There’s hardly a good word for money to be found in literature. The poets and writers have been needy devils and thought to brave out their beggary by pretending to despise it. This shows what liars poets and literary people are. The chief cry of their hearts has never found its way into their books during the last three thousand years.
—John Jay Chapman

The fact that someone else writes poetry affects the person who finds it out. Of course, that person will then say that he or she once wrote, or would like to write, a poem, but is now or was then hindered by one of two things: not being good with words, or not being prone to deep feelings. The latter is less often admitted than the former, but some way is found to say it. The poet addressed must then discount deep feeling as a factor in the production of poems, and mark up the importance of having a way with words. But if the poet addressed has deep feelings and a way with words, he or she will be at a loss to supply encouragement.

We praise intelligence until it’s used on us, and praise a person for being a poet until we read something of his or hers that doesn’t rhyme or make sense. Then poetry is not quite so noble as it just was, and the vague memory of an old poem by a famous poet whose name we can’t remember supplies enough poetry for a lifetime.

Most people respect poetry more than they read it. They find the pursuit of poetry noble. They know there’s no money in poetry, but they’re alive to the poetry in money, and they shouldn’t be made to feel like philistines because they are. The problem with poets isn’t that they’re liars: it’s that they’re failures. Money has a good name in this country. It has a solid exchange value and a very high symbolic value. Poetry has nothing like the exchange value that money has, but it has nearly as great a symbolic value, especially for those who have very little poetry. And most people have very little poetry. Poetry is probably read regularly in this country by fewer than 10,000 people—and yet the name “poet” carries a surprising weight.

I think the onus is on poets now to take their unearned increment of respect and go, without hat in hand, to the money-makers, and state the case: that poetry is useful and valuable. There’s no point in making poetry special, like a knowledge of Latin. The figures of speech poetry prides itself on are found as abundantly in newsletters, advertisements, white papers, annual reports, sportscasts, and ordinary conversation as in poems. People are no more interested in poetry’s technicalities or forms than they are in the technicalities or forms of business, politics, arms sales, or science—except as they can be lied in, and with, and through.

No: the thing poetry has going for it is fear. When Emily Dickinson said she was in the presence of a poem when it felt like the top of her head was coming off; when Wallace Stevens said that poetry can kill a man; when William Carlos Williams said that people are dying every day for lack of what is found in poetry—what else was each of them doing but using fear to grow the market for poetry, to develop poetry’s brand? Fear is a great motivator, as everyone knows. And people are afraid, when they don’t “get” poetry, that they’re missing something—not something in the poetry, but something in themselves. Poets need to come in behind this fear and force the issue of it, and they can best do this by targeting consumers who were made afraid of poetry in junior high, and who still fear that they are stupid and shallow.

A positive campaign for a product can’t be launched, however, by calling the potential consumers of it—those who don’t “buy” poetry—crass and dense. It can’t begin by insinuating that people who think all poetry should rhyme are “materialistic.” The poetry campaign has to launch with the slogan, “If it’s frightening, it must be exciting.” Gone are the days when poets could harp on poetry’s difficulty, stress how hard poetry is to be good at, how much of a “craft” it is. Those poets failed miserably to gain market share.

Of course nobody wants poetry to be frightening; poetry is supposed to be a relief from terror. But poetry is deadly not because it’s boring or time-consuming, but because it’s embarrassing, and the threat of embarrassment induces anxiety. But when the threat is real, and the state of anxiety gives way to an attack of embarrassment, color comes to our faces; we become aware of ourselves; others become aware of us; we gain the recognition we crave.

Poetry recognizes this craving and holds out the promise of recognition to its target market. In shifting media attention from poetry’s meaning and intelligibility to its danger and threat, the positive campaign for poetry will create “pull” for a more manageable fear than the one that’s “out there”—and that’s the one that’s “in here,” where the rewards are neither remote nor ideal. Like prisons, schools, NGOs, governments, and churches, poetry should be run like a business. And if we find out in the process of meeting the demand for creativity that poetry is hollow and mean, then let’s publish the fact and try bankruptcy.




Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


Paperback: 86 pages
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