Saturday, February 24, 2007

The pin-striped poet

The trouble with coming into money is that even the most swashbuckling pirate will be tempted to cast off his (or her) eyepatch, buy a good suit, invest in some mutual funds, move to the suburbs and give up swashbuckling altogether. And while the pirate’s erstwhile mates will revile him (or her) for selling out, they will quieten down when they find their own treasure and move into the house next door.

All this has to do with the rags-to-riches tale of Poetry magazine, which is a venerable monthly publication based in Chicago, and an essay by a certain John Barr published in its pages.

The poet Harriet Monroe founded Poetry in 1912 to shake up American art—and she did, introducing American audiences to Modernism through the likes of H.D., Ezra Pound, and such poems as 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Monroe kept the magazine going for twenty years, through frequent bouts of financial illness, thanks to the kindness of small donors. She died, poetically enough, on the way to Machu Picchu in 1936, but the magazine doggedly survived, keeping its literary nose in the air under the supervision of a series of committed editors who published only what they considered to be the best contemporary verse.

And then Ruth Lilly, the reclusive heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, whose poems they’d politely rejected, in 2002 left Poetry magazine a bequest in the region of two hundred million dollars.

That is the dream of starving poets and their editors, no?

But it comes with its own pitfalls. They had to create a Poetry Foundation to properly spend the money (on, among other things, the magazine), and they put an ex-Wall Street executive named John Barr at its head. Now, Barr is a poet himself, but while he advocates a radical departure from the status quo much as Harriet Monroe did, he’s going in the opposite direction from Monroe—that is, back towards mainstream audiences. Monroe fled audiences that didn’t like challenging poetry; Barr is wooing them with supply tailored to audience demand.

He claims that contemporary poetry fails to connect with audiences because it is stagnating in the “rain shadow thrown by Modernism”. He’s out to seduce poetry out of its academic ivory tower and into the streets of the 21st century, with largesse; the Foundation has created several award categories designed to up the entertainment quotient: a humorous poetry award, a poetry for children award, a poetry criticism-that’s-learned-but-entertaining-to-read award. Barr’s thrust seems clear: if poetry is talking to itself, if mainstream readers or listeners don’t get it, it’s dead in the water.

It’s possible that Barr’s views are influenced not by the monetary rewards of giving the people what they want, but by the artistic rewards of creating a new art form that gives the people what they want. It’s possible that mainstream audiences really would read more poetry if it were more upbeat (Barr says that readers don’t like depressing stuff and poets should snap out of their bad mood). Either way, he’s busily championing a brave new portmanteau genre—an equivalent to ‘infotainment’. Poetainment, perhaps.

There is, predictably, fierce debate around his ideas, showcased on the Foundation’s website. It’s a debate you could apply to any kind of publication, including literature and journalism, and is well worth reading. For my own part, I can’t help wondering why, just when a magazine achieves the financial freedom to be as temperamental as it likes, and the freedom to publish authors whose excellence is beyond the average audience, it must decide to become all pin-striped and conventional. When Ruth Lilly said she hoped her money would bring poetry to the largest possible audience, surely she didn’t mean quite like this?


Anonymous said...

Or, to capture the nefariousness of it, "advertorial."

Anonymous said...

I know naught about Barr's, jails and taverns. However, isn't it possible that his goal is not to get the elite poets to produce cruft for the hoi polloi, but rather to make poets out of the pleb's? You know, something along the lines of: "If commoners the world over would only try their hand and at being poets, they'd see its virtues." Or do you think I'm bonkers?