Celebrity Poets

The way this season is going, the Mets will probably lose tonight to Miguel Batista. A 37-year-old journeyman from the Dominican Republic with a putrid 6.26 ERA, Batista is often casually described as “one of the smartest man in baseball.” Why? Because he’s a published poet! He’s also written a novel, and is working on a second, but for some reason, in article after article, it’s the poetry that’s the one-line proof that Batista is brighter than the average ballplayer.

That’s not saying much, you might say, but there are plenty of Ivy Leaguers in the Show. In the opposing bullpen, Aaron Heilman graduated from Notre Dame, and up in the booth former pitcher Ron Darling duel-majored in French and History at Yale. Maybe we should take it as a compliment that poetry is seen as such an esoteric, eggheaded pursuit–at least French is useful, right?

But let’s take a look at Batista’s poetry. The book is Sentimientos en Blanco y Negro (”Feelings in Black and White”), published by MCB Producciones in Buenos Aires. Here’s a snippet, translated from the Spanish by the Seattle Metropolitan:

I would like the power to save
the souls in agony
who sustain the hope
of improving some day.

In a word: Yikes. You can find other selections of poetry if you care to dig, or you can read the beginning of his novel, and form your own opinion about the quality of the work. I’m not here to bash Miguel Batista.

What is worth talking about, though, is the frightening phenomenon of celebrity poetry. Stroll through your local Barnes & Noble and you’ll probably see that poetry is a shelf, not a section, and that the shelf is dominated by the already-famous–dead white men, and “poets” like Jewel, Billy Corgan, and Leonard Nimoy, who actually sounds a bit like Batista:

Time has stopped.
A minute is still a minute.
An hour is still an hour.
And yet,
The past and the future
Hang in perfect balance.
All focused on the present.
A sweet flow of excitement
Warms me.
You are near.

As I’ve said before, even using a baseball metaphor, I think everyone should be writing poetry. Just not everyone should be publishing it. Poetry can be an intimate form of communication between two people, like Nimoy and his wife or Batista and his ex-girlfriend, even when it has nothing to offer a general audience. But when you already have a “platform”, and publishers know that you’ll be able to sell books using your name alone, that private poetry becomes public, and suddenly sucks.

The tragedy is two-fold: Not only is it an embarrassment for poetry that A Night Without Armor outsells the Poet Laureate, but it’s also an embarrassment for the celebrities themselves, who are naive or egotistical enough to believe that their publishers aren’t just taking advantage of them.

It’s almost the same as those who fall for the Poetry.com scam, where every entrant is a finalist, every line of poetry, no matter how bad, is praised. The pride at having won almost always explodes into the depression of disillusionment. I’ve seen it first hand, in my own family, and I’ve even fallen for it myself, in a way, when the Who’s Who arrived in my mailbox as an aptly-named sophomore in high school. A day in the clouds isn’t worth the month in a dump that follows. I can’t imagine that the celebrities are so sheltered that they never realize, on some level, their own inadequacies.

Celebrity poetry is never going away. As long as there’s the opportunity to make a buck, some shady press will be willing to pluck it off the tree of self-respect. And as publishing becomes cheaper, book-selling more streamlined, and American culture ever-more celebrity-obsessed, it’s only going to become more common. I can already see a ghostwritten book of poems by Paris Hilton somewhere on the horizon, distinguishing her as one of the smartest women in…whatever it is she does. Brace yourself.

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