The age old pastime goes back to King Lear’s quote and before. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s star rises? Who’s falls.
I’ve been enjoying an email discussion in which an opinion was made that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s reputations may be solidifying as the best of their generation: rising above the likes of Jarrell, Berryman, Schwartz, and Wilbur.
That was news to me, although there’s no reason why it should be. I have no inside spies in the court of public/academic/critical opinion. The question really raised by such speculation is: How do we know the best poets of a generation? Can we? And who decides?
When bookstores dotted the land, my exceedingly unscientific method of deciding which poets were in and out was by seeing what poets were represented on the bookshelves. College bookstores, like the Dartmouth Bookstore, used to have an extensive collection, an entire wall. As to whether those books were being curated by academic taste or by reader interest, I would say the former. Poets in academia, in my experience, foist on their students all those poets who are most like themselves. But when the Dartmouth Bookstore began shedding its inventory before eventually closing, the first section to be gutted was the poetry section. By the time they were done, the poetry section had gone from an entire 8X16 foot wall to a sparsely populated waist high bookshelf about three feet wide. Who were the poets shelved there? Whitman. Frost. Stevens. Yeats. Mary Oliver. Moore (maybe). Bishop (maybe). Cummings. Flavorless translations of Rumi. The various poets teaching at Dartmouth. Shakespeare. Eliot. Sundry anthologies and whatever books about poetry or Collected Poems had been most recently published. You get the idea— poetry’s eminences accompanied by a ragtag of hopefuls.
Now that most bookstores are gone, we have online bookstores.
And the only/best? way I can think of to tease out who’s in and who’s out is by the number of raiyngs/comments an author or poet receives—the closest equivalent to Rotten Tomatoes but for books. And, to me, how many stars a given author receives is less important than that he or she is being discussed. But, knowing that one can’t assert anything, ever, without someone disagreeing, I’ll just assume there will be a coterie of readers who dismiss “comment counts” as trivially meaningless. Maybe so, and I’m open to suggestions. There’s also Amazon sales ranks to consider:
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 50,000 to 100,000 – selling close to 1 book a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 10,000 to 50,000 – selling 5 to 15 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 5,500 to 10,000 – selling 15 to 25 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 3,000 to 5,500 – selling25 to 70 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 1,500 to 3,000 – selling70 to 100 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 750 to 1,500 – selling 100 to 120 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 500 to 750 – selling120 to 175 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 350 to 500 – selling175 to 250 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 200 to 350 – selling 250 to 500 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 35 to 200 -selling500 to 2,000 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank 20 to 35 – selling 2,000 to 3,000 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank of 5 to 20 – selling3,000 to 4,000 books a day.
- Amazon Best Seller Rank of 1 to 5 – selling4,000+ books a day.
The website from which this list comes, makeuseof, makes clear that this solely pertains to books—which is perfect for our purposes.
So, Robert Frost’s leather bound collection of poems has garnered 867 ratings and currently has a sales ranking of 10,015. If you ask me, that’s impressive; and for a poet who’s been dead for over half a century. He’s selling roughly 15 books a day. There was a time when the critical consensus ran against Frost, asserting that his poetry lacked the “textual/critical difficulty” and “originality” of his peers (both supremely prized attributes of 20th century poetry), but critical consensus was wrong insofar as Frost’s durability goes. Any critic still dismissing Frost’s standing as one of our great poets, if not the great poet of the 20th century, is on the losing side of history.
- And that assertion is going to rankle any number of readers who do not accept public appeal as tantamount to an artist’s greatness. I agree in the short term that public acclaim is a double-edged sword. Best selling poets, in the long run, as my correspondent pointed out, “rarely figure in the history of poetry, except as a joke”. However, for those poets who are still best sellers in the long run, the joke is on those who critically dismissed them. In short, what defines greatness has to be something like universal appeal—an artist’s ability to appeal to audiences across time and cultures. If one is going to assert that public appeal has no relevance (and I notice there’s always an element of sour grapes from those who disagree with the verdict of history) then the idea of genius or greatness has no meaning. And some do argue that, arguing that all artistic valuations are relative/subjective, that there is nothing that objectively separates so called “great art” from so called “mediocre art”; but I find those who make such assertions to be so blissfully ignorant of the evidence as to be comparable to Flat-Earthers.
TS Eliot’s most commented collection, Collected Poems, has garnered 361 comments with a sales rank of 132,563. So, Eliot is selling something less than a book a day. I have a hunch that the critical consensus would put Eliot and Stevens before Frost, but I think that reflects the biases of the 20th century critical apparatus. What’s clear is that Eliot and Stevens, or any of the other modernists, fall short of Frost’s appeal even after half a century and more has gone by. Having written that, I do hold that Eliot and Stevens both wrote enduring poems—poems that will endure in our collective memory as surely as Frost’s.
And what about Robert Lowell and Elisabeth Bishop? Lowell’s Collected Poems (a giant book) has so far received 58 ratings and has a sales rank of 850,689. Maybe that’s less than 1 every couple months? His selected poems, having less ratings but costing much less, has a ranking of 751,636. Not much better. There’s an argument to be made that Lowell is of a later generation and so hasn’t had as much time to steep as the modernists, but Lowell only died 11 years after T.S. Eliot and 15 years after Frost. He was writing his best poems roughly contemporaneously with theirs. So, if we treat Amazon’s online bookstore somewhat like Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus on Lowell may be high, but the audience consensus isn’t that great. And how about Elizabeth Bishop? Her best book, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, has 131 ratings, close to three times that of Lowell, and has a sales rank of 196,323. That shows considerably more appeal than Lowell. Does that mean she’s a better poet than Lowell? Maybe. I was just reading John Carey’s new book, “A Little History of Poetry“, he writes of her: “For a major American poet she had a small output, barely a hundred poems. But she has a wider range of tone and feeding than any other modernist, even Eliot.” (p. 243), and that probably applies to Lowell as well. Carey praises Lowell’s Life Studies, but otherwise repeats the critical and negative assessment attached to his other works: “Seemingly random images and memories are common in Lowell’s poems, making them hard to follow. They also strive to enhance their significance by strained allusions to religion, mythology, and literature.” (p. 264) Micheal Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes of Lowell that he “wanted to be known as the greatest poet in America, and he was.” (p. 819). But, like Pary, while Schmidt gives Life Studies high praise, he also calls Lowell’s earlier verse “formally congested, opaque”, having “a forbidingly bricked-in quality” and “semantically overheated”. He closes his passage on Lowell by describing his final poetry “eloquent but formulaic, like those endless and relentless fourteen liners, a form that will spin out two lines worth of occasion or boil down fifty…” (p. 818) Schmidt samples more of Bishop’s poems, even quoting Lowell’s praise for her and ends writing: “Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop.” As far as these two authors go, I would have to say that the critical consensus favors Bishop over Lowell, corroborating what we see as far as ratings and sales rank goes. Bishop’s star is rising (or has risen) and Lowell’s star, contrary to the assertion of my correspondent, has faded and settled somewhere below that of Bishop’s. If he was considered American’s greatest poet when he died, then he’s no longer considered such by the reading public—if greatness is in any way related to public appeal. The critical consensus is mixed.
And this brings me to Kaur. Anyone in disagreement with what I’ve written so far will immediately point to Rupi Kaur (as I’ve already done here and elsewhere) as the signal reason this doesn’t work. But, citing Kauer isn’t the killer counterpoint one might think it is. But why mention Kaur? Here’s why: Rupi Kauer’s most commented collection Milk and Honey, has so far netted (are you sitting down?) 32,445 comments. In Lowell’s favor, he gets 5 stars instead of Kaur’s 4.5. But then there are Kaur’s other two books. Her sales rank is, as of today, 374.
What does this tell us?
If you take everything I’ve written at face value, it means that Kaur is God’s gift to poetry—a full-blown Mozart.
But more seriously, it means one can’t argue with her appeal or popularity, and so one is forced to grouse that “serious poetry” never has great sales (serious poetry being a euphemism for literary, difficult, stylistically ambitious and/or great poetry). But, let’s unpack that and see what comes of it.
First, is it true that serious poetry never has great sales? No. Absolutely not. But only with this proviso: It depends on how one defines serious poetry. If one defines serious poetry in ones own image—ones own poetry and ones own tastes in poetry—then there might be solid self-serving reasons to make that assertion (because if ones tastes aren’t as popular as one might like them to be, it must be because the masses don’t like serious, read real, poetry.) That is: the answer isn’t that ones own tastes in poetry are questionable, but that the unwashed masses aren’t up to ones standards. And fortunately for poets in the grip of the Dunning Kruger effect, there is an argument to be made that popular taste is indeed fickle and mediocre. The indispensable geniuses of each generation fill the next generation’s landfill. Carl Sandburg, for example, rivaled and often exceeded Frost’s reputation, but Sandburg is a thoroughly mediocre poet now relegated to a small coterie of readers (such as most poets may depend on) who will fiercely circle their wagons when their poet is maligned. Note: I look forward to my own coterie of readers.
So who decides what gets to be called serious poetry?
This is why I like Amazon’s comment section. Put enough people together and over time we begin to see which artists might endure. Take the Beatles. There’s always going to be the coterie who insist that [pick your 60s band] were and remain the greater band, but the weight of performances, recordings and comments are on the Beatles’ side. It’s not even close. The latent genius in all of us has decided. The same goes for Mozart and Salieri. And it’s in this sense that the assertion that serious poetry doesn’t sell simply doesn’t hold water. Is one going to claim that Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver (2806 ratings with sales rank of 1400—100 to 120 books a day) aren’t serious poets? Maybe the problem isn’t that serious poetry doesn’t sell well but that ones ideas of serious poetry need revision?
And that brings me to poets like Rupi Kaur and Atticus.
If their thousands of comments aren’t an indicator of their writings’s value, then they’re nonetheless an indicator of their appeal. That can’t be ignored. Kaur does something that a great many serious/contemporary poets don’t—she has something to say. And it’s to the discredit of “serious poets” (ironic quotes) that they don’t have something to say, make affect their message or have decided (like many poets of the latter 20th century) that serious poetry isn’t about anything at all—but is rather a textual performance devoid of any notional or semantic content. In this context, I see Kauer and Ashbery as the endpoints of two extremes in contemporary poetry. With Kaur you have an author with something to say and who says it with little to no artfulness or intellectual vigor while with Ashbery you get a voluble poet with little to say (or who is at best incomprehensible) but who was a master of textual performance (his poetry was the peak achievement of his generation’s aesthetics.) With that in mind, if there’s a reason that serious poetry isn’t as read as Kaur, it’s because serious poetry probably fails to do the one thing that all literature must do, like it or not— and that’s communicate. None of this makes Kaur better than her generation’s “serious poets”, but it also doesn’t make them better than Kaur.
But having written all that, I suspect that Kaur and Atticus will go the way of Emmanuel—an invention of Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton (whose poems are essentially Kaur before there was a Kaur). (Because time and the durability of an artist’s works must also be weighed.) My thought is that most critics/academics would define serious poetry by its literary and stylistic ambitions (as do I); which would exclude Kaur’s poetry. She displays neither literary nor stylistic ambitions. In fact, as I’ve argued previously on my blog, I don’t consider what Kaur writes to be poetry. As I wrote here, “My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs.” That will fly in the face of a contemporary poetics that considers anything that calls itself a poem a poem—la!—including a comic strip, (see the periodical Poetry) but there you have it. That’s not to diminish her appeal or accomplishment but rather to say that we really shouldn’t be comparing her to an Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell or Mary Oliver. She’s writing in a different genre with different goals. So, in my view, bringing up Kaur is apples and oranges. You can do it, but then let’s include novels as prose poems if we’re going to go that route.
Anyway, that’s my probably too long foray into sussing out what’s going on in the court of poetry.
Despite knowing that not everyone enjoys these games of who’s in and who’s out, I, like Lear, enjoy them and find, if nothing else, that they can lead us down informative and productive side-streets.
- Incidentally, Wilbur exceeds Lowell reputation in the court of public opinion. His ratings are slightly less than Lowell’s but his sales rank, for his Collected Poems, is 113,588. He’s not far from selling a book a day, far in excess of Lowell and exceeding Bishop. Randal Jerrell’s Complete Poems rank at 246,482. John Berryman’s Collected Poems at 230,703. Delmore Schwartz’s most commented book, Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, ranks at 182,693. It was hard to find Lowell’s best selling book but it seems to be Life Studies at 452,981.
upinVermont | May 8th 2021