Students in a poetry workshop recently asked me some questions about publication that led us to an unexpectedly detailed discussion of the low demand for (and inordinate supply of) poetry in the current, American, literary marketplace. They asked me pointed questions about my own relative rates of success getting different genres of writing published. I dutifully answered their questions, noting that approximately half of the fiction and nonfiction I write gets published, while less than ten percent of my poetry finds a home, despite the fact that I am an “award-winning poet.” I could tell that the students were starting to get depressed, so I concluded the conversation with an explanation of why I think it’s still important to study the writing of poetry (as I could sense that question hanging silently over us the whole time).
In a nutshell, here’s what I said: 1) the kind of nuanced attention given to language in a poetry workshop is unparalleled in any other educational environment, aside from, perhaps, a linguistics course, and cultivates a language awareness that is of eminent value in any other kind of writing one might do, whether the writing of novels, speeches, or training manuals; 2) the relevance of poetry for me doesn’t depend upon how successful I am at getting mine published, nor on how much money I make at it, even less on how important it is perceived to be by an imaginary “American public” (I might add, as heretical as this may sound to some readers, I instinctively identify myself more closely with “writers” than with “Americans”); and 3) if you’re serious about being a writer, in general, and a poet, in particular, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul, committed to joining in conversation both the unborn and the undead. You can’t concern yourself with the consumer trends of the current century (unless, of course, you have absolutely no other way to support yourself). It’s best to approach such a career with a memory that spans millennia.
My students seemed at least provisionally appeased by these remarks. Sometimes I find them consoling myself.