Here’s what the late English poet Philip Larkin had to say 30-odd years ago on the subject of money: Clearly money has something to do with life/ — In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire.
Earlier this month, a distinguished but obscure American poetry magazine called (appropriately enough) Poetry got an inkling of just how much life can be improved by an infusion of money. To the astonishment of the tiny, impoverished poetry community and the envy of everyone else, Poetry woke up on Nov. 15 to find itself the stunned recipient of a $100 million gift from the reclusive 87-year-old pharmaceutical heiress and philanthropist Ruth Lilly. The magazine has valiantly hung onto life since its founding in 1912, publishing nobodies like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney over the years. But now, as its current editor, Mr. Joseph Parisi, said on hearing the news, “Ruth Lilly has ensured our existence into perpetuity.”
In fact, Poetry has been given not just a new lease on life, but the potential for a whole new level or quality of life, sparking a global flurry of speculation. (One could almost hear the heads shaking and the eyebrows shooting up last week. A hundred million dollars! Ten billion yen! For poetry!) Before, Poetry barely eked out a living. It had four probably very thin staff members, who shared rent-free second-floor premises-and a single window — in a Chicago library and famously paid its contributors just $2 a line. Basho himself would have gotten a mere six bucks from Poetry for one of his immortal haiku. Now, the magazine will be in a position to enjoy life on a Gatsby-like scale. It can disport itself like one of Yeats’ imagined rich men, among flowering lawns, planted hills and overflowing fountains. The sky, or Mr. Parisi’s imagination, is the limit.
But there’s the rub. Really, what will they do with all that money? And who or what exactly was Ms. Lilly trying to help? There’s a difference, after all, between Poetry and poetry. Uppercase-p Poetry could conceivably find ways to spend $100 million, though like anyone newly come into a fortune (lottery winners, dying litigious ex-smokers) it might take staffers a while to get up to speed. Pondering the possibilities, the poet James Tate has helpfully suggested “new hairdos for everyone.” And of course there will be sparkling new facilities, a library, thicker paper and a shinier cover for the magazine, a few more dollars per line for contributors, more advertising, a makeover for the online version. There’s $1 million or so gone. That only leaves $99 million. Mention has been made of a poetry foundation, grants to schools, endowed chairs. That’s another $10 million, tops. They might be forced to consider a Poetry University, a People’s Poetry Park, a Poetry Olympics (guaranteed to eat up tens of millions), a poetry secretary in the Cabinet. It will be tough spending the whole cache, but presumably it can be done.
The problem is, this doesn’t begin to answer the question of what good such profligacy will do lowercase-p poetry. Are wealth and poetry even compatible? Ms. Lilly tried her hand at it, but evidently she was no Heaney: Poetry magazine politely but consistently rejected her submissions, a fact that makes her gift even more dazzling. There are a handful of poetic giants who were also wealthy: Pushkin, Byron, Shelley and, more recently, the excellent American poet James Merrill (of the Merrill Lynch Merrills) spring to mind. But on the whole, deprivation seems to have spurred rather than hindered poetic inspiration. One doesn’t have to be a Basho, equipped with nothing but a brush, an inkstone and a pair of grass sandals, but it might help to have to work for a living. Just think of Eliot the bank clerk, going home in the evenings to write “The Waste Land.” Besides, does the world need more poets? Is anyone arguing that there is a shortage of poetry? Good poetry, perhaps, but that’s not for want of people writing the stuff. A statistics-minded poetry lover pointed out last week that this is a field in which supply far outweighs demand. Poetry magazine, small as it is, gets 90,000 submissions a year, of which it prints just 300 to 500; circulation hovers around a mere 10,000 per issue. Clearly, it is readers, not writers, that are lacking.
Here, then, is where Ms. Lilly’s outlandish gift just might make sense. Poetry (the magazine) should direct its largess not to creative writing programs, of which there are more than enough already, but to creative reading programs. The goal should be to build a generation of readers who can tell what is genuinely effete and obscure — the insults usually applied to all poetry — from what is great and life-altering. Don’t ask us how this might be accomplished. But for $100 million, someone ought to be able to figure it out.
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