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We live in an age awash with bad books. This
fact, though that statistical non-entity the average reader may be unaware of it,
constitutes the greatest crisis facing literature at the end of this century. It has for
some time been axiomatic among critics that the sheer volume of new works has effectively silenced
their profession; it is simply impossible to cover or recommend or dismiss the desideratum
of even narrow disciplines. In the commercially negligible realm of poetry, nearly 1,000 new
collections appear annually. In such commercially viable forms as the novel, the number is
probably ten times that. Before such a paper deluge, which drowns even the professional
critic, what hope for the average reader? The critic already knows what everyone else is
learning, and that is Gresham's Law exists, and applies to print.
Having survived the ideological schisms of the 1930's, the
culture wars of the 1980's, and all the morasses of the decades in between, it seems
rather strange that writers should ultimately be defeated by themselves, or more properly,
by their numerical proliferation but such is the historical situation facing us today. For
all the talk of new technologies, of televisions and computers, what we are witnessing is
the ultimate development of an antique--the hypertrophy of the printing press.
The exquisite French critic Remy de Gourmont predicted this
state of affairs nearly a century ago:
In a certain sense, the printing press was a hindrance to
the practice of letters. It exercised a selectivity and cast contempt on writings that had
not succeeded in being printed. This situation still obtains, but is attenuated by the low
cost of mechanical typography. The invention that threatens us now-- a home printing
apparatus-- would multiply by three or four times the number of books, and we would find
ourselves in the situation of the Middle Ages: everyone who is the least literate-- and
others, as is the case today-- would venture his little lucubration which he would pass
out to his friends before offering it to the public. All progress ends by negating itself.
Having arrived at its maximum expansion, it tends to reestablish the primitive state which
it was intended to replace.
The situation of poetry, in these conditions, is peculiar
for one reason: it exists, unlike the serious novel or the play, almost exclusively as a
non-commercial medium. Now, all of the arts are sustained by some degree of popular
success, or by their proximity to popular (and thus, commercial) success. The Broadway
musical attracts an audience to the theater, even to the theater of Moliere, as dime-store
adventure novels attract boys to The Count of Monte Cristo. Poetry, however,
finds no audience today through its popular manifestations, makes no best-seller lists,
and languishes as an academic specialization. It has no recognized laws, no standards, and
thus, formless, has become the form that everyone may attempt.
The breakdown of criticism in letters is general, as I have
said, but its effects on poetry have been particularly acute. For poetry depends upon
critical praise, on the purer classifications of taste rather than on popularity, to
advertise the best that has been thought and said. True poets depend upon critics
to advertise their difference from their inferiors, though most are loathe to admit that
fact. Indeed, this era has rendered the very name poet meaningless, since it
confers that title on its popular singers, its performance artists, and eloquent
journalists-- in short, on anyone who uses language and wishes that dignity.
In such an environment, anthologies and surveys will abound
because no one is sure what constitutes poetry and thus no one is certain what is not
poetry. Lacking a set of critical principles, the age cannot discriminate between the
authentic and the counterfeit. Critics will find everything either commendable or equally
bad; poets will veer from one fashionable style to another, uncertain who to imitate.
Publishing lists will expand, vanity presses multiply, as a shallow and misinformed
culture bloats like any bureaucracy.
Until criticism asserts itself again, by its exercise of
judgment and thus exclusion, poets will be free to construct their own Tower of
Babel. Worst of all in such an onslaught, as criticism breaks down, libraries founder in
their acquisition budgets, and lovers of poetry relent and read the classics, is that some
new and important poet will surely be lost in anonymity, from the sheer number of his