What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet? In a recent lecture that poses this question, Jed Rasula notes:The colleges and universities that offer graduate degrees in poetry employ about 1,800 faculty members to support the cause. But these are only 177 of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing. Taking those into account, the faculty dedicated to creative writing swells to more than 20,000. All these people must comply with the norms for faculty in those institutions, filing annual reports of their activities, in which the most important component is publication. With that in mind, I don’t need to spell out the truly exorbitant numbers involved. In a positive light, it has sanctioned a surfeit of small presses . . . to say nothing of all the Web-zines.What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety. The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity. Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject—and here identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian American poetry, queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on—the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
But even this formula is not a guarantee of continuing success. “Poets and scholars alike are specialists,” Rasula says, but in one important respect the two factions are rather different. Whereas scholars gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets. Whenever I sort out the hundreds of poetry books that come across my desk and rearrange my bookcases, I notice a curious phenomenon. Poet X has produced two or three successful books and keeps on writing in the same vein, but somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets much less attention for the simple reason that, in the interim, so many new poets have come on the scene. The newcomers are not necessarily better than their elders, nor do they write in an appreciably different mode, but the spotlight is now on them. Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” has come to refer not to a set of poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.