Poetry Is Not a Racket

War is a racket. … Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
–Major General Smedley Butler,
War Is a Racket, 1935

It’s no revelation to say that we’re a culture obsessed with money.  That we can’t do anything unless someone makes a profit.  Money corrupts everything it shouldn’t:  healthcare, politics, adoptions, war…  Sometimes I’m surprised there’s no one outside picketing the Postal Service.  (DHL and FedEx do it better, right?  So what if it costs $8 to send a postcard…)

But you can’t make money writing poetry.  And I’m thankful for it.  Our poverty keeps us pure.

Of course, plenty of people make money in poetry, greasing the gears of the machine so we can keep cranking out poets and books and magazines.  Teachers get paid to teach.  I get paid to run a magazine, which contrary to popular belief, consists mostly of correspondence, database maintenance, advertising, accounting, and web and graphic design.  Every once in a while I have to write the introduction to a tribute section, or a little blurb about our contest winner — and I hate that.  It might take an hour or two, so for two hours out of fifty a week, everyone once in a while, I get paid to write about poetry.  But most of the time I’m a clerk with a fancy title, either tracking files or shipping and receiving.  Megan and I might read more poetry than anyone, but we also lick more stamps.

When it comes to writing, though, there is only the writing.  No one writes poetry for any reason other than that they love to do it — or at least loved it at one time, and hope to love again.  Maybe they love it for the discovery or for the meditation, or just for the empowering feeling of having a voice in the world — even with the most self-important of motivations, the love is pure; the goal is self-contained within the poem.  It’s work for no profit other than the work itself.

I think about this every time I hear poets lamenting the fact that there’s no money in this — if only there were more grants, if only poetry books sold like novels and you could make a living just writing…  Of course that would be great for the successful few, but think of what we’d lose.  All these voices speaking their own truth.  There woudn’t be any more real poetry in the average bookstore, there’d be sections for mystery collections, horror, Harry Potter, and Chick Lit.  We’d have to worry about agents and contracts and copyright infringement…  No thanks.

It’s that last that got me thinking about this again.  Recently I made the mistake of posting a copyrighted photograph without crediting the artist.  The comparative in poetry would be to have a poem of mine republished on the internet somewhere without my name one it.  The truth is, I don’t think I’d mind.  Of course I’d prefer to be listed as the author, and I’d be upset if the poem was attributed to someone else — plagiarism is still a sin.  But any negative feelings would be balanced by the honor of finding some random stranger who appreciates my work.

The difference in reaction has nothing to do with personalities, but rather, is inherent in the medium itself.  Photographs have a real-world value.  Whether you’re taking stock photos, journalism, or fine art photography, it’s possible that you might sell those images for a meaningful amount of money.  Poetry has no tangible value, so copyright infringement isn’t all that important.

I’ll give another example.  Two summers ago, in our slam issue, Rattle published Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.” (If you click that link you can listen to it, and I highly recommend you do.)  Years before we published the poem, it had already become a meme among educators — even my aunt, a retired high school math teacher who never reads poetry, recognized that poem.  But interestingly, the poem was often passed around without mention of Taylor’s name, so that several people wrote to us claiming that the poem was plagiarized.  When I mentioned this to Taylor later, he didn’t seem bothered in the least.  He had a message, and he was happy that it was getting out.

When you add money into the mix, things change out of necessity.  When it’s really a livelihood at stake, we have to be more serious.  And it effects some corners of poetry, too.  Within that same slam issue is a piece by the only poet who ever denied our request to put audio of a poem online.  He said it would be alright if we streamed the recording, but he didn’t want the mp3 to be downloadable, because it appears on a CD he recently released.  Since I don’t know how to do that, I wasn’t able to post the poem.  But I understood completely — I’d never want to damage someone’s livelihood.

That’s why I’m happy that there’s rarely any money in poetry.  A poem is only as serious as a poem is — gravely, intangibly, irrevocably serious at times, completely unserious at others.  True to nothing the poet, questionable to nothing but itself.  Poetry is not a racket.  It’s a hobby, a passion, an obsession, a calling.  Free to anyone with a pen and time to think; free to anyone with a library card and time to think on.  It’s entertainment, comfort, catharsis, epiphany — but never currency.  And there’s value in that.

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