Gatekeepers (Part Two), why my pop-music philistinism makes me fear for the poetic canon



Gatekeeper, seasons wait for your nod. / Gatekeeper, you held your breath, /
made the summer go on and on.

Here’s a confession, Ploughshares readers: I’m a musical dinosaur. I have an unabashed love for Green Day and Counting Crows, and I’ve listened to Wu Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers almost weekly for eight years. If pressed, I can pick out a photo of Lady Gaga or distinguish between the voices of Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, but that’s about it. This is how I found myself exclaiming to some friends, several months ago, that I’d recently “discovered” Feist, a singer who (it turns out) has been in the public eye for at least a decade. Oops.

Most people have similar dumbnesses regarding contemporary music. Industry execs grumble about the causes: for one, traditional radio is being replaced by services like Pandora, Grooveshark, and Spotify, which tailor their stations to individual listeners’ idiosyncrasies; for better or worse, there may never again be a time when all of America can’t help but be subjected, constantly, to the mediocrity of a band like Smash Mouth or Creed.

We’re right (very, very, right… don’t get me wrong) to be happy about this change. But it might be worth taking a moment to mourn that Americans-at-large now have less common ground to stand on, in terms of music, than they have since the days before FM radio. That common ground may have been a trash heap, but it was a trash heap we shared. The result of these shifts has been a stunning diversity of new music and new genres, feeding and defining one another—which is great—but also fewer contemporary musicians with whom everyone is familiar.

So why am I jabbering about the music industry? Well, because I think the same shift is taking place in poetry: online publishing and digital printing, plus the almost unchecked expansion of MFA programs over the past thirty-some years, have created a massive, diverse, and more-profitless-than-ever literary marketplace, which like the change in music is both exciting and worrisome.

Ask young fiction writers where they’d most like to be published and they’ll answer pretty consistently: The New Yorker, One Story, Tin House, Paris Review, Harper’s, The Atlantic. These are also the magazines that fiction writers are likely to read. But ask the same question of poets, and the responses are all over the map.

What does this suggest? Literary journals, after all, constitute the front lines, the rough drafts, of what might become “the canon.” When it’s no longer clear which journals are important, can a poetic canon continue to exist? And does it matter?

It’s already absurd to talk about Contemporary American Poetry as a whole, just as it’s absurd to speak broadly of “American Music”—what we have now are American Poetries: what’s “good” and what’s important have become subjective to the schools or aesthetics an individual or a small community of poets or editors favors. Maybe this has always been true. But if you’ve taken the GRE in Literature lately (I don’t recommend it), then you know it’s rare to encounter many poems written after 1930 on that test. On the other hand, in fiction, you can at least count on One Hundred Years of Solitude or Beloved or The Things They Carried making an appearance, because it’s a fair bet the test-taker has read all three.

By contrast, is there even one collection of poetry published in the last twenty-five years that most poets have read, and could discuss with one another, unprompted? I’m not sure there is, though I’d be curious to hear suggestions. And this worries me.

For now, when Tony Hoagland bemoans “skitteriness” Ron Silliman rants about the “School of Quietude,” or Kenneth Goldsmith tries to pass off an exact copy of a New York Times article as a poem, I’m mostly proud: proud of the diversity of our poetic moment, and how very wide the field is for emerging poets. The variety of criteria for what makes “good poetry” or even just “poetry” is so large that nothing at all seems outside of the genre, and as poets we should be thrilled to have such liberty.

But we should be cautious, too. We need to be able to speak to one another. We need to make sure that our moment generates the poetic equivalent of the Beatles (even if we have to churn out a few Vanilla Ices along the way), as prior generations have, so that we share common points of reference. If poetry is to remain relevant in the 21st century, those points of reference need to be in the near—not the distant—past: we need a contemporary canon, and we probably shouldn’t assume the canon will create or define itself.

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Sean Bishop

Sean Bishop is a poet, editor, and graphic designer who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding editor of BETTER ( and the former managing editor of GULF COAST. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ALASKA QUARTERLY REVIEW, BAT CITY REVIEW, BOSTON REVIEW, CRAZYHORSE, JUBILAT, INDIANA REVIEW, PLOUGHSHARES, POETRY, and elsewhere.
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9 Responses to Gatekeepers (Part Two), why my pop-music philistinism makes me fear for the poetic canon

  1. Billy Longino says:

    I never thought I’d read an article in a literary journal, or in this case its website, complaining about the existence of aesthetic diversity. I think someone has totally missed the point. Diversity serves to better accumulate a dynamic ecology, and this sort of fundamental necessity is paralleled in all sorts of systems, including literature. The more diverse the offering, the stronger the survivors. Yes, there are untold numbers of poets out there creating vast, highly idiosyncratic aesthetics. But only some will survive in the canon. This emergence will grow exponentially as time goes by, and the majority of them will “die off.” The aesthetics will go extinct and only certain outliers will survive. Right now, in the environment of the ubiquitous MFAs and their contingent literary journals, being diverse is necessary for exposure and survival in such an environment. This doesn’t eliminate the canon, it serves to allow it to be stronger in the end through the diversity of these poet-organisms that will survive.

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Hi Billy. I do hear where you’re coming from, but I feel like I have to say: I’m not complaining about aesthetic diversity at all! That’s why I wrote, for instance, that “as poets we should be thrilled to have such liberty.” Diversity is good; it’s the lifeblood of our poetic moment. But poetry is not “the wild,” it’s not an organic system; what survives and what does not is determined largely by individuals within that system—mostly, editors. What I’m advocating is that editors strive to transcend, or rise above, their individual aesthetic preferences in an attempt to preserve and make standard “the best” of the representatives of the many diverse aesthetic schools out there today (I’m sorry if this was not clear?) In this way, we can help to make sure that the next generation of American poets have been exposed to the most accomplished and innovative of the widest-possible-variety of aesthetics, and that thereby the next generation is better educated and better empowered to talk about and evaluate whatever comes next. “The Canon” does not have to be a limiting or conservative force; it can by the system by which we ensure that future poets are able to do and say whatever they want, with the possibility for a widespread readership. —Sean

      • Billy Longino says:

        I’m sorry, Sean, I could be misreading you, but I took your idea as being that while it is exciting that this diversity has developed, and been allowed to develop, you fear the emergence of detached, niche-like aesthetics that have very little obvious connection to a set national aesthetic. I brought up the concept of organic systems, because, this is where we disagree, I think literature is an organic system, and the development of these vastly different aesthetics in poetry is an aspect of this sort of structure. I think not seeing literary aesthetics as an ecological system stems, partially, from the concept of editors as gatekeepers. I think a better metaphor would be to see them as sort of anti-predators, in that they select work, prey, for survival inside the canon system, and so the prey, or poets in our case, learn to game the system by developing aesthetics out of the selected group with which they have become familiar through their selection by the editor/predator (I know that’s too clever). So, these markets, such as MFA programs, lit journals, online mags, become nodes out of which aesthetics evolve exponentially as according to the nature information accumulating systems, which mirror ecological ones. In this case, then, the development of the canon does occur through a natural system, which I think has always been going on, but now with the amount of information, in our case aesthetics, growing and growing, mutating and mutating out of these set, canonical parameters, it has become more apparent through its massive complexity. The concept of the gatekeeper, then, I think is dead. It is an old metaphor for a world that no longer exists. If you look at editors on different tiers, then literary criticism, then you see a system out of which literature is selected because of its aesthetic development within the environment created by the canon and the larger world, and, though I’m no mathematician, I can imagine you’ll see similar ratios of works that “survive” to works that “die” in this system, like you see energy transfer in ecological systems.
        Sean, I apologize for what I’m sure was mad rambling. Despite my previous, antagonistic reaction, I really believe you’ve brought up an interesting subject for discussion, and I enjoyed your article and this conversation.

        • Sean Bishop says:

          Hi Billy. No worries!; this is not the first time I’ve had this discussion about whether literature is an organic system or not; whether it keeps itself in check by internal, intrinsic processes—i.e. the best writers and works of art rise to the top by their own accord while the weaker or less important ones sink/“die out”—or whether the survivors / future-famous-writers are “artificially” selected by editors, publishers, anthologists, etc.

          I think that the latter is true, not the former. To me, saying that literature is an organic system and we should just let literature “sort itself out” is a bit like Wall Street Brokers getting angry at the government for trying to regulate a supposedly “self-regulating” economic system that, left to its own devices, has proven itself bound to crash and burn. There have been moments in literary history (if you don’t believe me, you should read Cary Nelson’s REPRESSION AND RECOVERY) where literature really has crashed, and important literary figures have been lost or very-nearly lost, where entire arms of literature have been beaten out and forgotten, not because they were of inferior quality, but because of essentially political battles). Do editors serve a function, as gatekeepers, in our current moment? Well, they certainly have in the past, and they still do at least in part for the moment (though as I addressed in my first Gatekeepers post, editorial influence is certainly waning). We might see a day when the canon is no longer moderated by anything other than the writers and readers themselves, but unlike you I do not think we have reached the point where the idea of a gatekeeper is, or should be, dead: the disappearance of any kind of moderating force in literature would be a bad thing.

          And maybe this is another point where we differ: I think the loss of the editor-as-gatekeeper would be a bad thing because it would leave literature to the groupthink of the American readership. I trust the-readers-and-writers-of-America-at-large about as much as I trust the attendees of a lynching picnic, to be honest. I don’t trust editors much more—even being one myself—but I think that it’s a good thing for readers to look to editors, who make it their job to assess the literary landscape as widely as possible, make difficult quality judgments, and then present back to the readership those texts that seem most relevant to the present and future. Without the moderation of editors, I think the literature that would “survive” or rise to the top would simply be the loudest, or the funniest, or the most grotesque. The literature that survives would be that which sells best, or that which is written by a group of writers who are unusually good at self-promotion, or any number of factors that have little or nothing to do with quality. So I guess what I’m advocating is that we should not let literature become an organic system governed by “natural selection.” And before I start sounding like some kind of fascist futurist, I should clarify that I think it’s best not to let contemporary literature become an “organic system” because literature itself is not natural, it’s a human invention, and as such should be governed by human selection; the very term “natural” only exists as a foil for human invention, otherwise we wouldn’t need a word for it: everything inhuman is natural.

          My aim in this blog post (though perhaps I approached it too obliquely) was to suggest that we need editors, we need gatekeepers. We can think of them as elected officials: they are the people we trust to figure out what writing is relevant to our present moment, and which has the most promise for the future. Because of technological advances that allow a lot more writing to be published than ever before, I think literature is at risk of splintering into aesthetic camps that left to their own devices will no longer be able to speak to one another, to understand one another, or (to keep it in this weirdly Darwinesque conceit we’ve been perpetuating) mate with one another. Poets are already so culturally disempowered and disenfranchised, do we really want to perpetuate a system that will eventually lead many of us to have nothing to say to one another? So I think it’s important that we continue to look up to editors who are striving, constantly, to choose the “best” of the widest variety of aesthetics and then force them into conversation with one another. That way we can still have our diversity, but we will also have some common ground—we won’t break off into tribes or species that, no longer able to understand or speak to one another, will eventually be forced to compete and kill each other off.

          • Billy Longino says:

            Actually, I don’t think we disagree all that much. I think you misunderstand me. By calling literature a “natural system,” and I apologize if I repeat myself, I do not exclude the possibility of regulation. Actually, I agree that a regulatory agency is necessary, otherwise the system would stagnate.Where we differ is in the meaning of the metaphor of calling literature an organic system. All organic systems are regulated by natural agencies within the systems. I don’t in any way think editors need to be removed from the system; in fact, when I made the predator comment I meant that as editors being necessary for the health of the system. I could reference reindeer living alone on islands without natural predators for an example of what would happen to literature without editors. Systems, including literature, require these regulators. I won’t argue the philosophical difference between “human invention” and “organic system” other than saying that such creations are inherently natural being that they arose from an organism, humans, that developed out of “natural” systems. I think our misunderstanding, at least as far as my statement goes, resides in the understanding of what an “organic system” is. Editors are a part of the system and should never be excluded from it, again, I completely agree. And I likewise fear what the American reading public would chose as “worthy” for the canon. I’m sorry you’ve had to have this discussion before, and it seems with people who don’t quite understand ecology enough to extrapolate it for metaphor. I think this problem arises from a lack of understanding by the general public or any non-biologists about how such systems function. Personally, I blame the same politicians you mentioned.

            I’ll also want to say that I don’t believe editors are artificial. There, technically, can never be artificiality introduced into any system by active agents, since all agents approaching a system either emerged out of or gave rise to the system which they are acting in. Editors emerged out of literature, are a fundamental part of it, and maintain its health. Either way, though, some literature will crash and burn. If editors choose the survivors, what many American readers want may crash and burn, and vice versa. These are both functions of the system, extinction of something being inevitable. Editors are regulatory agents just like the government. The government, by acting in the system, becomes part of the system. I’m sorry some of this probably isn’t too mainstream in systemsthink.

            On the subject of aesthetic diversity, which somewhere back there was the source of all of this, I just don’t believe what you’re saying will happen will happen. If editors are a natural part of the system, which they are, then editors will, to use my earlier analogy, “prey” upon those emerging aesthetics and select pieces of worth.

            To your last point, concerning an inability to have common ground, I think this is a postmodern anxiety, or a post-postmodern anxiety, that is developing from our information overload. As the complexity grows, can we realistically ever have this common ground? I think this question gets to the root of your original post. Is this something that can ever be realized in this age? I think under strata of editors the canon would exist in some form, but the common ground wouldn’t ever be so ubiquitous again.

            And, thank you for this discussion, Sean. I’ve enjoyed it. You’re opinion has been very informative and stimulating. I look forward to reading more posts.

  2. Chuck 23 says:

    I wonder how long it will be before someone creates the poetry equivalent of Pandora: enter a poet’s name (say, Philip Larkin) and the site will create a customized literary journal featuring poets similar to Larkin, or Matthea Harvey, or Tony Hoagland, etc.

    • Sean Bishop says:

      That would be amazing! And, I guess, just as worrisome? But mostly amazing. I feel like I came across as a big poo-pooing naysayer in this blog post, but the fact of it all is: I’m pretty much obsessed with Pandora and Grooveshark. Who do you think would be best-qualified to create a site like that? The Poetry Foundation? Somebody needs to get on it, stat. —Sean

  3. Pingback: Gatekeepers Part Four-point-One: on why the [red] pen is mightier than the sword (and other politically used clichés) | Ploughshares

  4. Thanks for the great article Sean Bishop!


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