Wednesday, April 30, 2014


This is the last day of the month designated as "Poetry Month" (among other designations). Which seems like a good time to bring up the idea of the poetry racket. I love that word from my childhood, usually used for criminal enterprises. I'm not using it in that way, saying that poetry is a criminal enterprise, but in the sense of "racket" as the game is rigged.

Thus has it always been, most likely. Most enterprises are rigged, if not all. Some would attribute that to the general belief that life is unfair and there's not much you can do about it, except complain or rebel or bear witness (which is what writing, for me, usually is).

I've experienced it myself from both sides. Like with Allen Ginsberg. I first encountered him in the 1950s and ran into him over the years that followed. Usually he wouldn't remember me, which I understand better now since I was incidental in his life and he met many many people. But I noticed as soon as I became a book reviewer for The Washington Post he walked right up to me at an opening and began talking to me like we were old friends.

I liked Allen, and he was generous with me over the years in terms of his time and advice, advice I chose never to follow because it wasn't who I was, though if I had followed it I probably would have been much more "successful" (in the poetry world that means getting published by important presses and winning awards and getting choice teaching jobs etc.).

Just as if I had followed the advice John Ashbery gave me, I probably would have been more "successful" etc. John I considered a good friend and saw often when I lived in New York in the 1970s and early '80s. And he was my friend from the first time we met and remains so, though I hardly ever have contact with him these days. [And I felt he deserved the awards he won and the critical acclaim, but it was interesting that he had none until like lemmings almost every award jury and every critic suddenly discovered him, or reversed themselves and work they'd characterized out loud in my presence (arguing against his work) as too this or that was suddenly just right, etc.]

I'm drifting off topic here, but my point is simply that whatever is celebrated, or was, in this "poetry month" of April, usually depends on whose winning the game at the moment and the game is mostly rigged. That doesn't mean the poets who win awards or get published by important publishers or get great teaching gigs aren't fine poets, it just means most of the time they are interconnected with each other in ways that gives them access to those things and preferential treatment.

It's just the way the world works on those levels. Hollywood was similar. If you schmoozed the right people and could offer something in return, you had a better chance of getting the gig or being nominated or etc. Yes, talent will out in the sense that most people who have what the world generally regards as "success" are talented, but actors and poets and artists and novelists and all kinds of creative folks—and come to think of it folks in business and the professions and etc.—who in my experience are the best at what they do often go unnoticed and relatively unrewarded (in terms of what most people, or at least the media, would consider "rewards")...

But my point is the rewards are all in the doing. There were times in my life when I thought the one with the biggest audience was winning (now it's the one with the most hits on their YouTube video etc.) or the one with the highest honors (I was sure a Nobel was in my future). But I have seen so many gifted people whose work saved my life or brought me great joy or overwhelmed me with its passion or insight or affirmation or simply delighted me like most other work hadn't, I've seen those people often overlooked or slighted or paid only brief or scanty attention to.

And at this point in my journey, I accept that and honor it as often a mark of integrity, but not a "failure" or "minor" achievement because of the lack of attention and so-called rewards. Most of the poetry I turn to when I need what it has to offer, most people—even poetry readers, and especially those who teach poetry at the college level and choose who reads at the big venues or gets hired at the prestigious universities, or wins the most "important" awards, etc.—have never heard of.

But I have.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I am not stained by actions --
I do not yearn for their fruit."

From The Bhagavad Gita, trans.
by Ann Stanford

Harry Northup