Too Many Writers: The Best Problem in Contemporary Poetry

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).

Bell Curve Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Mwtoews. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.


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.


  • Paul Jessup says:

    Beatnics or Beat writers? There is a difference dontcha know.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I like the idea of identifying “work worth revising.” And I especially like the Rod McKuen/Shakespeare continuum established here. Hilarious.

  • pegesus says:

    For Shame…the question of too many poets is really not fair…poetry in itself is a form of therapy for some…be it good or bad…and that i encourage. Among that therapy comes some very good poets…yes their are some who are bad, but you always have some bad and some good…and when you think about it is the readers who make their own choices about who is good and who is bad, not the media (unless of course that is where the poet plans on writing for). I do not claim myself to be a good poet, but i do claim that it was the best therapy i had while i cared for my mother, who had Alzheimers. I write for myself and have published some of my poetry then went on to self publish so it would be accessable for whoever wanted to read and maybe relate to…i havent sold many and i really dont let that bother me, i just happen to like sharing my poetry. Please dont discourage a person from writing his feelings, it may be his/hers only outlet. And it doesnt take hours to write poetry, when a person is angry, scared, frustrated, lonely it only take them as long as that emotion is there. If they wish to share they will rewrite it at a later date when they have the time, for most it is just an outlet or a pastime they enjoy…dont discourage…there may be an exceptional poet out there that only needs the encoragement and acknowledgment to the fact….there i’ve said my peace…if im wrong, sorry, but if im right, pleas reconsider your stance,

  • Brett says:

    Pegesus: I’m not saying they shouldn’t write. Not at all. And I’m certainly not saying that one can’t improve his/her writing. When I started out, I certainly began on the left-hand section of the bell curve. I hope that, with practice and study and work, I have since improved.

    In this piece, I’m not saying anything about who should or should not write. On the contrary, that’s the implicit claim of folks who make the ‘we have too many writers!” argument. (Their argument would likely end: we have too many writers…and all of these baddies should just stop!)

    I’m simply trying to assign value (a tricky task, I know) to the writing that we currently have.

  • David Scott says:

    The number of poets writing is irrelevant. The quality of the writing is the point. In many other periods of human history large numbers of people wrote poetry. Some of it was high quality which contributed to the tradition. Some of it was doggerel and some mediocre and derivative. All of it was therapy because even for a great poet, writing is therapy. Seems to me that all poets begin with imitations and doggerel. The ones who are kissed by the muse and put in time and energy end up with something else. History choses who is who over a long period of time and intellectual constructs purporting to predict the choices are always wrong although sometimes deep readers with good minds can be uncannily accurate with intuitive guesses.
    Those who object to the numbers writing poetry, it seems to me, have a subtext. ‘The poets writing the real poetry are me, my friends and the ones I approve of,’ says the subtext.
    ‘The others are interfering with our public ordination as the true priests of poetry and should, in some way, be eliminated.’

  • Nik says:

    It seems to me that the problem is that there is too much good poetry out there. As writers work and work to hone their craft, inside MFA programs and out, it only gets better and better. The difficult thing to bear is the sheer amount of reading we should be doing to even get a glimpse of all that good work. If calling most poetry mediocre is just one way to sort out what you read, that’s fine, but there are other ways to sort through all the poetry out there without judging it “good” or “bad” (although admittedly, an awful poem is its own delight to read.)

  • KEB says:

    Hmm… First World problems…? I’d be loath to suggest that more poetry is written in America than in other, more war-torn or impoverished countries. In lots of other places poetry is far more embedded in the mainstream culture; poets like eg Darwish are revered in a way American can hardly comprehend (though I can just about remember, as a small child, the pre-eminence of Robert Frost as a sort of national elder). People, many of them poor, are writing poems in all sorts of difficult, oppressive and dangerous conditions around the world, according to their imperatives; they just might not be sending them to the New Yorker…

    I think the main issue around writing and poverty used to be illiteracy; nowadays that’s coming back again. But as long as a person can read and write, they can read and write: even if it’s a page a day. As a single mum I wrote much of my first book on the bus going to work and back, because there was no time in the mornings or evenings. John Clare carried scraps of paper in his pocket and hid under haystacks to write, in the fields. No residencies, no retreats, no professors.

    Also, it’s just worth remembering that 99% of just about anything is crap, and that excellence is a rarity in all fields and categories. It’s why we notice it when it comes along.

  • ernie brill says:

    I really like KEB’s comments. Also, one cannot lump together all of the poetry. One person mentioned that she/he writes poetry for therapy, for solace. That’s healthy. Ok, so this person is not interested in becoming famous,fine. Different strokes for different folks.
    The United States is one of the most literate countries in the world. A SECTION of the United States loves poetry and loves the great American tradition of poetry, often by mavericks such as Whitman, Dickinson,McGrath,Ginsberg, Rich, and others, along with remarkable poets also teaching in universities, such as Sterling A.Brown, Theodore Roethke. MANY poets write in small/ underground/ zine presses. Many poets self-published and have their friends and relatives and a few odd readers. There is a WIDE variety. Look at a larger picture: many folks are writing, being literate. Some are actually READING poetry.
    In the latter half of the twentieth century there were at least two major sea changes in the world of poetry: The Beat writers, foreshadowed by Kenneth Patchen and others, and led by Alan Ginsberg ( with lessers known talents such as DA Levy and Dianna DiPrima, Sotere Torregian, Diane Wakowski and others beyond Ferlinghetti and Jack Keroucrap) to a postbeat group including Victor Hernandez Cruz, Pedro Pietri, Qincey Troupe, David Henderson, Janice Mirikitani, Judy Grahn, and others…..and on to Poetry Slams ( supported by one of our great poets the emminent Gwendolyn Brooks) which, along with the music, helped engender the entire hiphop movement. Hiphop in particular has given permission for hundreds of young men of all colors to write poetry, carrying around in many major cities, in their backpockets and bookbags, notepads and notebooks chocked full of poetry. And many others “freestyle” make up poetry spontaneously, improvising on the spot,
    And this is happening at a time where the media becomes increasingly debased and reportage resembles Orwell’s Newspeak more and more save for a few journalists who have managed to maintain their integrity in a time of linguistic debauchery. But maybe that’s what happens when you feature pundits and politicians instead of poets??

  • ernie brill says:

    I have left out some other poetry movements within my lifetime: The “Black Arts” movement, and the many woman’s movement poets that helped bring to poetry ( or accentuate it) ” the personal is political” ( ie the poems of Marge Piercy, Cheryl Clarke, Alicia Ostriker,Lorna Cervantes. The woman’s movement also returned to light the great poets of the thirties and forties such as Muriel Rukeyser. And I would ask – there are too many poets – FOR WHOM? AND HOW MANY POEETS DO YOU WISH TO “ALLOW”??? And WHY?

    • Brett says:

      It should be clear that I’m not the one arguing that there are “too many poets.” I’m saying that if one makes that case, there’s a rather positive side to the argument–how much good work we are producing.

      The ‘too many poets’ bit is the implied argument evident in the piece I’m discussing (and disagreeing with).

  • Tim Miller says:

    The Childress essay is just so limited, and the most obvious limitation is the range of poetry he refers to—primarily the last one hundred years, primarily American. I, too, mostly stopped reading modern poetry a few years ago, and in turn focused on immensely older poetry, sometimes the first poetry—Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh, Egypt’s Pyramid Texts, the Hindu Rig Veda, the poetry of the Bible, the poets of Greece and Rome, on up to Dante, the Celtic and Norse myths, and the Norse sagas. And in all of these cultures, while there is a tradition of metered poetry, there is also a tradition of narrative prose, and much of the time the two are mixed together, so that what is perceived to be “old poetry” is strung together with bits of prose; or poetry is retold in prose, versions of stories exist in both.
    The other limitation is subject-matter, and he focuses on Ginsberg’s vulgarity and focus on sex. While I wouldn’t say Ginsberg is the greatest thing by far, I actually think the best of Ginsberg—Howl, Kaddish, The Fall of America—bear much rereading, since Ginsberg is making something new out of his forbears, people like the Hebrew prophets and Williams Blake. And if it’s just nature poetry Childress wants, it’s also worth remembering that much of the poetry or writing that has lasted (the ancient stuff mentioned above), a great deal of it is about naturalistic description (and how could it not be, for people living more directly from agriculture than we ever will?), but it is also “depressing” in a simplistic modern sense, it’s about death and tragedy and sorrow, or reflections on the nature of life, and about meaning being found through heartache. To be woefully simplistic again, a beautiful naturalistic description means nothing without that kind of perspective, there’s no point in the uplift without that kind of dark subject matter. So that, again, to simply go back to writing Romantic or nature poetry using meter, wouldn’t change anything, since the form itself doesn’t matter without the meaning. The larger “poetry world” (whoever they are, the ones who send me rejection slips) doesn’t have that sense of meaning about poetry anymore, and simple “reflections on the nature of life” are considered naïve. Even someone as powerful as Robinson Jeffers, who’s now just called an “environmental” poet, doesn’t have nearly the renown he should, since he spent his career plainly talking about nature and humanity’s place (or rather our lack of place) in it.
    So that it isn’t the vehicle of the most lasting material that has mattered, whether it’s poetry or prose, but the meaning behind what’s being said. So that a rallying call to “formal” poetry is meaningless mostly because the other limitation of the essay, and of poetry in general nowadays, is the lack of anything really meaningful. This is a woeful generalization to make, but popular poetry is generally bad autobiography, and usually does take the merely squalid or the merely vulgar to be self-sustaining—it’s “real” or “honest,” so it must be good. This kind of poetry is about something, but unlike Ginsberg, it has no more power than a newspaper article, it doesn’t echo or reecho, it doesn’t sustain or even beg another rereading. Or it’s some hybrid academic poetry about how nothing can “mean” anything anyway, poetry or words can’t carry meaning. This kind of poetry cannot be “about” anything except a whining over words not meaning anything. So that to just make this kind of poetry, but more formally, wouldn’t change anything, either.

  • Colleen Stinchcombe says:

    I think there is usually a resistance to types of writing that might be considered less “skilled” (free verse vs. more constricting and defined forms) — I wonder if there is a future in, say, exceptional blog-writing or tweeting. I think there is a great capacity for art in many forms and to judge the craft or form by its least skilled practitioners does a great disservice to the craft.

  • Stephen Orr Manning says:

    It comes to mind the descriptions of the “mushaira” tradition of Asia and the Middle East where thousands sit for hours to listen to all comers read their poems. It is SO condescending MFA American to suggest we are culturally illetrate because we do not buy your poetry but by daring to write our own we pollute the cultural landscape. Too many writers? Perhaps we need more mercenary soldiers to kill and maim. Bad poetry? Perhaps more obfuscation, more legalese will cure the problem. Perhaps we can apply the solution to mass-audience TV of pushing the on/off button; if you don’t like the creative endeavors of some hapless soul trying to express themselves,

    • Brett says:

      Stephen: I’m not saying there are too many writers. As should be clear, I don’t think that’s a problem at all. The more, the merrier, as we’ll produce more good overall.

      I’m simply trying to quantify how much good work is being produced. (And I didn’t say that folks from MFAs necessarily produce better work. Clearly folks who’ve never attended a workshop can, too. Still, I don’t think dedicating yourself to reading and writing for two solid years hurts. Not at all, and that’s what an MFA is.)

      As for the not-culturally literate argument: I have no idea where you’re getting that from my piece.

  • Stephen Orr Manning says:

    Don’t read it.

  • I’m glad I read this, and I think it confirms what I’ve always known: I’m personally much more interested in the expression, in the PROCESS, than the competition which may result from “product”….Many years ago, I enrolled in a night class taught by an Emory University Phd student. The class– and many others I would enroll in, in the late 1990’s, were all Philosophy classes. I told a dear friend, “I love this, but I know it’s something not everyone has time to do: read volumes of works, meet to discuss them, enjoy a dinner or a drink afterwards. Few people have what I’d call ‘the luxury of thought’, the time and ability to do this.”
    An actor with a background in Theatre, and Indie Feature Film credits, I’ve written quite a lot of poetry since then (published in many zines, journals, anthologies;participated in the (Summer 2004)Indiana University’s Writer’s Conference as an attendee under tutelage of Maureen Seaton, and practiced alongside Sandra Beasley and Anis ), I believe everyone has something worth sharing, but the greatness comes in learning to do that in a fresh way….
    Learning to “craft” a poem is so exciting. It feels much like creating a character. Was it the poet Auden?– who said “Poetry is compressed emotion.”
    Acting is like that too. We (any type artist) have an, uh, responsibility to pack all this in, make it lucid enough that others not only understand what we are saying, but CARE about the truth of it, and are “challenged” in some way, by it….We write what we don’t talk about. We write about what flows just beneath our skin.

  • Clarification: the other person of note I practiced alongside besides Sandra Beasley, is Anis Shivani (all of us were in acclaimed poet Maureen Seaton’s Workshop at Indiana University’s Writer’s Conference, Summer 2004)

  • Jan Zaleski Hilton says:

    I think too many readers as well as poets don’t realize the nature of free verse. It’s actually not “free.” It’s just not rhymed and scanned like the romantics, and much of Shakespeare and other great writers we all know or have heard of. Free verse is more like jazz than classical (except for 20th C. music which is more experimental). Free verse uses internal rhyme, varying rhythms, carefully planned end of lines, syncopated rhythm, and other ways of making expressive art with words.

  • This is a great piece because it’s part of the essence of intellectuality, the conversation poetry is devised of. And maybe you thought film was taking over, a fear that no one reads anymore. To know people care to write means maybe they care to read and the ability to think and analyze is still being appreciated, rather than have a TV screen tell you. On the other hand the population is booming and talented writers are becoming obscured, another fear. Rest assured, maybe in the future we’ll have computerized brains so we’ll all be able to read every work written by every poet ever. Just be sure to preserve your work long after you’re dead and you’ll be fine. At least that’s what keeps me with a little bit of hope of my own individual legacy being immortalized in the pages of humanity. In the meantime, enjoy it for yourself and appreciate the placement of your own existence, status, and story. You know, surrender to the universe. We can’t control everything, can we? Now that may be the biggest problem of all problems.

  • Just re-visiting this. I noticed the most recent Commenter posted in July 2013….seems this is still quite a relevant column/subject….

  • Shawn odel says:

    I was given this poem after I lost my job. It totally rebuilt my spirit and got me back on track.

    It’s called a magic poem because of the way the words affect people, I just think it’s Super Inspiring.

  • Thom Tammaro says:

    “There are too many photographers and they are photographing bad work. We are, as it were, awash in shit.”

  • Gogolman says:

    False assumption: to assume the more writers there are the more good writing there is, as if it’s as simple as a bell curve! It could very well be that there is 99% amateurish crap, and only 1% good writers, and even those don’t get published!

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