Rather than use its $175 million to help out actually existing poets directly, the Poetry Foundation is instead going to engage in some social work: ". . .the stewards of that large sum believe they can use it to bring poetry 'back into the mainstream of American culture'". This involves "a series of programs designed to jumpstart interest in poetry among nonspecialist readers."
Bizarrely, the goal of these "programs" is intended to build "a readership for poetry large enough to make it possible for more poets to succeed in a commercial marketplace rather than rely on academia to make a living." Why such a roundabout way of giving poets some assistance, unless the real goal is to further debase American poetry by forcing it to be "commerical"? (''More poems should rhyme," says Poetry editor Christian Wiman. "More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways. More poems should do the things that people like poems to do.") Unless the real recipient of the foundation's beneficence is capitalism itself, which will now teach even poets a good lesson in the imperatives of market discipline?
We are told that "the foundation's strategy emphasizes rebuilding a general, nonspecialist, and, crucially, nonacademic audience for poetry." The assumption everyone involved in this project seems to share is that at one time poetry did have a "broader readership" that contemporary poets for some reason renounced and that the self-appointed saviors of the Poetry Foundation will now reclaim. But when was this "golden age" that Wiman in particular speaks of? Certainly not in my lifetime. The greatest American poets of the twentieth century are, arguably, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, both of whom published in Poetry. How much influence did they have on "the mainstream of American culture"? They profoundly influenced those who take literature seriously, but what impact did their work have on "general, nonspecialist" readers? Even now, what would such readers make of "The Idea of Order at Key West" or "Four Quartets"? They would be as incomprehensible to them as the most elusive lines of John Ashbery or the most resolutely nonreferential L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems.
What is a "specialist" reader? Someone who reads poetry? What's a "nonspecialist" reader? Someone who can take it or leave it? Why would poets want to appeal to such a reader?
James Longenbach has it right. People like Christian Wiman and John Barr and Dana Gioia are invested in the notion that poetry is "good for us." It's this "good" they're interested in spreading around along with their money, not poetry itself. Longenbach says further: ''Poets can do without much money. . .and that's a good thing. . . . Poets have much more aesthetic freedom precisely because nobody cares how or what they write. That freedom is priceless." I agree. And American fiction might benefit if more fiction writers took this idea seriously as well.