One time, not long ago, as an exercise, I wrote a biography for a fictional poet, Roberto Butterick. A few of us had created Roberto, and had written a handful of poems to be attributed to him, as an exemplar of everything unappealing to us about contemporary poets and published poetry. He was unfamiliar with the history of his art and with poets of other countries and cultures, he had not mastered any of the technical tools of prosody, he was academic, uninventive and obsessed with the niceties of his own life. He proclaimed a vague political radicalism and was intoxicated by the notion of ethnicity, which he claimed rather unconvincingly for himself. When I wrote up this biography, I sent it to Roberto’s co-creators, explaining the intent of the joke and suggesting we attempt to get Roberto published, which I asserted would be a far easier task than getting ourselves published had proven to be. All those I sent the bio to responded with the same objection: It was so unrealistic, so over the top, that no editor, not even of the predominant university-sponsored journal, would fall for it. One friend said I had, in “making up” the biography, obviously also made up the awards and journals he claimed to have won and been published in. I had not. Aside from the publishing house, every thing I wrote about Roberto existed.
Here is the biography in question.
Roberto Butterick teaches creative writing at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his life partner and two dogs, Cody and Topaz. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. He has published poems in New England Review, Colorado Review, Sewanee Review, Double Take and Ploughshares, among other journals. His first book-length collection of poems, Lumpia, devoted to poems about his Pilipina heritage, is scheduled to be published in 2003 by Oak Tree Press. He is also a winner of the New Millennium Poetry Award, and was named to the George Starbuck Fellowship at Boston University. He has attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Southwestern Writers Conference and the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.
In fact, I had cribbed his bio from a half dozen people who had their biographies published in conjunction with winning the Agnes Starett Lynch Prize at Pittsburg, the Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets and other prizes or had otherwise recently published their first book of poetry. I had noticed that each and every bio I looked at was identical. They had gotten the same degrees at the same places, published the same poems in the same journals in the same order, had attended the same conferences and been awarded the same fellowships.
Through the primacy of the creative writing programs, poetry in America has become so identical it could have been produced in a factory or generated by a computer program. When every poet has done the same things in the same order it is foolish to expect differences. Poetry is the application of the technology of verse to the drama of individual lives. Technology has not been taught in decades and the life experiences vary only in ethnic seasoning.
Additionally, the overwhelming majority of literary journals are published by the same universities whose creative writing departments produce the above-mentioned poets. If you are a student of poetry who wishes to receive good grades and letters of recommendation you must do as the teachers in charge wish for you to do, that is, you must write the kind of poems, about the kind of things, in the same way, that they themselves do. If you hope to become a teacher yourself, you must do as those in the hiring committees expect you to do. If you wish to get those positions you must serve your time as an assistant editor at those journals. If you wish to get published, you must provide writing that is appealing to those in charge of approving publication in those journals. If you wish to receive tenure you must win the awards administrated by the creative writing teachers that run them. If you wish to benefit from this system, you must produce poetry that the participants in this system approve of and you, in your turn, must require the same from your students, applicants and candidates.
It is no wonder, given the institutionalization of an activity once considered too anarchic for systemization, that American poetry in the early 21st century is unrelentingly same and hopelessly uncreative. Here are the strictures I have determined must be obeyed in poetic composition in order for poetry to be considered for publication in the United States in 2004. They have been drawn based on my review of the products of the journals, fellowships, residencies, contests and creative writing departments that currently hold poetry hostage.
The poems must:
Ø Be lyric
Ø Be written in the first-person
Ø Treat subject matter restricted to the personal experience of the poet
Ø Have no discernible rhyme
Ø Have no discernible rhythm
Ø Use no poetic effects except simile and metaphor
Ø Use current, quotidian vocabulary
Ø Employ no poetic forms
Ø Possess a politically and socially liberal tone
Ø Contain no allusions (neither in form nor content)
If a poet defies these rules, that poet simply does not get published, does not win the award, receive the fellowship or residency, get the job, get tenure.
In the past decade there have been a few journals that have risen up in reaction to this situation or gained greater prominence because of it. The now-defunct Reaper, the now-defunct Hellas, the Formalist, the Hudson Review and others attempted to offer a possible alternative, focused on form and narrative. The problem with these predictably feuding publications was that while one group decried rhetorical effects and heightened language as being artificially poetic, the other decried modern language and subject matter as being not poetic enough.
Despite their petty feuding and fetishistic theorizing, these journals drew attention to the problems of contemporary poetry. Along with essayists like Dana Gioia and small publishing houses like Story Line Press, the questions of poetry were raised again, for a time, in the public consciousness. Journals that had always gotten the majority of their materials from outside creative writing departments, like New Criterion and the Paris Review, were getting more attention. Generally, the cry for formal merit in poetry was slandered by the professionals of the creative writing industry as elitist and exclusivist. But at least the issue had been dragged kicking and screaming out of the locked cells of the creative writing priesthood. But as much as new creative writing students may have been inspired for the first time to attempt a sonnet or terza rima, the overall structure of contemporary poetry in America was never seriously challenged. All but a handful of the vehicles for poetry – journals, conferences, fellowships – were, and still are, controlled by the same cabal that walled them off in the first place.
So where does that leave us? Well, there is no us. If there were an us, there would be a place to publish, a public to listen. There are none.
When I first recognized the possibilities of poetry and wrote my first blank verse and amphibrachic tetrameter to the bafflement of the future award winners around me, I felt the elevation and clarity that powerful, formally-focused utterances gave my life, a life which, in so many ways, was at the mercy of forces bigger than myself. I lived through the momentary celebrity of formal writing and watched it find its little niche, as the careerists reestablished their firm control over the public’s awareness and unconcern for poetry. I watched my compatriots try and succeed in finding something else to do with their precious time. I continued to try to find journals and publishing houses and committees that would recognize the worth of what I was doing, regardless of its odd shape and excessive volume. Finally, as I too became an adult and developed a capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality, I accepted that I was not likely to share what I wrote with the greater public. I accepted that any writing I did from that point on would be done without the hope of public recognition and that I too had neglected too many other areas of my life to pursue a dream that has not been possible, not in the way I wished it to be, since long before I were born.
I kept telling myself, there must be people out there who wish to read poetry that is equally unafraid of greatness and contemporaneity. There must be people who wish to read writing that attempts to explain the elemental challenges of the world, that acknowledges the need for learning, for the research that allows it to consciously take its place in the literature of the world, that is less concerned with programs and theories and camps and schools than with technical achievement and renewal, that is dedicated to wrestling with birth, love, sex, death, war, brotherhood, nature, justice and the structure and purpose of the world and our place within it. And there probably are. But they too have made peace with the impossibility of doing so in the world of contemporary poetry.
That world is largely one of dull people who have practiced poetry as a profession instead of a calling, frightened careerists who scaled back their expectations and did what they were told to do by the people who man the gates at journals, sit on hiring committees and judge poetry contests. All the magazines and prizes and small presses are in the hands of wan little hinterlandish sweater-wearers who teach and care about the poor. The few alternatives to them have staked out their small plots of land, where they tend their gardens, nurse their grudges and refine their programs. The few large houses that still publish poetry are either fed by these journals and small presses, using them as farm teams and filters, or prefer to publish the fortieth edition of another dead Modernist rather than to try to find those few new voices that have half a chance at making the reading of a book something newsworthy again.
But the poetry bosses have become victims of their own success. They have succeeded so thoroughly in walling off and claiming complete control over the world of American poetry that it is not simply the would-be usurper who cannot get in. It is also the educated layman, the searching reader, the audience.
What can I do, faced with these realizations? No doubt, I should take my leave of it completely. But Juvenal captures something of the truth when he says:
No use to try to give it up; the noose of a hopeless infection,
Writer’s itch, has us all by the neck till we’re old and sick-hearted.
Perhaps I will continue to attempt to write poetry that combines technical accomplishment, intellectual honesty and emotional depth, that treats frankly the struggles of human beings to live a full and meaningful life in the world we share; perhaps I will do so because it is one of the small true actions left to a man who wanted to be a poet in an age that has left them behind.