The following is a modified version of a part of an email discussion I’ve been having with another poet. I ended up writing about a few li’l poetry controversies that have been on my mind, so here it is:
I certainly agree that poets are coming out of programs thinking they’re brilliant for writing poems that sound like other people, but many very original writers come out of MFAs writing wonderful poems in the spirit that was always theirs, only they had time to really indulge themselves and hone their craft. So lots of bad poets, lots of good ones. I'm not convinced, though, that there are proportionally more bad poets or good poets than before, or, if anything, I would say there are proportionally the same number of bad poets and a few more good ones (who are, nonetheless, outnumbered by the bad). Stevens stuck because he was the only Stevens, but I can't help but think there were many, many would-be-Stevenses whose books have pretty much completed the journey from paper back to pulp by now. I don't have numbers on that, but that's my opionion. And, I think there may be artificial communities created in MFAs but there are also real and vital relationships developing around those classroom communities, not necessarily in the programs but at readings or parties or workplaces, all the normal places people make friends--I still workshop with a group of poets many of whom I didn't go to school with. Most of my best poet-friends were not in my MFA; they're people whose work I encountered or who invited me to read somewhere, and then we struck up a friendship in the usual way. And I don't understand this point--one that is often made--that the readership for poetry is dwindling. If there are 3 or 4 times as many writers than before, there are at least that many more readers. And the notion that poets don't count as readers doesn't make sense to me either--poets are regular people, too, who come to books for consolation, stimulation, entertainment.
As far as making a living goes, I don't know many poets who don't pay their rent in the typical manner. Most poets have day jobs. Obviously, we try to find jobs that meet some of the needs of our obsessions, but poetry is something we do because we earn the time to do it. The notion that anyone is entitled to a poetic career is appalling.
Point being, in my mind, it doesn't serve anyone to be skeptical of the institutions, which foster both bad and good. It's good to be skeptical of the books that don't meet our standards, and to be joyfully surprised by the ones that exceed them.
On another note, I’ve been revisiting a favorite record label of my younger days—not surprisingly, Matador—and finding that they are putting out many great new records, such as LOOSE IN THE AIR by The Double—this is really a surprising and stunning record: melancholic and melodic songs buried and blurred by layers of distorted guitar and keyboard—and what seems to be many people’s new favorite, TWIN CINEMA by The New Pornographers, which I am still in the middle of listening to for the first time.