A Bad Date
This, in a nutshell, is what too many modern poets and the poetry establishment, publicly and privately, has been telling themselves and telling the modern reader for over half a century: It’s not me, it’s you. Just recently I was discussing the matter with another blogger, who I like, but who contemptuously characterized the modern reader as only interested in greeting card poetry or poetry for children.
The poetics of the last 60 years has largely been a failure. And who’s to blame? You.
What do I mean by failure? I mean that poetry, as a genre, has failed to engage the modern reader and audience.
There are exceptions. Mary Oliver would be an exception. So would W.S. Merwin. Oliver and Merwin, like all poets, have written good poems and bad poems (they don’t need me to defend them), but they have engaged the modern reader in a way that no avant-garde poet has equaled – certainly not Ron Silliman or Ashbery. At Amazon.com, Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early” has a sales ranking of 8,636 (the best, so far, of any poetry I’ve found). By way of comparison, the best John Ashbery (the darling of the modern poetry establishment) – The Library of America’s Collected Poems: Volume 1 – has a sales ranking of 245,215. The book that is considered by many to be his masterpiece and very best, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, comes in at 427,389. Ron Silliman’s Alphabet ranks at 523,241.
This means that, at Amazon, Oliver’s sales rank, compared to Ashbery, is 28 to 1; compared to Silliman 60.5 to 1.
And yet Ashbery was the poet who Library of America chose to glorify. In fact, according to Amazon, Oliver has consistently outsold every English speaking avant-garde poet on the planet. What does this say about her poetry? The ignored poets will tell you that popularity is no indication of quality, let alone greatness because: what do you know? – even while they themselves yearn to be read by you (read popular). This is a convenient belief and goes some way toward explaining why a poet like Oliver or Merwin, both of whom are far more widely read and appreciated by the modern reader, is overlooked in favor of Ashbery. And it gives you an idea of what the modern poetry establishment thinks of your taste: if the modern reader wasn’t such a lazy dolt with child-like attention spans and greeting card aesthetics, then the truly deserving poets (apparently not Oliver) would be popular. Really, it’s you.
By the way, and because the subject will inevitably come up, here’s how Amazon’s Sales rankings can be understood:
47.9% of Amazon’s sales consisted of titles ranked better than (under) 40,000. 39.2% of their sales were books ranked between 40,000 and 100,000.5 Titles ranked between 100,000 and 200,000 accounted for 7.3% of sales, while titles ranked from 200,000 to 300,000 accounted for only 4.6% of sales.5 Anything above that accounts for only 1% of sales.
Researchers at MIT (Brynjolfsson, Yu and Smith) studied publisher-provided data of one publisher’s weekly sales for 321 titles, and compared the figures to Amazon’s sales rankings for the same week. The observed weekly sales of these books ranged from 1 to 481 copies and the observed weekly rankings ranged from 238 to 961,367.5 Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books also analyzed performance based on a brand new book he published. Combining the information culled from both studies, if a book is ranked 100,000 you’re looking at selling about 1 copy per day. At a ranking of 30,000 it’s averaging between 1 and 2 copies per day. The 10,000 ranking calculates to 2 copies a day. The 1,000 ranking is estimated at 11 sales that day. A book with a rank of 10 is estimated to get 700 sales a day.
Keep in mind that a ranking at any single point in time is not indicative of actual sales. Selling two copies of a title, regardless of whether it has ever sold before, will propel it into the top 50,000 for at least a few hours. If the same book otherwise sells very rarely, or never, it will drop 100,000 rankings the next day, 400,000 rankings over the course of the week, another 200,000 rankings the next week, and so on. Eventually it will hover around 2,000,000.
So, keeping that in mind, I’ve been watching the sales rankings of both books, Oliver’s I Wake Early and Ashbery’s Collected Poems, for the last 8 weeks. They have both remained fairly stable. And as this post ages, you can check them again and update me. I’ll do the same. I’m all about the evidence. The long and short of it is this: Oliver’s book represents a part of the 47.9% described above, Ashbery’s book represents a part of 4.6% (which is all the more damning given the fanfare surrounding the Library of America’s publication). And if we’re making a fair comparison (single book to single book), Ashbery’s Masterpiece is found in 1% of Amazon’s sales.
Lastly, and as of 2008, Amazon represented 70% of the online book market. By any standard, that makes Amazon a fairly reliable indicator.
Is the audience out there?
Another refrain you will hear is that the audience for poetry no longer exists; poetry isn’t a genre that people care about. And you may also hear that the modern American reader can no longer distinguish between great poetry, good poetry or bad poetry. Both of these have to be among the most self-serving arguments ever concocted. It’s you, really, it’s you. We’re writing great poetry, you are just too clueless to recognize it.
In Tyler Hoffman’s book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, he opens with a lovely anecdote: “In 1919, Frost wrote a letter to his daughter Lesley. who had entered and lost a poetry contest, urging her to beware of caring about the reception of one’s [sic] work: ‘Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.'”[Intruction p. 1]
As Vernon Shetley has shown, this hostility to modernist difficulty is not unique to Frost; other sophisticated readers saw that such difficulty spelt the demise of the “common reader” – a condition Shetley argues, from which we have not recovered: “The last time they [general readers] were sighted in large numbers was in the 1960s, refreshing themselves in the New England landscapes of Robert Frost.” Although the recent rap-meets-poetry scene has done much to reenfranchise the common reader, or, more accurately, the common listener, Shetley’s point is well-taken. [Ibid 2]
To be sure, Frost’s poems seem on the surface fairly accessible by virtue of their colloquial sounds, and the appearance of his poetry in such mainstream magazines as Haper’s, New Republic, and Scribner’s attests to his success in attracting a popular audience. (…) In a 1913 letter, Frost made clear his ultimate intention of getting out beyond the poetry circle in his hunt for money and fame:
[T]here is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands…. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Ibid 3]
And this is what Frost’s poetry continues to do, along with Oliver’s. They reach the crowd. And the crowd, contrary to the insinuations of modern poets, has no trouble recognizing the good poetry from bad. They continue to buy Yeats, Frost, Dickinson, Cummings (today’s sales rank 32,675), Keats, Eliot, etc… If they didn’t sell, publishers wouldn’t stock bookstores with multiple issues – never mind the numerous books on haiku, sonnets, love poetry, erotic poetry, etc…
Don’t be fooled. The audience is out there, but if sales are any indication, they don’t want to read disjunctive, non-grammatical poetry. A great poet may emerge out of the conceptual or avant-garde aesthetic, but it won’t be by badmouthing or ignoring the judgment of the “common reader”. If these poets want to succeed (and with more than that success “of esteem” or the teapot-approbation of their own establishments) they will have to do it the same way every great poet has done it, by engaging the “common reader” intellectually and emotionally (which is what those other best-selling writers condescend to do, otherwise known as short-story writers, dramatists and novelists).
If the vast majority of latter, 20th century poets aren’t read as widely as they might be, maybe it’s because their poetry isn’t as good as it might be?
Is it them, and not you?
And of course, my standards apply to me. If my own poetry is abysmally under read (and it is), then I’m not going to blame the readership. The audience is out there. I’ve certainly failed to reach it and I have failed to market myself (this blog is a start). I happen to think my poetry is great poetry but I haven’t put it to the test. I blame myself for that. Given the chance and exposure, suppose I fail?
Then it’s likely I’m a poor judge of poetry, especially my own.
I’m not going to blame my lack of success on the mediocrity of the masses.
Is popularity the same as quality?
This is the direction these discussions inevitably go. If one judges the worth of a work according to its sales, what about all those mediocre poets and artists who were also, in their own day, best selling? Think of Longfellow or Salieri. Longfellow wasn’t a bad poet, but was hardly the equal of Whitman or Dickinson.
But the question isn’t whether mediocre artists can’t also be popular, but whether the better poets weren’t.
The foremost example of the great poet who wasn’t popular is Emily Dickinson. But her example is flatly misleading. In her own lifetime, Dickinson never courted the public. She effectively sequestered both herself and her poetry. What if she had tried to court the public? We don’t know. What we do know is that once her poems reached the public, after her death and, albeit , in an edited form (primarily normalizing punctuation and spelling according to scholars), they were a definitive success – rapidly adopted by the reading public.
Walt Whitman achieved considerable success during his own lifetime. So did Tennyson, Shelley, the Brownings and Wordsworth. Keats didn’t live long enough to see success in his own lifetime. And though his reputation ebbed and flowed, his influence was ever present. Among the moderns, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were both recognized by the general public and saw their work widely disseminated.
Looking back through history, the pattern is the same (though what it meant to be successful depended on the era). Shakespeare retired a rich man.
The bottom line: modern poets can’t argue that obscurity or neglect doesn’t portend continued obscurity and neglect. If this generation’s self-selected great poets are being largely ignored by the general public then, according to history, it’s a reliable sign that they will continue to be ignored. How long will the current generation’s establishment continue to champion poets who aren’t being read? Probably right up until the next generation quietly (or not so quietly) removes them from their pedestals. That’s the way it’s always been. While popularity isn’t a reliable sign of greatness, it’s a fairly reliable sign of mediocrity. Poets who courted the general public and were marginalized in their own day continue to be marginalized by later generations. Right now, I can’t think of any exceptions.
What poets are being read by the general public? They are, first and foremost, the poets who write to be understood. Their poems possess imagery that the average reader can make sense of, along with clarity and unity of thought. The public continues to buy and read poetry written in rhyme and meter. The youngest audiences instinctively gravitate toward language that possesses rhythm (accentual and accentual syllabic meters) and rhyme. They find it in nursery rhymes and later in rap and popular music. Go to a site like Poetry Freedom if you want to see what the youngest poets and readers enjoy.
It’s easy for modern poets to dismiss these young poets and their poems as trivial and mawkish, but the techniques they use, are learning and enjoy are the techniques of the great poets: Frost, Keats, Shakespeare, Cummings, Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, along with poets like Simic, Merwin and Oliver. They’re the audience of the future.
My bet is that they know great poetry when they see it.
(W.S. Merwin’s Book, The Shadows of Sirius, as of July 22nd, 2009, has a sales rank of 5,406. Just checked at 4:30. Someone must have bought another copy, Merwin’s ranking jumped to 2,879.)
[The Frost book which I’m following is the Library of America Edition – same as the Ashbery. So is the Whitman, which I’ve included just out of curiosity. Ron Silliman is represented by his new book, the Alphabet. Christian Bök is represnted by Eunoia.]
July 23: 8,632 –|-346,513—-|-15,010—|-181,394-|-630,876—-|-555,938—|43,348
July 24: 8,192–|-371,296—-|-4,085—-|–71,003-|-678,531—-|-631,346—|38,318
July 26: 5,255–|-87,204——|-11,116—-|-184,614|-705,812—-|-206,932—|127,792
July 27: 8,618–|-94,564——|-8,527—–|-87,657-|-252,553—-|-344,750—|122,208