Friday, February 26, 2010


A strangely torpid Friday; the sun is out, it's cool but comfortable at my back porch desk, all circumstances should be perfect for diving once more into the stack of Tempest papers I have before me – but instead I've been paying bills, dithering online, turning over a few chapters of Kenneth Clark's The Gothic Revival, reading some of Ruskin's responses to his reviews at the end of Modern Painters I. (JR can be testy, but heaven knows he doesn't threaten someone with a libel suit in response to a bad review, as this hair-raising story recounts.)

Much is being made online of David Alpaugh's extended lament about over-production – or rather, over-publication – of poetry in the US these days. I suppose I might write something about it, if i didn't seem so much like one of those periodic teapot-tempests that get raised every five years or so about the general mediocrity / inbred backscratchingness / overall dumpiness of the poetry scene. Didn't I read something like this, minus the references to the internet, back in 1989 or so? Didn't Ruskin complain about the same phenomenon in visual arts back in the 1850s? Once I get over my general irritation at Alpaugh's overall weird elitism, his piece makes me think three things:

1) Alpaugh doesn't really understand the mechanisms of cultural canon-formation much at all, if he still really believes that it's a matter of sifting the gems out of the pebbles (or the grains out of the horse-droppings, choose your metaphor). He should read Bourdieu and John Guillory – though I suspect he hasn't the patience.

2) Yep, there's more poetry than ever to sort thru & think about. So what? Well, for Alpaugh it comes down to the fact – and you don't have to read very deeply to see this – that his own chances of some kind of "fame" (perhaps even posthumous canonization?) are that much smaller. A lot more tickets for the lottery have been sold. Alpaugh whines that
Every now and then someone asks me, "Who are the best poets writing today?" My answer? "I have no idea." Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art. That would be the most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable.
That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, "What if Beethoven's mother had aborted him?": We wouldn't have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn't be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn't have them, we'd be living in a different culture. It's an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That's the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.

3) I really need to get my finger out & find a publisher for my book manuscript. Otherwise how can I enjoy any of those lavish perks & "po-biz power" out there?


Brian S said...

You hit the same point I was thinking (and which John Gallaher hit as well, tho not as widely). I also have questions about Alpaugh's claims about growth, but I'm not a math person, so probably better not.

One thing, tho--I think that you mean either "pro-life" or "anti-choice" in your Mozart example, since a pro-choice person would probably agree with you.

Mark Scroggins said...

Right you are, Brian. What comes of typing which irritated.

Brian S said...

Oh, I've had a little experience with that. :-)

Katherine said...

One of the best reasons to read other people's blogs is the hope that someone will articulate an issue you have in an intelligent way. Even if you didn't mention Ruskin as an agent of relative civility, I'd have granted your rant the "exactly what's been on my mind" status for today. Thanks. You've lightened my creative miasma, if not your own.