WE think it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an unknown poet to find a publisher. Robert Frost for many years sought to publish his poems and got lucky only when he was nearly forty -- and in England, at that. Sylvia Plath, decades later, unsuccessfully sent out her poems to book publishers no fewer than seven times before she turned twenty-six. In her journal she ranted bitterly about her rejections, her bitterness intensified, perhaps, by the fact that when she had sent the poems of her English husband, Ted Hughes, to a lucrative New York competition, he had aced it. Plath had to depend on an English firm to publish her first book, The Colossus, which came out when she was twenty-eight. Later on The Colossus was accepted for American publication in revised form. I must shamefacedly confess that, though a friend of Plath's, I was one of the American book editors who declined the unrevised version. (I didn't, couldn't, know what was coming next; and without that knowledge I might repeat my mistake today.)
Nowadays American poets are less likely to have to depend on the English, but they are very likely to require the services of a "first-book contest" run by the staff of a university press and judged by some older poet. Before the First World War poets could hope only for the dubious good will and erratic taste of commercial editors and publishers. Though mainstream publishers continued to be willing and able to underwrite the early poetry of such artists as Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall, and Elizabeth Bishop, they tended to draw the line at what they regarded as more problematic poets: Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov. The university press had made a significant debut in poetry publishing as early as 1919, when Yale's set up a program to publish at least once a year a collection by a previously unpublished poet. By 1957, when Sylvia Plath began sending out The Colossus, the Yale Series of Younger Poets (then edited by W. H. Auden) was the destination she coveted. She struck out twice.
Now, seventy-nine years after the series's inception, Yale University Press has published an anthology drawing on every one of its ninety-two volumes. Reading those immense haystacks of immature poetry, if one had the strength to do it, might convey some glimmerings of what the young have thought about poetry over the past eight decades. But who was going to read it all?