I heard an interesting word from Chris Anderson (of Wired magazine) last night while Charlie Rose was interviewing him: “granularity.” In Webspeak it refers to the smallness of social groups formed by Internet interaction. The universality of the Web allows people with esoteric interests to meet (electronically) and club together, even if the club contains only five members. Those five members might be, for example, people who are crazy about the "Siuru" movement in Estonian poetry just after the First World War. This is "granularity."
Another vogue word applied to the U.S. poetry subculture is “balkanization.” It’s a way of describing the process of subdividing poets and poetry readers into ever-smaller factions—and, alas, warring factions. I’m not sure at what point the Poetics people started using a plural for “poetry” and began referring to “poetries.” That was one way of dealing with the evident fact that practitioners of experimental poetry weren’t trying to do the same kind of thing, and, moreover, regarded other approaches to poesis as failures in theoretical correctness. The debate was no longer about what was “pc” but instead what was “tc.”
Meanwhile, mainstream poetry also began to split up, in accordance with geography, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, and technical approaches (for example, “formalism,” “free verse” and “spoken word.”) Of course the grids could sometimes be plural and superimposed, a phenom that tended to divide rather than unite, resulting in further “granularity.”
A good thing or a bad thing? Both. What is the point of proclaiming freedom of expression if it doesn’t actually apply? People should make the art they want to make, and that art will find whatever audience it finds. If you happen to like pistachio-raspberry ice cream with Oreo crumbles, who has the right to tell you you shouldn’t like it? The Declaration of Independence says we should be guaranteed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and happiness is as we define it. Cultural analysts of modern, Western-style democracies speak of “the desiring subject,” a citizen whose desires are supported by government and commerce. In effect, this is the individual consumer, accorded a choice of fifty brands of cereal, cars, bars, movie stars, and, nowadays, aesthetic theories. We know that in contemporary visual art all approaches are now permissible, everything from James Currin’s revival of Old Master painting techniques (though used for edgy subject matter) to installation, Conceptual work, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, digital photography, video—anything you can name. Contemporary music, even within the Pop-rock genre differs wildly in technique and scope, and serious music is now being written in traditional tonality along with every other conceivable approach. In short, pluralism reigns everywhere and the old motto E pluribus unum has been turned inside out: Out of one, many. That is freedom: Desire is the final arbiter.
Now for the disadvantages. “Granularity” means that no single practitioner among all these competing poetries can have an audience large enough to support her or him. Rival factions devalue what other granular groups are doing and discourage crossover. Back in the day, T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas could fill a stadium for their readings. No poet can now do that, though I suppose John Ashbery would come closest to bringing it off; and even then some of the audience would be there to heckle. No, we’re really lucky if 150 people show up. (Robert Frost: “Hell is a half-empty auditorium.) I’m told that in the Mormon faith, good Mormons are rewarded in the afterlife by getting their own little planet, where they reign supreme. The contemporary poetry scene is like Mormon Heaven.
Another problem is the question of evaluation. How do we screen out good poems from bad, when there’s no agreement whatsoever about standards? The critical method of saying, “Every poem composed according to my tc is good, and every poem not composed in accordance with it is bad” isn’t going to fly. So then should we just dispense with any systematic process of critical evaluation? Well, maybe. But if we do, if we say, “I like what I like, and that’s all that matters,” where do we end up? Those who teach poetry workshops will have no ground to stand on when their critical comments get the answer, "Well, that's just your aesthetic, it's not mine. I wanted the poem to be vague." Also, reviewing becomes an exercise in pure subjectivity. Choosing books for prizes becomes impossible—or else it is understood as being nothing more than an expression of personal taste, not impinging on anyone else’s taste. It’s a stance that removes all substantive content from the process of focusing positive attention on some works at the expense of others. And awarding grants to some poets becomes equally meaningless or, again, simply a “political” instead of an aesthetic action.
The economic side of things is worth considering, too. Gone are the days when a poet necessarily had to live in what I.B. Singer called “the holiness of poverty.” A “poet in residence” at a major university can expect a salary of six figures. The MacArthur grant offers between a half million and three-quarters of a million to its recipients. The Wallace Stevens Prize is (I believe) $150,000, and the Lilly (I think) $100,000. And so on with Lannans and Whitings and Guggenheims and NEAs. Reading fees for the famous are often $5000 and in some cases $20,000. I know of at least three millionaire poets, I mean, poets who didn’t inherit their bank accounts. If your temperament isn’t bothered by the aesthetic side of the debate about demonstrable value, possibly it will be when discussion turns to the economic issues involved in deciding who deserves support.
Presumably, those whose arguments for a particular aesthetic (developed in conjunction with a practical criticism, with clearly defined measures for success or failure) should carry the day over their less persuasive rivals. But have we seen that happen? I don’t think so. Over the past years the prose section of Poetry magazine has staged a series of debates on what standards should be applied in evaluating poems, and apparently no one is the wiser—that is, no progress has been made toward consensus. Things just seem to become more and more granular all the time.