as chaos I don’t think I’d be able to handle things.
I like Corey’s image of different currents or streams. They meet up sometimes; they diverge; and there are some, in which certain poetic traits or characteristics or habits are prevalent, that are wider, more visible, stand out on the map, at any given moment. For instance, I don’t think it’s very controversial to point out that poetry with an intellectual or heady bent, with a focus on surfaces, with (and this is an abstract characterization, I know) a sharpness, in which emotion and “experience” is not foregrounded, tends to win the Iowa poetry prize, the now defunct Georgia prize, and tends to be published in Fence. But the University of Louisiana press is always publishing poetry in a confessional mode. I don’t see that as chaos; it’s just different things happening at the same time, and sometimes they overlap.
I guess my most powerful reaction to Abramson’s post is a feeling that the reading and writing of poetry begins and ends in a much more private realm than the one Abramson discusses. I’d like to believe that if any writer or reader of poems thinks back to how they got started, they would remember a need to find a place within the community they found in books, a community composed not of people but of poems, of artifacts of human imagination. Meaning there was something they needed that they (we, I) couldn’t get through interacting with actual people, whether that was an endlessly ongoing conversation, a distraction for an overly busy mind, or some verification that they were not alone. For me, and I imagine this to be the case for most folks, my private interaction with poetry and books in general comes before, supersedes, is ultimately more important than, any public interaction with the community of poets.
This is not to say I’m not ambitious and that I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about my “career” as a poet. I am constantly worrying over whether and wither I will place my poems, whether or not anyone is aware that I write at all, whether or not my poems are any good. But I see all of that thinking as an extension or projection or externalization of my own psychological hang-ups, insecurities, and desires. And I take solace in the fact that my own relationship to reading and writing will always be more about me than any public poetic front. And, generally, I believe it’s like that for everyone. In the end, no matter what happens with my career, I’ll always have my own relationship with poetry to sustain me. I try to remind myself of that so that I don’t become bitter and jaded in the face of competition and whatever comes between me and the realization of my ambitions, whether than means the fickleness of editors, my own shortcomings as a poet, or poetic politics.
I began writing book reviews in earnest a couple of years ago. Of course, when I started I was hoping to connect myself to magazines I liked, make some kind of name for myself, interact with favorite poets, and hopefully gain something out of the experience. But what led me to choose that method of participating, and what ultimately keeps me at it—because, honestly, it’s a lot of tedious work, it doesn’t pay much if anything, and I never know if anyone is reading the damn things, if they care, if they think I’m a moron—is that I really enjoy the opportunity to engage deeply with a book, to spend a lot of time with it, to answer the book’s language with language of my own. I always keep those duel motives—the ambitious and the personal—in mind. My fiancé, who is also a poet, often wishes I’d shut up about poetry, but I can’t (hence this blog); if I didn’t have poetry to think about, I’d be preoccupied with much grimmer and more counterproductive thoughts. Poetry is constantly saving me from misery.
As far as Silliman and Ashbery go, I don’t see what the worry is. From reading his blog, I don’t get the sense that he fancies himself a tastemaker. What I like so much about it is that it presents an extraordinarily astute mind, the mind of someone with a long history in various poetry communities, engaging with its own preoccupations. The Ashbery NYorker profile is interesting, but not to poets. What bugged me about it was the fact that it presented ideas and habits that are pretty common to all poetry-writing people I know as something unique and unusual. But I chalk that up to the New Yorker’s need to make a poet’s life palatable to its non-poet audience. And in terms of the Best American anthologies, part of the setup of the program is that the editor changes every year, and almost every editor wrestles with and debunks the word “best” in their introduction. That word is more a marketing ploy than anything else. Scribner needs to sell books. And we all know that judges pick their friends and students, that hiring is as much about politics as merit. I think it’s great that CLMP established a code that many contest sponsors are using to make their contest fairer. But that’s life, it ain’t fair, and, again, it’s nothing to loose too much sleep over. My point is that subjectivity, not chaos, is at the heart of poetry and the poetry community.
All of which is to say I don’t care much about how organized poetry is on a grand scale. I believe that, on average, poets are at it for good reasons. Poets are saving themselves and each other from being miserable bastards all the time. This may not be a very savvy way of thinking about it; it may be rather nieve or romantic, but it’s what gets me through the day. I share a lot of Abramson’s concerns, but when I get as frustrated as he seems to be, I return to my personal engagement with poetry and I’m grateful for it.