DOES DIMINISHING literacy spell poetry's doom, or a revival of interest in the oral tradition? Is the readership for poetry so negligible that major newspapers should give up reviewing it, or is there renewed interest in poetry among general readers? Are poets residents of a world the general public would recognize, or are they self-destructive, absent-minded dreamers? Are any of these questions the right ones?

Developing some grasp of the current situation in American poetry is a little like herding groundhogs: The task is more or less imaginable, but it can't be performed without artificial equipment. The specialists, poets and critics, have instruments -- various labels and schemes, like "the Pound-Williams tradition" or "the Eliot/high-modernist tradition" -- that make the topic barely manageable in discussion.

Since people who care deeply about poetry have argued with each other about it for thousands of years, these instruments are wielded wherever, as the faithful put it, two or more are gathered together. This is often, for there are probably more poets now writing in America than have written here or elsewhere at any other time.

No one knows how many Americans are devoting significant amounts of time and energy to the production of poems. The "Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers" will list in its forthcoming edition 3,918 poets, 112 "performance poets" and 754 writers of both poetry and fiction -- 4,784 producers. To be eligible for listing, one must have published at least a dozen poems, or given five "performances or non-print media presentations." That comes to about 55,000 poems, all published by people who aren't dead yet.

Given the population of the United States, 5,000 poets may not seem like many. But as the editors of a couple of exemplary journals are keenly aware, these "qualified" poets are only a small handful of the people who are trying seriously to publish poems.

Poetry magazine in Chicago, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary in October, appears monthly and carries an average of 25 poems an issue, or 300 annually. These are selected from an overwhelming flood of submissions -- about 70,000 poems a year. This means that every working day, on average, the editors must reject nearly as many poems as they will publish in 12 months. The magazine's paid circulation is below 7,000. In Philadelphia, at the offices of the younger but widely-known American Poetry Review, a bimonthly with a circulation above 20,000, things are nearly as hard, though differences in record-keeping make comparison difficult. APR prints about 200 poems a year, and receives about 150 submissions a week, or 7,800 annually. The editors do not know the number of poems in an average submission.

Dependable figures on the number of books of poems published are much harder to come by. The latest "Forthcoming Books," covering the period from last summer through September 1987, lists 251 books of poetry; 228 of these are by single authors, and 54 are published for the first time. There are nine anthologies and 14 books of original poetry for children. The offerings of many small independent presses may not have been counted. In the same period, there were 148 volumes about "cookery" published.

At the production level, then, interest in poetry is clearly thriving. But how much of it is very good? The answer has been the same for centuries: relatively little. The bulk of the poetry written in English since the Middle Ages is execrable stuff, deserving of the oblivion that has overtaken it. Industrious scholars have dug it out from time to time, to demonstrate that the current age has no corner on the bad poetry market. In fact, though great poetry seems scarce at the moment, an unusually large proportion of the poetry written now is, well, pretty good.

Raising the Standard

This is either encouraging or depressing, depending on the tone of voice. Poetry of outrageous sentimentality, festooned with forced rhymes and strained figures of speech, is far less widely published now than it was in previous centuries; knowledge of the craft seems less rare than it used to be. That's encouraging -- except that what we might call "high mediocrity" characterizes a vast amount of the poetry being published today. The standards of a magazine such as The New Yorker are said to be high, and they do publish some excellent poetry; but many of the poems that appear there are less interesting, even to a writer of poetry, than most road maps.

If it is hard to sort out good poetry from the rest, it is even harder to discover who is trying. Most observers think that the average book of poems in this country sells about three or four hundred copies in its lifetime. To the author of any one such book, that seems pitiful enough; but there are so many books of poems published every year that almost no one could buy all of them, or even all those which seem to the purchaser most desirable. Many of the people who bought A's book didn't buy B's, and so on.

Nor are the most frequent buyers of poetry necessarily poets, as is sometimes claimed. A few years ago Stanley Kunitz, then responsible for choosing the annual Yale Younger Poets award volume, said that in its first year of existence, a Yale Younger Poets book would sell fewer copies to individuals than there were submissions to the contest. It may be, then, that more people write poetry than read it.

It is luxurious, even mandarin, to complain about this state of affairs without considering the state of literacy in the United States. Two slots on the best-seller lists are now occupied by books whose central theme is that education has failed us: E. D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" and Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind." As an English professor, I am expected to be dismayed by a student who thinks Milton might be a computer language, or who asks why anyone should read "The Autobiography of Malcolm the Tenth."

But at least these are students, and they have found it necessary to guess at things which are beyond the curiosity of many people. If we write for those to whom the writings of Milton and Malcolm X are matters of deep interest, we call on resources of language which are far beyond those pervading most of the country. Yet if we try to accommodate our work to the language in the air, letting ourselves be influenced by disk jockeys, advertisers and politicians, we run the risk of being as self-serving as they are.

What Price Success?

The peculiar specter of contemporary popular poetry looms whenever poets ask each other whether they ought to go in search of larger audiences. Popular books make more money, to be sure, than unpopular ones; nevertheless, it would take an impossible amount of money to make most poets comfortable with having written, say, the love poems of Danielle Steel. Even Rod McKuen sometimes seemed defensive about establishment evaluations of his work, and claimed once or twice that he had written poems under a pseudonym, and had won a major establishment award with them. This may be so, though it is hard to think of any important poetry prizes which have recently been won by mystery poets.

And yet most poets are troubled by the ambition to enlarge their reputations, and by uncertainty about what that might mean. As John Berryman wrote in "The Dream Songs," #342:

Fan-mail from foreign countries, is that fame?

* * * * *

Interviews on television & radio

on various continents, can that be fame?

Berryman may be an extreme example, but the hoarding of clues to reputation is not unusual. One reason is that poets are now to be found in great numbers in college and university English departments, where they must provide rank and tenure committees with evidence that their poems are respected somewhere. Important journals. Blurbs. Reviews. Fellowships. Grants. Prizes. Despite the general culture's relative obliviousness to literary credentials, competitive behavior among poets has reached great heights (or depths).

What we have, then, is an unprecedented number of poets, scrambling, as poets always have, for a piece of a relatively small action, most of it centered in the academic realm. So many poets are employed in universities that those who are not are rare curiosities, sometimes trotted out at conferences to talk about what they do. The term "academic poet" once referred to an inheritor of the Eliot tradition, concerned to write dense and "teachable" poems. Now the academy is hospitable to a bewildering variety of writers, and to call a poet "academic" is nearly meaningless.

Most of the writers employed by universities, furthermore, are involved in graduate creative writing programs. These programs, which typically offer the Master of Fine Arts degree, and in some few cases even the doctorate, have proliferated to an astonishing extent: Twenty years ago, there may have been a dozen of them; now there are over 200.

Now, if these specialists, numerous as they are, constitute a nucleus of understanding, or at least of passion, where does the rest of the public stand in relation to it? Closest in are other literary practitioners, such as novelists, essayists and book reviewers; then come students, who may constitute the largest single group of Americans who read more than six or eight poems a year. Beyond that come the interested general readers -- people who read book reviews, and maybe even the occasional poem in medium-circulation magazines.

Beyond that we come to something heterogeneous, vast, indescribable and entirely human. When specialists gather to talk about poetry and the public, they often stereotype this general non-reader of poetry as the person one sits down next to on a plane, who turns cheerfully and says, "I'm in burlap. What do you do?" (Let us forgive the absurdity of viewing airplane passengers as a plausible cross-section of American society; many poets travel a great deal.) This personage makes an appearance in panel discussions in order to introduce the problem, for people who spend much time writing poetry, of what to say when there is an opportunity to say, "I'm a poet."

Whither the Bard?

Many poets find it embarrassing to have to explain what they do, because too many of them believe that everyone should already know; poetry is, after all, an older craft than the manufacture and distribution of burlap. But as far as the general public is concerned, there is no difference between a poet who has been influenced by Walt Whitman, and one who has been influenced by Longfellow: They are both poets, and that places them in a single category. Old stereotypes die hard, it seems, and the popular notion of the poet as an eccentric -- one possessed, in Macaulay's phrase, of "a certain unsoundness of mind" -- is among the most durable.

But as more and more poets have been absorbed by graduate creative writing programs, and concomitantly by the academic systems of rewarding merit, eccentricity has come increasingly to seem a liability. Most of us are glad not to endure the trials of managing campus visits from someone like Dylan Thomas; it is no fun to be caught participating in someone else's systematic self-destruction, or in perpetuating the myth that madness is necessary to the making of good poetry.

And yet, and yet . . . there is something disturbing about the trim professionalism of the visiting writers who come through to offer readings and workshops to younger writers, who in their turn aspire to go and do likewise.

In setting out curricula, and timetables for completing them, we partially conceal the fact that writing excellent poetry and fiction is among the most difficult and time-consuming of pursuits. In fostering a system which encourages students to go in for poetry, in much the same spirit in which other programs encourage them to go in for dentistry, foreign service or marketing, we risk letting people pursue poetry for too long before they discover that they lack the most needful ingredient -- persistence in the face of discouragement.

Universities are of course not sanctuaries which discouragement may never enter. These days the boundaries between university life and what used to be called the real world are increasingly vague. Though this means that ineptitude with language is increasingly to be found among professors, it also means that poets need not think of universities as shelters from the culture at large. (Look out! The new first-year class is almost here!) If the manifold activities in the name of poetry are to result in greater work than seems available now, we poets who teach must constantly challenge our own preferences for one set of labels or another, by finding ways of evaluating poems that resist the stock responses of workshop discussion. We might even sharpen our perceptions by teaching a little less poetry and a little more first-year composition.