The Paranoid Side of American Poetry

The poetry world has a paranoid side. If you ask Anis Shivani or certain folks in the avant-garde crowd, American poetry is a shell game. It’s rigged. And in certain circles, it’s clear that there is an us, and there is a them.

For instance, after a recent controversy in poetry land, there was this comment:

The entire official world of poetry publishing is corrupt from the top down to the smallest little contest – and the NEA is a facilitator of that. It is a world of mutual back scratching MFA grads with middle names like “Lavender” who elevate the word “vanity” to heights never before seen. Geoffrey Gatza (yes, I published with BlazeVox and donate to them) is one of the handful of honest, innovative publishers who are trying to deal with the real issues facing real poets and their readers – hence the hatred heaped on him by the officials patrolling the boundaries of verse culture.

This made me think of something from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:

The notion of resentment is central to the book. In it, he makes a distinction between “slave morality” and “noble morality.” He writes:

…Slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” … In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself.

Or as the philosophy department at Lander University puts it,

For Nietzsche, vanity is the hallmark of the meek and powerless…Vanity is a consequence of inferiority.

So when certain crowds get riled up, you see comments like this:

Two of the best considerations on this matter…were published last fall by…one of the central figures on the Buffalo poetry scene.

There’s a profound sense of self-importance—and yes, vanity—in that statement. It almost sounds like a perverse version of John Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill,” as if Buffalo were a beacon, preventing wayward poets from entering perdition.

Needless to say, the very notion of a “scene” speaks to a dichotomous, us. vs. them approach; “scenes” are defined entirely by them, by the Hegelian “Other” (which Nietzsche was damn familiar with).

And does Buffalo’s “scene” merit that much importance to begin with? While I admire a number of Buffalo poets and presses, I have to say that Buffalo’s crowning achievement is its hot sauce. (Frank, of Frank’s hot sauce fame, is surely what Hegel would call a world-historical individual.)

That’s the thing: I’m far less interested in a scene—I’m far more interested in good writing wherever I can find it. Needless to say, there are numerous great poets scattered across the country, and many of them aren’t any part of a “scene.” Case in point: One of my favorite poets works at car service on the West Coast.

Moreover, the folks in favor of a “scene” always seem to attack the opposition, as Nietzsche puts it, “in effigy.” In other words, it’s one big straw man argument. Even though that’s a logical fallacy, it doesn’t mean it’s not convincing; folks use fallacies for a reason: they work.


Contests have been perhaps the most maligned aspect of literary land. I’ve run a pair of contests. I’ve got one going right now, as a matter of fact. I’ve never met—let alone conspired with—any of the winners from either contest; hell, I only knew of one of them, and when it came to selecting winners, neither I or my co-editor made the final call.

But if you ask the paranoid-fringe, I must have! They must have all been MFA students with whom I was familiar! And similar conspiracies must have taken place “from the top down to the smallest little contest.”

Really? Bullshit. Yes, the fine folks at Foetry unearthed quite a bit of corruption and nepotism and nonsense in contests, but that doesn’t mean it’s ubiquitous throughout all of poetry. On the contrary, from what I could tell from Foetry, a lot of the corruption happened towards the top. You had big-name writers giving big-money prizes to their students; it wasn’t like there was ballot rigging at the Podunk Review.

Think of it in terms of math: What’s more likely? That we live in a universally corrupt world where nearly every contest is rigged and it all depends on the editors you know—or that folks make such general claims because they feel left out? Occam’s razor suggests the latter.

I have a strong suspicion that resentment is also the reason for all of the incessant claims about how pernicious MFA programs are. When there are more folks writing there is more competition, and therefore a lower batting average for all involved when it comes to publication.

There has to be another reason for all the anti-MFA cant. You’re really sneering at people who are spending two years of their life (and some serious money) reading and writing?

Really? OK, fine. But if we do that, then let’s yell at English majors, too, as they are essentially doing the same thing (and often go through creative writing workshops). And they too are likely to submit to magazines. Here, I’ll do it for you:

 I hereby declare to all English majors: Damn you, for reading that Petrarch and that Hemingway and that Flannery O’Connor! A pox on your family! (You have to admit, it’s kind of fun to wish a pox on someone’s family.)

English majors, don’t you know it is all a racket?! That all is stacked against you!? That it’s a Ponzi scheme in which you will be defrauded?

Let’s go even further. To those that are merely poetically inclined, let’s say:

Go away! We don’t want more writers! NO VACANCY.

A good deal of all this started with Donald Hall’s, “Poetry and Ambition.” I think it’s the best bad essay ever written. He’s correct about many things—and I love that he delivered it in 1980 at the AWP convention, the veritable lion’s den—but one of his main arguments is simply sloppy. He argues that MFA programs create MFA poems, or as he calls them, “McPoems.” Hall argues that such poems (and their poets) are no longer ambitious; instead of striving to write great poems, we simply seek to get published to advance our careers. In other words, we no longer have our eyes on the big prize—Hall argues that we are simply social climbers. The resulting poets—and their poems—aren’t good, they are simply famous.

Instead of striving to become Shakespeare, Hall argues that we want to become Snooki.

It should be apparent that this is simply an unfounded generalization. MFA programs produce whatever their students produce; it depends on those students and their reading, their experiences, who the hell they are. Sure, a lot of it is dreck, but a lot of everything is mediocre, in every field, creative or not. Painting. Food. Website design.

Yes, the volume of extant work has changed, but if there are more writers on aggregate, all things being equal, it follows there will also be more great writers. So instead of one Yeats and Eliot-quality writer per generation, perhaps you get two. Maybe they go undiscovered, buried in the dreck. But maybe not; maybe good writing, like the truth, will out. That’s a lovely thought, yes?

Besides, the volume of everything has changed. When your planet’s population is an interconnected 7 billion, good luck finding something you’ve got all to yourself. Such a desire seems to hark back to the good old days when there was a smaller playing field and you knew your work would get published because there were only so many folks in the game. That sounds a lot like the conspiracy that folks are alleging in the first place.

And one more thing: Write whatever you want, publish whatever you want, but there’s nothing inherently noble about doing so. We’re not tending to the sick, for Chrissakes.

On the contrary, we’re spending a lot of money that could go, say, to here: Oxfam, here: Unicef or here: Doctors Without Borders. So ditch the all-important, woe-is-me tone.  It’s useful to keep in mind that we are literally fighting over a luxury.

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