Thursday, February 15, 2007

the Poetry Foundation...ugh.

I'm going to rant here for a minute, as I don't think I can organize my thoughts and feelings into anything much better. I've just finished reading poet and New Yorker editor Dana Goodyear's excellent article about Ruth Lily's 200,000,000 bequest to the Poetry Foundation, which, if I understand it right, beyond my own biases, portrays the foundation as making poor use of it's unbelievable gift. I certainly think that it is. It's making terrible use of it. The foundation, and its president John Barr, is acting pompously, offensively and not in the best interests of the art form of poetry.

I'm not saying anything about the magazine, which, under Wiman's editorship, is much improved. It's still on the conservative side, but that's fine--that caters to its audience. And Wiman's added poems by poets like DA Powell and Tomas Sayers Ellis, acknowledging that some of the most important poets now writing are not doing anything conservative. Wiman's also turned the commentary section into a healthy place where minds can clash about poems.

The foundation--the governing body that oversees the magazine and the new website (for which, I admit, I have written), on the other hand, seems to want to ignore, or bulldoze through, the fact that poetry is a subtle and esoteric art. What is good for the general public--steady jobs, summers at the beach--may not be good for poetry.

Poetry--poems themselves, not the magazine--is good for poetry. The intense reading of poems, the steadfast belief that turning one's thoughts and imaginings into carefully considered language is an imperative human act--those are the things that lead to poetry growing and changing and becoming important in new ways to the culture. Not tie-ins in women's magazines (as Goodyear points out the foundation is trying to sell; they want to have poems, like little trinkets, next to spreads about how to set your table or whatever; ahhhhhh).

The most troubling thing for me is this: as far as I can tell, poetry is not something that should be thought about--at all--in terms of the masses. Poetry must be thought about in terms of individuals. It is one of the last bastions of individual experience. Poetry should be read by one person at a time, alone, just them and the book facing them, someone else's language and their language meeting up in their mind. That's where poetry happens. Exploding it into some cultural phenomenon could destroy that. Then poetry is destroyed.

Then, of course, there is the way the foundation has used their money--on themselves! Goodyear quotes Ethel Kaplan, the chair of the foundation's board, as saying, "Nobody wanted to sit back and read grant proposals--especially from poets." My god! How utterly offensive. They have an unfathomable fortune, which they could use, for instance, to help promising young poets who could not otherwise afford them get college educations, put poets in schools, or they could support the small presses that allow poetry to be published at all, and instead they've made a website that needlessly competes with the already wonderful, they're trying to buy a building, and trying to turn themselves into some kind of flagship for popular poems. That's so--there's no better word--selfish.

Go read the article. Goodyear tries to be fairly balanced in, as the New Yorker always does, but, it's hard not to come out of it offended.


bc said...

holla THAT, my friend. well said.

Paul Sweeney said...

All pretty good points there. Efforts at audience development are probably the wrong direction. The public, in their wisdom, are not all that interested in poetry.

Y said...

Good blog, good post.

John Barr's original comments in Poetry magazine announced a phantom poetry crisis. (Perhaps I'd have a better time swallowing his arguments if he weren't such an awful poet himself.) There's so much good work out there, in print and not, that all we can do is keep reading and writing poetry and appreciate that there is an audience at all.

Michael said...

I concur with Ms. Cross, holla.

Just posted my own thoughts in the Speakeasy blog, too, if anyone's interested . . .