The Selling and Self-Regulation of Contemporary Poetry by J.T. Welsch: A Review

The Selling and Self-Regulation of Contemporary Poetry, J.T. Welsch, Anthem Press, ISBN:9781785273353, Various formats and prices

Anyone who has poets on their Twitter timeline will be familiar with a number of recurring topics of conversation: anxiety over readiness to step up to a ‘full collection’; wondering what a full collection is as compared to a pamphlet; asking which competitions are taking entries; worrying over if online publication is ‘real’ publication; discussing which  words or topics the arbiters forbid this week; advertising (Covid-online) book launches, workshops, courses and other events; discussions on which poems offer consolation. It’s almost an alternative contents list for J. T. Welsch’s fascinating study of the business, promotion and control of contemporary poetry in the broadest sense.

Welsch is at pains to point out that his book is not concerned with poetry as such, but with the contexts in which it is produced, distributed and consumed, and it’s an important distinction. The book is divided into thematic chapters, but the themes overlap and interweave. For instance, the excellent chapter on prize culture emphasises the role of prizes in the illusion of participation, driving the perception of a prize’s value by dint of the volume of commentary it elicits, regardless of whether or not the commentary is friendly or hostile, what matters is the noise. This speaks directly to the chapter on debut culture and the infamous ‘full-length collection’ fetish, in which Welsch comments on the trend towards debut collections winning major prizes. He makes the very fair point that as publishers focus more effort on publishing ‘first time’ poets, this has increased the level of diversity, with more women, poets of colour and LGBT poets being published and, as a partial consequence, winning prizes. While this is a very welcome development, there is a concern that the diversity that is encouraged is of an extra-poetic variety, with both publishers and judges acting as new gatekeepers, absorbing the diverse range of poetry into a single broad stream of ‘real’ poetry while minimising and marginalising technical diversity. There can be a perception that young poets will be, by definition, progressive, but they’re just as likely to be conservative; Welsch uses the Modernist mantra ‘make it new’ as a subheading, but debut culture is actually just about ‘being’ new, with no real requirement for the debutants to actually shake things up. Often, that’s the very last thing that’s wanted of them.

This then echoes across the chapters that deal with poetry as ‘content’, the digital equivalent of liquid gold. Poets are, on the one hand, charged with ‘capturing the mood’ of these troubled times, and, on the other, becoming academic researchers whose ‘creative’ work needs to be accompanied by the accoutrements of academic publication, ignoring the fact that for the poet, the poem is its own commentary. This is not unrelated to debut culture; the idea is that the poet is made feel they need to pass some kind of exam to gain entry into the profession of poetry. One problem is, of course, that poetry is as much form as it is content, possibly more so.  If content says what it means, poetry means how it says, but this distinction lies outside the book’s terms of reference. Another is that poetry is not a profession, and contrary to much critical discourse, both popular and academic, poets do not have careers. There are no early-, mid- or late-career poets, just people trying to make poems with words. The debutant poet, who has probably, indeed almost certainly, previously published in periodicals and/or pamphlets, in print or online, is just a poet bringing out a book, not an apprentice attaining a qualification. Some of them may never publish again, some may continue to publish very poor work, and some may start off failing to make an early impression but turn out to be very fine poets indeed.

Welsch is very interesting on the ways in which this idea of the poet as researcher feeds into critical discourse, and in particular on the way in which we now (and I include myself in this) overuse ‘explore’ and its synonyms when discussing poetry. This language helps fit creative work into regulatory frameworks that were designed primarily for STEM research and neatly illustrate the dead hand of the academy as it impacts on the art.

Poetry is not a business, and the business of poetry is not poetry. In a chapter on poets on entrepreneurs, Welsch draws an instructive comparison between the derivation of the former as ‘maker’ and the latter as ‘taker’. He goes on to discuss how what he calls ‘entrepreneurial ideology’ has become normalised in poetry, regardless of the attitudes of individual poets, through the invention and assimilation of the whole notion of ‘creative industries’. we are to believe that the desire to create a new kind of breakfast cereal and the desire to write a poem derive from the same source, with the image of the tormented poet in her garret standing as the very image of neoliberal individualism, the millionaire who started out with nothing but a dollar and a dream. Should we. as poets, accept or resist the siren song of Capitalism? It’s a question the book leaves open; for what it’s worth, I’m for the second option.  Welsch argues cogently, poetry, the writing of poetry, is work, just work of a ‘hopelessly non-linear’ sort. It is this very quality that gives me hope.                           

Neither is poetry a bureaucratic activity, although poets frequently bump up against bureaucracy in the form of arts administrators and funding bodies who tend to view the arts as employment opportunities, as ‘the creative industries’. Government funded arts administrators find themselves under inevitable pressure to come up with ‘economically viable’ projects that help reduce unemployment numbers and, ideally, serve as marketing tools for the nation. These pressures add to the impulse to professionalisation, to an increased focus on the business of poetry, what Welsch calls ‘the stuff necessary to writing that isn’t writing itself’, to the detriment of poetry. And this idea of professionalism is the core of the book, is poetry a profession, and, if so, what does the profession of poetry look like? Again, these are questions we are invited to ponder without being given definitive answers.

One thing this book helps underline is that there is a definite movement to think and talk about poetry as if it were a profession, with mentorships, skills-based workshops, guide books, Master’s Degrees and other tools of ‘professional development’ becoming ever more ubiquitous, with the inevitable consequence that more ‘professional’ poetry is being published by the year. Ironically, given the general association of entrepreneurship with risk taking, this poetry is generally risk-averse in how it is made; the spirit of entrepreneurship seems destined to be confined to the ‘stuff’ that surrounds it, specifically the business of finding a readership through the judicious use of social media. There is, of course, some value to all these activities, and certainly learning how to submit work of publication is a valuable skill, but what poets, aspiring or otherwise, really need to do is read more poetry, and this seems to be pretty far down the scale of importance in the business. I can’t but fear that the result will be a new generation of poets who are equivalent to those who people the footnotes to The Dunciad.

Welsch’s book is a thought-provoking survey of an area, or rather set of interlocking areas, of activity that should be of interest to anyone who is concerned with the health of poetry as an art. He raises more questions than he answers, which is as it should be. For what it’s worth, my own view is that the only thing a poet can do about it is to carry on writing the poetry they have in them to write, with no thought to the business side of things while you’re writing. The business comes later, and we should never confuse the two or mistake the latter for the former.

He writes a prose that’s refreshingly clear and as jargon-free as it can reasonably be. Given the current condition of academic publishing, it’s not cheap but if you have access to a good library, it’s well worth getting your hands on. It is worth noting that he wrote it in pre-Covid times, and that some things clearly have changed as a result of the pandemic. For instance, his chapter on the centrality of the city as a place for poets to do their business has receded as launches, readings and other events have moved online and become decentralised. Also, in Ireland at least, state funding for the arts has increased substantially in the wake of lockdown, and the emphasis has moved away from job creation and towards art’s supposed ability to offer cohesion and consolation; still an instrumentalist view of the arts, but not as blatantly economic. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds post-Covid; food, perhaps, for a future revised edition?

And now to expunge ‘explore’ from my reviewing vocabulary.