Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The New Math Doesn’t Really Add Up

What does one do with an essay like the one David Alpaugh penned for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the current state of poetry publication? As an editor who publishes about 50 poems a year here on The Rumpus (all directly solicited), I feel like I have to respond, since I’m contributing to the noise that seems to bother Alpaugh so.

Others have already responded. John Gallaher says of Alpaugh’s claim that he doesn’t know who the best poets writing today are, “In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it.”

Mark Scroggins replies to Alpaugh’s claim that the potential loss of a contemporary Blake or Dickinson would be the “most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable” this way:

That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, “What if Beethoven’s mother had aborted him?”: We wouldn’t have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn’t be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn’t have them, we’d be living in a different culture. It’s an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That’s the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.

My problem, though, is with Alpaugh’s math. Let me start by conceding that the arenas for publication have exploded in number in the last ten years with the rise and mainstream acceptance of online publication. But I’m not sure Alpaugh is comparing apples to apples in his construction. First of all, he gets his numbers from different sources.

Len Fulton, editor of Dustbooks, which publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, estimates the total number of literary journals publishing poetry 50 years ago as 300 to 400. Today the online writers’ resource Duotrope’s Digest lists more than 2,000 “current markets that accept poetry,” with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months.

Hold on a second–“literary journals” doesn’t necessarily equal “markets that accept poetry.” For example, Thrasher Magazine fits into the latter, but not the former category today, and I have my doubts as to whether Fulton included independent ‘zines (the equivalent, in a way, of online journals today) and magazines that published poetry as an afterthought in his count of literary journals.

Alpaugh also fails to take population growth into account. In 1959, there were about 177.8 million people living in the US. Today, that number is closer to 309 million, and the last decade showed a larger raw number increase than any of the last five. More people=more writers=a larger potential audience, it seems to me.

And finally, growth rates are rarely, if ever static. Alpaugh doesn’t take into account either the number of journals, online or otherwise, which cease publication (yes, it even happens online) or the possibility that the growth in publications will slow over time, perhaps due to their replacement by a new venue for poetry.

There are other problems with this essay, but I’ll leave those to other writers (and I’ll probably link to them as I see them). That the math doesn’t work is enough for me to dismiss it.

Crossposted at The Rumpus

February 27, 2010 Posted by | David Alpaugh, John Gallaher, Mark Scroggins, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Math of Poetry | Leave a comment

Tracking my Reading

For a long time I thought I read a lot–and I did, compared to the people I was an undergrad with, and among my friends while I was a Witness. Then I got to grad school, and even though I was reading more then than I ever had before, I came to realize that I was a piker, at least when it came to the subject I was studying.

I was reading Mark’s post on bulk-reading and beating myself up over my lax habits when it occurred to me that I don’t really know how much I read in a given year. I’m not in Mark’s league, not by a long shot, but I probably do a better job than I give myself credit for, especially since I started getting books as part of my editor’s gig at The Rumpus.

So since I’ve been looking for ways to use this blog more, I’m going to shamelessly jack an idea from Michael Kelleher and modify it–I’ll post what I’m reading and keep count of it. This will be my New Year’s Resolution, to keep track of how much and how varied my reading is. And I’ll be glad to take suggestions from anyone who passes by and leaves them in the comments.

So right now, I’m in the middle of a couple of books, not counting the two I have to reread in order to review soon. The first is City Dogs by W.S. DiPiero, his latest collection of essays, and I’ve been at this one for a couple of months, reading a snatch here and there and then ruminating on it for days. I love DiPiero’s writing, and have ever since I worked with him at Stanford, and I did some scanning and conversion to text work for him when he was putting this together, so I have a closer connection with some of the content than I would normally have.

The second is Seamus Heaney’s new translation of The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables, which I’ve been reading occasionally before I go to bed. I could just blow through this one, but again, I’ve been taking it a fable at a time. Heaney’s translation is fine, but not inspired, or maybe it’s the subject matter–morality tales get a little heavy-handed at their best, and when I read them one after another, I start to feel like I do when I read Very Intense Bloggers Writing About Very Important Things, and I tune out. The rhythms of the lines don’t vary enough to counteract the occasional creeping numbness, which is why I don’t read much of it in a sitting.

So that’s two, and I’ll update when I finish one and get into another.

Book count: 2

January 1, 2010 Posted by | Mark Scroggins, Michael Kelleher, Seamus Heaney, tracking my reading, W. S. DiPiero | Leave a comment

The Poem of a Life

Back in March, I mentioned that I was reading Mark Scroggins’s new biography of Louis Zukofsky, The Poem of a Life. Mark and his family came over to our home for a dinner party a couple of months ago and he saw that I’d only gotten a couple hundred pages in. He said “that’s a respectable effort,” which of course meant that I had to finish the thing. And I’m really glad I did.

Some personal background on my own poetic knowledge first, though. I came to poetry in a serious way when I was an undergrad, but for me that meant in my late 20s. I went to an undergraduate university where creative writing was barely a blip on the map–there was one poet, and he taught technical writing as often as he taught poetry workshop. Good guy, good poet, but very traditional, as was the entire faculty. Criticism wasn’t big in the curriculum, but what we got was basically New Criticism. And when I went to Arkansas for my MFA, that really didn’t change. My reading lists didn’t even include Ginsburg, much less Oppen or Niedecker or Zukofsky. The whole tradition (and I think it’s fair to call it a tradition now) of Objectivist and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry didn’t even really exist as far as my education was concerned. I picked up a little in passing in my workshops with W.S. DiPiero when I was at Stanford, but that’s it.

So I came to Mark’s book fairly ignorant of this history and of the movement and poetry that Zukofsky helped build and create, and I not only found the book informative, I found it fascinating. I took a long time to read it because I was constantly having to digest new material and fit it in with what I didn’t know about 20th century poetry. It’s not only a fantastic biography, it’s a terrific history book in general, even if I don’t share the aesthetic of the subject of the book.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book to me was the lengthy discussion of Zukofsky’s formal considerations in his work. I’m not a formalist in the Tim Steele/Dana Gioia sense of the term, but I do tend to write in traditional meter and form, so I found it heartening to see that Zukofsky had that in mind when composing his poems, especially since he often made the forms he was working in more intricate, rather than finding ways to cheat. It has caused me to find ways to discipline my own writing in the weeks since I completed reading (this review has been in the works for a while now).

Which is not to say that I plan on following the poetic road Zukofsky blazed. It’s just not my thing. My preference, both in reading and writing poetry, is to avoid the hermetic image. I want a poem to communicate something more than music or a frame for an idea to me. I want an emotional connection with the meaning in the poem, and I didn’t find that in the selections that Mark quoted in this text. It’s just a matter of personal taste. There were lots of times when Mark was explaining what was going on in a particular section of “A” and I just didn’t see it, wasn’t moved by the language.

That’s not to say that I don’t think Zukofsky did great work–this biography convinces me that he did, and anyone who can influence the path of poetry for a generation certainly had something major going on. It’s just not my kind of poetry. Think of it as the clash between people who liked Swing and those who liked Be-bop. I appreciate both, but I prefer the latter. I appreciate Charles Olson, but I prefer James Merrill. The world of poetics is wide enough for all of us, I think.

July 23, 2008 Posted by | Louis Zukofsky, Mark Scroggins, The Poem of a Life | Leave a comment

What I’m Reading

I am woefully ignorant for a contemporary poet about the history of 20th century poetry. Part of that has to do with my graduate school, which focused on the New Critics and the Southern Agrarians when it focused on the 20th century at all, and I was far more interested in Dante in translation and 17th and 18th century French poets than in the moderns. I read my Eliot and Pound and Wallace Stevens, some Stein and H.D. and then forward to Merrill and overseas to Heaney, Wolcott, that sort of stuff. While at Stanford, I got into some Niedecker and Oppen, but not in any real depth. So this book is a real education for me, and it has the added attraction of being a pleasant read.

Get it. Read it.

March 9, 2008 Posted by | Mark Scroggins, The Poem of a Life | Leave a comment