A couple of days ago, December 4, to be exact, marked the fifth anniversary of the publication of my first chapbook of poems, Shapeshifting. Unfortunately, Spire Press, who published it, didn’t make it to the anniversary, dying just a few months short. My beautiful, weird-looking, neon-green chapbook is no more. It has ceased to be. Ex-Spired and gone to meet its maker, who is me—I have a handful of leftover copies, there’s one still on Amazon, and some more floating around the new and used marketplace corners of the Internet. And that’s all, folks.
It’s a headshot, but not a stray bullet. I’ve been evading becoming a casualty in this war for a while, and I guess it was my turn. If you believe in coincidence, synergy, The Matrix, morphic resonance, Jung, chaos theory, God—whatever you choose to call the way in which the universe organizes itself—I should have seen it coming. Some months ago I had been helping a friend of mine research how to start a small press. I warned him and warned him about how difficult it was to make a success of this thing, but he was adamant. I compared it to starting—and keeping—a successful restaurant in New York. Nobody wants to buy poetry anymore, I said.
And then there was the long discussion on Wom-po (the Women’s Poetry Listserv) about the popularization of reading fees for standard submissions, which started a discussion about poetry and the market, who gets paid, who doesn’t, who should. As a rule, only a tiny handful of magazines and journals pay poets (and other writers) money for their work. This tiny handful is usually the most elite and well-established of publications, and a few crusaders from the small-press brigades. The standard payment when you publish in a print venue is two contributor’s copies, or the honor of being published if it’s an online venue. Even this form of payment is decreasing, however. Sometimes you get just one copy, sometimes a discount on however many you’d like to purchase. Sometimes nothing. And now the move is to charge reading fees—the poet pays a small amount per poem or submission to be considered for publication. Why? To ensure that the publication can continue, since not enough revenue is generated from sales and subscriptions. As I said, nobody wants to buy poetry anymore.
The next sign was the raging bitch fight between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove over The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Vendler wrote a really nasty review totally dissing Dove, who edited, for her choices. Too much of this, too little of that. Dove supplied an enumerated response defending her choices. Vendler didn’t care to reply (or to stoop). The whole thing is political; accusations flew, sides were taken. My interest in this discussion is not the content of the disagreement, but its subtext. Why such passion over just one anthology?
The reason is simple. This anthology wields some big power. It is one of a tiny number of anthologies that will be taught in the schools, and, for many, may wind up being the only poems they ever read. Thus, Dove’s decisions are disproportionately enormous. I’m not defending Vendler’s nastiness, but I do see where part of her passion is coming from (and am rather pleased with it). If there were more anthologies out there getting bought, taught, and read, Dove would be just one voice, just one opinion. Moreover, if there were more poetry of all kinds being bought, taught, and read, anthologies in general would carry less weight. You didn’t get enough Wallace Stevens in your anthology? Big deal. There he is on the shelf in the local bookstore, there he is on your daughter’s nightstand, there he is in the magazine at the dentist’s. But the sheer panic of Vendler’s attack is that there he is not; it’s not completely psychotic to assume, in a culture where so little poetry is circulating, that not enough representation in one influential anthology can eventually mean the disappearance of a whole poet. You could put out an army of alternative anthologies, but who would buy them? Nobody wants to buy poetry anymore.
Well, why the hell not? Don’t give me any bullshit about the economy. I just got back from Christmas shopping, and people are shelling out beaucoup bucks for all sorts of crap. $75 for a blouse from Lauren Conrad. $600 for an iPad. $400 for Jennifer Lopez sheets. $65 for the Naked 2 palette from Urban Decay. Compared to that, $15-$25 for a collection of poetry, $10-$25 for a subscription to a journal, or $50-$100 for a thousand-page anthology seems like a bargain.
So, if it’s not the money, what it is? I could spend the rest of my life citing people who discuss how American poetry, at least, has lost its connection to the public, become too academic or self-absorbed. Where’s the love poem you can recite to the honey? Where’s the patriotic poem you can read at the Fourth of July celebration? Perhaps that is why the only poetry that sells and gets taught in the schools was written over 100 years ago, with the exception of statement poetry of the kind Maya Angelou writes, which can be uplifting.
That is a really shortsighted argument, however, one that has at its heart the same panicked issue that is fueling the Vendler Vs. Dove smackdown: the mad scramble for the few poetry readers left. If there’s only two of them, let’s give them what they want, and if that happens to be rhymed loved poetry about sexy vampires, then so be it.
And that, my faithful reader, is what I propose is the problem. Not the lack of money to pay for poetry, but the incongruity of marketplace values with the thing itself. In a perfect world, there should be room and readers for all kinds of poetry—formal and free, uplifting and depressing, corny and serious, long and short, you name it. That simply can’t happen in a marketplace, however, because you can’t just “buy” poetry. Oh, you can purchase it, but you can’t enjoy it with the mere act of owning it. You have to be able to understand it and appreciate it in ways that have nothing to do with money, which is something that as a culture we have forgotten how to do. Something is “good” if you paid a lot of money for it, or if it’s a bargain, which means it originally cost a lot of money and you are so smart and clever for having gotten it for less. All our value systems operate on the concept of monetary worth, and poetry is circulating elsewhere. You don’t pay for poetry because, unlike a Whopper or a pair of flashy shoes, it doesn’t bring you automatic pleasure the very moment you buy it.
Gee, I hope you weren’t reading expecting me to come up with a solution. I’m just a poet, not an economist.