In Praise of Rareness

Responding to complaints that Poetry magazine should give all its space to poetry and/or much less to prose, an interesting article by Christian Wiman:

“..a strong case can be made that the more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs. There is a limit to this logic, of course, or else Plato would be the patron saint of the art. But still, an overdeveloped appetite for poetry is no guarantee of taste or even of love, and institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the over-consumption of poetry always seem a bit freakish, ill-conceived, and peculiarly American, like those mythic truck stops where anyone who can eat his own weight in rump roast doesn’t have to pay for it.”

Surely it’s a matter of degree and some publications can be, should be, and are more discriminating than others. They set the bar the highest and that ultra-high bar is certainly needed in the industry at large (poetry being an industry, n’est-ce pas). But to apply the same high bar across the publishing board? Yeek.

Possibly he is only talking of Poetry and its ilk, though, and not positing a categorical imperative, in which case I’ll shut up.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Rareness”

  1. I love Wiman’s comparison of “over-consumption of poetry” and “mythic” all-you-can-eat truck stops.

    Poetry should definitely not be over-consumed but taken in bit by bit. If you want to read Emily Dickson’s “Collected” cover to cover that’s fine, but do it slowly and “chew” every poem before you “swallow,” then you can put the next one in your mouth.

    True, the bar should not be that high everywhere.

    I’m not sure I want to agree with you on the “poetry is an industry” part. Of course poets are trying to make a living and get their work published in a magazine and, yes, the Poetry Foundation received $100 million from Ruth Lilly but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Only few poets can actually live off of their writing (in magazines and their own books). Many of them have regular jobs. The sales of poetry books are not very high compared to those of fiction, non-fiction, or even children’s books. How many “average” people have a fairly recent book of poetry at home, and how many own a fairly recent novel?

    The prices for famous paintings spiked in 2006. Aspiring painters get paid a lot more money for their work but they may only have spent half an hour on that piece. Whereas a poet can fiddle with his poem for weeks and still get rejected by magazines, and if they do publish it the payment is significantly less than that of a painter’s. Yes, I know, there is only one original painting, but still.

    (Museum) art is industry. Movies (Hollywood), music, and novels are industry. But poetry? Maybe a teeny tiny little bit, but no more…

    [I hope I’m not completely beside the point here.]

  2. As a poet, and an avid reader, I have to say that I very much enjoyed my leisurely stroll through your blog…it was time well spent; entertaining and enlightening. I invite you to visit my own, should you care to.

  3. Renew: Agree poetry doesn’t fit into “industry” if you consider “financial gain” a sine qua non of good poetry (which admittedly it isn’t). But there *is* a bottom-line in poetry – the trading in and for which responds to a “marketplace” and creates an “industry” that has all the attributes of any other for-profit industry.

    Consider that one of the definitions of “industry” is: “systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value.” Poetry is an industry in the way that the not-for-profit world is an industry. The hard-line financial profit motive may be absent, but it boasts hard-line motives in abundance. And the politics to go with them!

    Lettershaper: Good to see you here. Look forward to checking out your blog.


  4. Okay, as a “universe” of its own, poetry can be considered an industry. Poets are fighting hard to stay alive within their business.
    I guess it all comes down to the definition of the term “industry.”

  5. industry |ˈindəstrē| noun ( pl. -tries)

    1 economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories : the competitiveness of American industry.
    • [with adj. ] a particular form or branch of economic or commercial activity : the car industry | the tourist industry.
    • [with adj. ] informal an activity or domain in which a great deal of time or effort is expended : the Shakespeare industry.

    2 hard work : the kitchen became a hive of industry.

    ORIGIN late Middle English (sense 2) : from French industrie or Latin industria ‘diligence.’

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