“The Professionalization of Poetry” was originally serialized in the Jan/Feb and March/April 2003 issues of Poets & Writers Magazine.
A great and ongoing revolution in poetry began in 1922. It was not, at first, an aesthetic revolution (although 1922 was the year T.S. Eliot finished The Waste Land). Nor was it spearheaded by a poet or a group of poets as other great poetry revolutions have been: Wordsworth/Coleridge; Whitman; Eliot/ Pound; Snyder/Kerouac/Ginsberg; Lowell/Plath/Sexton. Still, it has had (and will continue to have) effects upon the art of poetry that may, over time, be longer lasting and more profound than aesthetic upheavals like those of the Romantics, Imagists, Modernists, Beats, Confessionals, or Language Poets. The firebrand of this revolution was neither a poet nor a critic of poetry, but the dean of the graduate division in humanities at the University of Iowa. In 1922, Karl Seashore informed the Iowa English department that, in the future, creative work—fiction, drama, poetry—could be accepted in lieu of the traditional scholarly or critical thesis or dissertation hitherto required for an MA or PhD. Seashore fired the first shot in a revolution that changed the way poets are educated, supported, published and rewarded in America. Once “creative writing” was recognized as worthy of academic study by a prestigious university, the establishment and growth of a poetry writing profession was inevitable. In 1936, Iowa founded its writers’ workshop. One of its first directors was the poet, Paul Engle, who had been one of the first to receive a PhD from Iowa for writing. Stanford soon established its own program under the direction of poet-critic Yvor Winters. More colleges and universities followed suit, sporadically at first, then in droves. By 1967 there were enough of them to merit the establishment of the Associated Writing Programs, or AWP, an umbrella organization that serves the interests of writing program institutions, teachers, and students. Other organizations closely allied, though not formally connected to the profession, include the Academy of American Poets (established 1934), whose chancellors are almost exclusively poet-teachers; Poets & Writers (established 1970), a service organization and the publisher of Poets & Writers Magazine, which professionals use to conduct what has become known as “po-biz” via articles and interviews, calls for submissions, and advertisements by booksellers and assorted other businesses; plus scores of poetry journals located at academic institutions, whose editors and board members are drawn almost exclusively from writing programs. In the title essay of his book Can Poetry Matter? (recently reissued in a 10th-anniversary edition by Graywolf Press), poet and chair of the NEA Dana Gioia noted that there were a thousand colleges and universities offering undergraduate writing programs, and over two hundred offering MFAs in creative writing. Gioia estimated that these programs were turning out approximately two thousand men and women per year with MFAs in poetry writing. The math is stunning. In the decade since Gioia wrote that book, graduate writing programs have certified approximately 20,000 professional poets and will in the decade ahead (allowing for the fact that more colleges have come on board) certify approximately 25,000 more. These graduates have spent or will spend several years learning to write with such noted poets as Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds at NYU; Richard Howard at Columbia; Jorie Graham at Harvard; Marvin Bell at Iowa; Mark Doty and Edward Hirsch at Houston; Brenda Hillman at St. Mary’s; Garrett Hongo and Dorianne Laux at Oregon—for today practically every highly acclaimed poet in America is teaching in a college or university writing program. The profession has created what might be called a complete poetry career path. Today, an aspiring poet can earn an undergraduate degree with a major in writing and, a few years later, acquire an MFA with a specialization in poetry. A huge number of these certified poets will have to find other means of supporting themselves, since (unlike law or medicine) the poetry profession can find jobs for only a handful of newcomers each year; still, those who have impressed their poet-teachers as the cream of the crop can expect to be published in elite journals, receive a first book award, and (with the backing of mentors) even secure a tenure-track writing post at a college or university. Philip Levine, who attended the Iowa workshop in the heady days of the 1950’s, when there was still a sense of excitement about the enterprise, has this to say in his collection of essays The Bread of Time about “one of the most amazing growth industries we have”:
Today, anyone can become a poet: all he or she has to do is travel to the nearest college and enroll in Beginning Poetry Writing and Semi-Advanced Poetry Writing, all the way to Masterwork Poetry Writing, in which course one completes her epic on the sacking of Yale or his sonnet cycle on the paintings of Edward Hopper, or their elegies in a city dumpster, and thus earns not only an M.F.A. but a crown of plastic laurel leaves.
“Do I sound skeptical?” Levine asks—and answers: “Let me sound skeptical.” Is a curriculum that concentrates so fiercely on poetry writing the best way to educate aspiring poets? No such system was available to the great generation of poets immediately preceding professionalization. Not only were there no writing programs available to Frost, Eliot, Williams, or Stevens at Dartmouth, Penn, or Harvard; there wasn’t a single course at any college or university in America devoted to poetry writing. Aspiring poets had to learn the art by themselves. They had to construct their own personal poetics. They could and did use the university for related studies that provided subject matter and theory and models, particularly the study of languages and literature. But the process was ad hoc, without institutional support or salaried mentors to nurse it along. Robert Frost studied Latin, Greek, psychology, and philosophy formally, and English poetry more or less informally (with the help of Palgrave’s anthology). Eliot studied languages, philosophy, history, anthropology, and world literature, both in and out of Harvard. William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens received rounded undergraduate educations, and then went on to study medicine and law. As Levine suggests, overconcentration on writing can Johnny-one-note an aspiring poet’s education. Writing programs typically commit more than 50% of class time to the unpublished poetry of their students and to something called “the creative process.” Contemporary poetry (not taught in universities at all in Frost or Eliot’s time) routinely provides exemplary models for students to emulate. This emphasis on writing (as Thomas Bartlett notes in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education) is happening at the same time that English Literature is declining in popularity as a major (down a whopping 23% since 1970). Bartlett cites a professor of English at Eastern Illinois University’s fear that students are choosing writing courses because they perceive them as “less difficult” than traditional English classes. And although Bartlett notes that pressure from English department faculty has lead some programs to increase literature requirements, a sampling of university catalogues shows that many writing programs require little familiarity with the classics, foreign or domestic. When literature is required it is often skewed toward the modern and contemporary, studied within the context of the writing program’s mission, less for its own sake than for its practical application to the student’s writing. Although English and comparative literature students still study Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Donne, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, and Dickinson in depth, too often writing graduates emerge from universities sporting only a casual acquaintance with the master poets of their own language and those of world literature. When reading becomes focused on a sliver of literary history (chosen by current taste and fashion) it’s tempting for fledgling poets to mimic the prevailing mode, absorbing its mannerisms, limitations, and ephemeral or poetically correct subject matter and concerns. And it is much less likely that the poet will develop an original and authoritative poetic voice that can take its place and hold its own, not only among contemporaries, but within the wider literary tradition. For, as Eliot points out in his essay “Religion and Literature,”
The reader of contemporary literature is not, like the reader of the established great literature of all time, exposing himself to the influence of diverse and contradictory personalities; he is exposing himself to a mass movement of writers who, each of them, think that they have something individually to offer, but are really all working together in the same direction.
Despite the emphasis on “voice” by poetry professionals, it is the nature of the institutional workshop process to turn what has traditionally been an individual, even solitary enterprise into a communal and collaborative one. No one would mistake Frost for Eliot or Eliot for Pound or Williams for Stevens or Moore for Bishop or Auden for Cummings. What is so striking about Modernist poets is how, absorbing a customized education and a unique amalgam of poetic antecedents, each blazes a previously untrodden poetic trail, an aesthetic road never before taken. The current winnowing of the young and impressionable through workshop programs that share similar models and methodologies leads to that herding of poets “in the same direction” that Eliot feared. What differentiation occurs is usually one of modality rather than individuation, a choice among different types of poetry: mainstream, new-formalist, new-narrative, neo-Beat, neo-New York School, or Language Poetry—different specialties associated with certain groups of poets and the institutions where they teach.
The Modernists chose nonpoetry-related careers that were as different, one from another, as their educations. Perhaps they were listening to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who in his Biographia Literaria advised young authors to become lawyers, clergymen, physicians, businessmen, manufacturers, but to “never pursue literature as a trade,” because: Whatever be the profession or trade chosen, the advantages are many and important, compared with the state of a mere literary man, who in any degree depends on the sale of his works for the necessaries and comforts of life.
Coleridge bewailed the fact that he made his own living by writing poetry, articles, reviews and lecturing on literature. Blending career with art, he believed, lowered vitality and led to the production of journeywork. He envied writers who could come home from a world elsewhere and turn to writing, knowing their financial obligations had been met. Coleridge felt that the time such poets spent writing was more concentrated and exhilarating—in his word, “genial”—because the poet could devote himself wholly to the pleasures of the art. In 1948, even as the poetry profession was gathering steam, W.H. Auden echoed Coleridge’s concern, arguing in The Dyer’s Hand that a poet “should have a job which does not in any way involve the manipulation of words” because “a too exclusively literary life” can be “directly detrimental to his poetry.” Take the New England farm out of Frost’s poetry and there wouldn’t be much left. And it would be hard to imagine how Williams could break away from continental models to write in what he called “the American grain” had he gone into a writing program rather than into the suburbs of New Jersey, where he daily heard a variety of nonliterary dialects and voices as he treated measles and delivered babies. T.S. Eliot worked for Lloyds Bank, performing mundane, repetitive, necessary tasks. It can be argued that this had something to do with the powerful sense of ennui that pervades the music of The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, and The Hollow Men. And although he is famous for his allusiveness, for his weaving of literature into the fabric of the poem, with Eliot it is the result of reading, wide and deep, never the pretentious ornamentation of the whiz-kid graduate student trying to impress his teachers and peers. Wallace Stevens was a dedicated corporate attorney for the Hartford Accident and Life Indemnity Company; so much so that when one of his colleagues heard that Stevens was famous for something quite different from defending the company against lawsuits, he cried: “What? Wally, a poet?” (Stevens declined Harvard’s invitation to serve as the 1954 Charles Eliot Norton Professor, partly because he feared it would jeopardize his insurance career.) One can imagine Stevens finishing up a brief or coming out of a meeting at noon, closing his office door, taking out pen and pad, propping his feet on the desk, and abandoning himself to what is one of the most profoundly imaginative poetic worlds ever created. What do “Sunday Morning,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man,” or “The Idea of Order at Key West” have to do with Stevens’ career as a corporate attorney? Nothing and everything; for that career provided the workaday backdrop that allowed Stevens to assume his liberating, restorative, holiday mood with the kind of purity and zest that Coleridge would have envied. As David Perkins observes about Steven’s work in his History of Modern Poetry, the back and forth movement from mundane to imaginative worlds “connects with the central, continuing topics of his poetry, which revolved incessantly in meditation from ‘things as they are’ to ‘things imagined’ and back again.” The establishment of an academic writing career allows poets to immerse themselves wholly in poetry. Although this can accelerate technical competence, it can sequester and shelter a young poet, limiting and retarding experience of the world and commerce with people that are so vital to the health of poetry. Not only can the poet end up lacking the substance that a non-literary career brings to the writing desk; he runs the risk of becoming so bogged down in po-biz that his art can be affected in insidious ways. Imagine our professional returning home after a day at the university: workshopping poems with students; chatting with them during office hours about publishing concerns; spending the afternoon reading manuscripts for a literary journal or a contest he is being paid to judge; meeting with a committee to review a student’s poems and decide whether or not an MFA should be conferred; finishing up by writing a letter of recommendation for a colleague applying for a Guggenheim. Imagine our professional driving home and turning to the 21st century pleasures of writing poetry. It’s not quite the same turn, not quite so clean a break as that from the chickens, the patients, the bankers, or insurance executives. Worrisome career concerns are likely to bleed into the writing, making it part of a commercial enterprise—something that must be done to maintain status, to be considered for a lucrative award, or to be asked to participate in a conference, or to secure a traveling fellowship or prestigious reading. Because creative writing teachers face the same publish-or-perish imperative as other academics, it’s easy for attention to shift from quality to quantity. Nor can their students afford to wait for the muse; they need to produce regularly, so there will be plenty of amateur poetry to discuss at the workshop table. Much time is spent devising exercises to deal with the profession’s arch-bugaboo, “writer’s block.” Poetry and the process of writing it become one of poetry’s favorite themes (not surprising since workshopping is the common experience and key concern of teachers and students alike). Emphasis on process and quantity leads to the production of tens of thousands of poems clamoring for publication. As an editor or judge, the professional again finds himself in a compromised position. For teachers naturally want to support their students, before and after graduation. Graduates reciprocate by urging their students to buy the books of the mentor and attend his or her workshops, readings and conferences. The relationship between poet as editor or judge and poet as student or colleague can overshadow the work and make unbiased decisions difficult. The temptation to edit a magazine in order to advance one’s own career, with the leverage that position affords, compromises editing. Publication swapping is a practice routinely engaged in and easily rationalized. “Let’s start a magazine!” Cummings cried, tongue-in-cheek, when there was just a handful devoted to poetry. Today, thousands are hardly enough to accommodate the publish-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality that the profession encourages. Each new publication sets the bar lower, allowing more journeywork in. And now the Internet promises to open vast intergalactic publishing opportunities—not thousands but potentially millions of outlets as we move towards po-biz nirvana, where it will be impossible to write a poem too dreadful to be published—somewhere, out there. The fact that the circulation of most of these “zines” (both online and off) is usually limited to contributors, their families, and friends deters no one. They look good on resumes and in bios on the back of subsidized or self-published collections. The mission of the average poetry journal these days is less about readership than it is about certification. Each publication adds one more stamp of approval to the poetry professional’s resumé—one more reason for the writing department to grant tenure. Po-biz anthologies that shuffle poems about under this or that fashionable or politically correct theme (rather than cutting through the crabgrass to find endangered flora) compound the problem. “The weeder is supremely needed,” Pound observes in his ABC of Reading, “ if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a Garden.” The profession seems bent on turning the garden into a jungle.
The revolution in the way poets are educated, published, honored, and supported is still a work very much in progress. It remains to be seen whether it will produce poets who can command the attention and respect of readers over long stretches of literary history. It’s important to keep in mind that, although the profession takes little note of them, many poets continue to write more or less in the time-honored, unstructured, preprofessional way that has given us most of the world’s great poetry, developing their craft without the help of MFA programs or funding from professionally controlled institutions. Many pursue nonliterary careers that provide a diversity of experience and a wealth of information and subject matter that often enriches their writing. It is possible, even likely, that some of The Best American Poetry of the 21st Century may ultimately come not from the ranks of the university professionals but from men and women who, like Sappho, Rumi, Chaucer, Keats, and Dickinson, write not (in Dylan Thomas’s words) “...for ambition or bread / Or the strut and charms / On the ivory stages,” but out of love for what Coleridge and Auden argued should be approached always as an art, never as a trade or career. A poetry profession that focuses attention almost exclusively on its own runs the risk of alienating the common reader and diminishing the art it was established to nurture.
As colleges and universities increasingly make the education, publication, sustenance, and honoring of American poets their business, writing program professionals have assumed a number of nonpoetic responsibilities. It has become part of their business to attract students and sponsor an ever-growing body of work produced by graduates and colleagues. Such practical concerns have led professionals to tolerate aesthetic trends designed not so much to make poetry better as to make it easier to produce and publish. Most obvious is the “prosification” of poetry—the publication of flat, pedestrian prose with the assurance, explicit or implied, that it is the real thing. The notion that lineation is a magic wand that can turn prose into poetry has been uncritically accepted by too many literary editors. So many poets publish lineated prose today that it would be unfair to single out one or two. In “On the Prosing of Poetry,” an installment of the Boston Comment published on Web del Sol, poet and columnist Joan Houlihan makes a similar argument, providing poems by writers such as Donald Hall, John Balaban, John Brehm, and Robert Creeley as examples. She writes, “We have reached the point [where] we are being asked to believe that a text block, chopped randomly into flat, declarative lines, is a poem.” If the profusion of prose made to look like poetry is disconcerting, it is equally annoying when similar fare is dished up under the faddish moniker “prose poem,” a form in which text is set like prose in ragged or justified type, line breaks thereby losing significance. The “poem” part of the equation promises greater density and compression than we normally expect from prose, achieved through poetic devices such as rhythm, imagery, metaphor, simile, and figures of speech. William Blake and Christopher Smart wrote prose poems long before the term was invented. Poe and Baudelaire more consciously a century later. In our own time Russell Edson has written brilliantly in this genre, producing a body of original work that can hold its own with the best poetry proper of our time. The current popularity of the genre is attested to by Peter Johnson, editor of The Best of The Prose Poem: An International Journal. “I have read so many prose poems,” he complains, “that I feel as if a large gray eraser is squatting in the hollow of my head. I am not even sure what my criteria are, anymore.” At least one prestigious graduate writing program understands the genre well enough to offer students an entire course in “The Prose Poem.” The jury is still out on definitions. Some critics deny that the term has any meaning at all. Others concede that the term is muddied, since it is difficult to define the genre without opening the door to the heightened prose of many a novelist and short story writer. Still, the term leads us to expect a combination of and tension between prose and poetic elements. Unfortunately, these expectations aren’t always met. Examples abound. Here are two excerpts from “Doubt,” by Fanny Howe, which appeared in The Best American Poetry 2001, edited by David Lehman and Robert Hass, both long associated with writing programs:
Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941 when the German bombing campaign against England was at its peak and when she was reading Freud whom she had staved off until then.
Edith Stein, recently and controversially beatified by the Pope, who had successfully worked to transform an existential vocabulary into a theological one, was taken to Auschwitz in August 1942.
These excerpts from what appears to be a paracritical essay on Virginia Woolf and other writers (the author is a writing professor at the University of California, San Diego) are part of a prose poem that goes on for four pages. Howe offers interesting insights in a style appropriate for a scholarly or critical journal. But it’s hard to find any definition from Aristotle to the present that would admit such writing as poetry, certainly not under the term free verse or open form; for it has been the concern of responsible poets in those movements to find nontraditional, personalized strategies for making poetry musical. “Poetry atrophies, when it gets too far from music,” Ezra Pound observes in his ABC of Reading. Howe’s piece lacks the rhythmical, imagistic, metaphorical texture needed to fulfill the poetry part of the prose-poem equation. In her author’s note Howe explains that she “can no longer make distinctions” between poetry and prose. It is unfortunate that the editors of an anthology entitled The Best American Poetry are equally unable to make a distinction that readers who buy a book with that title have a right to expect. Even more unfortunate (for what it implies about the future of poetry) is The Spoon River Poetry Review’s award of its $1000 Editors’ Prize for 2002 to “Departing Iceland” by Suzette Bishop. Written by a creative writing instructor at Texas A&M University, it’s a “prose” poem— chock-full of technical data-sheet jargon like the following:
The EC2001 Panther is a fiber optic system that transmits information over SONET (Synchronous Optical NETwork), video, voice, and low speed data….
For instance, with Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS), if an accident or blockage occurs, remote detectors activate video cameras and relay live video feeds of the occurrence back to the maintenance position….
The ever-increasing prosification of poetry assures prospective students that they needn’t employ meter or rhyme or cadence or figurative language, or any of the devices, for that matter, in a standard poet’s dictionary; that the drabbest encyclopedia prose, even technical jargon, can be hailed as “poetry” of the highest order. It’s the profession’s way of redefining the art downward to accommodate its talent pool.
“Defictionalization” of poetry is another disturbing trend. In this case, the profession hitches its star to a legitimate revolution, but does so in a robotic way. In the ‘50s and ‘60s “Beat” and “Confessional” poets found the High Modernist Mode—with its masks, personae and characters, and emphasis on irony, paradox, ambiguity, and allusion—stifling. They wanted to talk about the vital details of their biographies, including hitherto taboo subjects like sexuality and mental instability. They wanted poetry to be more expressive, more directly and intimately connected to the lives they were living, including their socio-political dimensions. As in all valid aesthetic revolutions, new subject matter demanded new form. Readers were not only fascinated by the diverse lives revealed by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lowell, Plath, and Sexton, but by the new poetics each developed to make his or her life sing with a fresh and authoritative voice. We should keep in mind that the Beats and Confessionals had no more aversion to embellishing their lives with fiction in the interest of poetic truth than they had to arranging syllables to make their lines musical in ways clearly distinct from prose. The father figure in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is a mythic creation that bears only a tenuous relation to the professor of entomology who died when Plath was eight years old. While artistically-shaped biographical material can be compelling, much of the poetry coming from the profession that purports to tell “the truth” about the poet’s life is anecdotal, over-literal, and trivial. Senior poets who have written well in the past seem particularly susceptible to believing that the most banal details of their lives are so inherently fascinating that they need add little or nothing in the way of fiction to command the attention of readers. Because ordinary readers continue to want lively stories and interesting characters (that is what draws them to novels, television, and the movies) defictionalization is one more way the profession limits poetry to those who read not so much for pleasure as to keep an eye on the competition. Take “Happiness” (from Sun Under Wood) by Robert Hass. The poem offers readers an ordinary day in the life of the poet. Yesterday, the speaker and his wife “saw a pair of red foxes across the creek.” This morning, when “she went into the gazebo with her black pen and yellow pad” he “drove into town to drink tea in the cafe and write notes in a journal.” On the way he observes “a small flock of tundra swans… feeding on new grass.” In closing, he turns the page of his journal and (after jotting down the poem’s title) reminisces about how he and his wife “lay in bed kissing” that morning, their eyes “squinched up like bats.” Evidently Hass assumes that readers will find these details fascinating. Too often, the focus on literal truth presents us not with the essence or core of the poet’s being, but with the patio furniture of his or her life. Prosification and defictionalization frequently converge in writing that succeeds neither as poetry nor fiction—its virtue amounting to little more than the fact that it’s easy to write for professionals and amateurs alike. James Tate’s “The Diagnosis” (Best American Poetry: 2001) exemplifies what happens when poets embrace fiction half-heartedly. It is a prose poem, in which an attempt to write fiction fizzles, leaving us with something partial and abortive. In clean (though undistinguished) prose, Tate tells us about a man who fails to keep from his wife the fact that he is dying. Tate’s solitary paragraph reads like the opening of a short story or novel; it is a snippet of fiction that leaves us wondering why the writer didn’t finish what appears to be the opening paragraph of a longer piece. Work that is too short, anecdotal, or unrealized to be published as fiction routinely appears as “poetry” or “prose poems” in today’s literary journals. Indeed, many creative writing students choose poetry because fiction is too demanding. A novel takes a huge chunk of time to write, to say nothing of the talent and experience required to construct interesting plots and plausible characters. The journals are so many and standards so low that if students can learn to write something called “poetry” (easy to do when redefined as defictionalized prose, with or without line breaks) they can get published and even gain recognition as poets. Interviewed in Rattle, Maxine Kumin laments the fact that “a lot” of her MFA students “can’t write a simple declarative sentence.” “I’ve had students,” Kumin continues
who literally did not know the difference between a complete sentence and a fragmentary sentence, who did not know how to paragraph, and these were graduate students. I found it just really appalling that they’re writing poetry because they feel they don’t have any obligation to grammar if they’re writing poems, and that disturbs me a lot. So-called language poetry has encouraged this broken diction full of ellipses.
When it comes to publishing, such students are aware that writing program novelists and screenwriters have not been able to commandeer the business side of their genres in the way that poetry professionals have. Publishers have been quite good-natured about ceding control of the petty-cash poetry market to writing program professionals. But where tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake neither publishers nor film producers are impressed by professor X’s letter of support for a protégé novelist or screenwriter. It is much easier to get a poem, even a full collection published today than it is to place a novel or get a script produced—partly because the same professionals who educate poets often control poetry publications as well. Ironically, what was once regarded as the most demanding of the verbal arts now appears to be the easiest, not only to create, but to place.
Prosification and defictionalization are frequently accompanied by a change in rhetorical address—in the way the poet imagines himself and the reader. Until recently poets almost always assumed the generous voice of a full human being speaking to any other human being willing to listen. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Yeats all have nonspecialized, nonrestrictive, inclusive voices that invite all readers into their poems. “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring,” Frost writes. “You come too.” The speaker is talking to his spouse, or his child, or a friend, but we feel that we are being intimately addressed as well and that the poet has too much respect to characterize us according to what he supposes we are or do. “Let us go then, you and I,” one voice in J. Alfred Prufrock’s mind proposes to another. Again, we sense a larger voice behind Prufrock, wooing us into the poem, a voice too tactful to straitjacket either poet or reader with presumptive adjectives. What we hear too frequently in today’s poetry is the shrunken, diminished voice of the professional addressing his or her colleagues. Increasingly, poets write about literary subjects—about writing poetry, about other poets, about art, music, sculpture, literary history, or jaunts to the great art shrines and museums. Poems are frequently prefaced with epigraphs by other writers, often obscure ones who will be known only to professionals as if to warn the general reading public that what follows is not for them. “Shut Not The Door,” Whitman warns, with one of his titles. Too often, professionalized poetry seems bent on slamming the door in the face of the ordinary, intelligent reader.
In an on-line interview in the New Zealand journal Sport, British poet James Fenton argues that “the way people have been writing in England is much more liable to reach and please and gratify an audience’s taste than what’s generally being written in America.” The British have, in fact, been reluctant to follow America in professionalizing poetry. In 1992 William Logan observed in Reputations of the Tongue that in Britain there were no graduate writing programs in poetry (he reports in a recent letter to Poets & Writers Magazine that several universities have since added them). The British aversion to workshops, according to Logan, derives partly from “what one journalist calls ‘the American model of high professionalism and low quality.’” “We call on America to stop killing, torturing, and imprisoning its poets,” Fenton warns in Out of Danger. Sounds like the Brits think America needs a poetry revolution! But don’t hold your breath. The professionals have their hands on all the levers: education, publication, sustenance, and reward. The moneychangers are in the temple. Revolution is not in their interest. Several thousand professional poets are now teaching in writing programs. An aesthetic revolution that could break through to general readers in the way that the Modernists and Beats and Confessionals broke through might render their poetry irrelevant and destroy many comfortable careers. The profession’s idea of poetic revolution is confined to tinkering with the status quo, as in New-Formalism (spiffing up a former mode) or Language Poetry (a sub-species of nonsense verse that allows spiritually exhausted professionals to continue to publish by turning what was once a communicative art into a hermetic game). I have been defining the poetry professional as one who must publish poetry in order to sustain a writing career at a college or university. But I don’t want to ignore some very positive aspects of professionalization. The parity women achieved that brought us so much fresh poetry in the last half of the 20th century was accelerated by the burgeoning writing programs of the ‘60s and ‘70s. And the university’s commitment to affirmative action further enriched poetry by nurturing talented poets of ethnic background who at an earlier time in American literary history might have been underrated or ignored. Nor should we forget that many genuine lovers of poetry are teaching, editing, and evaluating their students and colleagues responsibly. Many nonprofessionals have attended their workshops and conferences, taken their poetry courses, and even completed MFA programs. In many cases they have become more seriously committed and their poetry has improved. And the seductive powers of any profession are such that most can sympathize with the conflicts writing program poet-teachers face. There are many excellent poets on college campuses who are fighting valiantly to keep the art above career and politics. Other professionals, however, seem oblivious to the fact that many men and women who are not professionals are writing poetry, and writing it well; they simply write out of love for the art. Since they support the profession financially it is not unreasonable for them to expect a fair playing field. They are the ones who send checks each year to the Academy of American Poets; who subscribe to Poetry, APR, and other elite journals; who plunk down $500 to go to this or that workshop; who enter book contests they never win with reading fees that go up every year; who buy the books of elite poets and attend their readings, often baffled as to why X or Y is garnering such extravagant praise. We nonprofessionals need to speak up and make our presence known. We need to remind professionals that the ad-hoc, personalized, dare I say amateur writing process they are striving to replace has produced practically all of the great poetry in the world for over 2500 years! We need to let them know that we expect poetry to continue to be published and honored on the basis of its quality rather than on the professional status or nonstatus of the poet. When you open a literary journal and see what you think is downright prose parading as poetry, write a letter to the editor and ask what it is doing there. When you see poems full of shoptalk, insider references, poetic name-dropping and credential-showing, complain—or, better yet, cancel your subscription. When you notice a strong connection between the winner of a prize and the judge, question the ethics, let them know you’ve noticed, and boycott that contest in the future. Make your views known, not only by writing poetry, but by also writing reviews, articles, and manifestos about poetry. Although professionals routinely publish books on poetry, most of them are how-to manuals that promote homogenization and glut; there is far too little original thinking going on, as it once did in books like Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Pound’s ABC of Reading, Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, or Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, to mention a few classics that can lead poets to settle for nothing less than the best not only in their own work, but in that of their contemporaries. We cannot disestablish the profession; but we can make it better. If poetry professionals come to recognize that they are part of a wider literary community—one that expects them to act responsibly when it comes not only to poetics but to poethics—we may, in Dana Gioia’s words, be able to make poetry matter again, not only to poets, professional and nonprofessional, but to all intelligent readers.