Twitter & the History of Poetic Utility

A few years ago I was driving to a softball tournament with a pair of microbiologists who didn’t like my taste in music (folk, for the record — and no, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke about cell division).  Shuffling through my CD case, they came across a burned disc with “To Tim, From Sally” scrawled at the top, along with a track list full of indie bands that I still can’t keep straight.

“Who’s Sally?” one of them asked.

“She’s a…fan, I guess?” I said, and explained how she’d read some of my poems in a magazine, then emailed me to ask if she could read more.  I sent her a copy of my in-progress manuscript, and then she sent me a mix-CD in exchange.

“You have fans??”

“I have three fans, maybe.”

“You have three fans??”

The conversation went on like this for the next hour, as we made our way to Palm Desert.  I couldn’t believe that they found it so interesting — these were microbiologists who do important research, publish papers, attend conferences all over the world, write letters to other microbiologists…  And in publishing my silly little poems in magazines that don’t sniff a thousand readers, I had something that they seemed strangely desperate for.  Maybe a little celebrity in this star-ful culture, maybe just a voice in the void.  There’s a romanticism to the thought of connecting with strangers, and a power to having your words echo out of the blue.  Until that moment, it never occurred to me that there’s this need to be heard in everyone — and that poets are part of a very small fraction of society that gets to have that need fulfilled.

But every day now, this becomes less and less the case.

On the long view, poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  Technology, by definition, is the steady replacement of simple tools by those more complex and efficient.  And make no mistake — poetry, at its heart, is the simplest of tools.

The first poems were mnemonic devices.  Even thousands of years before petroglyphs began evolving into proto-writing, human beings were complicated social animals, with rich spiritual lives.  Our ancestors had religions and rituals and origin myths, just as we do, and these incredibly important stories needed to be passed down to their descendants uncorrupted.  Without any tools for record-keeping, they turned to poetry, using the literary devices we’re familiar with to this day — assonance and alliteration, rhythm and rhyme — to solidify their myths into fixed-form oral histories.  Not only does poetry allow for tremendous feats of memory, it also inhibits our natural tendency to embellish a good story.  It’s hard to add your own fraudulent details without losing the meter as you tell your tale.  Poetry was the best record they could keep.

Then came the Bronze Age (4th century BC), and with it, the beginnings of a true phonetic writing system.  For the first time in human history, spoken language could be recorded almost verbatim, and poetry became a little less important.  What had been written on breath could now be written in stone.  But still, materials were expensive and literacy levels were low.  The technology of writing remained mostly limited to the scholarly class — at times, literacy itself was a trade secret of professional scribes.  Part of the allure of a poem like The Odyssey was still that it was an exciting story that could be recited.  Poetry was still a vessel for information.

Then came Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440, and even more importantly the industrial revolution of the 19th century, which made books affordable.  As literacy levels rose, an affinity for poetry remained — it’s in our blood, a crucial part of human history — but its necessity as an informational medium had been supplanted.

At the same time, verse began losing its hold on fiction, as well.  Written prose — the novel — became the new vessel for story, eliminating the need for the epic poems of writers like Homer, Chaucer, and Spenser.  The new epics would be written in paragraphs, not lines — why bother with rhythm and rhyme, if there’s no need to memorize?  Why bother putting your words on the tongue of the world when your books can fill the libraries of forever?

With another pair of uses stripped away, poetry remained entertaining.  We love language — the sound of two words next to each other, the shape of a phrase in our mouth.  We evolved to love it; it’s written into the structure of the brain.  Music provided a similar — and sometimes superior — aural pleasure, but the only music was live music.  In the absence of a band and your own ability to play the fiddle, there was poetry, which had a monopoly on the private, acoustic experience.

Then came the phonograph.

But poems were still intensely imagistic, kindling to the fire of the mind’s eye!

Then came movies.

But you can’t take a movie to the beach!

Portable radios.

On a train, on a plane!

Walkmans, CDs, iPods…

The history poetry’s usefulness is a history of technological assault.  From every place that poetry draws its importance comes a new technology to replace it.

And here is a new use — over the last 50 years, the rise of the lit rag industry, hundreds of journals then becoming thousands with the ease of the internet, giving tens of thousands of poets their own voice in the void, and the possibility of developing a handful of strangers who call themselves fans.  A little bit of celebrity for everyone, in a society obsessed with celebrity.

And here comes a new technology — Twitter — to replace it.  With a Twitter account, you can pretend to be your old dead cat and generate hundreds of “followers.”  You can just tweet about your life, and if you’re funny or lucky enough, reach thousands.  My favorite is God, who shares the most banal of messages with 33,000 people, pretending the whole time to be — you guessed it — God.  And who wouldn’t want to know that God is “Seeing the Pixies again in Denver on Monday”?

Of course, this just a continuation of social networking technology — a journey from blogs to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter.  But there’s something about this last step that feels final.  I think it’s the simplicity of it, the ease of signing up and watching your readership rise.  Blogs have to be both interesting and well-written to be popular with strangers.  Twitter can be neither — the medium is often the message…and sometimes it’s as simple as being the first to stake out a good handle.

Thinking back on those ballplaying microbiologists, they could easily have Twitter accounts themselves, and then my three fans would sound exactly as pathetic as it actually is.  And it’s only a matter of time.

Where does that leave poetry?  If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think poetry is still important, both as a mind-tool, and as a social barometer.  Will it be long until we develop technologies to replace those uses as well?  When the phramaceutical companies develop prescription mood pills, and the hyper-net allows for total information awareness and empathy, what will we be left with?  Will poets be nothing more than flat-earthers and civil war reenactors — a cadre of Luddites refusing to let go the tools of the old world?  Or will poetry always find a smaller niche to escape to, as it always has, to have its place?

The Importance of Poetry

When I was a freshman in college I took my first poetry class, and my father started referring to me as “the poet,” like an epithet.  Even then I had no interest in being a poet — I had a passing interest in writing fiction, mostly as a hobby, and thought I’d minor in creative writing — but it was chemistry that interested me, visions of designing drugs to keep people healthy, researching the origins of life, using organics as fine tools for the first time in human history…  Writing was just a game, an outlet for excess creative energy, as important to my psychological well-being as a diary, maybe, but no more meaningful to the rest of the world than a stack of journals locked in someone’s dresser drawer.

Even as the excitement of the natural sciences evaporated into the tedium of lab work and the rote memorization of randomly assigned terms, it took a long time to allow myself to believe that writing could be important — that art could ever trump intellect, and that a life spent in pursuit of such ephemeral nonsense could be fulfilling.  That life seemed selfish; it was a waste the time and talent.  A poem never helped provide someone with clean drinking water, could never be used as a fuel to replace hydrocarbons or as a vaccine to cure disease.  As much as I preferred my English classes, it took a lot of soul-searching before I was able to accept that I did.

What the hell is the point?

Long before I even knew of Rattle, Alan grew tired of devoting space at the back of each issue for a list of publishing credits.  Maybe these kinds of bios made sense before Al Gore invented the internet (and he really kind of did) — but nowadays if you read a poem you love and want to find more of a poet’s work, all you have to do is Google.  So instead of 10 pages of wasted space, Alan began asking a simple question instead:  Why write poetry?

These contributor notes are a treasure-trove of solutions to my undergraduate conundrum.  What’s probably the most common answer, that writing is a compulsion — “I write because I must!” — doesn’t really help much, unless you have that compulsion, too.  And besides, compulsiveness is no excuse — when people are compelled to violence or addiction we try to cure them.  With so many people writing because they must, maybe we should just start a support group…

Others claim to write for immortality (“So my work will outlive me!”), to get laid, or to change the world — and it was this last one that I latched onto first.  This is still a world of full of suffering.  We have the technology to provide food, shelter, and clothing to every human alive, and yet we don’t.  We’re always at war, we’re always stealing and cheating and dehumanizing each other.  80% of the world is still ensnared in the myths of their ancestors, searching for a meaning to life that is outside of the only life they’ll ever have.

There were two quotes I kept coming back to.  I gave my copy of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to my brother a couple years ago, so I have to paraphrase, but Robert Pirsig writes something like, “All over the world, scientists are working hard to extend our lives — but none of them bother to ask why.”  And then there’s Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Why is always more important to a consciousness than how, and I began to see science as the how and art as the why.  What value is there in living a longer life, if it’s lived poorly?  If I could dedicate a writing life to the ideals of collectivity and kindness, if I could help illuminate the interdependency of individuals and the moral power of self-created meaning, then I could do more good than the invention of a million pain killers.

It was that grand idea that allowed me to take poetry seriously, and cleared a path which led me here on a Friday afternoon, a stack of books on the editor’s desk to my left, still pondering the importance of poetry.

But over the last 5+ years of working in poetry full-time (and then some), I’ve gradually come to a new understanding:  Poems don’t do doodley-squat.

No matter how naive you want to think I’m being, no matter how hard you resist this fact, it remains a fact.  Everyone points to “Howl” as the most influential poem of the 20th century, talks about how it distilled the sentiment of an entire generation — but the ’60s would have happened without “Howl.”  The world will end not with a bang, but a wimper, and we didn’t really need Eliot to point that out.  Maybe a few of us are a bit more bold because of Frost, more persistent, but “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods…”  are more slogans than a poems.

Moreover, no one even reads poetry.  Rattle has thousands of subscribers, and only a handful of them don’t have at least a few poems in a folder on their computer that they’d like to have us publish.  Our favorite nemesis G. Tod Slone likes to mock lit mags as one big circle-jerk — and he’s right!  We’re only talking to each other here.  No one just reads poetry; we write it, too.  And writing it is mostly what we really care about.  So even if a poem could effect change, who is out there be effected?

If you want to change the world, don’t write a poem, write a chant and stage a protest (“The people, united, will never be defeated!”).  Be a teacher, be a doctor, be a lawyer, build a house.  Volunteer at a nursing home, a homeless shelter, an animal clinic.  The value of any poem, or book of poems, or school of poets, is so overblown — by people like you and me and MFAs and AWPs — as to be delusional.

But that doesn’t mean that poetry isn’t important.  Poems themselves are inconsequential, but poetry — as an activity, as a mindset — is central to all that is important.  The pursuit of poetry is the distillation of that critical Why — it’s what we live for, what can “make us bear any how.”

Poetry isn’t a career, or a passion, or a form of entertainment.  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s an entire doctrineless philosophy that we reconfigure into each of those things.  To engage in poetry, whether reading or writing, is to practice an enriching attentiveness.  To practice poetry is to pluck detail from the surrounding world — to see things more clearly, to recognize beauty, to experience pain, to struggle to connect.  Because the writer uses the reader’s inner voice as a medium, poetry is fundamentally empathetic.  We see through another’s eyes, wear another’s shoes.  Poetry is cathartic.  And who needs a prayer or a trance — poetry has your daily meditation built right in.

The cliche is the tortured poet — the melodramatic outsider with half a head in the oven.  But what I see is a subset of society that’s more alive, that experiences life more fully.  Poets tend to have good marriages, raise bright kids, spend time thinking of and doing things for people other than themselves.  There are exceptions, of course, but I have direct contact with a huge number of poets, and I can say with confidence that we’re more happy and functional and productive than the whole.

And it’s not because some poem taught us how to act.  It’s not because we have any special talents, or more education, or better genes than everyone else.  It’s because our thoughtfulness has been turned on and tuned in.  A better life is simply a function of a more present awareness.

I’m not saying that poetry is the only way to be engaged — we can use science or sports or motorcycle maintenance to the same ends.  But poetry is a great way — maybe the best way — to get there, because it operates on so many levels of consciousness, and because language is so central to the structure of the mind itself.

So over the past few years, I’ve come to see the practice of poetry as a kind of barometer for the health of a society.  I’ve come to see Utopia as a world where everyone writes poetry — I think that in such a world we’d be done with racism and sexism and classism, selfishness and greed.  There would be no torture or war.  How could you torture someone empathetically?  How could you fight with someone whose experiences you’ve shared?

And so I’ve also come to see it as my mission, and a worthy mission, to get as many people writing poetry as possible.  That’s why I encourage everyone to keep writing and submitting, and never tell them to wait three months or close a reading period.  It’s not that the publication matters, but that the lifestyle matters, that there’s an expanding community of poets out there doing what we do and sharing with each other this life-enhancing, collective of concentration.

To me, what you write is inconsequential, or just the frosting on the cake.  Just write it.  That’s the cake.

Koans Rhyme with Poems

Over the summer, the editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle approached me, asking if Rattle might help them with a poetry discussion group.  Though we have no direct ties to Buddhism, I thought it might be interesting to participate.  I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself — I’m too much a spiritless materialist to succor the notion of reincarnation or Buddha-nature — but I’ve always had a strong affinity for their philosophical and psychological views, which in the end comprise the bulk of their theology.  I went through a phase where I read a lot of Buddhist texts, and maybe I’m being too honest here, but my hunch has been that the Buddha got it right, but his message was corrupted by the canvas of the Rigveda, and then 4,000 years of the same human ambitions and anthropomorphisms that have dogged every religion since the beginning of time.  I even spun a fantasy that, when the Buddha said “reincarnation,” he meant moment-to-moment — the fact that we’re not the same person we were 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago, and in that time even your bones have been replaced.  The miracle of reincarnation is the constancy of consciousness itself, which is reborn relentlessly, even as the body itself changes.

In any event, Buddhist scholars have been thinking about the nature of our reality, intelligently and unbiasedly, for an awfully long time, and their observations are as insightful as they are fascinating.  And much of it relates to poetry.  I’ve already talked about the poem as mantra (“mind-tool”) — poetry as a spell, a hypnotic string of words that alter your mental state.  In my opinion, that’s the best definition of poetry there is.  But that’s not all eastern religions have to offer.

Poems are also koans.

In the Zen tradition, koans are little stories teachers tell their students to mess with their heads — in a good way.  Koans are often presented as faux-riddles which cannot be resolved rationally.  Pop culture is familiar with many of these: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  “If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?”  The teacher will present a question like this, as if there were an answer, and then the student will meditate on his or her failure to find a response. (For more on how this works, see this anecdote by Huston Smith in Shambhala Sun.)  When you fully engage a koan, the effect is a subversion — and thus exposure — of the tired and routine workings of the mind.  You can almost hear the gears grinding up there, as the mind tries to make sense out of the nonsensical, and with that comes the stunning revelation that the mind is not you — it’s something else, something less than yourself, something outside yourself.  If you can sense your mind flailing, who is doing the sensing, who the flailing?

So in the end, the koan has little to do with the koan itself — the koan really lies within the response it triggers. It’s a process, not a product.

But in many respects, koans do have answers.  For every scholarly analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a Buddhist scholar analyzing Two Hands Clapping.  Koans always seem to invite critical thinking at the same time as they subvert it.  The medium is the message, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t messages in the medium, too.  Here’s an example, a koan in narrative form:

When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master retorted, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master’s retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang’s words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, “What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest.”

If this passage sounds baffling at first, don’t worry.  It’s a story-equivalent of one hand clapping, meant to short-circuit your usual thought process.  But still beneath that, there is meaning.  When the two men speak of the feather duster, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate Oneness of reality — there is only one universe, all things connected, but to use any object within that universe you must first make it an object, which makes you a subject manipulating the object, dividing the ultimate Oneness into finite Multitude (the mind is a knife, carving up reality into discrete units).  When Ma Zu asks about separating him from his skin, he’s asking what would happen if the Oneness were separated from the Multitude, to which Bai Zhang replies, by using the feather duster, that Oneness and the Multitude are actually the same things, interpreted differently.

Ma Zu then tests his student further, with his own words, a kind of “Are you sure?”  In returning the feather duster to its place, Bai Zhang shows that he only understands in theory, not in practice, so Ma Zu shouts his student deaf, where he will be alone in his own mind for three days, receiving no instruction.  It is only then that Bai Zhang understands the lesson lies not within the words alone, and becomes enlightened.

I don’t know if that explanation makes sense without a working knowledge of Buddhism — but the point is that a koan is not just a transformative tool, it’s also a parable, with real metaphysical wisdom locked inside.  A koan is both things simultaneously — if it were just the information, the lesson, then it would not be a koan.  A koan is an instruction that must become an experience to do its job.

And that is what poetry really is.  You can read ten books on “The Waste Land,” exploring all the allusions and symbols and structures, but they will never add up to the experiencing of “The Wast Land,” because a poem is only the confrontation with the poem itself — the transformative, resonant response the poem gives us has nothing to do with the footnotes, and everything to do with the indescribable mystery and music within it.  There are many answers, but none of them are the answer — it’s the process that answers, not the product.

The problem with what we call “hallmark verse” — a category into which the majority of poems submitted to any magazine fall — has nothing to do with sing-songy meter or forced rhyme or mushy subjects.  Bad poetry, fake poetry, hallmark verse is all product, no process.  It’s the Cliffsnotes to the koan, rather than the koan itself — it lacks the magic of mystery, the transformative power of subversion.  So many writers seem to get an idea for a poem, and then merely pass that idea along, as if they’re passing along the answer to a question.  They might as well be writing letters or diary entries.  When you write with a message in mind, the message is lost.

A poem must be more than the message; it must be an experience.  All the novice admonitions — “show don’t tell,” “avoid cliches” — are subsets of this one lesson.  Poems are koans.   That’s why it’s so hard to write real poetry, but so easy to fake it.  Answers are easy; transformations are hard.

Which brings me to this week’s poem in the Tricycle discussion group, Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act,” first published, along with her interview, in Rattle #26.  It’s the best example I know of a what I’ve been talking about:

THOSE WHO CANNOT ACT by Jane Hirshfield

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”–
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

© Jane Hirshfield, from the book After, HarperCollins, 2006.

We can talk about this poem for pages and pages, for days:  the poem’s ending into stark silence, the voice of those who have no voice, the implicit responsibility for those who can act.  My favorite part of the poem is that it forces us, the readers, to be among those who cannot act — we’ll never be able to finish the poem, it will only end in frustration.  All of those elements are there, and worth discussing.  But they never add up to the experience of the poem, the haunting, wrenching truth that lies beneath it.

Like a sculptor carving marble blocks, the statue itself what remains, a poem is really the sum of all that isn’t said.  Poems happen within us — what matters is the leap they make us make ourselves.  A new koan:

A student gives the MFA instructor a poem to read overnight.  The next day the student asks, “Was my poem any good?”  The instructor replies, “What poem?  All I see is you.”

Stand-Up Poetry

Last week I read poetry with a comedian at a hair salon slash art gallery.  An unusual setup, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — poetry readings are generally boring as hell.  They come in two forms — the poet plus open mic, and the fancypants poetry pair all by their lonesome.  I don’t know which is worse; the former is a more acute pain, the latter more a dull ache.  Both are mostly psychological torture, bound to a chair and suffering a tedium bearable only in small doses.  Maybe you do come out of them a better person, though.  Think electroshock therapy.  It’s only enjoyable when it’s a poet you already know and love, preferably reading poems you already know and love.  Or if it’s a good slam poet.  But I digress.

Sharing the stage with a comedian is surprisingly like sharing the stage with a musician.  No matter how good you are as a poet and performer, no matter how bad they are as a whatever else they’re doing, it feels like following the Beatles.  Poetry pales.  And comedian Barry Holiday was good — he made us laugh for a solid half-hour.  So, up next as a lowly poet, what do you do?

The only option seems to be becoming a comedian yourself, so that’s what I did.  It’s surprisingly easy to be funny on stage.  I’m not sure what it is — all laughter, whether nervous or pure, is infectious, maybe.  Or maybe something just happens with all that focused attention, some cosmic coalescence, some inherent irony in the very act of standing in front of a crowd with a mic and trying to entertain them.  It seems even easier as a poet, too — you know a comedian’s trying to make you laugh, but when you find yourself face-to-face with the rare and reclusive poet, you don’t know what to expect — laughter is an extension of surprise, after all, and what better blank slate of anticipation does the general public have?

I started out by asking how many in the room actually read poetry, and 3 out of 30 hands flew up.  So I focused on the majority, and gave them the inside scoop on this business, which is a pretty funny enterprise.  The sighs, the snaps, the golf claps.  The inferiority complex.  Subtle jabs at other poets that even they might not recognize.  At the end of the set, it was pretty clear that the audience enjoyed my banter more than my ballads, but there’s really nothing wrong with that.

It got me thinking again about poetry on the stage — what’s the problem?  Why is an off-key folksinger cycling through the same three chords more entertaining than the best of poets?  So often I focus on how to make the performance better that I gloss over the obvious fact that poetry is simply not meant to be performed in the first place.  Music, comedy, drama — those are performance arts, and no matter how often it gets grouped in with them, poetry never will be.  So of course the only way poetry can beat them is to join them — which is why slam poetry always drifts into comedy or dramatic monologue.  And maybe that’s why the best slam poets often drift back toward the page — the page is where poetry really lives.

Before you hit me with history, recitations of Chaucer and the bards of the Parisian Court, it’s true that poetry was born orally, a millenia before Guttenberg.  Music, comedy, drama, and poetry, all share a common ancestor, but each have evolved over thousands of years to become specifized within their own niche.  Poetry is the private, internal communication between an individual writer and an individual reader, in which the reader’s own breath and heartbeat become the artist’s medium.  Whenever we try to take it back to the stage, we’re like dogs trying to wrestle a grizzly bear.  Yes, we’re all caniformia, but that doesn’t make it a fair fight.  And evolution cuts both ways — put that cliched folksong on paper with a score, and try reading it for pleasure.  Bears don’t make good housepets.

In the end, the poet is left with two options:  Don’t perform at all, keep it on the page and keep your dignity.  Or accept that poetry isn’t meant to be done standing up, and incorporate elements from other performance arts.  Tell a joke, sing a sonnet, speak in tongues.  Don’t be so stubborn that you put us to sleep.

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.