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Ghosts of Competition Past

The problem with being a poet today is that you are not only competing against what other poets are writing today, but also everything that has been written in the past. A poem that was good enough (or even techniques that were good enough) 100 years ago, would have a much tougher time getting published today. There are several reasons for this, but let’s look at an example:


We see you as we see a face
That trembles in a forest place
Upon the mirror of a pool
Forever quiet, clear and cool;
And in the wayward glass, appears
To hover between smiles and tears,
Elfin and human, airy and true,
And backed by the reflected blue.

by Robert Louis Stevenson

“Katharine” is a well-written poem. While it uses rhymed couplets, the rhyme isn’t overly obtrusive. It still gets republished today. But, were it a new poem by some unknown, it would probably have a tougher time.

“The rhyme seems forced in that first couplet. ‘Forest place?’ Who says things that way? That sixth line’s rhythm is rather bumpy, and the seventh line has an extra syllable. I’m sorry Mr. Stevenson, but it needs quite a bit more work before it’s ready to see the light of day.”

Why are we more critical of accepting a new poet today? There are several factors driving the level of quality expected in poetry: history, prosperity, the Internet, and Cultural Demand.


The problem with history is that there’s more of it every day. Creativity and originality is highly valued in our culture for artists, so they can’t keep doing the same thing that was done yesterday or a hundred years ago. They need to branch out and find new pathways. Or, if they dare to tread the older pathways, they have to be better than nearly everyone who has come before. So, for those poets who are working in formal verse, their quality has to be higher than Stevenson’s was. Their ideas have to be fresher. They have to avoid clichés and make up new metaphors. They have to run ahead to get beyond not only their predecessors, but their contemporaries. If the weight of history were the only factor in poetic quality, soon only perfect poems would be published, and all others would be crushed under that great weight.


Prosperity actually works to help balance quality. Our society can afford to devote more resources to various types of art, including poetry, than previous societies could afford. This means two things. First, it means that we can have more poets who can support themselves through their work. More money flowing to poetry will mean a larger pool of poets. This factor tends to lower the quality of poetry.

On the other hand, since almost everybody writes poetry and wants to make it pay, there is more competition for those dollars. That drives the quality back up a bit.

On the third hand, more prosperity means more magazines and other outlets for poetry. Which brings the quality back down as various venues scramble to fill their pages.

While prosperity influences both sides of the equation, its main effect is to reduce the crushing effect of history on the poet.

The Internet

Here is an addition to the weight of history that drives poetic quality up and up. Why? Because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites available that are allowing poets to teach each other and workshop their poems in to shape. If one finds the right sites, one need not apply to an MFA program, because one can learn more faster and have more people interact with one’s poetry. The caveat is that word “right.” These sites are heavily dependent on who is in them and how much time they devote. Some of these sites have honest, knowledgeable, and experienced poets who help less-experienced poets learn. Others are mutual admiration societies where a poet can’t find an honest critique. Even with that caveat, it has democratized and removed the cost of learning to be a better poet. If all the poet needs to do is invest some time and brain cells to get better than Mr. Stevenson ever was, why wouldn’t the general quality of poetry go up?

On the other side of the ledger, the Internet is a form of prosperity that allows for very inexpensive publication and has expanded the outlets for poetry. People can also self-publish through the Internet, so it becomes quite easy to find really bad poetry on the Internet, too. But, these poets are not generally making their living off the poetry. They are spending their money to be MacGonagalls. This doesn’t change the quality of those who get paid to write poetry.

Cultural Demand

Here we run into the problem of defining poetry. Lyrical poetry that is set to music is in high demand, even when it’s really bad. But, poetry that is not set to music is not the most likely form of entertainment to attract an audience in today’s culture. There are just so many other things to do: go to a concert, watch TV, go to a movie, listen to talk radio, cruise the Internet, play a video game, watch a DVD, see a comedian, go to a sporting event, etc. A hundred years ago, poetry was one of the most common forms of entertainment. Yes, there were concerts and plays and vaudeville, but reading poetry was relatively cheap and enjoyable entertainment in a time when literacy and learning were considered important. Now that our culture is more concerned with a good car chase than a Homeric epic, poetry is less in demand. That means that relatively less dollars are devoted to professional, non-lyrical poets. Actors, singers, and novelists become millionaires and gazillionaires, but poets languish. Less demand means the competition is stiffer. Stiffer competition drives up quality to make the bar of professional poet.

So, it is more than history’s weight that is upon the professional poet’s head these days. And quality at the prestigious publications is definitely up.

Happy writing!

The Gnostic Poet

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