Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ten Questions on Poetry Today

Nic Sebastian posed these at his blog, so I thought I'd answer them:

The Ten Questions

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

1) No role. Or nearly none. Poetry is a cultural vestigial organ, like lawn bowling. Only a few aficionados appreciate it. “What poetry most lacks is an audience worthy of it.” “Poetry was always for the elite.”

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet - now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

2) I took only one poetry workshop in person, and it wasn’t helpful. All the other participants were callow, unfledged, unfamiliar with the history or distinctions in the art. Online workshops? The old Zeugma listserv helped me; boards rarely influenced me; publication in a decent journal was my general measure.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful - and published poetry would be better - if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

3) Absolutely agree. I tell students not to revise a first draft for a month, not to edit that for six months, and not to submit for a year. Donald Hall is not a favorite of mine; his wife was much the better poet.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

4) Not in my essays. Search “Logopoetry” for instance; more theoretical than personal; my essays on Eliot inform without degrading; only my essay on Bukowski could be considered perjorative. Fundamental poetry criticism is interesting for its own sake. A friend of mine reads it more than poetry itself just for fun.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

5) Yes. Edited The Melic Review for eight years. Published in journals voraciously. Many folks, I’m told, have heard of me. There’s some article on the net entitled “A Presence on the Net” KayDay wrote about me without ever contacting me. As for today, my presence has diminished in proportion to my growth; I don’t need boards for growth or criticism; my wife acts as my editor, a poet in her own right, and she’s better than any I’ve ever met on a board. She founded Zeugma in its infancy and glory, not the Zeugma that now exists

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

6) Publishing: 1 book of poetry, edited an anthology; upwards of five hundred poems, columns, essays and some fiction. Unfortunately, at least half of these have been lost to failed electronic magazines who no longer maintain archives. Being published in a good journal is always a tonic to my self-esteem, as I believe all poets suffer from lifelong doubts about the value of their work.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

7) Most are at best mediocre, one sign of which is publishing their own staff. Some are good; many good ones have failed. Usually I hear of a new, promising one through contacts and I send them something. Also, that The New Yorker and Ploughshares, for example, now accept online submissions brings two worlds together for the better.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

8) I’m old school. I don’t self-publish, except my old essays in Melic. Poets tell me I’m stupid to cling to such a value; I know 85% of all books in the USA are self-published; but then there’s the question of marketing–after you run out of friends and relatives, where do you go? Arrange a book tour out of the back of your van? I’ve read at major bookstores, and most audiences are poets themselves wondering why you’re at the podium and they’re not. I haven’t had a book of poems published in ten years; then I haven’t been aggressive in promoting later mss., of which I have three, to small presses, because I have little confidence that they are much better than self-publishing. And the major publishers are closed to newbies, like Copper Canyon Press. Why publish if no one reads your books? A successful book of poetry should sell 1000 copies. I estimate less than 1% do.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

9) By diluting the talent pool into bedlam, by dumbing down the curriculum, etc., nearly every poet can obtain some public exposure, when it used to be much harder without true talent and hard work. The democratization of poetry allows many more to participate. Unfortunately, it muddies all the distinctions, at the common level, between the bad, the mediocre, the good and the great. Anyone can get published today; that’s the opportunity and that’s the curse.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

10) Striving to be as knowlegeable, literate and skilled as a poet from 50 years ago. Nowadays every uneducated slob thinks his doodlings are poetry. There are very few truly skilled poets practicing. I’ve had students who could never actually fulfill the assignment to write a sonnet; where would they have been 100 years ago? I think you should master formal verse before indulging in free verse. The one bleeds into the other. You can hear formal rhythms in the best free verse poets. Most poets today are simply unskilled in the basic tenets of poetic history and form, and it shows particularly in their sloppy line breaks and little difference from prose; it’s just chopped prose.

I hope I don’t come off as too much of a curmudgeon, but I’m 52 and have been publishing since the age of 18, while fitting in a medical career, a musical career, and raising a family–besides trying to manage my manic-depressive illness. So I’ve seen a lot come and go. Why someone like Robert Creeley garnered so much acclaim puzzles me; success often has little to do with quality; sometimes they seem absolutely divorced. Put Ted Hughes in that queue, too.


  1. You've been above my head with the poetry stuff lately but I think you're probably right when you say "I think you should master formal verse before indulging in free verse." That would be my challenge were I to look seriously at attempting to write poetry again.

    And I like what you said in #3 about pacing yourself in the whole rewriting process. I'm always a bit nervous about trying to's kind of like "teasing" hair or applying makeup, you have to know when to stop. Otherwise, you'll just have a big fat mess on your hands.

  2. Thanks so much for this! A great deal to think about here - very much appreciate your taking the time to answer so thoughtfully. Cheers, Nic


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