Here are two dispiriting facts that become downright weird when paired. 1.) Few Americans today read poetry. 2.) Each year more poetry books are published in the United States than in any previous year. I know, wha?
Still, you can find what you’ll like. In an essay for the Contemporary Poetry Review, Joan Houlihan reiterates a bit of common sense Kingsley Amis once offered apropos of Larkin’s writing: the first few lines of a poem will tell you if it’s any good (that is, whether or not you want to spend time reading more of it). This is the sort of thing we aren’t allowed to say in front of a class. It’s true, though.
Although I don’t agree with all of her particular judgments (she swats Charlie Smith!), Houlihan’s main argument is smoothly persuasive. She envisions a decent future for poetry, one in which what has happened to music over the past decade also happens to literary culture and is thus a huge, if non-traditional, boon for us scribblers.
As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free, and that readers will “sample” poems and make any buying decisions based on these samples. Readers will become sophisticated enough in their own judgments, or tuned in enough to trusted recommenders wherever and however encountered, and soon the disappearance of reviews in mainstream periodicals won’t be missed. It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place—we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a “mixed tape” of poems we love, or a subset of poems by a favorite poet. The packaging and distribution mechanisms are already in place; we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.
That said, I would still like to see more poetry reviews in The LA Times and my local alt paper and everywhere else. It can’t hurt for more media outlets to pay at least a few smart people to read books and make brief comments on them. Right, innit? Anybody hiring?