The Worden Report

By
Mark Worden

To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession.
        —Robert Graves

One morning they were everywhere; the lawn,
the cafeteria, the swimming pool.
They chatted at the parties, went on and on.
They taught little children poetry-in-the-schools.

        —Jack Butler, Attack of the Zombi Poets

Toddlers are taking over.
        —John Berryman

In the case of many poets, the most important thing for them to do
. . . is to write as little as possible.

        — T.S. Eliot

“There are at least a thousand women poets in America, mostly in California and New England, who walk on beaches and write poems about spindrift, spindrift of the waves, spindrift of the heart. Beware of women poets who write about spindrift. There is a certain peril in this enterprise.”
        —Walker Percey, The Thanatos Syndrome 


“Another and unexpected development in modern poetry is that writing the damned stuff is now often more popular than reading it. Poetry has become the favorite nostrum or therapy in this narcissistic age. I have looked into the matter carefully and can report that there are now 2,578,000 more poets in the United States, Argentina, and the Western Isles of Scotland than there were thirty-five years ago.”
        —Alfred Kazin

Years ago I wrote serious poems and was as morbid as anybody. If I had continued, I might now be required in school, like Longfellow. Or I might be a British citizen, like T. S. Eliot. Or I might be dead, like all the poets who really amount to anything. But I switched over to light verse to avoid the competition. Everybody writes poetry. Relatively few, not more than ninety per cent of the population, write light verse. Besides, I was tired of elevating my thoughts and keeping my brow high.
        —Richard Armor

There’s no Biz like Poe’ Biz
        —Old poe’ biz saying

 

Perhaps there was a time when poets were honored by their contemporaries, a time when blind Homer lifted high and wrothfully shook his bald head and sang an exciting narrative about the shennanigans and goings-on of heroes and gods and goddesses and the mysteries and enchantments of the wine-dark sea.

That time no longer exists.

Perhaps it never did—perhaps there never was an Arcady where poets rhapsodized and stunned credulous men and women who listened, awestruck and slackjawed at the sheer ennobling energy of verse. Perhaps there never was a Golden Age when poets hobnobbed with the high and mighty, honored first among equals. After all, the history of poetry is filled with plaintive cries of neglect from toiling writers, malnourished, debilitated and diseased, forced by ill-fate, bad luck, and the eternal malevolence of editors to subsist on absinthe and moldy Wonderbread.

Once self-advertised as the antenna of the race, the modern poet is now widely regarded as a nonfunctional curiosity, a romantic malcontent—a marginal person, idealistic and daft.

Some poets believe there was a golden age when bards were honored. And, they charge, ours is a crass, insensitive age, where plastic, electronics, and bureaucracy reign supreme—an age where protein and poetry alike are fabricated from soybeans.

People no longer read poetry. Oh a few do, that’s true, but the public does not rush out and purchase the latest best-selling book of verse because there is no such thing. On the other hand, the public will pay honor and tribute to brainless blonde singers with big breasts, and to lanky galoots who scurry up and down a basketball court in pursuit of the Ultimate Score, the Transcendent Slam-dunk—where shards of shattered Fiberglas backboard sail off into the Cosmos like so much space graffiti.

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Poets are the antennae of the race.
Ezra Pound

 

There’s meager accord for poets, except by other poets—and by those unfortunate students of Literature who have determined to study poetry (a nondiscipline guaranteed to produce frustration and despair).

In the ‘60’s Marya Mannes once wrote a wise little poem about this problem:

There’s always a job for an engineer,
A bonanza for any technician:
We scour the country far and near
For the boys who are good at addition.
Money’s no object, we rush to bestow it
On science and people equipped to know it—
There’s always a job for an engineer
(But nobody wants a poet).

Ogden Nash put it a bit more succinctly:

Poets aren’t very useful
Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.

There are many theories for this woeful state of affairs. TV, of course, looms large as a convenient scapegoat. But the malaise runs deeper. More than one cynical critic has argued that poets have abdicated their calling by becoming solipsistic songsters, autistically writing only for themselves and for other poets of the same “school”.

Whatever the reason, the way to restore public value to poetry is very simple. Taking a broad historical perspective, one can see that contemporary poets occupy roughly the same position that physicians did in the first part of the 20th century. Quacks abounded. Regulation of physicians was virtually nonexistent. Diploma mills flourished. Almost anyone with a good elixir or panacea could become a physician.

The most effective medication on the market was an opium derivative, laudanum, to which both Coleridge and De Quincy (among numerous other luminaries and ordinary folk) were addicted. Medicine was in such low esteem that Oliver Wendall Holmes commented the whole Materia Medica of the 19th century could be thrown into the sea and it would be all the worse for the fishes and better for mankind.

Then in 1907 the Carnegy Foundation commissioned Abraham Flexner to complete a study of the field of medicine and make recommendations for improving the profession. Flexner issued his report in 1910. It stunned the medical profession. But as a result of the study, the fledgling American Medical Association banded together with determination and began a campaign to eliminate abuses.

Physicians fought hard to become exclusive. They used state legislatures to create professional monopolies embodying clear-cut professional standards. And then the AMA began to put the impostors and pretenders out of business by seeing to it that diploma mills and quack training institutes could not get accredited. Without accreditation, schools could not qualify as bona fide institutions of medical knowledge. And students could get no license to practice medicine. During this period, 83 diploma mills were forced to close down in response to legislative pressures and failure to gain accreditation.

When the practice of medicine became legally regulated, unlicensed pretenders could no longer legally treat patients. The glut of physicians vanished, and physicians-particularly white, upper-class males—gained enormous prestige. At the same time, the consolidation of a professional monopoly led to substantial increases in the annual earnings of physicians.

The Lesson For Poets

Poets need only to adopt a similar strategy to restore value to poetry. First of all there is a glut of poets. There can be no doubt about it. Scratch a secretary, a sophomore, or an airline pilot—and a poet bleeds.

The solutions? We need to create a poetry shortage. In order to be valued, poetry must be made scarce. Simple economics.

And that’s where poets have erred. In curiously mistaken efforts to enhance the lives of citizens, poets have gone around for the past 10-20 years teaching poetry in schools, in prisons, in women’s clubs and nunneries. Children have learned to write out their dreams, lies and wishes.

Hardened convicts stopped pumping iron and honing shanks and pigstickers out of purloined spoons, and started writing poetry. Instead of using their razor-edged knives to disembowel rowdy fellow inmates and impolite screws and other rude prison guards, they used their shivs to sharpen stubby little Ticonderoga #2 pencils . These Bros no longer tattooed themselves with grisly sentiments like “Life’s a Bitch and then Ya Die” and “Born to Die”.

No—the new tattoos of these sensitive bards of Sing Sing, Soledad and the “Q” (San Quentin) say: Born To Scan And Versify.

Housewives learned to do haiku needlepoint and to construct complex metaphors. Nuns became symbolists and surrealists. Imagery sprung up everywhere like weeds and locusts after a nuclear holocaust.

From a systems standpoint, the popularization of poetry has been a disaster. There are no shared values, except the putative value of  “self-expression”, often a quasi-therapeutic barbaric yowp signifying “I am!”, a self-advertisement in print.

Worse, there is no prerequisite training or knowledge deemed necessary for a poet. Anyone who can write a declarative sentence runs the risk of having it interpreted as poetry. Indeed, some verse is constructed of nothing but random associations. A single word can qualify as a “minimalist” poem. Visual word play and punnery have achieved the status of  “concrete poetry.” Before long someone will likely point out the crossword puzzle as an example of  “Participatory nontraditional intentionally meaningless verse.”

With poetic boundaries thus blurred, poetry has come to mean anything that can get published, typed or scrawled on a surface (flatness not required). Chopped prose.

Consistent with the breakdown of traditional values in society at large, there are no longer any standards for what is or is not poetry. (There is a dangerous corollary to this state of affairs—it is no longer possible for the average intelligent reader to be able to detect satire and parody. All poetry might be a put-on by unindicted co-conspirators.)

Link this with the frantic and insistent declarations that “all life is intrinsically poetic” and “anyone can write poetry”—the result should have been predictable. The poetry market became glutted. There are more poets than you can shake a stick at. Students even major in writing poetry.

One may readily detect a variant of Gresham’s Law at work here:
    A glut of debased verse drives out, and cheapens true poetry.

Public response has been, “Why should I buy a book of poetry when I can write better stuff myself—and besides, I can’t figure out what this character’s trying to say.”  [That may also be every non-book-buying poet's reactionsee Rexroth below.]

As I said, the solution is clear: Create a poetry shortage.

“It won’t be easy”, you say. I hear you. (I share your pain.)

Of course it won’t be easy. But as Spinoza quite rightly pointed out, All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare. 

The Strategy

First off, in order to create a poetry shortage, we need to limit the supply. This can be done in a number of ways. Past agricultural policies provide a good deal of very valuable guidance.

One primary objective should be to eliminate all extant poetry books. Burning is a preferred and time-honored method, a popular reaction to written material ever since the Library at Alexandria was torched. Usually bookburning takes place in response to political and religious frenzy, not as a sound economic and aesthetic policy.

But given the temper of our times it should not be hard to convince our leaders that book-burning not only represents sound economics—as well as sound aesthetics—but it also bolsters national security in ways that, unfortunately, must remain classified.

Plowing poetry under is another possibility that should not be discounted. This worked well with the hog glut during the Great Depression, and dairy farmers have spilled surplus milk to make a fiscal point. As we meander toward Century 21, we should indeed consider the fact that shredded books would make an excellent mulch (once the acid from the paper is leached out) to put on fallow land that has been taken out of production as part of federal subsidy programs.

More: Consider the possibility of a dual subsidy—one for the nonproductive land, and one for the mulched poetry— would be an additional tax incentive for those who chose to participate in such a program. A boon for poetic farmers, to be sure!

It has also been suggested that the government might pay poets not to write poetry, just as the feds pay farmers not to grow certain crops. An excellent idea at first sight, a sound suggestion, were it not for the rather alarming prospect of placing the entire citizenry on the dole.

Import quotas and taxation should be undertaken as a matter of course. It might also be important to consider warehousing books to be used to fuel power plants in times of oil and coal shortages.

Poets of the World, Organize!

Such policies can be only marginally successful, unless an additional step is taken. Poets must begin to take themselves seriously, as professionals. They must band together in strong, dedicated association to form a true profession. They must stop debasing poetry by treating verse as commonplace, ordinary and within the grasp of children and and chimpanzees.

This move would make poetry more exclusive, it is true. Even elitist. But that is a sacrifice professional poets must be prepared to make, because professionalization is the only sure way to elevate and ennoble the poetry profession—by infusing it with standards and a code of ethics, both of which are now sadly lacking.

In the past poets emphasized the uniqueness and importance of self-expression at a time when, for their own survival and the survival of their art, they should have reinforced community values. They should have worked hard at making their crafts and skills more exoteric and making their poetry accessible and indispensable to a broad audience. Instead, poets have remained aloof from the general public, claiming that poetry owes nothing to the audience. When poets abrogated the responsibility for entertainment, they left the field to monosyllabic lyricists and punk performers.

Just think what would happen if physicians went into the schools and taught self-care and self-responsibility. What would happen if they placed high priority on preventive medicine as the key to health—and then worked hard to help people make our communities safer and healthier places to live? What would happen if they held free seminars on holistic health care and taught children and housewives and convicts that there were few conditions which required a physician’s care or the administration of drugs?

Obviously, the medical profession as we know it would suffer immensely. Office calls would diminish, and—the bottom line—physicians would not make as much money.

A strong professional organization keeps this nightmare from happening. Such an organization restricts membership. It creates a sense of exclusiveness by requiring long and arduous preparation in professionally accredited and controlled schools. It lobbies successfully to get legislation passed that requires a professionally-controlled license to practice. And it sees that laws are enforced to punish pretenders, mavericks and quacks who seek to circumvent the professional monopoly.

Poetic License

A license to practice poetry?

Yes.

“Impossible!” you say. “You can’t keep people from writing poetry.”

True. But you can keep just anyone from calling themselves a Poet. You can keep the unqualified from publishing. With the proper legislation, pseudo-poets, poetasters, and other bardic pretenders could be arrested and fined for practicing poetry without a license.

Naturally, the professionalization of poets will take a good deal of time and effort. But it would be worth it to restore confidence in a once-honorable calling.

A Modest Proposal

Since poets have not seen fit to regulate themselves and continue to palm off on an unsuspecting and innocent public, jottings, fragments, punkish whimsy, pompous obfuscations, and shavings from a thoroughly whittled ego—it becomes necessary to impose some regulatory authority in order to restore a once-noble profession so that it may deal artfully with the truly important things of mankind and give once more a sense of order to chaotic existence.

In pursuit of these ends, I propose that Congress pass legislation to establish with the the Department of Labor, a committee to make recommendations to the states regarding uniform standards d practices for the accreditation and licensing of poets. [For God's sake, take all responsibility away from the National Endowment for the Arts, the haven of bardic poseurs who see that awards go to postmodern deconstructed cronies.]

No one under forty shall be granted a license, on the grounds that one must, as a duly licensed poet, experience much life before attempting to wring sense out of that life.

More: It is clearly unseemly for a noble profession with a Delphic and Hierophantic role to be dominated by youthful scribblers who have learned how to type and run a wordprocessor, and who have taken creative writing courses that encourage evulgation and other excesses as touchstones of creativity. (Naturally this will require some minor changes: for example, the Yale Younger Poets series should be changed to the Yale Middle-Aged Poet Series, or the Yale Geezer Poet Series.)

It may, of course, be possible for a younger poet to work as an apprentice or serve an internship with an older poet, perhaps helping the Maestro with metaphors, imagery, and fine-tuning sprung rhythm, much the way apprentices used to work in the workshops of Michelangelo, Ben Cellini, J. Pollock and A. Warhol.

As I noted earlier, poets are in roughly the same situation as physicians were in 1900. Just as the Flexner report did much to strengthen the medical profession, this report may stimulate those who really care about the future of poetry to take the steps necessary to insure its vigorous survival.

Only if this happens can poets change the dismal prospect so vividly elucidated by Marya Mannes:

If you know your way round an atomic pile
Or the brain of a giant computer;
If you’re clever at guiding a guided missile
And can tell if a neutron is neuter
— Forget all the rest, boys, skip it, stow it.
Iambic pentameter? Who wants to know it?
There’s always a job for an engineer
(But nobody wants a poet).

Steamboat Pilots: A Strategy for Poets?

For a long time wages had been two hundred and fifty doallars a month; but curiously enough, as steamboats multiplied and business increased, the wages began to fall, little by little. It was easy to discover the reason of this. Too many pilots were being “made” . . . .By and by it came to pass that nearly every pilot on the river had a steersman. When a steersman had made an amount of progress that was satisfactory to any two pilots in the trade, they could get a pilot’s license for him by signing an application directed to the United States Inspector. Nothing further was needed; usually no questions were asked, no proofs of capacity required.

Very well, this growing swarm of new pilots presently began to undermine the wages, in order to get berths. Too late—apparently—the knights of the tiller perceived their mistake. Plainly something had to be done, and quickly; but what was to be the needful thing? A close organization. Nothing else would answer.

—Mark Twain 

I've had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.      
—Kenneth Rexroth


Gresham’s law, the principle, involved in Sir Thomas Gresham’s letter to Q. Elizabeth in 1558, that ‘bad money drives out good’, i.e. that when debased money (sc. coins reduced in weight or fineness, or both) is current in the same country with coins of full legal weight and fineness, the latter will tend to be exported, leaving the inferior money as the only circulating medium.

The Worden Report is part of a series on poetry, Advice To Young Poets, which includes A Lucidist Manifesto, Aid to Dependent Poets, The Guinness Gambit, Tips on Marketing, Science & Poetry, The Type-A Poet (or Cacoethes Scribendi), Poetry & Health, etc.  Many of these pieces first appeared as guest editorials in The Small Press Review umpteen years ago.

 

1999, 2000 Mark Worden, Morris Street Writers Group