EP&M Online Editorial

Soupy, Sales?

essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Yet nearly every explanation of the situation of our time -- attempting to account for its isolation, its seeming irrelevance to the general culture, the depressing sense that this once most elevated of human activities is now rather second-rate --- seems to let the poets off the hook.  There may be something to Walt Whitman's remark "to have great poets, there must be great audiences too," but , as Delmore Schwartz once rejoined, "To have great poetry it is necessary to have great poets...."
                                                                            Who Killed Poetry, Joseph Epstein, 1988

    Being a monk seems in some ways like a dream profession, except for the celibacy thing.  You don't have to sell the public on the validity of your ideas or the quality of your work to be a monk.  All you have to do is convince the head of your order that your credentials meet the standard, and that your sworn obedience and vows are believably based on your commitment to the faith and to its practice as a monk.  Then, as long as you stay out of trouble, largely dependent on your relationship with your peers, you can always be a monk, earning a small place to live, and a living, for the rest of your life.  The monkish life has its pleasures, I'm told.  The libraries are often good, and include access to the rarest and most beautiful of books.  Unlike the modern workplace, the rat race is outside the building, not within.  Though monasteries are now as computer-driven as any other institution, there are pleasant places to garden, or even work as a small farmer or vintner, take quiet walks, and time -- time to reflect, time to examine the tenets of human existence, time between the Mass and prayers to wander with a friend, time to pursue both casual and serious interests, and for the so-inclined, time to bless the surrounding community with social work, calls on the sick, or any variety of professional occupations, but chiefly the caring professions.  It is true among monks that the gifted and the average are not differentiated from one another insofar as membership in the order is concerned.  Once one belongs, talent or a will to work may separate what one monk does from another, but nothing else.  One doesn't need to be a self-promoter; one doesn't need an agent.  One is a brother for life.
    For some time, perhaps since the rise of academic writing programs, this has been a fair description of life as a university poet, that is to say, most poets in America.  Once tenure is secured, it doesn't much matter if one is energetic about, devoted to, or even particularly interested in writing poetry beyond the usual requirements for publication.  The lecture hall, the brotherhood and sisterhood, the status one has in relationship to students, and the occasional attention granted through an award or publication, are sufficient to carry one from the granting of tenure to early retirement.   A parallel myth about the life requirements of a poet greatly predates post-World War II writing programs; you can find it in many cultural histories where court patronage kept poets fed and housed, whether in China or among the wealthier Romantics in 18th century England.  The poet, to be inspired, goes the myth, must be carefully and delicately segregated from both the rabble and the trial of ordinary life.  Otherwise, how could he or she have the time or the psychological comfort to produce beautiful things?
    It's a charming myth, and undeniably associated with the creation of beauty in the royal courts of China, France, England, Austria and many others.  However, what audience there's been for such work has only developed over centuries, much as the great work of a monastery is often unknown until long after its founders, and perhaps even its buildings, have vanished.  The Expansive movement in poetry, however, since its beginning, has advocated that poets should seek out an audience.  This is a marketing objective.  Doesn't it conflict not only  with the condition of, but the life requirements of, a poet?
    One supposes that the answer will not be a simple yes or no, for the uncomplicated reason that there are different kinds of poetry.  The exquisite lyrics of the Elizabethan poets, for example, such as Jonson, Lanier,  Shakespeare or Donne, were not held out to big audiences then because it was assumed, and accurately, that it took a special kind of reader to appreciate the verbal and metaphorical sleights-of-hand that such masters practiced.  As widespread as these lyrics are today, it's still true that without substantial footnoting and explanation, most people don't get the subtleties in a love sonnet by Shakespeare or a metaphysical poem by Donne, any more than they comprehend the complex and beautiful reference, metaphor, and figure in more recent poets, such as T.S. Eliot, Elinor Wylie, Elizabeth Bishop, or Richard Wilbur.   There's nothing for such readers to be ashamed of; such poetry is an acquired taste, as one acquires a taste for the late quartets by Beethoven.  Most don't have the time or the inclination.   But there is another kind of poetry which tells stories, whether in drama, long and short narratives, dramatic monologues, or even dramatic lyrics (some of Shakespeare's best sonnets are wonderful speeches by an easily recognized character).  For thousands of years, such poets were widely read, and as easily understood as one can a movie today.  Such poets were not only celebrated by a public but even by their more artistically inclined peers among lyric poets. Whatever your opinion of such, whether Robert Browning or Robert Service, William Shakespeare or Christopher Fry, they set out to win audiences, and knew very well that self-cloistering, whether through the largesse of a patron, a university,  or of an inheritance, could do nothing to advance their cause.   One guesses that most found the idea of being a court poet at best affected cultivation and at worst a gilded prison cell.
    But, a little over a century ago, with the rise of Modernism, and continuing to this day, poets turned against the idea of audience.  Audiences, suggested Eliot's generation, could only force a poet toward popular ideas.  The only approval that matters, suggest Eliot's descendants, is from one's peers.  There is nothing so pristine, so conducive, or so professionally astute in 2002 as to convince one's peers that one is a fine poet, at least in a university.   After all, who's outside of the university but those who understand nothing?  It is as if, with the new status of university-subsidized artist, and as descendants of the great Modernists, that poets decided en masse to become modern court poets -- not of this world, but of a special place where special people (and students for one's classes) could receive each other's work as utterances in the very lap of heaven, or at worst, part of the application for tenure.  Mere seekers after fame, such as Tennyson, were to be henceforth scorned, even banned, as were the audiences such poets drew.  Is that the only venue for literary art?
    While many dispute the quality of contemporary trade fiction -- it is difficult to compare, say, John Le Carre, with Tolstoi, or, say, Stanislaw Lem, with Voltaire (actually not  so bad), one can't talk reasonably about a similar existence (or presumptions for it) for such authors, unless they're from that special circle of short story and novel writers who only publish under academic imprints.  One can't deny either that the two writers mentioned have produced some complicated and dark work, in settings unfamiliar to most of their readers, and with assumptions of awareness on the part of their readers that no university poet would dare make of his or hers (especially students).  Both write for adults; neither patronizes a presumed ignorance among their readers.  This was also true of a range of dramatic and narrative poets in English for generations, at least until their descendants turned all of that aside in the name of Modernist sensibility.  For the last twenty-five years, a new generation of narrative and dramatic poets has re-introduced a stream of poetry deliberately cut off by poets and critics.  However, has anyone heard of them?
    The answer isn't hard to come by.  One need only look at sales.  While Le Carre and Lem, and not a few others in trade fiction and science fiction, sell hundreds of thousands, even millions, of new books, new narrative poets have lifetimes sales which, at best, attain the low ten thousands.  Most, including some of the best, have barely sold half that.  Why is that such work, which is as satisfying as trade fiction (if as well executed), doesn't reach a wider audience?
    We know, without too much thought, that the audience for the more exalted of trade fiction, while large, can't compare to, say, the market rush for a new novel by Tom Clancy, so that would be an unreasonable expectation.  But we know that Umberto Eco, whose work requires pretty careful thought, certainly a lot more than needed for Browning or Tennyson, manages to move hundreds of thousands of books.   Why not new narrative poets?
    Here we arrive at another aspect of the myth of the poet, which stems not only from that of the court poet, but from Modernism and post-Modernism's deliberate segregation of the poet from the crowd.  And this gets pretty personal; some may be offended.  That part of the myth says that poets, as more or less divinely inspired, practically in the lap of the gods, whether the Pantheon of Rome or that of the modern university, should never be expected to stoop so low as to hawk their verses in an open market, to be no more than street vendor with costume jewelry knockoffs, waving his new book or pamphlet to the onrushing and stinking herd.  Such merchantry would debase their art.  It would be like asking a monk to demand payment by the congregation at Mass for a particularly inspired homily.  Oh, but the nasty commentator retorts, monks do pass the plate!
    I can't imagine John Le Carre sitting in a dusty office at Oxford, passing his work around to friends and waiting for the day that some enlightened acquisition editor would realize the salability of a peculiar set of stories about spies -- stories that made no effort to fulfill the popular myths about secret agents and romantic derring do and happy endings at the border, punctuated by a fireworks display to do a modern regiment proud.  Le Carre would have thought that profoundly unprofessional.  And he would have learned that -- early on -- from some old codger cum mentor whom he respected in the novelist's trade, who would have told him, over and over, that you'd better hustle your stuff.  There's a thousand more out there with the same material and the same dream. And it had better be finished work. And if your first editor says "yes, but..." listen:  rewrite is what professionals do! Etc., etc...As an editor of a poetry journal myself, and publisher of twenty-two chapbooks by good poets, as well as of an upcoming series of books, I can say with some authority, and however much I like them,  that one can count the number of poets I've published on three fingers who are willing to do any rewrite, and only two or three willing to do, or even interested in, the commercial hustle that any professional writer does in trade fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, theater, or screenwriting.  You can almost hear the retort to a suggestion to do otherwise:  but I have my patron to look after that....
    Good for them. But if the Expansive movement is going to get any purchase beyond a few writers who sell a few books, it's time for the poets to start acting as if for poetry to matter, you have to sell the stuff to bigger journals, learn to convince outlets to send checks and write contracts for authors, that there's a commercial reason for publishing the work, i.e., someone will buy it.  This takes time.  It took Lem fifteen years to gain enough of a reputation in both journals and magazines, and a publisher or two, before he had enough readers to justify putting his work in front of a million of them.  It took Le Carre's similar efforts, including aggressive pursuit of commercial publication, a book contract, and an agent, before his work began to move outside of a few specialty bookstores.   If the Expansive movement is going for the same crowd (and they probably will be the same people who read Eco and Le Carre and Proulx and Lem), isn't it time for its poets, including me, to give up all of the myth, and start acting like professionals do in the writing trade?

                                           Arthur Mortensen

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