Addendum to the Non-Manifesto
In a comment to my post “Not a Manifesto,” Serge Kappler (his blog Common Ground is here ) raises two good questions: “why do you think that ‘A grant-and-university-supported art is an art with no consequence’? With some exceptions, the reading public does not buy poetry, good or bad. Why not?”
The short answer to Mr Kappler’s second question is that readers don’t buy poetry because damned few poets write poems for readers. It’s possible to make at least a lower-middle class living by working in a university writing program, but only a few handfuls of people in any language have ever made any kind of living solely by making poems, and making poems that generate interesting class discussions is quite different from making poems that move readers, even those that move readers to think. People have to make a living, and when one has paid a great deal of money and invested much valuable time in something, one naturally hopes to make a living doing something at least tangentially related to that investment. For poets today, the only such living is in the university, so the university is the writing program poet’s market. And there are prizes!
I think the above goes some way towards answering Mr Kappler’s first question, as well, though I should qualify my claim: it has no consequence outside academia. It certainly has consequences for those who live and work within the grant/university world.
But, as I said, there’s never been a time when most good or even most fabulous poets could expect to make a living doing nothing but writing poetry. Offhand, I can’t think of a single poet in English who did make such a living. The market for poetry has never been large, and poets have always depended on patronage, prizes, families, a day job, or some combination of the three. The sad reality is that even for most MFA students, that day job won’t be making poems.
So, if one can’t make a living making poems, why make them? The only thing I can tell myself is that I hope that, for a while, some people will remember some of the poems I have made and be entertained, or comforted, or challenged—affected—by those poems, which means that I must make poems people will remember if they happen upon them. I’ve got to change their minds, if only by adding a good line to their memory. It means that story is important, since story is how we make sense of the world.
In the MFA world, at least as it’s represented online and in the books pumped out by university presses in print runs of a few thousand for a prize-winning collection, it’s clear that narrative and memorability are very poor country cousins to allusion and theory. Most such work will disappear except as fodder for the dissertations of their authors’ and their authors’ friends’ students.
I started my non-manifesto by writing that even Sturgeon’s Law couldn’t explain the badness of most contemporary poetry, but it certainly applies to poetry written outside the academy. I’m quite sure that at least ninety percent of my own work is crap. But if I write poems for the musicians and dishwashers and machinists and bartenders and framing carpenters and programmers and public-school teachers I’ve worked and lived with since I left that PhD program 35 years ago, I may have the ghost of a chance of making poems that will live in some small way.