Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Most Deserving Poet of All

This is from an exchange with Bob Berner, a lifelong friend from back in Iowa Workshop days, a fine poet himself and a tireless champion of poets and poetry. Among Bob's many other fine qulaities, he's never short of opinions, and never shy abput expressing them. He's also not to dig his heels ion and refuse to listen to other opinions. Bob wrote to me on the occasion of Charles Simic's being named Poet Laureate, not at all happy with the choice, and not happy, in general, with the fat cats of poetry getting fatter -- Simic winning the Laureateship on top of MacArthur grant.

I wrote back saying that actually, I was a Simic fan.


Tad--Maybe I'm wrong about Simic [he would later delve into Simic further, and find much to admire]. If I read more recent stuff of his I might change my mind about him. I remember changing my mind about other poets, Creeley and Ashbery to be specific. I hated their early stuff and changed my mind after reading more recent work.
But I know in my bones I'm right about the money. Simic is no more worth $300,000 than any jock is worth the millions they get paid. Moreover, it's not exactly that Simic was on the verge of bankruptcy even before he got the MacArthur. He'd been nicely employed in academia for YEARS, thank you very much. Which brings me to my major complaint about the awarding of such big-money prizes: they always seem to go to people who Don't Need The Money. So, instead of giving a six figure award to someone who's been an assoc or full professor somewhere for 10 years, why the hell not give a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money? That would at least take some of the day-to-day pressure off people struggling to pay their bills while they struggle to make it in the quality-lit game,
As to Simic's elevation to poet laureate, I don't know what other poets were under consideration, and I don't even know what the process is. Do members of the Academy of American Poets submit the names of candidates to a committee? Can you and I nominate someone? Can we name ourselves members of the Academy? Can we find out about how a poet laureate gets nominated/named by going to the Academy's website?
For me it's still a matter of Give The Money To Someone Who NEEDS It. Give the titles and honors to anyone you want, but don't give money to people who don't need it.

I didn't know how the Laureate got selected. I knew the selection was made by the Librarian of Congress, but I didn't know who he was, or how he made his selection. But I did know in my bones that Bob was wrong about the money. Actually, I knew no such thing. He's probably right about it. But I argued back anyway.


As far as the money is concerned, that doesn't upset me at all. I'm always glad to see any poet getting money. I suppose I believe in a kind of artistic Reaganomics, a rising tide lifts all boats. If a poet gets the high visibility of a MacArthur grant or a Poet Laureateship, it creates more visibility for poetry. Now, I do understand that this works about as well for poets as Reaganomics does for ordinary citizens, but the stakes are different. You're not talking about people's basic needs, like food and shelter, and as important as I think art is, the unequal distribution fo wealth to artists is not as important as the artificially engineered unequal distribution of wealth to everyone. If 95 percent of people who actually take note of Laureateships or MacArthur grants at all, only go so far as to Google Simic and read a poem or two by him, no one is really hurt, If a few of those people go so far as to go to a reading by Simic if he shows up in their town, all the better, and if a few of them decide they liked it, and go to hear readings by local poets, than that's great.

And Simic's paid his dues, like we all have.

Marvin Bell has had greater recognition, and made more money out of poetry, than you or I have. Now, you and I deserve more money and more recognition than we've gotten, but that doesn't mean Marvin deserves less. He deserves more. I'd like to see him get a MacArthur Grant or a Poet Laureateship. Hey, he's already been Poet Laureate of Iowa -- maybe that could be a stepping stone, like the Governorship for Mitt Romney? (OK, that's a bad example.)

And yeah, while I don't begrudge Simic or Strand their MacArthurs, I'd like to see a series of $10,000 grants to people who Need The Money, too. Maybe Poetry Magazine could use some of its millions to set them up. least this is true for me...the only selection system I'd be really happy with is one where the criteria would include the most deserving poet of!

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