POETRY BELONGS TO POETS, NOT INSTITUTIONS

Poetry should belong to poets, not institutions.

Trying to enrich poetry with endowments and gifts is pointless.

Poetry is not like a highway or a school; it doesn’t require funding like that.

Popular appeal is, we feel, an important resource, one which poets once used, but which has dried up due to institutional machinations.

Poetry in China was a required skill for government employees for years. But this was not some charity move to enhance poetry; poetry was seen as a legitimate part of a well-rounded person.

Poetry has historically been a subject in school, but not because efforts were being made to give poetry special protection; poetry, as it existed, was a worthy example for those studying language and history.

Now the cart is before the horse. Poetry does not drive human excellence as an independent force; it is a mere charity case.

Treated as a charity case, this is what it has, in fact, become.

It is precisely the idea that poetry needs special institutional support which prevents poetry from retaining its former glory, since the resource of popular appeal is barred from the poet unable to compete with institutional might.

We cannot get our minds around the fact that billions of dollars of institutional support for poetry has actually hurt poetry.

If you took all that money away, and allowed the poet who appeals to the people to triumph—just allow that process to play out—there’s no telling how much more important poetry would be to us as a culture. Were the muse permitted to be on its own and survive through poetry’s appeal to the public alone, there is no telling how this might enrich us as a people.

Let there be a genuinely popular poet, rather than ten thousand endowed poets, and let us see what follows. We don’t know what that poetry would look like in this scenario, because it hasn’t been allowed to exist. We’re not talking about a Robert Frost either, who was in some ways an institutional product, and somewhat popular as well. We’re talking about a Robert Frost x 100.

How would poetry flourish without any institutional support? Let’s see what poetry would look like, that in order to survive, must intoxicate the masses.

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6 Comments

  1. bluehole said,

    January 5, 2010 at 3:33 am

    On Facebook, a reader said, “I like the concept, but I think we as a culture have demonstrated that poetry is not surviving as a financially viable art form in the face of television, movies, video games, etc. How do we go about encouraging the success of independent poets without subsidizing them?”

    • Christopher Woodman said,

      January 7, 2010 at 1:15 am

      The irony is, of course, that poetry has actually become “financially viable” for the first time in human history!

      True, no books are sold, but this is not because poetry can’t compete with television, movies, video games, etc., but rather because poets are no longer dependent upon the public for their audience, artistic validation, or financial support. In fact poets no longer write to be read but just to be talked about by other poetry professionals within the creative writing industry. The creds that are important are not the number of books sold, God forbid, but the prizes, the grants, getting cited in the newest list or being part of the newest, most difficult movement, and of course getting talked, talked talked about on the blogs.

      And it’s assumed that good poetry can’t be read by ordinary people anyway, that it’s too new and too modern for that.

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 5, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Because it’s financially viable is precisely why it’s NOT art!

    On the other hand, if humanity survives, poetry will too — for it is art, music and above all poetry that allows the humble, well-meaning animal in us to rise up and become divine a little– whatever that might mean at any time anywhere in history. But that’s still the point, isn’t it? That there is no human meaning whatsoever without a voice that can lift you up and make you fly above yourself, even if it’s just a little?

    And that voice we used to call poetry. (Does anybody remember how it was?)

    American poetry today no longer speaks, it babbles — expensively. There’s no audience for poetry either, because poetry no longer has anything to sell but how it says it — and mostly in the classroom too, and no women and children allowed in there either. As if that were a substitute for what we’ve lost! Lacan? Give me a break. Pound? Wittgenstein? Derrida? Bernstein? Burt? Most of them don’t even call themselves poets anymore, just talk about how new and interesting it is!

    They call the elements signifiers, don’t they? Don’t they call some of it even L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E?

    Signifying what?

    Well, Facebook reader, we can try to turn the clock back and start again where we lost our way, as we’re trying to do here on Scarriet. But until there’s some sort of natural disaster that blows all those poetry schools away we stand very little chance of changing much. Because what poetry-person with a sinecure is going to join us unless they have to, like their office flooded by the rising tide, their roof blown off, electricity cut, computer trashed, shoes worn out, even their POETRY no longer delivered in the box and all their YHA wine and cheese spoiled and left out on the doorstep for the starving dogs and cats.

    That might do it.

    (And wouldn’t poetry love to fill that vacuum?)

    Christopher

  3. thomasbrady said,

    January 7, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    “Because it’s financially viable is precisely why it’s NOT art!”

    My dear Christopher,

    I don’t know if we can go that far…

    It’s a bit more complicated….

    Millay, for instance, who the Modernists hated, did make money with her art.
    It’s not an easy puzzle to solve, this place where the critical and the popular meet…

    Thomas

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 7, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    I don’t think poetry has ever generated what could be called a significant personal income through publication — though in the case of Edna St Vincent Millay it certainly helped, which is rare.

    Poetry is financially viable today in the sense that a large number of U.S. poets, perhaps even tens of thousands of them, can actually support themselves as poets — through salaries, grants, prizes, honorariums, and special funds ear-marked for poets and poetry.

    There’s nothing wrong with ANYTHING being financially viable, of course, but the fact that poetry generates personal income indirectly, i.e. through networking and teaching, and not from the direct sales of poetry itself, has shifted the focus away from the quality of the poetry to the quality of the personal relationship between the poet and the establishment that pays the bills.

    That’s why so much poetry today is not art but facile imitation, pretension, and hocus pocus.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    January 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Christopher,

    We need to talk about the other arts a little. A playwright who hasn’t ‘made it’ or a painter who hasn’t ‘made it’ don’t feel sorry for poets.

    Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of (200) 100 dollar bills just sold for 43 million dollars this past November.

    Is that sort of money obscene? What sort of system, art world, economy, art sensibility does a sale like that betoken? Does it mean anything for poetry?

    Thomas