A lot of foolishness gets written about writing, not all of it flowing from the pens of dunderheads. Two instances have come my way recently, one passed along by a friend, the other happened upon. Michael Lind blithely declares that poetry is a hobby or niche craft, no art at all, while designating cinema and television, pop music, genre fiction, and punditry or political commentary major arts. William Giraldi tells us that writers “yearn for…whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks.”
Perhaps I am not only out of the mainstream but even most side streams here. Both propositions strike me as sketchy. Let us begin with Michael Lind, whose biosketch at the New America Foundation portrays a man of impressive credentials and accomplishment:
…co-founder of the New America Foundation, along with Walter Mead, Sherle Schwenninger, and Ted Halstead. Lind has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The National Interest. Lind is a columnist for Salon and writes frequently for The New York Times and The Financial Times. He is the author of numerous books of history, political journalism, fiction, poetry and children’s literature.
Offering anecdotal evidence, Lind asserts that poetry is a craft, not an art, because it has no audience other than it practitioners:
In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.
The guess is unexceptional. Whether it is based on anything more than an impression, and its relevance if accurate, are subject to debate. Do all poets see what they are doing in the same light? Do all belong to the same category in anything other than an exceedingly general sense so amorphous and vaguely demarcated that it explains nothing?
Individuals write poetry for all sorts of reasons, among them as a kind of therapy, a quest for fulfillment, ego gratification, and aspects more commonly associated with the notion of poetry as an art. We read poetry too for all sorts of reasons. Poetry offers amusement and entertainment, and at its best pleasure of more elevated nature captured by Samuel Johnson’s formulation of the sublime as “that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration” (quoted in W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 541).
As for audience, there is a tradition of poets’ complaints that they are not appreciated. Chaucer’s biographer Donald R. Howard gives this instance from the 14th century:
French court poetry implied an image of the poet’s role and status at court. This image became bitter too. The poet presented himself as a valued member of the court whose duty it was to speak to the prince, or the lady, or the assemblage of courtiers, most often saying what they wanted or expected to hear, saying what he was bidden to say or what he deemed to please. The poet’s place at court was as an adjunct, and it wasn’t necessarily an honored place: patronage was bestowed capriciously, admiration and rewards were given but meanly. The poet Martin le Franc, having presented to Philip the Good as fine a bound copy of his poem Le Champion de Dames as he could afford, wrote that it was not only ignored but used by various members of the court for a mat or a footstool. (Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, E.P. Dutton, 1987, p. 135)
I draw on two bits of my own anecdotal evidence that today’s audience for poetry, while by no means extensive, may not be as limited as Lind assumes. Public broadcasting in its various guises, national and local, NPR and public television, is at some pains to appeal to a young and hip audience, for instance, with references ad nauseam to PBS’s presence on Twitter and other social media. Stories about poetry and poets are a regular feature throughout the year, not just during National Poetry Month, and not just by way of Garrison Keillor. It is a reasonable presumption that these stories are presented because the PBSers believe there is a genuine audience for them, not solely as a public service. Beyond that, my experience at poetry readings differs from what Lind describes. It is not at all unusual to find in my small audience people who do not consider themselves poets but nonethless appreciate poetry, whether reading it or hearing poems read in performance, and indeed consider its presence an important component of their lives.
Popularity, the size of the audience, is Lind’s criteria for distinction between major and minor arts and between arts and crafts. This is in line with a general leveling of such things that is one mark of our culture, where popular appeal, under the guise of democratization, putting it to a vote by way of Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers, is the measure of value. Expression of appreciation for expertise, skill, and talent that rises above the run of the mill is liable to draw charges of elitism, as does writing that places intellectual demands on the reader. Do we really want to claim that pop music, genre fiction, and punditry are major arts? I can only conclude that Lind and I are using the word “art” in quite different senses. The comparison is not even apples and oranges; ’tis more like apples and broccoli.
“Another word for a craft is a hobby.” Am I being nitpicky when I point out this is just not so?
craft : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill (the carpenter’s ~) (the ~ of writing plays) (~s such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing)
hobby : a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in esp. for relaxation (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition)
One might well pursue poetry as a craft or hobby and derive pleasure and satisfaction from it, quite possibly without the frustration, anxiety, and despair that may accompany pursuit of poetry as an art. Though they may bear the same name, these are qualitatively and categorically different pursuits.
Lind acknowledges in a lonely one-sentence paragraph near the beginning of his essay that “[t]he assignment of an art to one or another category has nothing to do with its quality. It is merely an assessment of the relationship between artist and audience.” A paragraph at the close opens with a statement better declared at the outset: “This is a horizontal ranking based on audience, not a vertical ranking based on quality or importance.” This is all rather odd juxtaposed with the rest of an essay devoted to the trivialization of poetry.
Poetry’s popularity and the make-up of its audience are topics deserving of consideration. Lind goes off the beaten track when he makes these criteria for a classification of arts, crafts, and hobbies. Popularity may not be altogether irrelevant to status as art. It is, however, a far more minor criteria than Lind suggests, and insofar as it is relevant, the audience for poetry seems to me to be wider and more diverse than he recognizes.
Now we come to the venerable pages of The New Republic—which has itself gotten some interesting press of late, but that is another matter—where William Giraldi’s review of H.J. Jackson, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, opens with this titillating paragraph:
Writers live lives of curious contradiction. Their work succeeds only by means of a monastic interiority and lonesomeness, and yet they yearn for that work to deliver them the very things most likely to murder it: whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks. They’ve heard the warning that says celebrity is one of the toxins which contributes to a writer’s artistic contamination, but they can’t help themselves—writers spend lots of time being overlooked, and thus lots of time fantasizing about the opposite predicament. There’s no such thing as a writer who yearns to be ignored.
The last sentence I buy. The rest is plain silly. For starters, anyone writing poetry with dreams of whole continents of fame and fantastical checks is certifiably delusional and could do with counseling by a trained professional. Certainly I sometimes fantasize about generating income as a writer sufficient to buy freedom to devote the best hours of each day to study and trying to write poems, which entails freeing myself from the necessity to sacrifice a significant portion of my life to wage work. I would love to find a wider audience for my poems. But continents of fame? fantastical checks? No, my dreams are of an audience somewhat wider than what I now have but nothing like what writers of popular novels and pop songs are after. That kind of popularity would be cause not for celebration but rather a deep questioning about the quality and worth what I am up to.
The body of Giraldi’s review is more substantive, with interesting accounts of the ephemeral and often happenstance nature of literary fame. Maybe the opening paragraph is intended to be nothing more than a teaser. He goes off the rails again when he says that our new Keats is Steve Jobs or someone like him because the world no longer cares about literature as it when Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Keats “were undergoing their immortalization…. The cultural emphasis has shifted from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another.” There is an art appropriate to business and one to software design, as there is an art appropriate to poetry. To speak as if they are the same or equivalent, as if this is merely a shift from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another, does a disservice to each.
He nails it when he credits Nadine Gordimer with the best writing advice ever given, though others have expressed a similar sentiment:
…”a serious person should try to write posthumously,” by which she meant aim for the greats—entrust them as your gold-standard guides on the path to your own quality.
Why do some of us write or paint or dance or sculpt? It may well be that one does better to seek meaning by finding a place in family, community, and conventional work that contributes in some fashion to personal satisfaction and the greater good than in the vagaries of art. This changes nothing. Whether brass wakes to find itself a trumpet, or one chooses who one will be, scarcely matters. One goes at it because that is who one has come to be.
…Who alive can say
‘Thou art no poet—mayst no tell thy dreams?’
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions , and would speak if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue…
—John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream”