I have been reading what is probably an obscure book of craft essays: Poets on Poetry, edited by Howard Nemerov, and published in 1966. The book is framed around a questionnaire Nemerov sent to the poets asking them to respond to their growth as writers, as well as the influence the culture has had on their work. The results, from what I've read so far, vary according to the sustained reputation of the poet. So, for instance, the essays by John Berryman and Marianne Moore are substantive. They speak to an idea of poetry and the culture of poetry present to their 1960s sensibility that I find still relevant. Essays by Richard Eberhart and Barbara Howes feel self-promotional and ill-thought.
But even Eberhart and Howes pose a real dilemma to my mind. There are times that Poetry World 2013 is like a carnival of self-serving QVC spokespeople hawking their wares. You're either promoting yourself or you're promoting your friends. Which is totally understandable. Because there are actually thousands of poetry books published each year. And how is anyone supposed to navigate through such a densely populated landscape? Time is, in fact, finite. And the benefit to promoting your friends is that you create a community of readers, who will hopefully accumulate into a critical mass that will define your unmistakable success. I don't know if I can think of anyone this has actually happened for.
But poetry suffers under this system. I have witnessed it. I have read books on recommendation, where the book was written by a friend of a friend, and I have been not only underwhelmed, but actually disappointed in all parts of this transaction. Disappointed in the recommender (whose taste I normally trust), disappointed that there has been poetic value assigned to this book (by this recommender and the community of friends he and this poet are both a part of), disappointed that in this competitive publishing environment this book could be published on a fairly prestigious press, and disappointed that the poet who wrote this book couldn't make the book better. And I am referring in this last statement to more than just personal taste. I had read this poet's first book and at least been impressed enough to give in to the recommendation regarding the current book.
Of course, this transaction is not the result of Facebook culture or [Insert Mindblowing Summer Writing Conference] friendship culture. How did Richard Eberhart get his unmemorable poems Collected and published by Oxford University Press? How was Barbara Howes published on Wesleyan? Mediocre poetry will find a home. In fact, it will be an important part of the poetry landscape. As a reader of poetry, I have my own methods for finding and discovering memorable work. I should say I actively pursue good poetry. Mainly because I'm selfish. But my method doesn't make me a very friendly person, at least in friendship culture terms. I would like to claim that makes me an unbiased reader. But what an unpleasant position: to be unloved and unbiased at once.