I believe the message inherent in the cover design was “if you don’t get this stuff, there’s something wrong with you.” If I’m correct in that assumption, it would not be the first time I’ve been told there was something wrong with me. And I’m not talking about doctors here.
Call me an uncultured buffoon, but I’ve never enjoyed poetry. My favorite poet is Ogden Nash, who, on a scale of Dr. Seuss to Sylvia Plath is much closer to the former than the latter. But his poems were short, fun and to the point, and they even rhymed:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
See that? There’s nothing to decipher there. The meaning is clear. The reader doesn’t need to work. Compare that to this excerpt from a piece by James Tate, whose collection, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review:
A dark star passes through
you on your way home from
the grocery: never again are you
the same—an experience which is
impossible to forget, impossible
to share. The longing to be pure
is over. You are the stranger
who gets stranger by the hour.
I mean, what the hell? First of all, what makes that a poem? The fact that he broke sentences and paragraphs in weird places? If it was printed like this…
A dark star passes through you on your way home from the grocery: never again are you the same—an experience which is impossible to forget, impossible to share.
The longing to be pure is over. You are the stranger who gets stranger by the hour.
…would it no longer be a poem? Yes, I know, it has something to do with rhythm, or feet, or pentameters, but, as a reader, I don’t want to be bothered measuring pents. And what is he talking about, anyway? Someone who became a serial killer after going to Stop & Shop? Is his point that anyone can suddenly become evil while doing the most mundane tasks? Might I, for instance, while driving to my local ATM, get the urge to murder a poet?
If a poem is art, am I supposed to admire its beauty, or consider its profundity, or take to heart its message? Am I to toil to understand the hidden meaning in the artist’s decision to break “never again are you the same” into not only two lines, but into separate paragraphs (sorry, stanzas. Or verses. Or whatever the hell they are)?
Call me an uncivilized ape, but I just don’t get it.
And I have a question: do any of today’s poets actually earn a living writing poetry? It seems that many of the ones appearing in The Book Review have avoided that problem by dying (James Tate among them–he is the Late Tate), but the ones who are still with us aren’t exactly frequent visitors to the best seller lists, so how do they keep themselves in metaphorical meals?
I did some Googling and discovered that a lot of poets are actually college professors, which allows them to force students to buy other poets’ slim volumes. (For instance, the aforementioned Dome of the Hidden Pavilion–all 160 pages of it–sells for $16.99 in paperpack). Many poets subsist on awards and grants from various foundations, so they basically survive on charitable donations, kind of like the poet pictured at right, only possibly with better spelling.
The Wikipedia page for Eileen Myles, another poet mentioned fondly in The Book Review, lists 25 different awards and grants she’s received, including: New York State Creative Artist’s Public Services Grant; The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Performance/Inter-Arts Grant; Fellow, Djerassi Foundation; Rex Foundation Grant; Ludwig Vogelstein Award; The Fund for Poetry; Fellow, The Blue Mountain Arts Center, NY; Lambda Book Award; Bucknell Art Museum Residency; New York Foundation for the Arts; Muir College Enrichment Grant; Research and Travel Grant, University of California, San Diego; University of California Humanities Center Grant; The University of California’s Institute for Research in the Arts; Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital, Arts Writers Grant; Fellow, The MacDowell Colony; Shelley Award, Poetry Society of America; Virginia Center for Creative Arts; and the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing.
I looked up a couple of those at random: The Ludwig Vogelstein Award is only $1,000 to $3,000. The Shelley Award is between $6,000 and $9,000. Some of the awards are just medals or certificates, which you then have to frame at some expense. So I guess you really do need to win all these grants and awards to keep yourself in pizza while you’re applying for all these grants and awards. (A note to aspiring poets: evidently it helps if you’re gay, lesbian or transgender because there are more awards to apply for if you are.)
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with this little ditty:
If you have a talent for poesy
Your outlook in life is not rosy.
You’ll lose some, you’ll win some
But mostly your income
Will not buy you housing that’s cozy.
You see, being poor is a bummer.
You’d be better off being a plumber.
But you teach while you write.
And you write just at night.
And you might just try rhyming occasionally.
Call me an unaesthetic ass, but I’ll see you soon.