Monday, December 31, 2007

New year's irresolution

I am tired of reading bad poems and worse poems and, every once in a while, not-good poems, which cheer me up, because, though not good, they are better than bad and worse. The remedy is in my own hands, of course. I need to spend less time reading new poems online and more time reading old poems in books. The fault is not entirely with the online poetry sites I visit. Most new poems are bad--at every time and in every place. We forget that because history is an editor, and time has winnowed what we know. It is possible that were I to see as many brand-new Elizabethan and Caroline poems as I see Bushy verse, I should be as dismayed by then as I am by now. (I don't really believe that, you know.) But I don't. The moiety of those new poems lined pie pans and lit fires, so I never have to take them into account.

Anyway, it may be that too much brand spanking new poetry, read online or off, is not good for you. I need to find out.

P.S., a day later:

I can't imagine how editors cope with this phenomenon. One told me recently, apologizing for a cursory reading, that she receives 1000 poems a week. Almost all of them must be dreadful, but even if they weren't, how could she know? Gentle Reader, would you--literate, experienced, sensitive connoisseur that you are--have been able to sort the Tennysonian wheat from the Victorian chaff if it had come to you, a single poem concealed among 999 others, with 1000 still pending from the week before and 175+ more about to arrive in that day's mail? No wonder most of them give up and settle for publishing their friends or, if they publish the poems of strangers, selecting those which look most like the poems they published last time. 52,000 poems a year! And that's one editor at one magazine.

4 comments:

Rob said...

My brief experience at guest-editing qarrtsiluni taught me how hard it is to make these decisions sometimes, even without such a high level of submission. Without a good co-editor, I would have struggled. Two heads on the case seemed to make things clearer.

To make matters worse, most editors report that the general level of submissions have improved, due to workshops etc. Most submissions are fairly well written, but really good submissions are still relatively thin on the ground. Maybe experience helps you sort these ones out - the ones that affect you in some material way, even if they are different from what you've published before.

On reading - I do read new poems, but I have a list of 7 poets from the past (although mainly 20th century) whose work I am always reading. They help to ground my taste (and, I hope, my writing) in something reliable.

RHE said...

Her numbers, though, help one appreciate why editors so often make the annoying choices they do--choosing their friends or poems by authors whose names they recognize, without apparent regard for the individual poem accepted. Overwhelmed by the unceasing flood of new poems, what are they to do? No editor can really ponder the individual merits of a thousand poems a week, even if a fair percentage of them can be discarded because they are written with crayon on a Big Chief tablet (and I suspect that percentage isn't really all that high). Some a priori principle has to be applied; and if it works to the detriment of the poet unknown and unrelated to the editor, too bad for us.

But this reinforces my hunch that reading too much new poetry is not good for one. It dulls the senses and anaesthetizes one's standards. Most new poetry is bad; after a while, a mediocre new poem is a welcome surprise. Feeling that way can't be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

"Most contemporary poetry is bad" is one of those statements everyone can agree with, while vehemently disagreeing on what's good and what's bad. All it really means is that there's something out there for everyone.

I don't place as much faith in Time the Winnower as some people do. There's not some infallible God making these decisions; it's editors who decide what will be anthologized from year to year, and they're human. It's like the Almighty Marketplace, which some people seem to worship: it's subject to human folly like anything else. We can see what has lasted, but we have no way of knowing what's been lost, because it's lost - like most of Sappho's writings. Who knows how many great poets have been doomed to obscurity because of who they were? Because of culture, politics, fashion, all that shit.

There's a certain amount of retro-fitting that goes on, too: we are taught that Soandso, and not Whatsisname, was great; we internalize this, and find reasons for it after the fact.

RHE said...

The mute inglorious Milton theory is a tough one to disprove. Or to prove. After all, if they existed, they were mute. And inglorious. And it's all well and good to say, as you essentially do, that it's all just a matter of taste. Of course. But my taste is all I have to work with, and it instructs me that most of the new poems I read are awfully bad.

I enjoyed your comment, but just so you know: I'll accept no more anonymous comments. No reason for you to hide, not unless you can assure me that you're really D. B. Cooper.