From the desk of Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes

Filed under: Oxcart |

There is a view abroad that writing poetry is more a hobby than an occupation. Hobbies, as it happens, are lovely things we do in our spare time, but only in our spare time. Some quite established writers have described art and literature, especially, as a kind of luxury, not essential, and only to be enjoyed by those with the leisure time to do so. In this world, the notion that poetry, for instance, is defined by a quest to delight only adds to that perception.  

The problem may lie in the word delight. After all, given the solid status of the pornography industry (please note that no one does a double take at the use of the word “industry” in relation to pornography), it would seem that we are quite fine with viewing the trading of pleasure as valid and legitimate. Indeed, the entire entertainment industry is about delight, is it not? Yet for some reason the phrase “poetry industry” just does not sing out. Indeed it sounds somewhat ludicrous. Now why is this?  

We could blame the world for this state of affairs, but there is enough blame to go around, and writers themselves are probably as responsible for this situation as is anyone else. After all, don’t we relish the idea that poetry is a higher art, that it cannot get caught up in mammon? There is a certain righteous suffering that poets have come to enjoy when faced with the reality that poetry does not sell as well as fiction or nonfiction, or film or painting or graphic novels. We never come out and say it, but we certainly think it. We cherish the idea that at least with poetry we are dealing with Art with a capital “A.” We are dealing with an art form that cannot get mired in the mess of filthy lucre and business.

Editors, the story goes, never choose poems because they will sell well. They choose poems because of taste, because the work has literary value. I say “the story goes” because I know that in reality this is not quite true. The truth is that even the purest poetry press is interested in the label “bestseller” if this means five thousand books were sold. However, the reality is never the issue. The perception is, and it is a perception that makes it quite difficult sometimes to be a poet—a working poet.

I don’t think it is purely an oversensitive tendency in me that makes me pick up from festival organizers or reading series administrators a barely concealed incredulity and slight impatience when I tell them I have a fee that I would like for my readings. I remember once having to explain to my children why I was paid to do a reading. They knew that I read for an hour at the most, and that I might sign for another hour, so that kind of money did not make sense to them. It was poetry, after all. I explained, but I still have the sense that they are waiting for me to be caught and arrested for robbing people blind with my charming ways.  

Part of the problem is how art is valued, in general, and how poetry is valued specifically. And it gets worse. Spending money on poetry seems, to most people, absurd. And yet people are very happy spending money on a painting. But a painting is something made, something physical. And sometimes a painting can match the furniture in a room. It is hard to imagine a poem having this particular quality. Hard, but not impossible, and to get there, we have to start thinking about poetry in quite different ways.  

Poems, we must remember, are apprehended mentality. We think about them. And once we have we can reproduce them, remember them, and we don’t have to deal with their original physical incarnation. In this sense, the poem is an imagined commodity, whereas a good pop song, while replicable, is simply not the same without the artist performing it. Which, by the way, is why spoken word artists get little flack about being paid. The best spoken-word artists have managed to establish an inextricable connection between their voice and performance and the poem. So if I decide to start performing the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, quite likely, people will mostly be disappointed in my performance. Johnson is not only a fine poet, he also is a great performer, a distinctive performer who has managed to be first a reggae artist and only secondly, at least in the eyes of the paying public, a poet.

My view is that poetry should be valued, and if a nation can afford it, it should value poetry in tangible ways. Many others have laid out all the reasons that poetry should be valued. But the one I would point to happens to be one of the more difficult ones—the one that speaks to the importance of a collective imagination, the value of celebrating language used to articulate the complexity of human experience and the nature of our time.  

To value this quality, we must believe that as human beings our distinctive feature of the imagination, and the capacity to not simply consider but engage time even as we construct our lives and wrestle with our fears—future and past—is something we should admit to and somehow feed in rich and meaningful ways. Poetry engages this capacity. And in as much as there is value in our capacity to build bridges, or computers, or to fight wars, there is also the commerce of the human imagination that has to somehow be addressed by those who study the way that language is used to engage the imagination.  

This is a long way of saying that when I was a visiting writer at the Vermont Art Studio a month ago, a place where writers and artists are granted a residency for a month at a time to work on their art, those in attendance were not, in some way, cheating life, getting by, or being done a favor by having this time to devote themselves entirely to the pursuit of art.  

Some of the folks there spoke as if they were getting away with something they did not deserve. Some talked as if they felt a little guilty about this indulgence. Indeed, one artist felt her lack of productivity was caused by the indulgence of having so much time. She, too, was wrestling with the guilt of having this time to work.  

She cannot be blamed entirely for this—after all, she does live in a world that makes it seem indulgent to pursue something like art. I strongly believe that the pursuit of creating great art is not and should not be seen as an indulgence, but should be seen as a necessity, as something that our society needs. Poets should have the space to think about poems and to write poems. I realize that some poets would disagree with me. They might fear that this kind of advocacy may force them to have to start thinking about their responsibility to society—an idea that many writers and artists resist.  

I admit that I come out of a tradition and a culture in which the reciprocal dynamic between artist and society is valued and regarded as important. The nature of this relationship is never uncomplicated and never one without tension and some disquiet. However, this same position allows for artists like the ones I speak of in the previous paragraph—those deeply skeptical about any responsibility to society. Such artists are important and whether they intend to or not, they are serving the collective imagination of their society, and by their devotion to art, they are, in fact, extending our understanding of our world in important and necessary ways.