Poetry in the Marketplace

Apollo, god of poetry, courtesy of Stephen Vincent

My friend Stephen Vincent, a Bay Area poet and raconteur, was in Turkey last summer and snapped a picture of the sculpture of Apollo at Nemrut just as the sun was coming up.  Beardless Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, healing and plague both, and music. And poetry. Shelley wrote (in “Hymn of Apollo”), “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” At a poetry reading in San Francisco last week Stephen said, of his encounter with the god, “I thought I should ask him, Do you have any thoughts about creative-writing programs?”

In the creative-writing industry one commonly comes across metaphors for and references to the mercantile. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs—the venerable old AWP—is the organization whose mission it is “to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.” Its membership (and I have been a member now and then) is mostly made up of people in the academy. For corporate sponsors they “offer over 1.2 million marketing impressions and the attention of literary taste makers from around the world.” The 2013 conference schedule is not dominated by marketing sense but is no stranger to it either; numbers of sessions mention it—“creating, marketing, and running successful poetry festivals,” e.g., or “strategies for writing and marketing short-form nonfiction,” and several others.

I’ll be cranky here about the language that effortlessly embraces market forces. I remember Philip Levine’s poem, “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” its pig narrator announcing, “I’m to market. I can smell/ the sour, grooved block …”

Or I’ll be cranky about advice from How to Write a Poem, by John Redmond: “Poems with rich, complicated diction, like those of Sylvia Plath, for example, can exploit their short lines to emphasize unusual word-choices.” Or with this from the Poets & Writers Web site, Writing Prompts page:

“Write the story using a third-person omniscient narrator to exploit the tension between the reader’s knowledge of what’s to come and the protagonist’s complete lack of awareness of what’s to come.”

The noun—exploit—has had an edge to it for a while. The second definition in the OED (the first being “advantage, progress, speed, success; furtherance”) is “the endeavour to gain advantage or mastery over (a person or place); an attempt to capture or subdue; hence, a military or naval expedition or enterprise.” Examples go back to 1483. The verb, on the other hand, seems to have enjoyed centuries of benign use: “to accomplish, achieve, execute, perform,” an example of which (“They departed without exploytinge their message.”) comes from 1531. The sense of the verb as an expression of greed—“to utilize for one’s own ends, treat selfishly as mere workable material (persons, etc.); to ‘make capital out of’’”—doesn’t seem to appear until the mid-19th century.

How’s this about poetry? Well, while it can be argued that “exploit” does not have a necessarily pejorative resonance, one of the things that good poetry does is keep all the connotations in the air so that the poem means in as many ways as possible—good poems open in multiple ways, all of which are necessary. But I do think (necessarily) about poor dead Sylvia Plath using whips, unsafe conditions, and the company store to exploit those short lines of hers.

Sixteen tons and whaddya get?
Another day
in debt.

James Sherry—publisher of the very fine series Roof Books—said, “You can sell a piece of paper for a penny, but if you print a poem on it, you can’t give it away.” Poetry can get you jobs and fellowships (if you’re lucky) but the stuff itself—the widget that the poem is—stands outside the normal commerce of our nation, indeed of our culture. It stands outside interestingly but, I’d argue, not haughtily. (I’ll disagree a bit with my friend James Sherry—I think you can give it away. In my classes my students and I give poems away on trains, in bus stations, on the radio, in bags of bagels.)

But sometimes you gotta pay something. Quite recently, traveling in Canada, friends and I came upon a second-hand store, an ersatz Goodwill. I bought two books—stories by Alice Munro, stories by James Alan McPherson.

Munro was 30 cents, McPherson was 50. It’s the best stuff in the world, hours of pleasure and insight, the words and sentences of smart, interesting people, all for less than a Loonie.

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