SUGGESTION FOR MAKING POETRY USEFUL
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.