Yesterday, Ron Silliman published the first half of his answers to a questionnaire sent by the Poetry Foundation. Today, he published the second half of his answers. I am struck by how much we are alike in our thinking on these things yet so unlike in our poetry. Here are a few gems from his online rant:
And the role of the self-published book, the commercial object with perhaps the least prestige of all, has been important to poetry in the U.S. from Whitman to the web editions of today.
Poetry is the one area of literature where you can self publish and people won’t look at you like you’re some kind of odd creature of mythological lore. That is, after they stop looking at you as if you are because they discovered that you do write poetry.
The days when major publishers brought out poetry as a “loss leader” (or because some poet might turn into a profitable novelist) are almost entirely behind us.
Summed up perfectly.
The number of trade publishers who even touch poetry are so few, and their collective aesthetics so very narrow, that they have largely relegated themselves to irrelevance.
Book publishing in general is so averse to risk that it is difficult to understand why poets are so full of it. There is no other type of writer in the world willing to take so many risks as a poet worth his salt. Yet, there is hardly a book publisher in the world, even publishers that specialize in poetry books, that will take risks along with the poets they publish. Good poets are squeezed out by the trite, blase Hallmark verse of Helen Steiner Rice. If the publishing world were to rest its eyes on today’s equivalent to William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope, they’d mistake him for a bus driver.
The same social forces that are creating pressures on the book industry are having an impact on society at large – they register as as rising demands upon time and the decline of literacy overall. What a curious moment in history to have more poets than ever before. And more good poets at that. One sometimes imagines that we will soon become a nation of poets, but simultaneously a nation without readers.
I’ve heard poets criticized for “writing to each other” as if we’re some overly large country club. We almost have to write for each other because we’re the only ones reading poetry. When I go to an open mic poetry reading there are so few people in the audience who just want to be in the audience. Almost everyone feels like they should read. At most readings I go to, there is only one person there who doesn’t write poetry and therefore doesn’t read aloud. My wife. She understands that good literature must have good audiences. Where are the rest of the poetry lovers who don’t write?
Where Silliman’s Brilliance Really Shines
I would love to see some of the money that is currently being misused by the National Endowment of the Arts to promote dead British playwrights redirected to ensure that each major metropolitan area has at least one decent retail outlet for poetry.
I’m not a big fan of the NEA, but I have to laugh at this. Dead British playwrights? I wouldn’t redirect any NEA funds. I’d cut them off altogether. But the idea of ensuring that every major metro area has at least one decent retail outlet for poetry is a good idea. If I did support funding for the NEA, that would be one area where I might agree to spend it.
By substantial I mean a minimum of 1,000 titles, not more than 25 percent of which are published by trade presses nor more than 25 percent by university presses, with at least five percent of the stock being chapbooks.
1,000 titles. That’s pretty substantial in terms of poetry books. Not many book stores carry that many poetry titles. Of course, they’re more interested in selling the autobiographies of strippers and other such pickled pabulum. But I like the 25/25 requirement. I’d up the 5% for chapbooks to at least 10%. I think self-published chapbooks is an area that should be encouraged as much as possible. It’s the one area where I think most poets can see the best return on their time and energy investment. We go through so much trouble to create the output and most of us never see a dime for our efforts. For me, I know I can spend hours revising a single poem and publish it in chapbook form with ten or a dozen other poems and sell two or three chapbooks at every reading I attend for months. The $3-$5 I charge for them will usually pay for my gas to drive to the readings and sometimes even a beer and/or a snack afterwards during social hour.
A separate mechanism that might be created even by the Poetry Foundation itself would be a mechanism for the sale and distribution of chapbooks and print-on-demand volumes, perhaps coordinated by Booksense, but with a common front end on the web so that readers could turn to a single source for finding these difficult-to-obtain items.
I actually prefer this solution above the first. I’m a believer in free markets. Poetry is being read. It’s being written. And a lot of it is good. One reason poetry doesn’t sell is because there is no distribution outlet as Silliman craftily points out. When I walk into Barnes & Noble or another major chain store and go to the poetry section, almost every title I see is a classic. I love the classics, but how will contemporary readers of poetry ever be exposed to anything else if they aren’t exposed to contemporary poets at the places where they shop? Universities seldom sell their journals through retail stores. University and small presses seldom distribute their books through the retail chains. One reason I suspect they don’t is because the return policy of distributors makes it a money-losing proposition for them. This somehow needs to change.
Teaching Poetry K-12
Let’s get real. The state-run education system is failing miserably. It’s failing the students. It’s failing the parents. It’s failing the teachers. It’s failing society. It’s failing itself. As a society, however, we are in denial of this fact. One of the areas where this failure is most evident is in the teaching of literature.
I love how Silliman states the obvious (what is obvious to those few of us who know it):
Whether you are a new formalist or a slam poet, a visual poet or a language writer, the absolute materiality of the signifier, the physicality of sound and of the graphic letter, is the one secret shared by all poets to which nonreaders of poetry seem literally clueless.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a poem and someone will say to me, “I don’t get what it all means, but I like it.” I always just feel like punching them in the face. Most of the time, the people who don’t get it are the same people
people who misinterpret simple wording of Bible verses and the Fourth Amendment. People don’t understand hyperbole or metaphor anymore. At one time, these figures of speech were so common that if you didn’t know how to recognize them then you couldn’t get by socially. Today, it’s just the opposite. If you can identify the figures of speech then you are the social outcast. People have been so ingrained to take things literally that when it comes time to analyze language for any purpose at all they are entirely lost. Oh, but they “like” it. I have to remind myself of that.
This is a larger problem than just one for poetry – it is one consequence among many of the larger issues confronting our schools in general. Dropping a few poets-in-the-schools into programs like a Marine strike force is hardly going to undercut the message students get continually, day after day, that language is to be mined for “information” that can be later regurgitated in test formats. It is more, even, than just the goal of developing critical thinkers, tho it is one important aspect of this. Until such time as our schools are given the resources they need in order to really address the whole child, not just managing to standardized tests, we haven’t a chance.
Again, I’m with Silliman all the way up to that last sentence. The schools have plenty of resources. They aren’t using them. They don’t know what to do with them. Or someone somewhere ties their hands so that they don’t fully realize the benefits of them. Some parent wants to restrict the reading of great works of literature because they are offended by some racial slur, or an innocent sex scene, or simply an idea that they can’t get behind. Works like Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice, and Lord of the Flies have all been targets of censorship by parents, school boards, or some religious or political group. Instead of teaching children how to think critically on difficult subjects we teach them instead to hide their heads in the sand so they don’t have to deal with them. It is hardly any wonder that students being home schooled are outpacing students in public schools in almost every area. How ironic it is that these are the kids who are made fun of by the C students from public schools who are elected president (or selected for Speaker Of The House) and their bully-on-the-playground friends.
Ron’s Brilliance, My Delight
In all, I’m very impressed with Ron Silliman’s thought process on the Poetry Foundation questionnaire. He said a lot of things that needs to be said. I disagree on a few points, but they are so minor that they hardly are worth noting (with the exception of my political leanings, of course). Nevertheless, if poetry is to survive the 21st century, poets and poetry publishers need to find a way to distribute poetry to an audience that loves to read it but has no interest in being involved in its production. They need to look for my wife.
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