When James Merrill died ten years ago, the New York Times Magazine used the occasion to publish an obituary—not of the elegant poet himself but of the entire “poetry establishment.” Without Merrill’s inherited millions trickling down to fellow poets, the magazine predicted, the clubby uptown world of old-style patronage would soon unravel. Donor readings at J.P. Morgan’s former home, easy access to the pages of The New Yorker, cushy tenured chairs, guaranteed publication by FSG and Knopf, and a monopoly on prestige- and cash-conferring prizes—all of it would disappear in short order. Meanwhile, barbarians were at the gate—L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, HipHop poets, Neo-Formalists, Surrealists, Nuyorican slam poets—and it wasn’t another exquisitely crafted, emotionally muted poem that they were clamoring for.
One can forgive the Times Magazine for failing to notice that a sort of reactionary party was forming as well, one with its own axe to grind for the poetry “establishment.” Fronted by a trio of Midwestern white guys with business backgrounds, this nascent movement envisioned a revolution in American poetry, a renaissance of good old-fashioned verse about authentic American life for the amusement and improvement of regular folks. Metrical, memorizable, mom-and-pop approved, the poetry these men dreamt of would make easy money out of easy meaning, enabling poets to earn their keep on the free market rather than depend upon millionaires’ sons or MFA programs to subsidize them. According to them, once poetry was fully deregulated, once its creative and entrepreneurial forces were freed from the fetters of state patronage and academia alike, good and true voices would reclaim the audience that obscurantist snobs had forfeited sometime circa 1910.
The tiny band of businessmen bards gained little ground in the waning Clinton years. But with the ascension of George W. Bush, things started breaking their way. Led by men like Dana Gioia, John Barr, and Ted Kooser, the movement has forced its distinctive blend of economic elitism and cultural populism onto the poetic map. Making the entire, unlikely effort possible was an act of dumbfounding eccentricity: a curiously timed gift to Chicago’s Poetry magazine from a pharmaceutical heir who, before she slipped into four decades of crippling depression, had submitted a pseudonymous item or two to the review, which politely rejected them.
The next great talent in American poetry would be lucky not to be recognized by Barr and his friends at the NEA.
When Ruth Lilly dropped a $100 million gift on Poetry in the late fall of 2002, what astonished people most was the sheer size of the sum. Though she bestowed even more money on an organization called Americans for the Arts, the idea that a quaintly penurious outfit like Poetry should come into such unexpected riches appealed to the journalistic imagination. The charming, Dickensian narrative involved shabby, sunless quarters in a library basement inhabited by a chain-smoking, lunch-skipping editor who had for decades heroically sacrificed all to the culling—from ninety thousand submissions a year—of the few poems good enough to earn the magazine’s $2 a line and be brought before the eyes of its subscribers. Now, through her mysterious beneficence, Lilly had lifted Poetry from this place of squalor and cultural obsolescence. From a grandparent warehoused in a seedy retirement home, the magazine had been transformed into the newest and richest kid on the block, its financial capital now far exceeding the dwindling symbolic capital it had been husbanding since the days of first-wave modernism.
Poetry may be “news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound, an early contributor to Poetry, once asserted, but it has a hell of a time cracking into an actual news cycle. That the story of the Lilly bequest had such tremendous newsworthiness was no doubt due to the way it fused two terms held to be incompatible since at least the Romantic period: poetry and money. The novelty of the conjunction, and the eccentric manner in which it came about—the frail and reclusive Lilly, most of whose life has been spent under psychiatric care, had her lawyer handle everything, reminding some of the old television series The Millionaire—made for good, or rather feel-good, copy.
The good feelings back in November 2002 might have been harder to sustain if any of the journalists covering the bequest had bothered to connect it to another bit of news concerning Eli Lilly & Company. The corporation, a longstanding supporter of Republican politicians and an indirect backer, through the Lilly Endowment, of the usual conservative causes, came into a bit of luck of its own. The Republicans had just prevailed in the midterm elections, lending legitimacy to George W. Bush’s presidency and ratifying his post-9/11 makeover into a wartime commander-in-chief. Shortly after the results were in, four paragraphs were appended—no one could say by whom—to the 475-page Homeland Security bill then under consideration in Congress, paragraphs exempting the Lilly Company from lawsuits (The American Prospect foresaw a “torrent” of them) related to the manufacture of thimerosal, a preservative added to vaccines that was then suspected of being a possible cause of autism.
How bulletproofing a Big Pharma concern made the homeland safer, again, no one could say. But the action could not have come at a better time for Lilly. Having lost its bid to extend the patent on Prozac, the company had been stumbling badly that year. Faced with competition from generic alternatives for the first time since its introduction to the U.S. market, Prozac sales had fallen off by 70 percent. With no blockbusters anywhere near introduction, and with the threat of litigation over thimerosal growing more serious, Lilly’s share price had taken an ominous downturn.
In fact, between January 2002, when Ruth Lilly revised her estate plan and funded the bequest to Poetry, and December 2002, weeks after the bequest was publicly announced, the 3.8 million shares of Lilly stock that formed the basis for the gift had declined in value by 36 percent. Worse still, National City Bank of Indiana, which handled the trusts that funded the bequest, botched the sell-off of the stock so badly that Americans for the Arts and Poetry sued for negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.
So at least two important facts never made it into the heartwarming story of Ruth Lilly’s handout to Poetry magazine. The bequest was timed to coincide with a scandalous political payoff that had been snuck into the Homeland Security bill and hurriedly signed into law by Bush. Second, by the time it was made public, the bequest itself was already the object of bitter litigation by its beneficiaries.
Poets for Bush
Several other developments around that time rhymed with the Poetry bequest. In September 2002, the poet Ed Hirsch was picked to preside over the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, effectively putting him in charge of about $7 million in grant monies per year. The following month, the neo-formalist businessman poet Dana Gioia, who takes credit for revitalizing the sales of Jell-O and Kool-Aid during a stint in the marketing department at General Foods, was named to head the National Endowment for the Arts, which distributes about $100 million in grants to organizations, state agencies, and a dwindling number of individual artists each year.
Each man interpreted his ascension as a sign that reason was slowly being restored to a poetry world that had addled its collective brain in academic workshops, bogged itself down with postmodern claptrap, and attended for far too long to degrees and CV-lines in default of its duty to be “accessible.” Hirsch, an aesthetically conservative poetry insider who left the University of Houston to take up the Guggenheim post, lamented his genre’s self-inflicted wounds. “Poetry hasn’t been well served by poets who fled to the margins,” he told the New York Times, exhibiting a handy knack for construing effects (poetry’s marginal status in the capitalist infotainment order) as causes (it’s poets who fled to the margins).
Gioia’s fame stems more from an attack he launched on the inbred subculture of academic poetry in 1991 than from any serious interest in his own verse, and he has continued to trumpet accessibility ever since. “I still write more for my old fellow workers [at General Foods], who will never read my poems, than for the literati,” he has said. He is also—as the magazine Workforce Management put it—a welcome “corrective contrast to the tired stereotype of an eccentric or antiestablishment artist.”
According to a squib in Variety, “Some Washington insiders speculated that first lady Laura Bush, an avid supporter of the arts and letters, had a hand in tapping Gioia” for the NEA chairmanship. If that was the case, Gioia kept mum about it in public—less out of modesty, one suspects, than because his fellow poets were in full throat opposing the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq. Indeed, the Senate confirmed Gioia on January 29, 2003, just two weeks before a gala dinner at which the first lady had hoped to demonstrate her admiration for the rhyming arts in the company of culture-war hawk Lynne Cheney and a group of poets that included Sam Hamill. When the militant pacifist (and ex-Marine) Hamill not only declined to attend but decided to counter-program a “day of poetry against the war” for February 12, the East Wing event—which may have been intended as a coming-out party for Gioia—was summarily scrapped.
As Hamill gathered thousands of antiwar poems for presentation to Congress (some thirteen thousand had come in by March 1), Gioia spent the first months at the NEA dodging questions about the poetry community’s lack of support for his patron’s imperial adventure. Even the politically quiescent Billy Collins, then serving as poet laureate, publicly expressed distaste for the gathering storm of “shock and awe.” But Gioia stubbornly maintained his silence. When pressed, he responded with a defensive generalization, arguing that if poetry is considered “only as conceptual, ideological speech, it diminishes its role as art.” It was amusing, in a way, to see the bright-eyed champion of clarity, accessibility, and familiar forms being driven into the arms of aesthetic indeterminacy by a spontaneous and overwhelming outbreak of plain-speaking dissent.
The tiny but powerfully placed band of businessmen poets continued to grow when, in February 2004, the organization established to administer Poetry magazine’s Prozac millions named an investment banker, John Barr, to be its new president. (Joseph Parisi, the longtime editor of the magazine, had been set to lead the foundation, but he returned from a vacation in the summer of 2003 apparently having thought better of it.) Like Gioia—described by Barr as a “kindred spirit” with whom he bonded “because we could both read balance sheets and had this love for poetry”—Barr leans heavily on his dual background when speaking to reporters, whose fawning stories on him always seem to run under half-clever headlines like “A Passion for Poetry, and Profits” or “Invested in Poetic Currency.” Consider the following, which appeared in the respectable pages of the Christian Science Monitor:
When John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, enters a room, the image that comes to mind is “live wire.” Make that “power line,” since Barr, formerly an investment banker known for structuring complex utility deals, seems to have great energy beneath a cool exterior. His quick smile and striking white hair add to the impression that he doesn’t just occupy a room, he commands it.
At least all those electricity metaphors underscore the fact, usually overlooked by reporters at cultural desks, that Barr made his fortune in the business sector whose leading light was Enron. Indeed, Barr was one of the founders of Enron’s chief competitor, Dynegy, which followed the leader into complex but questionable utility deals and then into a near-catastrophic tailspin, with its share price falling 95 percent in 2002. Barr does not himself appear to have participated in any Enron-style looting of consumers, investors, and municipalities. But his ability to surf the waves of energy deregulation, first at Morgan Stanley, then in his “boutique” mergers-and-acquisitions firm Barr Devlin, does testify to an apparent love for the game of privatizing public resources, minimizing citizen oversight of decisions that affect them, and exporting the laissez-faire model abroad. “I think poets should be imperialists,” Barr once told an interviewer. “I think they should be importers; I think they should be exploiters of external experience, without apology. I don’t see that kind of thinking very often in the poetry world.”[*]
Are the skills that allow one to extract profits from a newly deregulated field also useful in the world of poetry? Does the argot of mergers and acquisitions have any purchase in the thickly populated and relatively decentralized territory of twenty-first century verse? It takes but a small feat of metaphorical imagination to get to yes. And it is here that the MBA poets, like Gioia and Barr, have shown some flashes of brilliance largely absent from their poems. For when they cast a cold eye over the poetry industry, over the toilers who staff the increasingly routinized creative-writing programs, churning out two or three thousand MFAs in poetry per annum, they see a market in need of shaking up.
In “Can Poetry Matter?” the 1991 blueprint for deregulating poetry that he took with him to the NEA, Gioia castigates the artificially propped-up institutional market for poems: “Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers.” And just as David Horowitz enlists civil rights language in his struggle to end college campus discrimination against God-fearing white kids, Gioia swipes a page from the opposition by converting anti-academicism—usually the weapon of bohemians, avant-gardists, and other writers from the social margins—to his own purposes. He even cites Karl Marx as his authority for the following nugget of class-conscious analysis: “In poetry’s case … socioeconomic changes have led to a divided literary culture: the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.”
The assertion that poetry has somehow shrunk to become the exclusive property of latté-besotted snobs is a fabrication so flimsy as to border on hallucination.
Over at the Poetry Foundation, Barr parrots Gioia’s critique of academia, backing it up with some hands-on experience that may prove even more important than his familiarity with deregulation: Back in 1994, when serving as chairman of Bennington College’s board of trustees, Barr drove through a plan to eliminate tenure at that institution and to fire two dozen full-time faculty members who had previously enjoyed its protection. The censure his actions brought upon the college from the American Association of University Professors seems neither to bother Barr nor to be remembered by those who profile him in the media. But as an example of his contempt for the professoriat, and as a taste of the designs he may have on academia, where a modicum of autonomy from market forces can still be found, the Bennington purge speaks volumes.
The deregulation of Bennington was carried out under the guise of fiscal necessity, but to lend it legitimacy a pedagogical “philosophy” was concocted as well. So while they crushed faculty governance structures, Barr and Co. also floated the slogan that instructors should henceforth “practice what they teach,” meaning that non-creative types (art historians, for instance, as opposed to studio artists, or literary scholars who refrain from writing novels) were unproductive parasites who deserved their pink slips. A similar view informs Barr’s take on the poetry world. In interviews, he speaks eagerly of the “hot-house” feel to much contemporary poetry, and of his desire to toss a brick through the glass. “There is great poetry being written in the academy,” he told Kevin Larimer of Poets & Writers, “but we might get a broader experience base in poetry if people did things other than write and teach.” Need a concrete example? Here is Barr’s favorite: “Ernest Hemingway. In 1933 he took his first safari . . . he shot lions and went home and wrote about it . . . . I don’t know a lot of poets who do that.”
Poetics of the Backlash
The common project shared by Gioia at the NEA, Barr at the Poetry Foundation, and their partner in several recent projects, Ted Kooser, a former Nebraska insurance underwriter who became U.S. poet laureate in 2004, can be summarized rather simply: to deny, disrupt, and discredit existing networks of poetry production, which are seen as pathetically small, disgustingly smug, and—like subsidized farming—crypto-socialist, and to restore to his rightful place of preeminence the reader, referred to alternately as “common” or “general,” who validates good poetry by actually paying for it on the open market and who never did have much use for the linguistic shenanigans of modernism and its successors. As Barr puts it, “By growing the universe of readers who will buy books of poetry, the Foundation hopes to bring economic as well as artistic life to the business of writing poetry.”
The assertion upon which the whole program rests—namely that poetry has somehow shrunk to become the exclusive property of the same latté-besotted, wind-surfing, advanced- degree-holding snobs who voted for Kerry—is a fabrication so flimsy as to border on hallucination. But the hallucination is expressive. What it says is that Gioia, Barr, and Kooser, not to mention the folks at the Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion who celebrate the poetic regime change, all very much wish that the large and diverse audience for poetry that manifestly does exist today would disappear, so that it could be replaced with a more docile and homogeneous one of their own choosing.
Just imagine. Gone would be the many poets and readers of poetry who relished the explosive growth and democratization of the art in the sixties, a decade that rekindled the former alliance between poetry and social progress (after it had been smothered by, of all people, academics of the Cold War persuasion). Forgotten would be the mimeograph magazines, and the xerox ones and the web-based ones that followed, which irrevocably decentralized the world of poetry by taking the power of publication out of the hands of a few authoritative editors and presses and giving it directly to poets themselves, who often choose gift economies over profit-driven ones. All traces of the social movements that made such vigorous use of poetry to articulate their aspirations and their anger would be erased: gone the feminists, gone the gay writers and readers, gone the advocates of civil rights and multiculturalism. Gone, finally, and most satisfyingly, the cities—New York and Brooklyn, San Francisco and Berkeley, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Detroit—unpredictable points of contact and collision that inspire vernacular poetries, cosmopolitan avant-garde poetries, and everything in between.
And what is the market force previously and unjustly neglected by the nation’s literati, that vast untapped dynamo of poetic renewal envisioned by verse’s self-appointed deregulators? Is it the barn and tractor set, as Kooser sometimes suggests? The recently bereaved or betrothed, desperate for a serviceable sentiment? The grandchildren of Nixon’s silent majority, whose cravings for rhymed quatrains go unfulfilled? John Barr worries that “commuters, travelers in hotel rooms who would love to see an anthology at night, airplane travelers,” are not getting their daily verse. The deepest desire of our businessmen poets, it seems, is for a twenty-first century poetry reader who has been resurrected directly from the nineteenth, a Rip van Winkle whose eyes open on the same page of Longfellow he’d been reading before dozing off, a sleeping beauty unacquainted with the temptations of Gertrude Stein.
And Deliver Us from Modernism
After a year of quiet deliberation and strategic planning, the Poetry Foundation began in the spring of 2005 to publicize the uses to which it will put Ruth Lilly’s millions. Naturally, there will be a website. And henceforth poets will receive $6 a line rather than $2 for publishing in the redesigned pages of Poetry. Some new prizes have been concocted: one for a neglected master, one for humor, one for a slow starter who publishes his or her first volume after the age of fifty. Of course there will also be a poll—perhaps, more accurately, a market survey—to determine American attitudes toward poetry. (Barr predicted to the New York Times that it would be “a major reality check” that should “tell us exactly what’s going on out there.”)
Two collaborative projects are also underway, one with Poet Laureate Kooser, the other with “kindred spirit” Dana Gioia. Both projects express a yearning for the premodernist nineteenth century, when verse flourished in newspapers—as Kooser will strive to make it do again—and schoolchildren were force-fed poems for memorization and recitation—as Gioia wishes them again to do in national “recitation bees” judged on the four criteria of accuracy, eye contact, volume, and understanding of the poem.
Despite the sporadic, halfhearted attempts he makes to seem open to poetry’s “exploratory” or experimental side, it is clear that what Barr loves best are poems he can “parse,” poems that, as he puts it, “go from A to B to C” and continue “a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years” that he calls “the poetry of the rational or the didactic.” So it is no surprise that these are just the kinds of poems that Kooser has good-naturedly offered to deliver in free weekly installments to editors of some forty thousand mid-sized and rural newspapers across the country, with a dedicated website built and operated by the Poetry Foundation for further dissemination of Kooser’s “product.”
In introducing his newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry,” Kooser likes to emphasize the home states of the versifiers he has chosen: There are South Dakota poets and Kentucky poets and Minnesota poets and Nebraska poets and Ohio poets and Washington state poets and Illinois poets and Texas poets. And he tries to connect with his readership through earnest opening gambits like: “Perhaps your family passes on the names of loved ones to subsequent generations.” He keeps the poems ultra brief and relentlessly “accessible,” favoring inconspicuous free-verse narratives with one or two rhymed things thrown in for fun. It is never hard to “parse” them, true, but it is hard to imagine getting interested in or excited by them.
Here’s how a glum four months of Kooser’s column parses out: A speaker observes an alienated couple as they dourly squirt Windex at each other’s faces from opposite sides of a pane they’re cleaning. A speaker assists minimally in the burial of an acquaintance. A speaker recalls buying red shoes for a woman who hasn’t been seen since. A speaker feels remorse for having a crippled piglet put down. A speaker observes a neighbor hauling bales to his barn as autumn descends. A speaker employs end rhyme to convince himself to give up booze. Biting into a potato, a speaker recalls his impoverished childhood. A speaker is reminded by moonflowers of her recently deceased mother. A speaker contemplates an elderly veteran in a parade. A speaker celebrates the arrival of spring. A speaker looks on as a male peacock’s ostentatious display fails to interest a female intent on food. A speaker named after his grandfather feels his forebear’s presence while filling out forms and at supper. A tamed speaker recalls his youthful virility on the eve of his fortieth birthday. A speaker likens an elderly neighbor in a housecoat to a sunset. A speaker contemplates the life of an obsessive collector of Noah’s Ark images and trinkets. A speaker likens love to salt.
Barr likes to say that “poetry’s golden age will come when it is in front of a general audience.” But no Midas could transform this meager stuff into good poetry. This is not because the poems Kooser selects are populist in intention. It is because they are almost entirely devoid of verbal wit, cognitive surprise, or strong passions. And if the businessmen poets think they will widen the market share for their products, perhaps it is time to reconsider just how much worldly savoir-faire they in fact possess: Such poems barely compete for attention with a paleolithic comic strip like “Beetle Bailey,” let alone Def Poetry Jam or the latest Clear Channel megahit. As for literary competence, Barr admits: “I think that if I had been a subscriber to Poetry magazine in 1912, when it was founded, and Harriet Monroe picked poems by the unknown poets, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others, I would not have understood them, and I wouldn’t have known that they were to become known, a century later, as the great modern poets. I am a little bit humble about recognizing the next great talent when it shows up.”
The next great talent in American poetry would be lucky not to be recognized by Barr and his friends at the NEA and Library of Congress, for there’s no telling whether he or she would survive the attack this novum-phobic crew would no doubt launch in the name of rational didacticism and the beleaguered general reader. With hundreds of millions of private and federal dollars now at their disposal, the businessmen poets are positioned to administer serious damage to one of the liveliest, most democratic, and brilliantly articulate art forms in America. But it is doubtful that their curious amalgam of economic elitism, drowsy formalism, and right-wing populism will prove a match for the Whitmanesque tradition of radical democracy, fearless formal investigation, and do-it-yourself ingenuity that has produced most of the country’s greatest poetry. While the Poetry Foundation prescribes its Prozac poems to reluctant readers, the wide-awake poetry of the present can be expected to be everywhere otherwise occupied.
[*] To judge from his campaign donations, Barr’s politics are typical of the Republican-dominated oil and gas industry, where more than three-quarters of contributions flow to the GOP. Alternately giving as his occupation “investor,” “retired,” “self-employed,” and “poet,” Barr opened his checkbook almost exclusively to Republican candidates between 1994 and 2004 (the one exception being a Republican who turned independent to run against another Republican).