It’s the Song Not the Singer
(Publisher’s Lengthy Intro to the Spirit Behind Dead Flowers: A Poetry Rag)
By John Hospodka
Because the same names pop up time and time again within the pages of the big players of poetry, and because virtually all of those published within their pages have a line item in their resume stating “MFA from,” I do believe there looms a valid paranoia for resume-less no-names that the big players keep their doors closed to them. By opening their publications to no-names – meaning actually considering no-names’ poems and not just paying lip-service to the idealism of such an endeavor – the big players stand to offer a more public literature, a poetry that derives from the dynamic realities of everyday survival rather than the staid insularity of poetry’s MFA or PhD system. These publications would then begin to champion poetry of an outsider character, rather than poetry of careerist deference, and in doing so the experience of poetry would be opened to a wider audience.
Making a Name for Yourself
With a name like Franz Wright you’re in the door, right? I’m positive not every one of his poems is chosen for publication, but his name does offer him a greater opportunity than a no-name, period. I can see that the big players in poetry publishing may argue that it is important to accept poetry that is backed up with a strong resume – because of stature and the need for their poetry to be validated by the academy. This is a necessary right of theirs because when you are a big player you need to legitimize yourself by attracting big names for your audience, which will in turn, hopefully, attract advertisers and the attention of other media. This is exactly why big players solicit work.
Yet there remains a great lack of publishing opportunity available to a no-name with little to no publishing credits, and with no MFA or workshop background who submits his/her work unsolicited. No doubt, the occasional new name – the “discovery” – does pop up, but these are names that have more likely than not been squeezed through the system (MFA programs, namely; workshops), and the inner circle (the realm of publication, friends) – schooled poets, if you will. Schooled poets are names known to the names – names known to other schooled poets: Careerists. So, herein lies the malady: The system of poetry looks inward, not outward.
Perhaps the fact that seemingly only MFAs are being published indicates that these are the only poets submitting poetry today. If this is the case then poetry is truly dead, and I for one won’t neglect to throw dead flowers on its grave. But I have faith that there are those who after a fingers-crossed day trapped in the workplace eventually make it home to deal with life before finally, after the 10 o’clock news, spending a free hour with pen and paper and muse. I have no doubt there are such non-MFA people out there, and that they actually repeatedly find a smidgen of time every now and again to send some poems off. In other words, there exist poets in the real world who take poetry seriously, who educate themselves by continually reading the best poetry and criticism, and who continuously make attempts to perfect their craft. These non-MFA poets do all of this, even if hesitant to admit, in the endeavor to one day be heard.
The notion of careerism has played a role within the MFA debate from the start. Careerism implies schooled poets are explicitly helping other schooled poets, publishing each others poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure or to maintain a recognizable status of occupation within the MFA system. Essentially, careerism sets up an arena wherein the MFA debate is only argued from one side of the line. The participants in the argument, no matter what side they take, all descend from poetry’s MFA or PhD system. It makes for a boring argument, and this is indicative of the poetry we see today: Much of it, whether it aspires to be innovative, experimental, formal or lyrical, is the staid poetry of complacency. Poetry that is published is poetry written for schooled poets.
The question of the significance of an MFA or PhD boils down to the question of what qualities of craft constitute a true – yes, I said true – poet. It is the difference between approaching the writing of poetry out of a sense of need or out of a sense of want. It is the recognition of honesty over polite back-scratching.
What’s in a Name?
Poets are of such a character that they are incapable of adorning a facade, of being untruthful. It is this character, this assemblage of qualities that distinguishes him/her from another, which becomes the poet’s voice, and it is how the poet goes about the assembling of these qualities that shall ultimately dictate if he/she is indeed suited for the only career a true poet will ever endeavor to embrace: Posterity. I am not suggesting that there will never be examples of schooled poets who indeed represent this idea of honest character that I am presenting here, but what I am suggesting is that it’s highly unlikely an MFA could, without a sense of either judgment or shame, render into a poem the buying of a drink for an outspoken racist in the only saloon of a Methland town. To be sure, it’s extremely unlikely a schooled poet would ever put his/herself in such a position.
The common thread one finds throughout the poetry within today’s literary publications is that the character residing inside the poems’ bellies entirely lacks the ability to authentically spite, to authentically have nothing to lose: To be authentically – not ironically, not sarcastically; not even empathetically – but authentically – irreverent. Not being irreverent merely for the sake of irreverence, but rather aspiring to the honest expression of a most elegant “Fuck you.” Many moons ago I went to a reading by the American crime fiction writer James Ellroy, and in response to an attendee’s question he gave a remark that has played in the back of my head ever since, “Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.” It doesn’t matter if one is familiar with Chandler or Hammett, the implication is there for everyone to grasp. Pretenders are less consequential. Pretenders are easy to call out – they are trying rather than being. It’s the difference between writing out of a sense of need or out of a sense of want.
The consequence of today’s poetry system holding careerism in such high esteem is that poetry has become too damn pleasant – a far too insular and safe craft. This is why we need the no-names. It is exactly the poet’s duty to be a fool and to be self-indulgent. This fool, however, must be socially devoid of the artistic pretentiousness that is inherent to poetry’s schooled system in order to bestow upon the written word a most precious gift: The language of a most elegant “Fuck you.” This authentic irreverence is birthed by the poet’s aspiration to indulge his/her own writerly limitations; to not be judgmental, and to have no shame. The no-name is able to make unheard of decisions because he/she has nothing to lose.
The intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public – those who’d ever even consider picking up a book of poetry (and let’s acknowledge that there’s obviously a huge sector of the American public that is forever lost to poetry) – needs someone in whom they can believe, someone who more closely resembles the age-old vision of the poet as being an off-center, flawed, and thus honest human. They need one who is perceptibly moved to the calling that is poetry; they need that fool who agelessly scouts existence’s extremes, they need that innovator in the soul of comprehension who from his/her elevated height of perception can honestly admit that he/she is no more than the public – is of the public. The intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public today needs a Poet (capitalization intended) more than they need a poem. They don’t want a teacher, they want a tightrope walker, and it’s high time the big players in poetry come to a balance upon this fact.
Giving a Name to the Nameless
Let’s face it, the only reason poetry exists is for the readership. Aside from endeavoring to present work that is of the highest quality/taste, the editors of literary publications should go about their selections of poems with the clear ambition of attaining a greater readership. There are obviously publications that stress a certain poetic school or style, and so they essentially ask for a limited readership.
Within Poetry‘s press release dated June 10, 2011, regarding the opening of its new home in Chicago, Poetry Foundation President John Barr states, “Poetry is something people reach for at both the highs and lows of their lives. More and more people are discovering and enjoying poetry, and the growth of our programs really bears that out.” I applaud Mr. Barr’s cheerleading, but those doing the reaching are simply the “more and more” schooled poets being churned out by the system. In the end, it must be realized that by growing this inner circle from within rather than from without is a snow job – merely cosmetic. If you want to stay alive and grow you need to attract people, not poets (yes, a necessary distinction). The safe inner circle of poetry is creating more “schooled” poets, but not enough readers of poetry.
Mr. Barr’s cheerleading becomes even more suspect after reading his brief but rewarding essay “American Poetry in the New Century” wherein he makes such observations as “A general, interested public is poetry’s foremost need” and yet “Lacking a general audience, poets still write for one another. (Witness the growth of writing workshops and the MFA programs.) … they cannot support themselves as writers. So they teach. But an academic life removes them yet further from a general audience. Each year, MFA programs graduate thousands of students who have been trained to think of poetry as a career, and to think that writing poetry has something to do with credentials.” These statements are indicative of why the idea of poets against MFA and PhD systems needs to be widened. Clearly the world of “professional poetry” is entirely of and for the MFA and PhD systems – poetry’s inner circle. These poets are not, however, reaching poetry’s potential readership.
Poetry must see that its potential readership has no responsibility to comprehend the formal elements – the techniques – of poetry, and so poetry must make it a priority to provide them with an experience to be admired, not a labor to be indulged. The intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public craves accessibility; they want their age-old vision of the poet as being an off-center, flawed, and thus honest human. The hard work on their part – the coming to grips with poetry’s techniques as readers – will come in time (this is why the poet must never sell-out on technique; it is absolutely imparative for a poet to practise the various techniques of poetry – this can be well instilled in the undergraduate curriculum), but they must first be transported to the point where they become interested. The system must aspire to grasp humility. Understanding that poetry’s potential readership is largely uncaring about the formal elements of poetry, it must be made known to those within poetry’s schooled systems and within poetry’s inner circle that to presume a poem is a classroom is a whole hell of a lot less appealing than to assume that a poet is a poem.
Today, we see poetry in a perpetual state of cessation as readership for poetry continues to decline at a tremendous rate. Today poetry has become the poet’s worst nightmare, poetry for the sake of poets. A good example of this can be found on a recent poetry contest page on Narrative Magazine‘s website, “the number of adults who read poetry, as surveyed by the NEA, has decreased by approximately half in the past two decades. Less than 10 percent of adults read any poetry at all. More than ever, the economics of poetry are such that poetry is for the most part a subsidized, rather than a profitable, enterprise.”
Here’s the bottom line: To the intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public, of which the no-name poet is a member, schooled poets appear smug, untouchables – caught up in a world of their own. Poetry readings and poetry publications are practices in a communal narcissism, and as such they further distance poetry from its chance at capturing those who do not like being pigeonholed by insularity: The intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public, and the no-name poet. Slam Poetry claims to be outside the Ivory Tower, but as a “school” it is no less of an emotional charity to “street” poets as the campuses are to schooled poets (again poetry for the sake of poets, or in Slam’s case – monologues for the sake of monologists). But campuses of course extend beyond polite back-scratching to act as financial charities to poets, much like … The New Yorker, Poetry, etc.
That’s why the same names keep popping up – solicitation or not. The New Yorker and the other big players in poetry are here to provide emotional support and grocery money for schooled poets. Big players in poetry are here to provide for and to preserve poetry’s schooled system and their inner circle. At this point in time, however, this may be the only option the big players in poetry have to remain alive. They are forced to gather financial sustenance from the inside because it alone provides a modicum of stability and growth.
The ethical approach to the submission and selection process for literary publications must be blind, whose credo is: It’s the song not the singer. This approach will come to be as much of a signal of stature for literary publications as it will nurture, both within and outside poetry’s schooled system, a more evolving respect for the art of poetry. This approach is in the name of true discovery, which will in turn (and quite paradoxically) provide the intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public with what they want: The singer not the song. The phenomenon of one whose very existence is – despite the system and the inner circle – dependent upon being (as opposed to practicing to be) the mockingbird-hearted creature of an irresponsible dream: A Poet.
So then, and pardon my irreverence, the best hope for a healthful curiosity over the art of poetry to become rooted within the intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public resides with the no-name poet. I read a worthy challenge to the schooled system some time ago by Josh Cook, a reviewer for the litblog and webzine Bookslut. In his essay “The Problem with American Poetry” he arrives at an alternate route of publication selection, “This cycle can be, at least partially, broken if the major poetry publishing literary magazines turned over the curating of their poetry section once a year to an avowed poetry hater. There are plenty of intellectual readers of literature who do not read poetry and I think it would, at the very least, be an interesting experiment to see what they would consider the best poetry being written. Is there a chance they’d hold their noses and choose the same kind of poetry as the poetry editors? Of course, but if that is the case at least we would have some kind of independent confirmation that this really is a limitation of quality and not taste (or courage).”
But I will amend the challenge to some degree. The “avowed poetry hater” must be altered to “one who is indifferent to poetry.” A hater’s motivation would be too suspect – usually if you hate something you’re not in too much of a mood to see it improve (e.g. my hatred for the Chicago Cubs; I really just never want to see them win – I revel in their losses). As an “intellectual reader” the curator would need to be expected to write an explanation of the process behind his/her choices, thusly adding something that is desperately missing from the ever-present argument about poetry’s state: The voice of the intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public: A voice outside of the poetry world. All sides of this argument have been debated solely by those from the same insular side of schooled poetry. It is a confused and confusing argument, as made evident by Mr. Barr’s juxtaposed observations. It is an argument rendered useless and entirely arbitrary because it never opens the door for the intellectually curious and creatively attuned American public to enter as a participant. …
Causes John Hospodka Supports
a foundation supporting artists with MS