I remember seeing a cartoon once in a literary journal. A young writer was standing before the Eiffel Tower with a sign that said, “I thought it was publish or Paris.” I laughed, of course. But it made me think more seriously about where the humorless dictum “publish or perish” originated. Academia, no doubt, where the pressures to perform can be immense. Yet even in non-academic environments writers can be very stern with themselves, setting publishing goals that keep them cranking out page after page, then sending scores of manuscripts off to magazines in the hopes that their one-of-a-thousand-other-or-more submission will catch some unsuspecting editor’s eye. And here’s the thing—if you’re persistent enough, you will get published. I know, because I’ve done it. But at some point the submission process became joyless, and I began wondering just how many poems we need out there in the world.
“Write a poem a day,” I’ve heard some teachers advise their students. That’s 365 poems a year, 3,650 for ten years. Already over what Emily Dickinson wrote in a lifetime, and she was prolific. I think it’s fair to say that somewhere along the line we need to ask ourselves if quantity isn’t just a mask covering our nagging insecurity that the quality of our work isn’t sufficient. And it’s rather in keeping with American values, which seem to hold that more is better. More cars, more clothes, more electronic devices.
Writers often like to tout their number of publications. I’ve read bios such as “John Doe has published over 500 poems in literary journals” and “Jane Doe has seventeen books of poetry.” Unfortunately, book number seventeen—or fifteen, or twelve—often pales next to that writer’s earlier, inspired collections. Either that, or it is merely a re-re-working of the same themes.
Joan Houlihan addresses the problem of excess in her excellent 2001 article, “The Argument for Silence: Defining the Poet Peter Principle.” She writes: “I believe that a certain variety of established poet, perhaps those with a substantial number of books, would benefit greatly from a poetry sabbatical. There is evidence of a need for poetic silence all around us. We see it every time we read a denatured poem by a renowned poet, usually in a renowned publication; evidence that the enabling editors of such publications have failed in their duty to enforce last call.” She then takes three famous poets to task, with examples of early and late work and reprimands such as, “He has now published enough books and enough poems in journals and magazines to satisfy his readership and ensure a legacy, a place in the ‘canon.’ … “Our attention has waned, because his attention has waned.”
I’ve heard it said that writing was never meant to be a vocation. Certainly, there’s an argument for this statement. Writers should take breaks, both to replenish themselves and to experience the world. I also think it would behoove many of us—particularly poets—to work outside their genre. Sometimes we get too comfortable, and that leads to complacency. Let’s not turn writing into factory work.
Anne Coray’s latest collection of poetry is A Measure's Hush, published by Boreal Books. She lives on Lake Clark and her website is www.annecorayalaska.com.