Confession Tuesday – the politics of the economics of poetry edition

I confess that I am weary of discussions about the economics of poetry. Today there was a feature in the New York Magazine entitled “The Livelihoods of the Poets” by Rachel Friedman. Current statistics regarding MFA degree holders resided beneath a heading of “The Wasteland”; bemoaning, I’m sure, the fact that there are far more people who hold MFA degrees than places for them on the teaching staff of MFA programs. (Because, you know, we all got our degrees so that we could teach, not so we could write.) Also noted in the feature was the relative pittance that poets receive for their printed work, both in book form and per poem. (Because, you know, we only want to see our work in print so that we can reap huge sums of money.)

What really irks me about articles such as Friedman’s is the premise that the prime motivator in our society should be how much money can be gained from any enterprise. I’ve had students who wanted to be professional basketball stars because of the money they’d earn, not for the love of the game. Or lawyers, “because they drive sick cars,” not for any desire to help people. I fear for our culture, if personal wealth is the highest good, not helping others or creating something of lasting beauty. For poetry will never be a “big money” proposition, and those who pursue will never recoup the number of hours they put into it. Perhaps, though, a word or two will fall into the ears of a person who needs it, or a woman reading by a woodstove will be moved almost to tears by the sound of the language.

I confess that I long to live in a world where the worth of an endeavor has to do with the culmination of effort and skill, of practice and imagination, and a nod towards what might foster humanity rather than fiscal assets. The politics of our culture’s emphasis on money is that those who chose to pursue poetry, or nursing, or social work, or a host of underpaid professions will never get the respect accorded a professional football star. And when grandpa asks Little Johnny what he will grow up to be, it is a rare child indeed who will receive affirmation for choosing a profession for love rather than cash. Such a shame, because in the end, money will not make you happy, but a job artfully and well-done will.

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