The New Math Doesn’t Really Work


What does one do with an essay like the one David Alpaugh penned for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the current state of poetry publication? As an editor who publishes about 50 poems a year here on The Rumpus (all directly solicited), I feel like I have to respond, since I’m contributing to the noise that seems to bother Alpaugh so.

Others have already responded. John Gallaher says of Alpaugh’s claim that he doesn’t know who the best poets writing today are, “In the face of all of this raging against the blur of numbers, he gets his big chance to assist, to cull some of the chaff, and what he says is “I have no idea”? Nope. That just won’t cut it.”

Mark Scroggins replies to Alpaugh’s claim that the potential loss of a contemporary Blake or Dickinson would be the “most devastating result of the new math of poetry. The loss would be incalculable” this way:

That, not to put it politely, is bullshit. (My own answer to the pro-life folks who ask, “What if Beethoven’s mother had aborted him?”: We wouldn’t have missed him, would we?) Yes, the loss would be incalculable, precisely because it wouldn’t be a loss. We only consider Blake & Dickinson essential elements of our culture because we have Blake & Dickinson; if we didn’t have them, we’d be living in a different culture. It’s an effing time-machine game, Mr. Alpaugh – stop playing Star Trek and start reading, writing, & promoting as best you can the poetry you value. That’s the way critical approval, fame, canonization & the rest have always worked.

My problem, though, is with Alpaugh’s math. Let me start by conceding that the arenas for publication have exploded in number in the last ten years with the rise and mainstream acceptance of online publication. But I’m not sure Alpaugh is comparing apples to apples in his construction. First of all, he gets his numbers from different sources.

Len Fulton, editor of Dustbooks, which publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, estimates the total number of literary journals publishing poetry 50 years ago as 300 to 400. Today the online writers’ resource Duotrope’s Digest lists more than 2,000 “current markets that accept poetry,” with the number growing at a rate of more than one new journal per day in the past six months.

Hold on a second–“literary journals” doesn’t necessarily equal “markets that accept poetry.” For example, Thrasher Magazine fits into the latter, but not the former category today, and I have my doubts as to whether Fulton included independent ‘zines (the equivalent, in a way, of online journals today) and magazines that published poetry as an afterthought in his count of literary journals.

Alpaugh also fails to take population growth into account. In 1959, there were about 177.8 million people living in the US. Today, that number is closer to 309 million, and the last decade showed a larger raw number increase than any of the last five. More people=more writers=a larger potential audience, it seems to me.

And finally, growth rates are rarely, if ever static. Alpaugh doesn’t take into account either the number of journals, online or otherwise, which cease publication (yes, it even happens online) or the possibility that the growth in publications will slow over time, perhaps due to their replacement by a new venue for poetry.

There are other problems with this essay, but I’ll leave those to other writers (and I’ll probably link to them as I see them). That the math doesn’t work is enough for me to dismiss it.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →