The goodly Don Share directs us to an entry by the [in]famous blogger Ron Silliman at The Poetry Foundation website, in which the latter discusses changes in poetry culture over the last decade. Besides some typical end-of-days hysteria at the beginning, it is, surprisingly, fairly hopeful. Ron writes, 'What’s apparent is that (a) this joyride isn’t over, and (b) we’re all in this together. When I realize that any chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide, I feel hopeful. I just hope we can find time to read & enjoy this great bounty.'
Sweet and hopeful, but also misleading. Poetry publishing has always been pretty niche. The changes are not so huge as to remove cultural authority altogether and make it so any random DIY-er chapbook publisher will thrive — someone with authority still needs to sign off on most things to convince readers to pick it up (hence, for instance, blurbs). And, as I've written here before, the fact of (almost) universal availability is not a sign of utopian egalitarianism; it's just a now-irrelevant holdover from print. The internet is an amazing tool for making poetry available. Everything is equally available; that in itself is unremarkable.
While the internet may be wonderful for distribution, it is a terrible tool for helping people actually decide what to read; and, given a glut of otherwise indiscernible choices, most people will simply ignore the noise. Authority in culture, that 'gate-keeping' or validating authority, has not been eliminated: it has been dissipated, so much that poetry culture to most people is nothing but noise. Ron Silliman with his avant garde chest beating; Ernie Hilbert revving up tradition; The Poetry Foundation trying to be all poetry things to all Americans; Ken Goldsmith undermining hegemonies that don't exist; each online magazine shilling it's cadre of bar-pals with equal urgency; William Logan tossing darts from the Times and the New Criterion: it is a lot for a reader, alone out there, to wade through.
There was a time when all one needed to do was cite a publication as validation for the opinion of a critic. 'Oh, well, I saw it in the Boston Globe', and that was enough to make an opinion matter. Authority was invested by the entity of the paper, by the money invested in it, and even in disagreeing one took the opinion as a main line. It was the line, the centerpoint. These publications gave readers a list of poets and titles, helped them figure out what to bother with and what to ignore. No more; or at least, minimally now. But a reader's time remains short. So, what then?
The last ten years has seen the dissipation of the old authority in culture. As a result, most readers have clung to the existing standards, the old standbys; worthy newer poets find themselves engaging ever smaller, increasingly individuated audiences that exist only as far as this or that critic or journal has sway. But the muddle is clearing, gradually. Readers are getting savvier about the internet. Critics are beginning to engage more, to quote more, to take advantage of the resources of internet publishing instead of bemoaning the end of print. Authority can be re-constructed, with patience, over time, by helping readers make their own decisions through reasonable argument and justification. There is a new model emerging based on the quality of the writing and the criticism rather than monied interests. (I think of Reginald Shepherd, whose blogging introduced him to a whole audience.) That is what gives me hope for poetry.
[ed: Hello folks from Ron's blog! if you want to read more, see my editorial at The Critical Flame, a Journal of Book Reviews & Criticism]