December 4, 2002 - Blank Check Verse
© 2002 by John Varley; all rights reserved
Did any of you hear the recent news story concerning POETRY magazine?
This is a small publication, circulation about 12,000. It has an annual budget of $50,000, and can survive at all only because it doesn't have to pay rent; their quarters are supplied gratis by an institutional angel.
They pay $2/line for poetry. At that rate, John Milton could probably have made a living. My horseback estimate is that "King Lear," possibly 7500 lines of iambic pentameter, could bring in $15,000. Not bad, but try to live a year on it. And ...
Eight dollars. Sorry, Will.
Then last week Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly drug empire, announced a bequest to the magazine. It seems she has been submitting poems to them for most of her life. The editors never bought so much as a $10 limerick. Never mind, she doesn't hold a grudge, she's going to give them some money.
One. Hundred. Million. Dollars.
I cannot possibly describe how much this story delights me.
DISCLAIMER: I can hear your objections, and they make perfect sense. Aren't people suffering from AIDS all over the world? Aren't many more people going hungry? Aren't almost a million children dying every year ... from MEASLES, for chrissake? Couldn't one hundred big ones (or One Unit, as Texas oilmen call it) do a lot toward alleviating some of this human misery? Couldn't it help solve about a zillion other pressing problems around the world?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I know. And those of you who have been on the sorry end of some of my previous rants might detect a trace of hypocrisy. It is true, I have howled in the past about some of the stupid things people have done with their money. Some of the worst examples recently have come from the realm of "animal rights": The dotty old spinster who leaves millions to her 65 consumptive pussycats; the actress (whose work I respect) who spent $15,000 to ship a lobster from California to Maine to release it into the sea; the well-meaning idiots who donated thousands to save a doomed lion in the Kabul Zoo while thousands of Afghan children starved; the entire "Free Willy" debacle. True, but I always tried to remember to add (as I gritted my teeth REAL hard) "Yes, but it is a free country, it is their money, and I support their right to spend it any way they choose."
$100,000,000 for a small poetry magazine? Obviously it doesn't make any sense ... and I still love it. I love it outrageously. I seem incapable of thinking logically about it, I don't WANT to make sense. And, yes, I don't even like most modern poetry, which I'm pretty sure is what this mag publishes. I have a strong predilection for meter and rhyme (though I don't demand either; I like e.e.cummings , and I think Ginsberg's "Howl" is the best single work in the last 50 years).
But ... what does it all MEAN? I've been thinking about that for days now.
Well, for one thing, POETRY magazine will be able to publish for the next 20,000 years, at the current rate of spending. The muses Calliope, Erato, and Euterpe are safe, no matter how debased the rest of our arts become. (And isn't it interesting that the ancients devoted three out of nine muses to poetry? That's almost the whole infield.)
Second ... money isn't everything, but I guarantee you, no starving artist ever ENJOYED starving. Not one. Some years ago I sold a short story to PLAYBOY. I got paid $5000. It was a high point of my career ...and I think that is just about what a good short story OUGHT to bring. In reality, $1000 is pretty good pay, and I sold my first for $200. The best poets work VERY hard to produce a tiny fraction of the words we prose writers churn out. Why shouldn't they get the thrill of opening an envelope and finding the bloated plutocrats at POETRY want to pay $7500 for their latest scrap of doggerel? (Possibly they should include a draught of smelling salts with the check.) So far as I can determine, since the death of Robert Frost nobody in America has made a living at poetry but Rod McKuen and the Hallmark Family. I even wrote a silly little story about that sad fact. It must change.
I think most people would agree that poetry has been in the doldrums for quite some time. The big contributions of the present generation are rap, the "poetry slam,"and, god help us, Xtreme Poetry. (Yes, there is such a thing. I'm not even sure what it means, but I think it involves snowboarding down the half-pipe or bungee- or base-jumping and trying to scream out the complete works of Vanilla Ice or Eminem before you get to the bottom.)
But that could all change. One thing that is clear is that Americans respect money. If suddenly there is money in poetry, Americans should flock to it. Before long we might see ...
Teenage girls papering their rooms with flashy posters of rock-star-handsome Russians named Yuri and Mikhail and Sasha and sensitive boys from Pittsburgh and Cleveland with scars on their wrists.
Poetry readings at half-time at college football games, the cheerleaders listening in starry-eyed silence, then leaping to their feet to shout:
Crazed fans shoving aside the likes of Britney Spears, Madonna, and Michael Jackson to get their books signed by the American Poet Laureate. (Did you know America has a poet laureate? Do you think one American in 10,000 can name him or her?) (Answer at the end.)
The American people no longer having to be bored to tears by GW Bush's pedestrian mangling of "nucular." Now we could all giggle as the man stumbles over words like anapestic, trochee, onomatopoeia.
Basement dives in New York and Chicago and San Francisco with lines around the block of people waiting to hear the words of some sincere black-clad lesbian with stringy hair.
Valley girls speaking in poetic contractions and archaisms: "So he goes 'Forsooth, hast e'er cast thine eye 'pon this fine bodkin?" and I'm all "As IF 'twere e'er thus! Get O'ER thyself!"
Bobblehead dolls of wild-eyed, angry, bushy-haired versifiers and weathered cowpoke elegists facing out the backs of pickups and SUVs at places like Daytona and Indianapolis. Truck drivers trading in their T-shirts and John Deere gimme caps for turtlenecks and berets bearing the images of their favorite Citizens Band sonneteers. "That's a big ten-four dactylic foot, ol' bardy. Now gitcher ears on and have a listen to this here idyll I just wrote. I call it 'Ode to a Kenworth.'"
Now I know there are perils involved. A very good friend of mine feels that great wealth is the path to perdition, that it guarantees disaster in your life. It is certainly true it can be dangerous, as a long and sorry list of lottery winners can attest. But there are plenty of lottery multimillionaires who are doing just fine, thank you, and tickled to death to have no more financial worries. It's all in how you manage it.
I'll await further developments with great interest.