Last week, poet and (National Geographic!) writer/photographer William Childress wrote a scathing indictment of free verse, which was posted on Virginia Quarterly Review’s blog. (It was originally a response to an article in VQR itself.)
While I encourage you to read the piece (entitled “Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?”) I’m not that interested in debunking it; while I stridently disagree with almost all of it, a lot of that work has been done in the rather robust commentary over at VQR (which I jumped into in somewhat feisty fashion).
I also don’t see how piling on against the piece would be productive*.
Anyway, I’m glad he wrote it, as I’m interested in the underlying assumption of the piece. When it all comes down to it, Mr. Childress is making a familiar argument, and one that gets bandied about quite a bit in all quarters of poetryland: There are too many poets and they are writing bad work. We are, as it were, awash in shit.
Since I just swore once in this post; forgive me one more instance: that’s bullshit.
Childress (and others) are correct in assuming that there are legions of poets out there, no doubt more than ever before. MFA programs are often blamed, but I’d argue that there’s an entirely different cause: relative luxury. Poetry is, in a very real sense, a luxury; to be able to write, you have to have the financial means and the time to do so. If all of your time is dedicated to simply helping your family survive (say by subsistence agriculture), you likely won’t have as much time to craft poems. As America is (despite the recession and very high unemployment) still among the wealthiest nations, it’s no surprise that we have many, many poets. (In this respect, the whole “there are too many poets writing bad work” could fairly be called a first-world problem.)
That point aside, there’s a flip side to the “there are too many writers” argument. If there are too many writers, yes, you’ll have a lot of schlock (most of writing produced will be middling or bad). Nevertheless, if you have a glut of writers, you’ll also, by definition, have an excess of good writing.
That’s simply the math of it—think of it in terms of a bell curve.** The bell curve below represents all living U.S. writers. Most of us are somewhere near the middle—that it to say, if viewed objectively, most people produce middling, derivative work.*** (We don’t like to think so, but that’s probably self-confirming bias talking.) Some of the work published is worse than others of course, but it’s rare for someone to be staggeringly bad (Rod McKuen, I’m looking at you), just as it’s rare for someone to be exceptionally good (Shakespeare, for instance).
So again, most work is somewhere in the middle. Yes, there’s a lot of muck, but to that, I say, “So what?” It will be forgotten in short order. But if you do a lot of digging, there is a lot of damn fine work to be found. In fact, sometimes, there’s too much.
Think of it in absolute terms: Now I don’t know how many poets or fiction writers there are around, but there are certainly quite a few. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, there were 145,900 people employed as writers and authors in the U.S. last year. Of course, this doesn’t differentiate between genres, types of writing, what have you, and very few poets can actually claim “poet” as their sole occupation.
So this number seems far too low (that’d make only one in 2000 people a poet), but let’s just roll with this number by way of an example.
If the standard bell curve holds, then you’d have the following breakdown of promising-to-good writing:
145,900 x .136 =19,842 writers producing work worth revising (and possible eventual publication)
145,900 x.021 = 3,063 (writers producing very high-quality work)
145,900 x.001= 145 (amazing writers)
Those numbers don’t seem all that crazy. I’ve encountered a similar ratio anecdotally as an editor, but I’ve seen evidence of this elsewhere too. For example, many presses acknowledge from the get-go that they receive too many quality manuscripts to publish. I don’t think they are simply being nice; I honestly think they encounter too much good work to publish, and that’s a great problem to have.
Of course, finding that work takes effort: one still has to wade through all the muck. And authors are no doubt missed in the process. But that’s what editors are supposed to do: find good work and then help writers shape it. Yes, one gets dirty in the process, but there’s a lot to find down there.
*Plus, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the guy. After I jumped into the commenting fray, Mr. Childress emailed me, and we started a correspondence which soon veered off into a whole different sets of subjects—among others, our least favorite generals, Mr. Childress served in Korea. He hates MacArthur about as much as I hate Curtis LeMay.
**Of course, in the above I’m assuming that all contemporary poets are as equally as talented as those of generations before. That’s a big assumption, but unless one serves up a boatload of evidence to the contrary, there’s no reason to doubt it. After all, people are no smarter or more ethical or more able to comprehend beauty today than they were two generations (or twenty) ago. There is therefore no reason to assume that we are, by definition, intrinsically more skilled writers today.
***I’m also assuming that the form of free verse is not inherently self-limiting. If one were to objectively review the canon of free verse, I think its authors would hold their own quite well with those of previous time periods. (Whitman could go toe-to-toe with almost everyone, I think.) In his review of free verse, Mr. Childress primarily reviewed the work of the
Beatniks Beats, but that’s not fair. Focusing on the Beatniks Beats to review free verse is like listening only to a specific band to develop an opinion of an entire genre of music.