- This is a rewrite of my earlier post Let Poetry Die. This version came about because I was asked to do a rewrite by the Wall Street Journal, who considered publishing the article in their essay section. Because their essays tend to be more informational than confrontational they ended up rejecting the rewrite (or that’s my theory). I re-submitted the essay to other publications including The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry Magazine. It was Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic Monthly, who first brought the post to “the world’s” attention, so I thought they might be interested in the rewrite. They weren’t. So be it. Rather than let the rewrite burn a hole in my pocket, I’m posting it here. Enjoy, or refute, as the case may be.
On Nov. 5, 1913, Robert Frost wrote to John T. Bartlett, professing his ambition and, at the same time, defining what a poet’s ambition should be. “There is the kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.”
Frost’s driving ambition was founded on the belief that the general reader was equal to his own ambitions. Frost could have been echoing Walt Whitman’s assertion that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” But the populism of Frost and Whitman was increasingly distrusted by poets and critics stung by public rejection. The answer was not that their own poetry and vision might be mediocre, but that the public’s demands were mediocre. The obvious answer was to create their own audience and that thesis was formulated by Harriet Monroe, the founder of the Poetry Foundation. In a 1922 editorial she implicitly condemned the corrupting influence of the general reader. She contemptuously referred to poems, daily published in newspapers, as “syndicated rhymes,” and equated the poets to “movie-producers” who had learned that it paid to “be good”. It paid to give “people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness.” And she meant that contemptuously. In short, she was accusing poets of catering to the general reader. Poetry needed to be freed from the corrupting expectations of “people”.
History cherishes irony. Robert Frost’s tremendous success in courting the public made Monroe’s vision of the poet, so different from his own, not only possible but triumphant. It was Frost’s popularity that wakened colleges and universities to the lucrative possibilities of the poet-in-residence. After Frost, more and more academic institutions established a poet-in-residence, then creative writing programs, then MFAs. Even if modern poets largely disdain catering to the general reader, the colleges and universities, who bait their hooks with them, make catering a science. There is no MFA equivalent to organic chemistry – a trial by fire that thins the ranks of premedical talent. MFA programs glow with the radiance of a sabbatical. The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest in the country, gives the feeling of a vacation brochure. “Workshop alumni have won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Philip Schultz in 2008), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors.” They might as well be describing sixteen award winning slopes, well groomed and with powder. To paraphrase Harriet Monroe, it’s a program that “pays at the box office”, but empties your pockets. The program promises nothing other than that students will be comfortably acquainted with the expectations of “the critical few who are supposed to know”.
Harriet Monroe’s vision of the poet won the day. And the triumph of Monroe’s vision was never so spectacularly endorsed as when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceuticals baron Eli Lilly, bequeathed roughly $200 million to Monroe’s Poetry Foundation. Monroe’s vision of the poet, insulated from the corrupting influence of the general reader, now extends to the Poetry Foundation itself. Flush with fantastic wealth, public appeal is no longer a matter of life and death; and that’s fortunate for the Poetry Foundation. Monroe correctly assumed that the “large public [would be] little interested” in what she had to offer. She wanted readers who were “primarily interested in poetry as an art” and those readers, predictably, turned out to be other poets, critics and aficionados. Whether the Poetry Foundation’s aesthetic genetics deserve to survive will never be known. Survival of the fittest has been thwarted. The foundation’s future influence on America’s poetry for good or ill will be unrivaled.
Nonetheless, the failure of Monroe’s vision, and the Poetry Foundation’s own inability (or refusal) to court a wider readership, was unwittingly confirmed by the Poetry Foundation’s own expression of gratitude to Lilly. “Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence,” they write in an online article, In Memoriam: Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009, “the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them.” Without her they could not offer “the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize”. Without her “millions of readers [might not discover] the great magic of poetry for generations to come.” And topping it with a cherry, the Poetry Foundation’s President, John Barr, stated that “poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly.”
The question arises: if the magic of poetry is so great, why did it need $200 million? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions but the magic of $200 million. And John Barr’s own revealing statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a curious self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.
What has been lost with the triumph of Monroe’s vision? As far as Frost’s general reader is concerned, American Poetry died with the modernists and their contemporaries: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats. No poets ever filled their shoes. Few passing pedestrians could readily name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Yet ask the same general reader to name a favorite novelist, golfer, band, lyricist or rapper, and watch them light up.
By asserting that poets shouldn’t have to cater to the marketplace of common opinion, poets were given leave to write without consequence. And when any human being can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. The most recent example was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s inauguration. Her list of credentials and awards are show stopping. She is a poet, essayist, playwright, who has degrees from Yale University and Boston University, along with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry and, to boot, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.
But on the day when she was exposed to the marketplace of common opinion as no other poet since Robert Frost’s own reading at the Kennedy inauguration, the consequences were final. Her talents, as revealed in her poem Praise Song for the Day, were judged to be those of a mediocre poet whose poetic reach was strained by a clichéd phrase like “glittering edifices” and whose stanzas were typified by breathtakingly bland and unimaginative language:
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
The public’s reception was captured on John Stuart’s Daily Show when her reading was juxtaposed with images of a rapidly dispersing crowd. At present, Amazon offers 31 copies of her chapbook, Praise Song for the Day, (a print run of 100,000) for 1 penny each. New copies have been marked down to yard sale prices: $1.52. The public has spoken. If the general reader was to blame for the mediocrity in Monroe’s morning paper, public reception was the choke collar that restrained it’s durability. If the worst poets were permitted 15 minutes of fame, the next 15 years were payback. Currently, given enough publications and enough awards, a poet, despite having little to no public appeal, can expect the esteem of his or her peers to confer lifelong job security. After all, who publishes their poetry and awards them but other poets, critics and aficionados? The estimation in which the last decade’s poets have been held hasn’t reflected public opinion but the poets’ opinions of themselves.
Monroe’s stance excludes the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s innate greatness. Interest among the general public has predictably collapsed. In January of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that while 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in 2008, as opposed to 46.7 in 2002 (an encouraging increase) poetry’s adult readership had declined to a 16 year low. The general reader no longer turns to contemporary poetry because they cease to find their greatness within it. When the poet August Kleinzahler stated that Garrison Keillor’s 2002 anthology of poems, Good Poems, “makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever,” he might have added, with equal conviction, that the “audience hasn’t been permitted to make any demands on poets, none whatsoever.”
It would be better if poets were fed to the lions of public opinion. Drive them out of the universities, if not literally then figuratively. Drown institutional benevolence in a barrel of water. When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Hamlet was a product of the public’s demand for revenge tragedy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, one of the greatest operas written, was a direct appeal, not to nobility, but to the Viennese public’s taste for Singspiels and fairy tale operas. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered and artists starved. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives and improves.
It is a supreme irony that Monroe’s vision of the independent artist has recreated the very system of patronage that the great poets, composers and artists of the 19th century were so determined to escape. They wanted to write for the public. And it’s a curious state of affairs when criticism of John Barr’s efforts to steer the Poetry Foundation toward a more populist direction can be paraphrased (by Dana Goodyear, in her New Yorker article, The Moneyed Muse) as “the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten.”
Those making the criticism, those who fancy themselves independent artists, are hardly independent. Beethoven, whose music inaugurated the age of the Romantics, disdained patronage. The very definition of the independent artist, exalted by the Romantics, rejected the social and political norms of the previous century, and that included its patronage system. Ironically, there is little difference between that patronage system and the patronage system of America’s wealthy academic institutions. There is little difference between the hundreds of forgettable court composers who dutifully scribbled ditties for their aristocratic employers and the hundreds of forgettable poets who dutifully compose poem after poem under the auspices of their respective institutions. (No academic institution is going to patronize a poet who doesn’t reflect well on them.) If anything typifies cultural conservatism, it is the poet safely ensconced in the court of academic institutions.
Poetry answerable to common opinion might, at the very least, prevent the public from being lectured by “the critical few who are supposed to know.” They will stop being told they are too vulgar to recognize which poets rightly deserve their admiration and attention. Instead, maybe your neighbor will tell you. Maybe you will hear a poet’s lines absently-mindedly chanted by the stranger next to you. No one knows what the next great poet will sound like. But it’s likely the public will recognize him or her before other poets, critics or editors do.
And surely, a great many poets who are currently the darlings of their generation will be toppled from their esteemed perches. But why not invite these poets to actually make a living from their poetry? If they can’t, then maybe their poetry isn’t all that good? On the other hand, maybe the public has spoken after all. If there’s not a single poet the public finds worth praising or remembering, then maybe the argument is already over. Robert Frost’s legacy lives on in his poetry. Monroe’s legacy lives on in $200 million.
Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. Make them, as Frost wrote, stand on their own legs. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets, has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry too shielded from the destructive and re-creative impulses of common opinion. When the ancient myth makers invented the phoenix, they created a myth far more captivating and compelling than deathless immortality. They recognized the vitality of death and rebirth. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then the public may begin to see great poetry again – the greatness that stems from the re-creative collaboration between audience and artist. Let poetry die.
❧ January 10 2011