Can Great Poetry Escape Our Detection?

This is an interesting question: can excellence fly under the radar due to sheer numbers?

Example 1: Could the greatest athlete exist somewhere without anyone knowing it, or soon knowing it? I doubt it. Even though the number of athletes dwarfs the number of poets, the objective detectability and worth of a great athlete would make it impossible for greatness in this category to go unnoticed.

If a 7 foot tall monster basketball player, for instance, existed anywhere on the planet, hiding among 7 billion humans, he would be found. If a woman who could run a mile in 3 minutes existed somewhere–anywhere–she would come to light.

Example 2: Then there’s stuff like physical beauty: rather easy to detect, but there is too much of it for all the beautiful specimens to be ‘counted.’ Super models or actors or any beauties that get national or international attention represent a millionth of a percent of all the really attractive people in the world, so here, in this case, it is due to sheer numbers that human beauty cannot possibly be accounted for, on any sort of global scale.

Is poetry closer to example 1 or example 2?

Three things must be considered: 1) the amount of objective worth displayed in the subject, 2) the number of subjects and 3) the ability to detect the objective worth in the subject.

If there is no objective worth, we can put an end to the issue at once.

If there is objective worth which can be detected, we must ask ourselves how much excellence in terms of numbers probably exist? For instance, if we take a random group of 1,000 poets or a random group of 1,000 poems, how many are likely to be excellent enough that we shouldn’t want to miss it?

And thirdly, how likely is it that a really excellent poet or poem will fly under the radar?

There are many, many people who couldn’t name one poet. These people obviously don’t count. This is another issue altogether which has nothing to do with the ‘new math’ problem, and, in fact, mitigates it.

So, of the people who care for poetry, how many of them are missing, because of numbers alone, great poetry? Numbers are one thing, but the super-sensitive system of detection and communication among like-minded people in modern, civilized society may more than make up for the large numbers. If a great poem is more like a 7 foot monster of a basketball player and less like a pretty boy or girl, then we can say with pretty good certainty that great poets and poems are not escaping our notice. There are no more Billy Collins’s hiding somewhere. Billy Collins, because he is good, was discovered. I believe that good poetry is discovered and that if it is not, it is because it is ubiquitous like human beauty, not because of the numbers which makes it invisible. My hunch is that excellent poetry is more like the 7 foot basketball player than the merely attractive person.

—Thomas Brady

The problem with saying that a great poem is more like a 7-foot monster of a basketball player is that it’s got to be written by someone who is a pretty good poet, and those people, for the most part, just stop writing poems after their encounter with the PoBiz — and if they do keep writing, they don’t bother the PoBiz with it.

More importantly, though, if there are no objective standards such as “7-foot” is in basketball (and even that is no guarantee) by which to measure any poem or poet. The subjective standards aren’t standard. I imagine that 100 judges of a 1000 poems would have only slight, if any, overlap as to which were the best poems, and the overlaps would not be dispositive — they’d be scattered all over the 1000-poem landscape. No poem would appear on the list of every judge, and no poem would appear on more than 20% of the lists, or so I suppose.

It’d be an interesting experiment. Where can we get some grant money to try it? We’ll publish all the poems that appear on 5 or more judges’ lists in — a chapbook, probably. I don’t think we could get enough for a book. I volunteer to publish the book if we can get the money together to pay the judges.

—Marcus Bales



  1. thomasbrady said,

    September 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks, Marcus! Great idea!

    But I would think you would have more confidence in objective standards when it comes to poetry. Wasn’t that a core belief you expressed in your debates with notevensuperficial?

    A poet ‘giving up’ because of Po-Biz is a bit self-pitying, I think.


  2. Marcus Bales said,

    September 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I was arguing that there can be some subjective standards. There can’t be objective standards until we have agreement on what a “unit of art” is, and a scale that shows how many units of art it takes for various levels of achievement. Even that’s not enough, though — then we need an insrument that will measure the number of art units in any piece of art when used by a non-expert, much as a thermometer can be used. We’re not likely to ever have such a unit, such a scale, or such an instrument.

    Even if we did, however, just as when there is no disagreement about whether the office is 70 degrees or not, there remains quite a bit of disagreement about whether that is too hot or too cold.

    So, no, I’m not advocating objective standards in art. Subjective standards don’t even work too well on one’s contemporaries. What happens, as we all know, is that it takes long stretches of time in which a poem’s reputation waxes and wanes, as more or fewer people read it, and as more or fewer anthologists reprint it. That’s the best we can do for subjective standards — that the poem survives the winnowing of thousands of readers over hundreds of years. We’ll never know who the really good poets are in the generations before and after our own, much less our own. Oh, we may have our opinions, and some of us may get lucky, but none of us are able to provide a list of poems from the last 50 years that we assert will remain long in the anthologies and in readers’ minds, without also providing future generations a good laugh.

    I don’t follow why you say giving up submitting poems to contemporary journals because of the pobiz is “self-pitying”, though. Perhaps moaning on about how one has given up might be self-pitying, but simply giving up submitting and going on writing doesn’t seem self-pitying in the least.

    And finally, if you’re serious about this challenge, we ought to set the terms of the challenge clearly. You have my email address. Use it.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 3, 2010 at 9:11 pm


      OK, re: self-pity, I thought you meant ‘stopped writing.’

      If there’s a standard, it has to be the learned poet-critic. It has to be the Self. Even Time can err.

      Have emailed you.


  3. Marcus Bales said,

    September 5, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Tom, still no email.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 5, 2010 at 10:12 pm

      I emailed the editor at vanzeno press on Friday; isn’t that you?

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