Much has been written recently about the dire state of contemporary poetry. Yet, on the surface, these couldn't be more welcoming times for ambitious young poets. Across the nation, more than 250 creative writing programs offer graduate students the chance to concentrate on their craft away from the forty-hour work week. Nine years ago, an article in the May 1991 Atlantic Monthly pointed out that by the turn of the century these universities will have granted about twenty thousand advanced degrees in poetry writing. Judging from the reported increase in the number of graduate writing programs in the past few years, those predictions were, if anything, understated.
For those young poets who do not choose the academic path, the world of poetry should seem still friendlier. It has been years since poetry has held mainstream attention the way it does today. MTV advertises "spoken-word" programs in which young writers, the seeming descendants of the beat poets, chant their writing to international audiences. A quick survey of coffee shop bulletin boards in almost any town should encourage anyone interested in performing at poetry slams and open-mike nights or participating in community workshops and reading groups. This year alone at least two nationally distributed films had the poetry slam circuit as their subjects.
In addition, the 1999 Poet's Market boasts listings for more than eleven hundred nationally circulated magazines and five hundred presses that publish poetry. Despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the cessation of poetry publication by a few high-profile New York publishers, small presses hold close to one hundred poetry book competitions in this country every year, each of which results in the publication of at least one winning collection.
This wealth of resources and outlets, however, can result in confusion for the average reader and frustration for most aspiring writers of poetry. How, after all, can we know where to begin reading, and by what method can a young poet distinguish him or herself?
Each semester, I welcome into my undergraduate creative writing workshop fifteen or twenty aspiring poets. Part of the coursework for the first few weeks involves them going to a library, local bookstore, or World Wide Web site, reading as much poetry published in the last two years as they can, and reporting on their findings. Significantly, most of them return baffled by what they've seen. They find simply too much going on to sum up in a term paper. They have a hard time determining what is innovative and what is imitative and do not know what to say about the seemingly countless movements they encounter — language poetry,