Poetry News

Mike Chasar and Jed Rasula Talk POETRY GLUT

By Harriet Staff

A rather (wonderfully) long conversation between Mike Chasar and Jed Rasula is posted over at the Boston Review, in which they discuss the over-flowingly-flow of contemporary poetry. Or what Stephen Burt has called "Too much"! While we count up the head-spinning number of poets publishing today, the number of poems published, the number of MFA programs churning out ever more and more poets, Chasar and Rasula provide much needed context and nuance to the conversation. To give you just a tiny slice of what they're doing, here's Chasar talking about how long there's been a poetry glut and what it means (and to whom):

I agree with the upward trend in people’s accounting, though I think that, large as their figures seem, they’re actually quite conservative, and far more people are writing, reading, or hearing poetry than we’d expect. (I don’t have exact figures for how many people saw the moving recitation of Whitman’s “I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” on Season 3, Episode 6 of AMC’s Breaking Bad, for example, but it’s a lot.) But this is hardly a new phenomenon; to some people seventy-five or a hundred years ago—when poetry was appearing regularly in magazines and newspapers, and was being broadcast on national radio shows devoted exclusively to poetry and appearing on business cards, postcards, pin-up girly posters, billboards, and even souvenir pillows—it felt like there was a similar sort of poetry glut as there is now. You yourself have noted that, in 1911, Davenport, Iowa, lawyer and poet Arthur Davison Ficke wrote, “Just now there appear to be more writers of verse than there have been at any time in the history of literature.” [Ed note: Ficke's essay, “The Present State of Poetry” is in Vol. 194 (1911) of the North American Review.] Fifteen years later, Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow wrote in the American Mercury that her state’s literary culture “is snatched at by everybody—farmer boys, dentists, telegraph editors in small towns, students, undertakers, insurance agents and nobodies.” The first edition of Granger’s Index to Poetry appeared in 1904 and contained 30,000 listings of poems appearing just in books and anthologies; the second (1918) edition of Granger’s grew to 50,000 listings, and its third (1940) to 75,000. Its 1940 subtitle alone (A Practical Reference Book for Librarians, Teachers, Booksellers, Elocutionists, Radio Artists, Etc.) suggests a much more active—and demotic—poetry-reading culture than we typically associate with the age of High Modernism.

But as much as these examples are suggestive, perhaps my favorite is the one Heidi Bean and I use in our introduction to Poetry after Cultural Studies—and that’s the case of the Auxiliary Poetry File constructed by librarians at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio. In the early 1900s, right after Granger’s appeared, the librarians realized that Granger’s was only indexing poems printed in books, not in local and daily newspapers and magazines, so they started their own, supplemental index, making three-by-five-inch index card entries for the poems they selected and then filing them by author, title, and first line. Whenever possible—which was about 40 percent of the time—they actually cut out poems from their source publications and pasted the verse to the back of the appropriate card. By midcentury, their index alone had 60,000 cards in it!

So I agree there’s an astonishing amount of poetry in circulation, and it’s partly astonishing because the high numbers don’t square with the various “death of poetry” arguments that get rehearsed every other decade or so. That said, I think there’s been a poetry glut for a long time and that at certain times—probably during periods when people are gaining more access to new media or communication technologies, just as they were when Ficke and Suckow were writing, and just as they are now—it comes into view more strikingly than at others. My gut reaction (you could maybe call it my glut reaction) is to say that questions like “Is it a glut?” or “Is it a problem?” aren’t nearly as interesting as questions like “Who is it a problem for?” and “Why do those people think it’s a problem?” For critics like Burt, it’s a problem because it challenges what it means to be an “expert” in American poetry. Whenever someone’s status as expert is predicated on knowing everything—all the good poems (i.e., a canon), what everyone is saying, etc.—a glut is going to be a problem because, as Burt puts it, “I just can’t keep trying and failing to get myself to read everything,” and thus the governing paradigm for what it means to be a poetry expert is put into crisis; how can you be an arbiter of taste if you can’t read everything to pass judgment on it? Insofar as the centrality of Official Verse Culture is affected by a period of glut—where there is no longer an official center—then Official Verse Culture has a stake in the matter.

There's so much more over at the Boston Review, including talk of OVC (offical verse culture), the relevance of poetry institutions, advertising and poetry, anthology making, poetry zones, and so much much more. You gotta read it!

Originally Published: November 30th, 2012