Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Friday, December 23, 2011

Poetry Numbers - Part I

Want a quick demonstration of how bad we poets are at numbers and how oblivious we are to the effects of losing our audience?

On his Samizdat Blog, in "10,000 Poets: The Problem of the Multitude in American Poetry", Robert Archambeau paraphrases Mark Halliday as saying:

Defining a poet as someone who has published a book, or aspires to do so, continued Halliday, we might conservatively estimate the number of American poets at 10,000 (“or,” he added, “30,000 — when I’m in a bad mood”).

Even if we take the higher number, 30,000, and divide it by the U.S. population figure he mentions, 300,000,000, we get .01% of the population, 1 in 10,000 individuals, being poets. Messrs. Archambeau and Halliday are trying to make the point that there are too many poets. In truth, expressed as a percentage of the population, we have fewer American poets now than at any time in history.

Of course, what is missing is the audience.


  1. Of course Halliday was pulling a number from thin air (10,000), and juxtaposing it with another very different number (30,000), to convey two things: one, that there are a lot of poets in America, and two, that we really don't know how many there are: 10,000? 30,0000? 100,000? more?

    I think his apparent sloppiness was deliberate, and the intention merely to say "look, we all know there are a lot of American poets." This was pretty apparent in the lecture, but I may not have conveyed that very well in the post.

    Halliday is a bit exasperated by all of the poets, as he admits. Me, I don't mind at all.

    All best,

    Bob Archambeau

  2. Understood. 30,000 likely wouldn't cover the number of BAs, MAs, PhDs and MFAs. Add in the non-academics and the total is probably closer to 300,000. No matter. The figure would have to be 3,000,000, a hundred times Mark's highest estimate, before it would approach the percentage evident when poetry had an audience or, perhaps, before we find a poet who has an impact on the rest of the populace. If we are to pursue our current [fatally flawed] "marketing strategy", producing and promoting poetry exclusively with other poets in mind, we'll need to make aspiring poets out of at least 10% of the population--1000 times Mark's highest estimate--to form a critical mass.

    The problem isn't with the raw data; it is with the conclusion that, at 30,000 or 300,000, we have too many poets. Any way you look at it we are going to need many, many more.

    Paradoxically, without an audience even one poet could be considered too many.

    Pleased to meet you, Bob. For what it's worth, your blog post raised some other points that I hope to address in the near future. Stay tuned!


  3. Hi Earl, I've read a lot of your blog posts, and I truly admire your dedication to the study of poetry and prosody. I'm currently in the process of preparing a portfolio that I will submit in application to a three week poetry seminar called the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and I was wondering if you'd be willing to give an unbiased, honest critique of some of my work. I wasn't sure how to contact you directly, but if you'd be willing to help me with this, please e-mail me at oruga101@yahoo.com

    The portfolio consists of 12 pages of poetry, written mostly in blank verse with varying degrees of strictness. The deadline for application to the seminar is January 31st, but I was hoping to have my application in two or three weeks early, so please contact me as soon as possible if you're interested.


  4. Hi, Steve,

    Normally, I'd refer you to a high end online workshop such as Eratosphere, Gazebo, Poetry Free-For-All or Poets.org, where you could get valuable, expert critique from a wide range of sources. However, these sites usually have a posting limit of, say, 2 poems a week. Your deadline looms.

    You've caught me at a good time. Having put away enough nuts to last me for a while, I actually have some time to spare. This being the case, sure, I'd be happy to help. Please bear in mind, though, that my feedback will be almost entirely technical; don't expect much of the interpretive guesswork so common in criticism today.

    Please send your collection, preferably in plain text (with HTML tags for attributes, if you like), to me at this address:





Your comments and questions are welcome.