....All at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts has been increasingly politicized and decreasingly independent; all at a time when music and arts education in public schools is being eliminated, viewed as unnecessary; all at a time when the arts are continuing to be marginalized as decorative, frivolous, a "blue state" luxury, and artists of most mediums are being squeezed by increasing censorship and decreasing funding. All at a time when many, even many who are alarmed by the situations described in my last post to this blog, are not alarmed by these situations described in this post. But societies have always relied on writers and other artists to be messengers, to be the recorders of history -- from at least as early as the wondrous scrawlings on cave walls, to be the Paul Reveres, to be the Sirens, (Alright, I'm sorry, that will be the last shameless plug) to prove the ideal, or what is at least the mythic ideal, that, alas, the pen is mightier than the sword.
But since my last post, I've been thinking, as I have many times before, about the importance of getting poetry out there -- OUT there. But how to do that? One of only many challenges: to get it out to the "masses," but not dumb it down, but not cater to the lowest common denominator. Honestly I cannot ever imagine the poets that I admire and the poets that I know, nor all the many literary poets that I simply know of, ever doing that -- sacrificing craft for popularity or sales. Perhaps because even that "light" verse you find in Hallmark stores doesn't carry any kind of fame with it, although I would think, it does rack up some serious sales. In most of the other arts (music certainly, film certainly, fiction certainly, theater to a certain extent, painting to some degree, etc.) one can find the brilliant, the work that stays true to the source, the work with integrity (Wilco, the film "Red," Junot Diaz's "Drown," etc.) and one can find in that very same medium the "sell-outs," the saccharin, the over-produced, the Backstreet Boys', the Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo -type movies, the Danielle Steels. But what seems to make poetry different, keeps it relatively pure, keeps it a labor of love, is that there aren't the trappings of most of the other arts: Even compared to the non-mass-media art forms like dance and sculpture, poetry is at the bottom of the barrel in terms of material reward and professional notoriety. And of course part of the reason for that is that the poetry world is so insular. How many non-poets read poetry? How many non-poets buy poetry books and support literary journals? We pretty much keep to ourselves. And I have to admit, that what started out as a very frustrating and lonely reality -- very few friends ever asking to see my work, family members responding "I don't get it," or, worse, "That's nice," after staring blankly while I read something I've just practically bled for -- is now something of which I'm somewhat protective, and something about which I now realize I feel somewhat self-important.
As essential, as valuable as I believe poetry to be for a society, as much as I believe William Carlos' Williams' assertion about poetry ("men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there") and as much as my ego, not to mention my bank account and wallet, would love the attention of a much-increased audience for poetry, I have to admit I have found myself not only being, but enjoying being, a literary snob, hoarding poetry for myself in a way, approaching the world with an attitude like, "I know something you don’t...." Sometimes I think I’m happier sitting in my living room with my typewriter (alright, it's a personal computer, but typewriter sounds more mythic) and a cigarette (even though I don't smoke, sometimes I think it's a muse of a prop just to have in my hand), the reclusive writer, sneering, yelling at the Republicans on tv, complaining to Jezebel and Rubyfruit Lulu about Dick Cheney, feeling superior because I have shelves of Plath, Roethke, Hughes, and because my apartment is so small (I’d have to be a starving artist right?) having to put my copy of "Rules for Radicals" in the refridgerator because I don’t have anymore shelf space.
Do I want to be part of an emerging clique of emerging writers, feel really-really-smart-really-really-special when I refer to myself as "a poet," find a strange satisfaction in the martyrdom of not having as much money as an accountant, a banker, a plumber, a mechanic.... or do I want to try to do what I can to build poetry up in the populace to Shakespearean levels?
Both. I want both. I want to do all of it.
And how lucky I am. I can sigh a big sigh of relief....
I will never have to choose between these things in my lifetime. Robert Pinsky arguably has done more than any other living poet to successfully apply the populist appeal of poetry to increase readership and interest, and I'm pretty certain that, although his bank account is surely more impressive and secure than mine, and although I'm equally as convinced he has matured past that pretentious intellectual snobbery, he can sleep well knowing that still he spends many afternoons alone in a room with a typewriter creating things that are nothing less than godly, but still know that most Americans would never recognize him, and, probably, still has friends or family members who let signed copies of his books gather dust on their shelves.