I have found that, in general, poets are among the most generous, self-effacing, and gracious of writers. My suspicion is that this has to do (at least in part) with the sobering fact that poetry is among the smallest of all literary markets in the United States. In other words: it doesn’t pay to write poetry. There’s no money in it. No real money at least. It is still extremely rare for a magazine or journal to pay poets for the poems that appear in their pages. Usually, we are paid in a complimentary copy of the issue in which our work is included. And if we are fortunate enough to actually get a book contract, most of us consider ourselves quite lucky just to break even on book sales.
Unlike many novelists, poets do not usually have literary agents working on their behalf: we shop our own manuscripts around to small, independent or university presses and most often pay a submission fee to do so. These fees can add up quickly to hundreds of dollars as we tend to submit the same manuscript to multiple publishers at a time and then sit back and wait (quite often 6 months or more) to hear back about rejection or acceptance. If one does secure a book contract, a very good royalty agreement might get the author $2.10 or so for every $14.00 book sold. And in the minuscule market for poetry books in the U.S., an average sales expectation for a poetry book written by a single author and published by a small press might be around 55 copies total sold in a calendar year or two. Yes, you read that right: 55 copies. 500-600 copies sold over several years is an absolutely spectacular accomplishment. All of this is not to give the impression that Americans don’t read poetry…they do. They are just reluctant to pay for it. Dead authors usually outsell living ones, which is perhaps how it should be, given that it takes a bit of time for a literary reputation to mature and be appreciated by a wider audience.
So we write poetry for other reasons: undying love of the art, the respect of our peers, revenge, obsessive compulsive disorder, hopes for immortality, unresolved issues from childhood, etc. Poetry can also be a very lonely art to practice, it requires a lot of solitude and concentrated reflection, as well as an almost Herculean effort to stay caught up with the current poetry being published by one’s peers. A great irony is that despite poetry not selling well in the marketplace, an absolute avalanche of it still appears every day, every week, every month, and every year. Thankfully, the internet and social media have made the practice of poetry less isolating than it could be. I am still quite frankly stunned that I am friends with so many amazing poets on social media that I have never met face-to-face, folks like: Ernest Hilbert, A.E. Stallings, Bruce Bond, David Mason, and many others. These are prestigious prize winning poets, teachers, and former State poet laureates. And yet, I bet the vast majority of the reading public in the United States have never heard of them. But for me at least, they are incandescent literary heroes who have stolen fire from heaven and set the earth ablaze with linguistic magic.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah: poets tend to be really nice and appreciative of any attention whatsoever. If there wasn’t such a deep, mutual sympathy for the difficulty of the art and sincere gratitude for those who are mysteriously moved by it, I’m not sure many poets would be so willing to befriend an emerging (submerging?) poet like me and countless others. It probably goes without saying that almost all poets work at some other job to pay the bills (usually in academia by teaching poetry or creative writing) or in occupations seemingly unrelated to poetry at all. In fact, many “famous” poets worked in industries you might think of as distinctly unpoetical: Wallace Stevens worked in insurance, T.S. Eliot was a banker before he got into publishing, and William Carlos Williams was a family doctor. But of course, poetry is everywhere if you know how to look for it and coax it into the light.
What isn’t hard to spot these days is the rise of spoken word poetry, poetry slam contests, and the like. I have long had an ambivalent relationship to this phenomena. On the one hand, poetry as an art form certainly predates literacy and writing. The earliest poems are believed to have been recited or sung, as a way of remembering and preserving oral history, genealogy, myth, and even law. And so, poetry is closely related to musical traditions, to hymns and songs. Poetry is even biological in the sense that it is connected with rhythm and beat and meter. In the womb, your mother’s breath and heartbeat was your first unconscious experience of this rhythmic pulse. And as a child perhaps your first introduction to poetry was in the form of nursery rhymes. But many folks today find the contemporary poetry being published in journals and magazines to be inscrutable, difficult, and irrelevant. And some of it certainly is. I also cannot ignore the fact that thousands of people (esp. young people) have developed a passion for spoken word poetry and performance. It has now become a regular feature of the open mic culture in the bookstores and coffee shops of most American cities. Thousands and thousands more watch spoken word performances online. And some of these performances and poems are quite good, deeply moving even.
On the other hand, it seems to be the particular temptation of spoken word poetry to degenerate into an affected posture of diary-like confessionals: personal rants delivered in a predictable tempo of rising, rapid-fire crescendo. And after a very little while, it all starts to sound the same in both verbal delivery and subject matter. In the case of slam poetry contests, it is hard to escape the impression sometimes that what the audience is usually voting on is the quality or earnestness of the performance, not necessarily the quality of the construction of the “poem” itself. And for me, this is the difference between a good and bad spoken word poem: can the poem stand by itself on the page? Does is still have a memorable psychic impact without the enhancement of the live performance to go with it? And even if it does, strictly speaking, it still might not be a poem, but rather a well-written prose monologue. One of the most simple and helpful definitions I’ve seen that hints at the difference between prose and poetry comes from the website for the MFA in Poetry program (with a concentration in “versecraft”) at Western State Colorado University:
“All poetry, including free verse, has form. Indeed, the only real alternative to ‘formal poetry’ would be ‘formless poetry,’ and presumably no one wants to study or write that…in our view poems do not differ from prose because of what they say—in prose we can tackle any subject, employ any diction, tell any story, use any figure of speech, even establish any rhythm—what we cannot do in prose, however, by definition is…write verse.” (Emphasis mine).
To be fair to the spoken word community, I must acknowledge that plenty of fantastically skilled “paper poets” are atrociously awful public readers of their own work, and a poorly executed poem on the page can be just as predictable as the most cringe-worthy performance of a spoken word piece, so we all have a lot to learn from each other. Not to mention that most of us have composed work we might rather ask forgiveness for later than rush to share with the world. See? Poets really are (generally) extremely nice people.