Is there any art as fickle, evasive or misunderstood as poetry? Tell someone you’re a poet some time, just for fun, and watch the stages of their expression – the eyes narrow almost imperceptibly before they catch themselves, maybe the chin juts out for a moment, before they give what they hope to be a supportive grunt and a sympathetic head nod. “That’s great! The world needs poetry, right?”
Right. Except you wouldn’t know it from the state of the field. The arts are well-known to be a temperamental pursuit at best, the realm of dreamers, derelicts and the dead. Success means having your work seen, perhaps even admired, by anyone not already a friend or relative. This has become infinitely easier with technology (blogging, e-book publishing), although self-publishing routes can (but don’t always) devolve into ego-stroking self-delusion, a hollow victory. And economic viability? “Don’t quit your day job” they say, and that’s the unfortunate truth. Unless you are blessed by an unusually lucky star, know all the right folks, and (possibly the lesser factor) have something new to say that people want to hear, your artistic career is going to necessarily be supported by a palette of menial jobs. The starving artist? That’s no joke.
The most common path for modern American writers is educational – they plod their way through English and creative writing programs, learn the right moves, and have doors already open for them when the time comes to make a name. Browse through the average college-run literary journal, and the majority of the writers you see are graduates of some sort of program, and many of them are teachers themselves – completing the insular circle of literary life. Without going too far from my point, let me say that this state of American literature, created and perpetuated through the ivory tower, has a major downside. Don’t get me wrong – I love literary magazines. The universities that put them out do a tremendous service to our culture. However, as with any art that becomes an institution, a stylistic homogeneity begins to take shape. Trends appear, and as usual, the victim is any divergent style or sensibility. Editors admire the work which resonates with the educational channels they took themselves. Writers mimic (consciously or -un) the style which they have learned and which they see in the journals, because they want to be in there too. And we’re left with a dull trajectory that does little more than fulfill its own expectations. New and challenging voices are boxed out in the name of self-perpetuating mediocrity.
This isn’t anyone’s fault. People pursue literary degrees because they love it, and people go into teaching (hopefully) because they love it, and editors work on magazines because they love it, and so on. It’s all love, and yet the inevitable happens, and the literary sphere becomes esoterically bland, cannibalizes itself, regurgitates trends of style and education. And what is the current stylistic trend that has prompted my rant here? Well in fiction, it’s something I’ve seen a growing number of critics and editors complain about. It’s this postmodernist, self-aware, meta-referential, first-person-casual approach to story-telling. It’s this structural and tonal uniformity I keep finding, a hollow sameness. Something’s missing – heart maybe, or courage, or insight. Emerging writers seem to take the advice of “write what you know” and then produce safe, tepid stories of suburban ennui, cynical disenchantment, PC hipster irony, college confusion, childhood memories, domesticity, etc etc. Much of modern literary-fiction has come to be conversational, almost reality-television-esque. Stories like to focus on recognizable mundanity – it’s like having coffee with someone who is telling you a half-way interesting anecdote. The literary scene has become rife with passive voices, prefab creative-writers who are brimming with craft but neglecting art, like a blacksmith who forges perfect hoops for wooden barrels but couldn’t pein a decorative door handle to save his life.
Okay, I’m glad I got that out of my system. And let me amend my tirade – I’ve yet to publish anything, I have very little formal education, and I don’t write a tenth as much as I should, so my opinions on this should be taken with generous spoonfuls of salt. I just wanted to vent an observation I’ve had about the modern literary state of America, because frankly, I know there are amazing writers out there. I’d like to see university-driven literary journals have better funding and grow in numbers, but even more, I’d like to see non-collegiate journals flourish. We need to revive literature and foster its expansion, because that will result naturally in more diversity and more voices, and a richer culture overall.
Now back to poetry. If it’s tough making a name in fiction-writing, it’s borderline impossible in poetry. Because who reads poetry? Who goes out and buys poetry books, subscribes to literary magazines, attends readings? Other poets, that’s who. And there are not really enough of us to create a booming industry on our own. Poetry is quixotic, a doomed quest. The ratio of published, self-sustained poets to the number of poets in general has got to be staggeringly low, a fraction of a fraction. We accept this, and hope to achieve at least some dignity in trying. It will be interesting in the coming years to see how technology reshapes this paradigm. I already see growing numbers of online literary journals, e-books, blogs, tweets, and what have you. As a grumpy old throwback who considers the sensory experience of actual printed paper to be inimitable, I have mixed feelings on all that. But perhaps it will democratize the writing world for the better. The downside of course to those self-publishing avenues is the lack of built-in quality control – the role of external gatekeeper, traditionally played by editors and publishers but increasingly disappearing. When “anyone” can become a “published” writer through modern technological channels, writing itself feels cheapened, and it becomes really hard to find the gems among all that slush. It’s an ongoing debate with some complex factors, the broken system of traditional publishing not the least of them. We’ll see what happens.
For now, all I can say is, if you’re a writer, keep on writing. And if you’re a reader, keep on reading. And if you’re a poet, well… you have my deepest sympathies. :)