American Poetry and Its Institutions

American Poetry and Its Institutions

Hank Lazer’s useful survey of the current American poetry scene is prefaced by a quote from Jed Rasula: The fact is that virtually all poetry is now under some kind of institutional supervision. The poetry referred to is ‘serious poetry’, of course, the more demanding literary productions supported by grants, university study, literary magazines and the more discerning newspapers. The scene is close to that described on TextEtc webpages, but is worth repeating to bring the picture up to date.

No one in the United States makes a living directly from the sale of his or her poetry, though popular poets like Billy Collins and Maya Angelou may come close. Indeed one couldn’t sell enough poems to paying outlets such as The New Yorker and Poetry to stay above the poverty line. But literary prizes and appearance in prestigious publications can lead to ancillary sources of income: academic employment, workshops, lectures and more prizes.

There is no shortage of support. Poets & Writers lists more than 9,100 certified authors, and claims that each issue reaches 80,000 writers. Workshops are growing in popularity and, according to AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), now number 852. The AWP itself offers services to over 34,000 writers, 500 member colleges and universities and 100 writers’ conferences and centers. Many such courses are held in attractive, holiday-like locations and boast celebrity poets as instructors.

Equally diverse and numerous are the products of the literary institutions.  Representing the period 1990 to 2006, Poetry House has shelved over 20,000 non-vanity press volumes of poetry. Bowker reports 37,450 poetry and drama titles between 1993 and 2006. Amazon was listing 1,971 new titles under the category of poetry in 2009. A typical print run for a small press poetry book is 200 to 1000 copies. Less than 0.5% sell more than a thousand copies or go into a second printing. The boundaries between vanity presses, self-publication, online publication, print-on-demand and refereed publication have become blurred, and some small presses are reciprocal arrangements to publish the work of friends.

Though workshops and university courses can teach the criticism of poetry, and craft matters, some doubt that poetry as such can be taught. What is important in a poem or poet is often not apparent immediately, but shifts with the cultural perspective. The rift between the academically acceptable and the new styles is less acute than before, but much is hidden by a superficial tolerance and politeness. Poets and academics are different creatures.

The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) data on the readership for serious literature shows a steady decline in poetry.   Internet poetry has somewhat reversed this trend, however, and some print-publishers research new authors and markets by this route.


Lazer, H. American Poetry and Its Institutions in J. Ashton (ed.) American Poetry Since 1945. CUP, 2013.

Relevant Website Pages

Language Poetry.

Open Forms in Poetry.

Open Forms in Poetry.

Current Difficulties.

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