Never too many poets

In “The Trouble with Poetry,” Billy Collins (tongue in cheek, as usual) repeats a common sentiment when he says “the trouble with poetry is/that it encourages the writing of more poetry,/more guppies crowding the fish tank.” Woe is us, we hear, continually, when the state of literary publishing is brought up, or the state of creative writing programs, both graduate and undergraduate. There are too many poets, too many writers, some say. As Collins suggests in this poem, one big reason for this ongoing lament is that we loathe the idea of more competition. Too many poets and not enough places to publish! Our favorite magazines cluttered with poet-wannabes who take OUR places in their hallowed pages. And yeah, it’s tough to get published–in literary magazines, and particularly in book form. It took me 18 years after getting my MFA to get my book accepted. I wish no one else would have to wait that long.

But come on. The other arguments we make–that poets lower the level of poetry by writing and publishing mediocre stuff, that we’re doing our students a disservice by letting them major in creative writing and get MFAs when there are so few jobs and so few chances at publication–are almost equally self-involved, if not as self-serving. Where’s that universal standard of what’s great poetry again? Oh right, there isn’t one. We’re making it up as we go along, just as we always have. Sometimes great stuff rises to the top, gets published, gets noticed. Sometimes it doesn’t. What we’re lamenting is the completely unchangeable state of the world, which is that it’s not fair.

And that lack of fairness has caused heartbreak for every one of us, every single person who has tried to be a poet, writer, artist, dancer, musician. Some of us want to save our students from that heartbreak. That’s understandable, even admirable.

But enrollment in creative writing programs continues to rise. There are more poets in the world, or at least more people who admit to wanting to write poetry. And that’s for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that–completely aside from the business of poetry or of making a living–poetry matters to people. It talks about what we most need to understand: ourselves, the world. And if someone understands the world through language, then the act of studying poetry is the act of understanding life. It is “the examined life.” It is how we make sense of the losses and the triumphs, the frog frantically hopping across the road that we think we missed with our car, the wash of wonder when we see one more cliched pink and orange sunset. That stuff isn’t easy to understand, no matter what the self-help books say. It is mysterious and complex and variable–like poetry.

Billy Collins ends his poem by finally turning to the serious point he’s making, which is that despite all the “trouble,” poetry does serve a purpose, when he talks about Lawrence Ferlinghetti “whose little amusement park of a book/I carried in a side pocket of my uniform/up and down the treacherous halls of high school.” So let the poets proliferate like guppies, like rabbits. I find that prospect pretty interesting, and far less frightening than a population explosion of lawyers, entrepreneurs, corporate rats and salespeople.

Everyone’s a poet! Fine with me.

September 2, 2010. Uncategorized.

One Response to “Never too many poets”

  1.   isukrung Says:

    Ted Kooser, former US poet laureate, says the same thing as Prof. Riegel in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual. “Consider the way so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with the world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there’s a significance service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you were writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world. And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I’m certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place.”

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