April 27, 2012
April is the cruelest month, at least according to T.S. Eliot. He was a poet, and April is National Poetry Month, so it now really is the cruelest month if you’re a poet because it’s just a reminder of how few people read poetry anymore. Just a few years ago, when bookstores that you could actually walk into and browse were still legal, the poetry section was almost always the second smallest section, tucked away in a back corner next to the drama section, which is actually the smallest, but that’s because most people don’t read plays because even if they’re into that sort of thing they go see plays. And poetry books, for their size, were always some of the most expensive books in the bookstore. You could pick up a six-hundred page Stephen King paperback for less than five bucks, but a thin paperback of Brenda Hillman’s poems would cost about twenty.
In spite of that, or maybe because of it, poets are seriously underpaid. Some people ask, if there’s a National Poetry Month, why isn’t there a National Painting Month, or a National Sculpture Month? There isn’t one because a lot of painters, sculptors, and, for that matter, novelists, playwrights, and composers make enough money that they can support their habit. Or habits. Some teach, but if you ask someone what they do for a living and they say, "I’m a painter" or "I write music" chances are your next question is going to be about their work. If someone tells you "I’m a poet" chances are your next question is going to be, "So, do you teach?" or "What do you do for money?" or "That’s a job?" Not even Poet Laureate is a full-time job. In the United States the job of Poet Laureate was originally Poetry Consultant To The Library Of Congress. You can be a consultant to a banking firm and make enough money to have a summer home in the Hamptons. Being the U.S. Poet Laureate will barely buy you a shack in rural Vermont.
Even in Britain, where the tradition of appointing a Poet Laureate started, the job doesn’t pay much, although some laureates did make more than others. Tennyson, for instance, was paid £99 per year which, in those days, was enough to buy a Lamborghini. A lot of other British poets laureate, though, waived the money and instead were paid in wine. Typically they received a 140 gallon cask of wine which, for most poets, is pretty paltry payment. Dylan Thomas could drink that much in a single reading. But it wasn’t always this way. Robert Burns wrote a small volume of poetry in the hopes of earning enough money to leave Scotland. He then made so much money he said, "Eh, I think I’ll stick around", even though his PR people would like you to think he said, "Hoots nae, I ne’er kenned I’d be rollin’ in sich dough!" Sylvia Plath’s first book was launched with the kind of party that these days is reserved for memoirs of sitcom actors. And t-shirts with bats with baby faces and rats’ alley coffee mugs are still highly prized collectibles from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland World Tour. There are even still a few aging roadies who talk about Robert Frost trashing hotel rooms, Anne Sexton freaking out groupies, and Emily Dickinson demanding whole bowls of only green M&M’s.
Poets used to be respected, and even feared. Plato wanted poets kept out of his ideal society, which caused Homer to yell, "D’oh! Why you little…" When Dante said to you, "I’ll see you in Hell!" it was no empty threat. And I remember hearing in the 1970’s that rock stars were corrupting the youth. But in the 1870’s the original prince of the punks Arthur Rimbaud, before he was even eighteen, was corrupting adults. It’s no wonder Sylvester Stallone played him in all those movies. And in some places poets still command some respect. In some places "poet" is even still a profession. Poetry, most people seem to think, is about freedom; metaphors, the thinking goes, liberate the mind to connect things in ways that lead to deeper understanding. If I were a poet, though, I’d be all for living in a totalitarian regime, because those seem to be the places where poets are still respected and maybe even still feared. Joseph Brodsky committed the crime of making money as a poet in the Soviet Union. A judge asked him, "Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?" Brodsky replied, "Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?" That line earned him a stint in Siberia and eventual exile. When Ceaucescu’s regime collapsed an actor on his way to the national television station asked the poet Marin Sorescu to make the announcement. Romanians wouldn’t trust an actor, but they’d respect the word of a poet.
When I was a teenager I started writing poetry even though the closest thing to a totalitarian regime I knew was school, mainly one of my English classes where we read the William Carlos Williams poem The Red Wheelbarrow, that goes, "so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens." And the teacher told us we were all too young and ignorant to be able to understand the depths and meanings of that poem. She made it sound like a puzzle, like a riddle wrapped in two mockeries of a travesty of an enigma. She said that if we went to college and studied hard and read a lot of really difficult books we might eventually someday be able to grasp how profound that poem is. I went to college and studied hard and read difficult books and learned that Williams’s poem is about a wet red wheelbarrow next to some white chickens. I took her sneering as a challenge, but I was the exception. The first time I read The Red Wheelbarrow I loved it. The second time, after listening to my teacher, I hated it. It took a lot of work to get back to loving it, and even though the work was rewarding in its own way, I never should have hated it.
Even in the United States, even though most people don’t read poetry, I think there’s still some respect for poetry. The movements of a beautiful person or animal or even a machine may be called "poetry in motion". We sometimes express deep sentiments with cards that are written in verse. Something that affects us deeply, no matter what it is, may be called pure poetry. Beautiful language, even if it’s prose, is often described as poetry. And poetry is still being written, and not just by academics. When Adrienne Rich edited a volume of The Best American Poetry she didn’t limit herself to big-name periodicals devoted to poetry or those which, like The New Yorker, still publish big-name poets out of habit, but went to small independent presses, journals published on photocopiers, even poetry written by prisoners. I used to hang out at coffee shops that had regular poetry readings, and heard some pretty damn good poetry from a wide spectrum of people, poetry that, even if it’s published, will never get the same level of readership as a lot of novels. Oprah Winfrey never picked a book of poems for her book club. There may be a lot of reasons most people don’t read poetry anymore, but people like my English teacher sure aren’t helping. So, inspired by William Carlos Williams, I wrote her a poem:
This is just to say
I have studied poetry
the difficult books
that you didn’t,
were too busy
in the lounge.
you wanted us
to be educated.