The Chronicle Review

The New Math of Poetry

Roger Chouinard for The Chronicle

February 21, 2010

It's hard to figure out how much poetry is being published in America. When I suggested to Michael Neff, founder of Web del Sol, that anyone can start an online journal for $100, he pointed out that anyone can start one via a blog for nothing. If current trends persist, the sheer amount of poetry "published" is likely to double, quadruple, "ten-tuple" in the decades ahead.

Who is writing all this poetry? In quieter times, the art's only significant promoters were English professors who focused on reading poetry for its own sake. Today colleges across America have hundreds of programs devoted to teaching men and women how to actually write the stuff. Those in charge of undergraduate and M.F.A. programs have cast themselves in the role of poetry-writing cheerleaders who are busy assuring tens of thousands of students that they are talented poets who should expect their work not only to be published but to win awards as well.

The notion that writing and performing "poetry" is the easiest way to satisfy the American itch for 15 minutes of fame has spilled out of our campuses and into the wider culture. You can't pick up a violin or oboe for the first time on Monday morning and expect to play at Lincoln Center that weekend, but you can write your first poem in May and appear at an open mike in June waving a "chapbook" for sale. The new math of poetry is driven not by reader demand for great or even good poetry but by the demand of myriads of aspiring poets to experience the thrill of "publication."

The new math is stunning. 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. Some of these journals publish 100 poems per issue, others just a dozen. If we proceed cautiously and assume an average of 50 poems per publication per year, more than 100,000 poems will be published in 2010.

But hold on to your pantoums, your prose poems, and ghazals. If journals merely continue to grow at the current rate, there will be more than 35,000 of them by 2100, and approximately 86 million poems will be published in the 21st century!

As stunning as those estimates are, they are likely to prove conservative. That's because Duotrope's editors "do not attempt to list all the poetry journals that are currently publishing" and, more important, because the rate of growth will almost certainly continue to rise as technology makes it easier for editors to accommodate the increasing number of poets clamoring for publication.

For those who protest that most of these thousands of journals can be dismissed as marginal—that we need pay attention to only a handful of "prestigious" ones, like Poetry and The New Yorker—may I suggest that there could be a few Blakes or Dickinsons swimming with the guppies in that wide prosodic sea? If a truly titanic poet were to appear, wouldn't one of the less visible but more adventuresome journals—Retort Magazine, say ("we favor the cutting edge over the blunt of the handle, the avant-garde over backward walking")—be more likely to be his or her publisher than would status-conscious professional journals like Ploughshares and American Poetry Review?

Perhaps serious readers should just ignore literary journals altogether and focus on poets talented enough to achieve book publication. Won't that make reading manageable in 2010 and in the years ahead?

Alas, books, too, are victims of the new math. Fifty years ago, the Yale Younger Poets was the only poetry-book contest in America. If this year's 330-plus contests continue to grow at the rate of just a half-dozen new ones per year, more than 50,000 prize-winning volumes will have been published by the end of this century. Add the hundreds of non-prize-winning chapbooks and collections with similar growth rates, and poetry books will easily top 100,000 by 2100.

What about anthologies? Aren't responsible editors who love great poetry eagerly reading all this verse, panning for gold? Hasn't it always been and isn't it still the mission of the anthologist to discover and present the best poetry available?

That may have been the goal in the days of Francis Turner Palgrave, Louis Untermeyer, Oscar Williams, Donald Allen, and Hayden Carruth; but the new math of poetry can fill us with only sympathy for the plight of editors attempting to gather honey from the acres of poetry that our literary landscape today.

Were a conscientious anthologist of this year's poetry to spend just 10 minutes evaluating each published poem, he or she would need to work 16,666 hours, which means it would take eight years to assess the eligible poetry for a 2010 anthology. If the current rate of growth continues, an anthologist trying to do that in 2100 will spend 141 years reading what promises to be that year's minimum of 1,760,750 published poems.

Faced with this runaway math, we should not be surprised to find editors abandoning their noble search for the best poetry available, in favor of more practical, defensive selection strategies. Consider the titles of this baker's dozen of contemporary anthologies (culled from the hundreds that show up on

We Used to Be Wives: Divorce Unveiled Through Poetry

Language Poetries: An Anthology

Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry

Intimate Kisses: The Poetry of Sexual Pleasure

Place of Passage: Contemporary Catholic Poetry

American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement

How Much Earth: An Anthology of Fresno Poets

Christ in the Poetry of Today

Sanctified: An Anthology of Poetry by LGBT Christians

Taste: An Anthology of Poetry About Food

Kindness: A Vegetarian Poetry Anthology

Sweet Nothings: An Anthology of Rock and Roll in American Poetry

Rubber Side Down: The Biker Poet Anthology

Restricting anthologies to LGBT Christians, language poets, or residents of Fresno, or limiting subjects to vegetarianism or sexual pleasure reduces submissions to a manageable level and makes it easier to market books. The sociology of the poet, the school of poetry, or subject matter trump the art itself. Who can deny that there are more people interested in sex, food, Christ, or rock 'n' roll than in ars poetica? Still, when the difficult questions "Is this an exciting poet? An original poem worth presenting to readers?" become "Is this a good biker poem?" or "Does this poet really unveil divorce?," the likelihood that great poetry will emerge is much diminished.

Such "anthologies" are less harmful, however, than those that actually pretend to select the "best." David Lehman and the guest editors of Scribner's Best American Poetry (hereafter known as BAP) have been protesting for years that they are just trying to publish a bunch of decent poems. Yet year after year, their title continues to make its glittering promise, with a cynical wink at sales.

The notion that a guest editor or team of screeners would read 100,000 poems is absurd. A look at the journals BAP routinely draws from gives a good clue as to methodology. In BAP 2008, for example, just 10 of the 2,000-plus journals and magazines available for consideration accounted for 37 of the 75 poems selected—49 percent. As in past issues, BAP 2008 privileged Poetry, American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and a dozen or so other recurring publications. The probability that such a sliver of journals would continue to yield the lion's share of the "best" American poetry year after year were objectivity in play is unlikely.

Given that guest editors are faced with the impossibility of reading even a fraction of the poetry being published, it should not shock us if they favor the work of students, friends, and colleagues. Although Robert Hass freely admitted (in his preface to BAP 2001) that he had included the work of "friends," he neglected to note that one of those friends was his wife. Few have been as generous toward associates as Lyn Hejinian (BAP 2004), who included 13 language-poetry colleagues whose work she had previously published and promoted as editor of Tuumba Press.

BAP editors recognize the need to throw in a maverick journal or obscure poet or two each year to make it look like they are fulfilling the grand promise of their title. Although Scribner wants readers to believe that they are purchasing the "best," David Orr, in The New York Times Book Review, could be describing the entire series when he writes that the poems selected for 2004 "run the usual gamut from very good to slightly dull to what-were-you-thinking." Pinning the word "best" on such a "gamut" could win an award for Best Chutzpah.

Each year, The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses ("best"—there's that word again) anthologizes a few dozen poems (along with fiction and essays). Here's Pushcart's own description of its nomination process: "Little magazine and small-book-press editors (print or online) may make up to six nominations from their year's publications." Editor Bill Henderson informs me that Pushcart received "4,000 to 5,000" poetry nominations for its 33rd edition.

Of course, many literary journals and presses don't bother to nominate—especially if they've noticed this zinger at the end of Pushcart's description of its modus operandi: "We also accept nominations from our staff of distinguished Contributing Editors." There are a whopping 232 of them listed for 2009, most employed by college writing programs.

No surprise that 28 of the 30 poets in the 2009 edition chosen by the creative-writing professors Phillis Levin and Thomas Lux are college teachers or retirees, in most cases from writing departments. A little Googling turns up multiple collegial and personal connections between winning poets and "Distinguished Nominating Editors." One "winner" boasts a nomination by his wife (she uses her maiden name). Another had been instrumental in procuring a reading gig for one and a judging gig for another of his "nominators" at his university. Pushcart Press and its distributor, W.W. Norton, would probably like to see 50,000 M.F.A. program "nominees" and 5,000 "Contributing Editors," all of them using the book as a required text for their writing classes (and in the years ahead probably will). As for the poetry, Orr's "very good to slightly dull to what-were-you-thinking" applies even more so here than to Best American Poetry.

Online, the most visited anthology (millions of hits per month) is Poetry Daily, which reprints a poem each day from books or journals. Extrapolating, that means it will publish 36,500 poems in the 21st century. Much impressed by prizes, university position, and po-biz power, the site's editors routinely ignore excellent poems by independent poets in favor of weaker ones by M.F.A. pros and po-biz heavies. Like its hard-copy cousins, Poetry Daily makes no serious attempt to present the best American poetry to the thousands of readers who visit its Web site daily.

Keep in mind that, when it comes to the new math of poetry, we can see only the tip of the iceberg. Unfathomable are the countless self-published chapbooks and collections printed each year, to say nothing of the millions of personal Web sites, blogs, and Facebook pages where self-published poetry appears. I remind readers who believe that such poetry can be dismissed unread that William Blake self-published his Songs of Innocence and Experience, Walt Whitman his Leaves of Grass, A.E. Housman his A Shropshire Lad, and that many of the poets who appear in prestigious journals today routinely self-publish their chapbooks.

The most common rebuttal to this critique can best be summed up as "The more the merrier." Instead of complaining about an embarrassment of trinkets, we should shout, "Hallelujah!" Doesn't the test of time always separate the silver and gold from the dross so that great poetry can emerge, if not for current readers, then for future ones?

My answer is that time has never been asked to test the astounding number of poems being published today, let alone what promises to be published in the future. To truly survey 21st-century poetry, future English professors will have to limit the scope of their courses so severely as to invite laughter. Professor X might specialize in the month of May 2049 while Professor Y concentrates on the first week of September 2098.

Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering along with the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, poets in the schools, poets in the prisons, and hundreds of other state and local advocates. Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

But there's a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders. None of the golfers who end up on the green with Tiger Woods or Annika Sörenstam are there because of collegial or personal connections, or a judge's subjective judgment, bias, or laziness. They are there because their scores prove them to be superior golfers.

Perhaps the most sinister fact about the new math of poetry is that it allows the academic oligarchy that controls poetry to impose a nonaesthetic, self-serving scoring system without attracting notice or raising indignation. Since no one can possibly read the vast number of poems being published, professionals can ignore independent poets and reserve the goodies—premiere readings, publications, honors, financial support—for those fortunate enough to be housed inside the professional poetry bubble.

Marginalizing independent poets and the diversity of life experience they bring to poetry may help bolster M.F.A.-teaching careers; but how healthy is it for the art? Almost all of the world's great poetry has been written by independents, and most of the poets writing today (myself included) remain unaffiliated with any institution. Still, when it comes to the major awards and premier publication essential for wide readership, there seems to be little room at the top for independents. Apparently "Where does this poet teach?" is an easier question for committees to answer than "How good is his or her poetry?" (Kay Ryan, poet laureate of the United States, is the exception who proves the rule.)

If Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" were published next week by The New Formalist, Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" by Gnome: the online journal of underground writing, and Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" by Women Writers: A Zine, but none of those three poets held teaching posts in creative-writing departments, I'd wager that their poems would not appear in The Best American Poetry 2010 or The Pushcart Prize XXXIV or make their way into a Norton anthology. Three of America's most widely read, genuinely loved poems would be published—but the event would be more like a funeral than a birth.

On my desk is a worn college anthology titled Seventeenth Century Poetry and Prose. Donne, Herbert, Herrick, Jonson, Marvell, Milton—all of the great poets of that century, and all of the minor ones (as well as some now considered unreadable) are represented there. The hundreds of poets who are at this moment contemplating editing yet another poetry journal or anthology need to ask themselves if they will introduce readers to future Eliots, Bishops, Ginsbergs, or Plaths—or merely add more lineated prose to what Beckett would call "the impossible heap." "The weeder is supremely needed," Ezra Pound warns, "if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden." The new math analyzed here suggests that poetry is on Miracle-Gro and is rapidly becoming a jungle.

Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable.

David Alpaugh's poetry collections are Counterpoint (Story Line Press, 1994) and Heavy Lifting (Alehouse Press, 2007).