I’m trying to make mathematical sense of one of the cruelties of publishing: endless unsolicited manuscripts of lousy poetry. Today one such manuscript began a discussion on the problem of contemporary poetry: there is just too much of it, and too much of it is bad. This has always been the case, though, since poetry was possible. Because, given that good poetry is hard to write, of all the poetry being written at any one time the largest proportion will be bad. It’s likely, for instance, that the number of good poems (G) is the square root of the number of lousy poems (V, for Vogon).
V = G2
And the more you find yourself sloshing through bad poetry, the less poetry you want to read, because it seems like such an awful waste of time. In fact, we can state this as a formula too:
R = W2 ÷ Wn
where R is the number of people who choose to read poetry, W is the number of people who write it, and Wn is the number of poems that W write. (So dead poets don’t count in this formula; it’s only for contemporary poetry, where we can assume the author is still alive and kicking us in the literary teeth.) To be fair we should stick in a constant somewhere to allow for national moodswings and re-releases of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But this’ll do for now.
The formula suggests that if ten people write a hundred poems (ten poems each) then one person will read them. If twenty people write a hundred poems, four people will read them. (This is because each person would have written only 5 poems, and would have spent twice as much time on each one.) But, heaven forbid, if twenty people write two hundred poems (ten each again), only 2 people will read them. This is because as the amount of poetry you read increases, the likelihood decreases that you’ll come across anything good. Remember, V = G2. And the more you have to wade through bad poetry, the less likely you are to continue reading.
Applied on a national scale the formula is very telling. If ten thousand people write a million poems, only 100 people will read them. Anyone publishing poetry will confirm that this is the sad fact of the matter.
All this means it is useless to indulge in campaigns to increase poetry’s readership, because that only has the effect of increasing the number of writers and the number of poems being written. The most effective way to improve the situation is to decrease the number of poems. It’s our only hope. So if you ever get the chance to reject someone’s poetry manuscript, for all our sakes include a plea: fewer poems, please, always fewer poems. There’s little virtue in being prolific.