Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, April 17, 2014

RT's questions about poetry

Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Rear cover image for my collection
 The Foliate Head. UK: Stanza.
RT is a longtime teacher of literature and drama who has now fallen under the axe that chops away college adjuncts who will not fulfill unreasonable demands. He asked me three questions yesterday. (Publisher Beth Adams replied to them in comments of the prior post.) I've answered them here--rather hastily, I fear, but I hope with good sense. I won't be posting again until Easter Monday. Please feel free to add your own arguments, whimsy, and opinions in the comments.

Are there now more poets than readers?

Perhaps. Considering the efforts of Modernism to eradicate readers, I’m always surprised to find people who like poetry. In my experience, non-poets tend to like older poetry, and certainly it’s easier to find good poems in the past, where the weeds have been weeded, and the slight have been slighted.

Earlier on this blog I mentioned a conversation I had with an editor at a house that dropped its line of poetry because they had not broken the 300-mark on copies in recent years. That gives you some idea. I’ve also talked to editors with a poetry book or two that hadn’t broken the 50-mark. So it’s not an easy business, if you can indeed call it a business, this selling of poetry books. “Gift economy” was invented for such work.

By the way, I think a stranger problem is that there are many people writing poetry who are not great readers of poetry. There are many who are not conversant with the major poets of the past. I find this . . . astonishing.

I’m not sure how I became a reader of poetry at a very young age, but part of it must have been having parents who read poetry and fiction and bought me anthologies and books. I’m not so sure how one learns an early love without such parents.

A great many poets are part of the academic system, and this contributes to the sense that poets are increasing, readers decreasing. Plenty of people have talked about the multiplication of writing programs, and how they give birth to new creative writing professors and programs. Plenty of people have talked about how English literature departments have destroyed their once-healthy programs by an over-reliance on theory and “studies” concentrations. So on one hand, we increase poets and on the other, we decrease readers.

Unfortunately, this change enforces the idea that poets are “other” and do not belong to the daily world. And that idea enforces the idea that poetry is not for the daily world.

A poem can become a thing it should not be in an academic context. In the case of an academic who is a writer, each work is a potential “credit” on the yearly report that may help bring about a promotion or win merit pay (or inequity pay.) A poem becomes a kind of tick-mark in a box. It's suddenly useful in a practical way. The goal of poetry shifts. I don’t like that idea.

In addition, while it is lovely to be around young people, one’s main reading may become the unrevised work of college writers. It’s very easy to misjudge one’s own work and gifts in that context.

How do poets deal with that possible reality?

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, interior page
from my long poem Thaliad,
now on National Poetry Month sale
at Phoenicia Publishing
Most poets today live in an academic world where they are sheltered from the idea of too many poets, too few readers. They are surrounded by interested young people who want to learn and perhaps to become poets; they teach and are listened-to by others, and they frequent a library that values poetry books as part of its collection. There may be problems with that world, but you can see why poets apply for admission to that world and stay in it. Inside, everything makes sense. Everything is supportive, basically, though one still has to deal with committees and such! Sometimes one has to deal with colleagues who think writers aren’t quite legitimate as professors, I notice, but dealing with colleagues is part of the price paid for salary, security, and bennies.

However, the increasing reliance on adjuncts may alter the equation. Perhaps, though, there will always be those willing to be underpaid as the price of staying in such a world.

I do know poets who were not part of such a community (or else were fringe members) who did not manage well—who felt too keenly the lack of audience, the lack of notice for their work. And I’ve seen it ruin lives or decades of lives. No matter how fine the poet, he or she must be very strong to be a poet outside the supportive world of academia. He or she will lack the in-person connections that assist with publications and summer gigs, the aid to attend conferences, and much more. (Full disclosure: I walked away from achieved tenure and promotion and salary because I felt that the academy was the wrong place for me as a writer. And I do feel that I lost “a system,” and that has hurt my work in terms of marketing. But I do not regret the decision.)

Despite the frequency of open readings or poetry slams in cities, almost every poet alive has to at some point deal with the often-discussed idea of a diminished audience and diminished attention. Like any other form of writing, a poem is not quite complete if left unread.

And perhaps nearly every serious poet could take advice from Yeats’s address to one “whose work has come to nothing” because nearly every poet (aside from Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and a few more) is aware that readership that once was an ark is now little better than a village ferry over a stream. Worldly success will not come to most poets. A maker to “honor bred,” Yeats says, is “Bred to a harder thing than Triumph.” In the end, he advocates a turn toward passionate creation, which must be its own satisfaction: “Be secret and exult, / Because of all things known / That is most difficult.”

What are the best ways to reach new readers of poetry (if that is even possible in our 140-character Twitter world)?

Help. Start discriminating what is fine from what is dross. It’s become a non-no to say that some work is better than other work. As a result, we’re drowning in dross, while our era tells us that we need to include everybody. When it comes to high culture, full inclusion is a recipe for dismantling and destroying and losing the bright needle in the haystack.

If you can, guide others. Share what is true, beautiful, and strong.

Teach good taste to children. We stopped doing that more than a century ago, and our culture feels the effects.

Teachers and politicians should quit trying to make poetry useful.

A good many poets should stop publishing poems that are little more than broken prose—that lack force, music, and subject matter. The first free verse writers knew the sources of power in form. Poets should know formal poems, no matter what they write. (Here we are back to the idea that some poets don’t know the literary history of their own language.)

Review ‘zines. We have a huge proliferation of online ‘zines. This trend is good and bad, of course. It’s very hard to sift so much work. But I suppose it may “reach new readers.”

Sites that aggregate poetry of the past may be helpful. I don’t really know. I’ve seen an awful lot of nonsense about good poems as a result, though.

Nor do I know if clever poets active on twitter increase their audience. There are people on who write poems as twitter lines, later presenting them as whole poems. I have several in a twitter sub-group.

I’m not crazy about the way poetry is taught in schools, though I believe the situation is improving. I think we need more memorization and less analysis. Also, we really need children to encounter wonderful poems from the past that sing and are still alive. We don’t need to give them only “children’s poems.” (But if we do, I hope we give them some Charles Causley!)

Teachers need to remember that the reading of a poem is not an encounter between a cadaver and a medical student with a scalpel. Reading a first-rate poem should be an experience.


  1. What a wonderfully generous posting! You have given me much to think about, but I have no time for thought this morning: I am now on my way to campus for another delightful encounter with students (and I mean no sarcasm in that adjective). I will read again and think more later. In the meantime, thank you, Marly, for your posting. Au revoir!

    1. Enjoy your day with students--

    2. Yes, working with students can be wonderful, particularly since it allows one to feel, as Marly has said, for a moment part of a world and a system that makes sense, where there is a reader for one's every poem, attentive eyes and minds, belief.

    3. And, Marly, I had no idea my congenitally-innocent-of-theory questions would provoke such a frenzy of discussion . . . and your spotlight on the questions (and the discussion) has had an effect upon me: I am rethinking my own questions. Perhaps more to follow.

    4. There are some other good comments on facebook--link below somewhere...

  2. I like what you've written here, Marly. As in so many things, I think education and exposure are key.

    1. Yes, certainly! I like what you said yesterday...

  3. This is great. Great questions, great answers.

    I was recently talking to a poet about Copper Canyon, how exciting it was to publish with them since they sometimes sells as many as 600 copies of a book! Ouch!

    If you substituted some terms and made some tweaks, your answers could be about jazz, where the musicians almost all teach and tally up their recordings for tenure, at least in America. I believe things are different in Europe, but that is true for poetry as well.

    On the one hand, this is sad. On the other hand, thank God for colleges and universities, shoring up the ruins, so to speak.

    1. Youch, yes!

      Sad to think of jazz and poetry in such straits.

      I'd be happier with our colleges if there was more in the way of literature, less in the way of theory and pop culture and "studies."

    2. Theory, pop culture, and __________ studies are the cancers that are destroying liberal arts departments in universities. I hope I have not sugar-coated my opinion.

      (This curmudgeonly message is being written and sent while I wait for the students are are supposed to show up for "help" with their end-of-course writing assignments; so far, apparently not many people think they need my "help." Those are the people who usually do not like the grades they earn. But wait! Here comes a struggling student now. Well, back to "work.")

    3. I don't think we can afford to believe in the efficacy of colleges and universities any longer as sanctuaries for poets and writers, particularly since, as I have seen firsthand, it is considered legitimate to write criticism and teach classic works, but not to be an actual working poet/writer. That is somehow lesser, not as difficult, in the minds of professors, apparently.
      What I want to know is where would they be without people like me? Without anything to teach!

    4. I have mixed feelings about the role of colleges and universities in keeping poetry alive in America—which is something they can't do well if elementary schools and high schools aren't properly introducing students to the stuff anyway.

      On one hand, I encountered some great poetry in college, thanks to professors (usually older ones) who pushed us to read closely. On the other hand, I was an English major in the late '80s and early '90s, and if any of my profs knew there was a neoformalist revival occurring out there in the wider world, they either didn't know about it or didn't care to share the news with us. I had to discover it for myself 15 years later.

      Perhaps saying so makes me a reactionary, but I think formalism is one of the best ways to bring readers back to poetry. It provides rules, tools, and points of entry for nervous newbies. I work for a visual arts center, and even the painters most committed to abstract art know how to stretch a canvas, gesso a board, use complementary colors, and otherwise employ years of technical training. It's ridiculous that anyone, anywhere still learns that "poetry" is nothing more than falling into a trance and sneezing emotions onto a page.

    5. I don't hate theory, though I once did. Getting a PhD in a school famous for theory cured that. I found out it could be interesting sometimes think about these high-flown ideas, but why they are worth more than the poetry I write, I don't know.
      That's why I decided not to go the route of full-time college teaching.

    6. Jeff,

      As the generations move on without a knowledge of formal poetry, poetry becomes diluted... When it reaches the point of being little different from prose, then anyone who can write a passable piece of prose and break it into pieces can be a poet. Then we have reached a level where we can't go forward in a comprehensible way and must dive backward in order to move forward.


      As usual, everybody on both sides has something to complain about, and both sides have right and wrong on their side once you really delve into actual practice.

      It really is a fallen world.


      I do think we need to go back and look at what once made the English major such a promising area for young people... Now we have a different kind of major, and businesses complain that their young employees need better writing skills.

    7. English departments are being eviscerated by new-breed PhDs whose interests are not literature but theory, pop culture, and current-brands-of-studies (i.e., queer studies, African-American studies, gender studies, feminist studies, etc.). There is no pendulum waiting to swing back the other way (i.e., back to literature), so we who lament the passing of the so-called "good old days" must simply suffer in our lamentations, knowing we are of the past and the brave new future is not interested in the past. In fact, it will not be many more generations before English departments have disappeared from campuses. This process of disappearance is well underway.

    8. I agree with you--there seems no will to return, and I think there cannot be so long as these people are in charge of and populate hiring committees... And firing, when it comes to adjuncts.

    9. However, perhaps some of them will split off into new departments not under the umbrella of English LIterature. Of course, that is a somewhat dangerous proceeding, given how universities function.

    10. Ah, you had to remind me of the "firing," did you? Hey, no tears here. I'm tough. I can take it.

      Universities are certainly evolving. I'm not sure it is Darwinian (i.e., improvement of the species).

    11. I simply class the abuse of adjuncts as one of the elements that marks the decadence of our educational system! And I feel very sad for those I know who have long been adjuncts.

    12. I have no adequate words for expressing my appreciation. Your concern warms my heart.

  4. A great post! It seems too many people are writing lots, and reading far too little. I have found it useful as a writer to find some of the very strongest poetry I can find (including your wonderful poems, Marly!), and read as much of it as I can before attempting to write a new poem. This allows me to read lots of great work by truly gifted and educated poets who have formal training,and whose words lead to a natural joy and inspiration to me.

    As a student, I found it thrilling to be exposed to the great poets, but I worry that many of today's students may be intimidated by formal poetry.
    I think a lot of young students have a fear of poetry as being in the realm of great intellectuals, and too advanced for a regular person. Some of my junior high teachers and high school teachers taught the classics as if they were in a dry, archaic realm far beyond us, and this probably led to a lot of people being turned off to poetry. I was more fortunate, and like you, was raised in a home surrounded by books, and by a mother who, though poor, would buy me any book I wanted, and never was too tired to make that trip to the local library. I don't know how many of today's students and young readers are as fortunate, but it makes a big difference.

    When I was teaching, I was always searching for ways to introduce great poetry and literature while emphasizing that this poetry is relevant, exciting, and meaningful to their lives. I hope I reached at least a few of them!

    1. Yes, a book-loving parent is a great gift.

      When my daughter was in fifth grade, I made a little anthology of poems for her class to use--they gave a reading, every poem memorized. She memorized Puck's song from MND and a Kathleen Rain "spell" poem. It was a great event. I wish more homegrown things of that sort would take place.

      And thank you for the lovely compliment, Robin.

  5. And, by the way, there is -- or there will be -- this:

  6. Mmmmm. I just sat here nodding agreement to everything. And then worrying! Good post. It all needed to be said!

    1. Thank you, Clive! And now I am off into the early Easter morning--

  7. And then, as for teaching poetry, there is this:


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.