My Personal Crisis with Poetry: Patronage and Payment.

There is something wrong with how we consume poetry.

 

Poetry is, to me, a very strange form of creative writing. The rest of the world seems to agree, given the treatment it gets. For one thing, unlike most other forms of writing, there seems to be a collective agreement that there’s no money in poetry when it comes to publication, unless you’re Maya Angelou (or as a more topical, though less impactful example: Rupi Kaur).

As I understand, it is for that reason that contests, such as the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships exist. Because Poetry has to be funded, encouraged to flourish somehow. And it’s evidently in lump sums that come through victories in the medium at key points in one’s career. The aforementioned fellowship aims at young poets and requests that a majority of the submitted works are those that have yet to be published. Other contests, like that of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize are for poets late into their career. Then there are those that fall in the middle or at the beginning, such as the James Laughlin Award and Walt Whitman Award respectively. Of course, some contests reward the poet with publication, but it is the idea of these prizes, tied tightly to career mileposts, like first publications, second publications, mid-career poet, poet who has had a lifetime of achievement, etc, that seem to motivate the art, knowing that something about the consumption or presentation of poems makes it a harder sell than a book.

That difficulty comes from value expectations.

Value expectations are everywhere. Imagine having to pay to consume a meme. Imagine the outrage people have when something that used to be free starts costing money, even though it had always cost money to produce. Poetry is stuck in a similar space. Sharing a poem is much much easier than sharing a book. Consuming a poem is easier than consuming a book. I’m sure you’ve seen Wordsworth poems image posts of his poems against a field of grass or daffodils or some sort of stationery with a wispy cursive font. I’m sure many people have, in fact, only seen the works of Bukowski or Rupi Kaur in a quickly consumable format. Often, not even shared as copy-pasted text, but as an image of text — likely because it is easier, being one click, no highlighting, and you can send it, and that sharing an image often implies lack of authorship on the part of the sharer. They may be claiming to have discovered it, but the majority of content created by the average internet user is likely text and not images, provided you discount images of themselves or friends. (Think: how many of your friends on facebook make their own meme content compared to those who share it? How often might you assume a block of text copy pasted at you was authored by your friend, as compared to an image they sent?)

Poetry by virtue of the details of its consumption is given an assumed lower value. First of all, many of the best poems in the world hardly reach 200 words (for some, not even so many syllables). Second, it is often cast as having a barrier to entry, by way of its metaphors, references, strange layouts, and “depth” or hidden and implied meanings. In a world where length of content often matters more than depth, (just look at how video games market themselves with having “over 100 hours of side content!”) it is not surprising that poetry, with its short length and sometimes high gate of entry would start to fall to the wayside.

I am, however, not here to tell you that it has a value. Certain foundations seem to believe that it still does. Scholars still look to the poems of old, even as they validate new poets every year. Poets still exist and create content (though they tend to have a day job). I cannot tell you that it has a value — all I can do is hope to convince you through my work.

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