Does Poetry Matter?

Being a poet in America makes as much sense as a butt full of pennies. That’s one of the pleasures of being a poet in America. There’s something wonderful, something perversely subversive about being disconnected from the world of goods and services and John Maynard Keynes, if only for an hour or two every now and again. It’s freedom. Poetry is an uncharted wilderness along whose margins capitalism wilts like arugula in the Wedge parking lot on the Fourth of July. Inside its borders, the mind blooms and the imagination yields a bumper crop, yet the marketplace rejects poetry. One given to daydreaming might wonder why, and the answer might be found in the dump of discarded possibilities. This is the predicament American Poetry finds itself in: stranded in the closeout bin of our cultural supermarket because of poor management—management that has chosen to make poetry an unwanted specialty item rather than a staple.

There is an economics to poetry, of course, and even a poetry to economics, yet the numbers don’t add up. (The poetic colossus Wallace Stevens, the insurance executive of Hartford, wrote, “Money is a kind of poetry,” but it’s not a kind of poetry most poets are familiar with.) The nonsensicality of a career in poetry can be explained by the laws of economics. To paraphrase Adam Smith, the founder of classical economics, a livable wage shall be retained if a good or service is provided in a supply that does not exceed demand. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, might say the demand for poetry is soft, while the supply is robust. If home ownership, retirement, a cabin by the lake, prestige, and self-esteem mean anything to you, or if you’re practical, pragmatic, cautious, or otherwise uncourageous, please be advised to follow your muse elsewhere. Poetry and economics make a profoundly odd couple, sort of like Sylvia Plath and Milton Friedman.

Poetry registers barely a blip on the national radar, and when it does make the news, there’s often a certain wackiness quotient factored in. During the past 18 months, poetry has experienced a relative media bonanza—which might indicate either a spark in interest or a surge in wackiness. Most recently, a new Robert Lowell collection sent pop-culture commentators scurrying to their keyboards, suddenly writing about poets and poetry. This lavishly praised collection anoints Robert Lowell the potentate of poetry, the latest in a long line—symptom of a perennial compulsion, unique to poetry, to name a figurehead.

It’s not all Ivy Tower cogitation either. In recent months, news of the weird has emanated powerfully from the world of tweed and elbow patches, too: Amiri Baraka, poet laureate of New Jersey and subsidized revolutionary, wrote a god-awful poem that made itself worse by suggesting the Israelis had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks. New Jersey officials tried to have him decommissioned. In Washington, D.C., the White House indefinitely postponed a literary symposium sponsored by First Lady Laura Bush for fear some poets might take advantage of the occasion and spout antiwar, anti-George rhetoric. Poets cried foul, claiming this was yet another example of the Bush administration’s hostility toward dissenting voices. (Ironically, many poets are intolerant of dissenting opinions among their own ranks.) And possibly strangest of all was the news that Ruth Lilly, the nutty heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, donated $100 million to Poetry magazine. Poetry is a well-respected journal but is neither the best nor the most important literary magazine in America. It certainly doesn’t know what to do with $100 million. Who would? To put Lilly’s donation into perspective: According to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, 261 magazines belong to the association and 175 of those have budgets under $10,000. As I say, money is a rare kind of poetry.

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