Todd Swift wonders about the future life of poets:
At the point where [poets] enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion. Canons are problematic, and disputed, and there are currently at least three: Mainstream, Innovative, and Outlaw. These three canons are all represented by serious publishers of real merit. However, only a poet published by a Mainstream, large press, has any chance of avoiding "oblivion".
The problem with this assertion only begins with the fact that it's self-contradictory. Doesn't the very existence of the other two canons demonstrate that non-mainstream poets do survive? If only mainstream poetry survives, how is that innovative and outlaw poetry have also survived?
A second problem is that Todd defines "mainstream" entirely in economic terms: "the large presses have marketing budgets, and the clout to distribute the work to bookstores, and critics, in major cities, around the world. It really is almost as simple as that - get published by a large press, and your work will be sold and reviewed in many more places than if you are published by a small press. . ."
I don't visit bookstores as much as I used to, but the last time I was in Barnes & Noble, or Borders, or even the local "independent" store, I didn't see many volumes of poetry on display, and certainly not many by living poets, even those one could plausibly label "mainstream." As Ron Silliman recently put it, "The days when major publishers brought out poetry as a “loss leader” (or because some poet might turn into a profitable novelist) are almost entirely behind us. The number of trade publishers who even touch poetry are so few, and their collective aesthetics so very narrow, that they have largely relegated themselves to irrelevance. And book sellers are under profound pressure from the rise of alternate channels of retail distribution, including big box retailers and the web. Each week in America two new bookstores open, but five others shut down. . . ."
Perhaps it could be argued that there is a heirarchy among publishers of poetry, certain publishers on whose list many poets would like to be included, but this is a heirarchy of community esteem, as Silliman might put it, not a heirarchy based on "marketing budgets" and "clout" with bookstores or newspaper book reviews. For all the "marketing" a book of poems gets, it might as well be hand-sold by the poet's mother in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And while publishers of poetry no doubt already "distribute" copies to book review editors, getting those editors to print reviews of them has less to do with "clout" than with happening upon an editor who actually likes poetry to begin with. (Good luck with that.)
In my opinion, the biggest problem in Todd's analysis is his very use of the term "Canon" to identify successful or important writers. Canons are neither made nor maintained by publishers, mainstream or otherwise. "Canon" was the term adopted to identify those works of literature that should be included in curricula of literary study--after literary study was itself made respectable as an "academic" subject, a process that wasn't really complete until after World War II. Thus the "canon" refers to those works that should be taught, that aided the canon-makers in their self-assigned roles as gatekeepers of our Literary Heritage. A canonical work is not necessarily one that has met the test of time, or stays in print, or continues to be a source of inspiration for other writers. It is merely one that the academic study of literature has made "great" enough to deserve placement on a college syllabus.
The poetry--or the fiction, for that matter--that will survive will do so because poets and readers of poetry continue to read and to use it, not for separate agendas on literature syllabi but for their revelation of poetry's still untapped possibilities, of what poetry might still become if approached with this or that author's courage or insight or, as I put it in describing what I look for in works of fiction, dedication to "adventurous" freedom. The world of online publishing and the literary blogosphere will only make it more possible for more poets to avoid immediate "oblivion" while this encounter between present and past plays itself out. (Here are the "hundreds of very serious people" Todd is looking for who can give poetry its proper audience and make the New York Times irrelevant.) Todd thinks that the lack of "public recognition" makes the future of poetry a bleak one, but it seems to me that the only recognition worth having is that which is forthcoming from other writers and from readers who take poetry (literature more generally) seriously to begin with. Recognition from those who don't like poetry, who have to be cajoled and manipulated into noticing it, doesn't seem worth the trouble.