Too Much Money Is a Bad Thing for Poetry?!?

“A Windfall Illuminates the Poetry Field, and Its Fights,” by Julia M. Klein from The New York Times, reports on the 5-year progress of the Poetry Foundation (once the Modern Poetry Association), publisher of Poetry Magazine, using a $100 million grant from pharmaceutical company heiress Ruth Lilly.

In 2002, there was a lot of shock and envy at such a large grant going to one entity. In 2007, there appears to be a combination of acceptance and snobbery–with some poets applauding the Foundation’s work to spread the poetry gospel and other poets feeling the whole thing is dumbing down the institution of poetry.

Regardless of how you feel on the issue, it is an interesting article.


For my own part, I took issue with a quote attributed to J.D. McClatchy (a poet who I enjoy reading and have always found accessible): “Poetry is supposed to complicate people’s lives, not to reassure them, or to be a humorous relaxation or an amusing spot on the radio.”

While poetry can complicate people’s lives, I think this statement limits the purpose of poetry, which I feel can be summed up in one vulgar word for the academic crowd: Entertainment.

Poetry is meant to entertain. Arguing over whether poetry should be complex and disturbing or light and funny is like arguing over whether all fiction should be romance or mystery. Fiction’s strength is its variety of genres and niches; poetry has that same strength in its various forms and audiences.

I’ve seen some poets argue that metrical poetry is the only way, while other poets push against forms of any kind. I’ve seen poets say that real poetry should only be concerned with language and structure, while other poets only acknowledge poems with some kind of real meaning at the heart of the poem. All the while, I’ve thought poets and those who love poetry should embrace the whole durned thing–from the teenage boy writing a poem for his unrequited love to the post-grad scholar constructing an anagrammatic series of sestinas that incorporate mythological interpretations of the meaning of pop culture references in the 1980s (hey, whatever floats yer boat).

Anyway, sorry for the rant, but I just often don’t understand why all us poets can’t just get along.

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4 thoughts on “Too Much Money Is a Bad Thing for Poetry?!?

  1. Deb Powers

    It was wonderful and refreshing to read this, Robert. It reflects my own viewpoint about what poetry is and should be. I write (sporadically) a short column for a poetry site where last April I wrote this about slam poetry – but it applies to all poetry, I think:

    In the end, though, slam is not about the points, or the performance, or the judging. It is about the audience and the entertainment. It is about exposure and having a fun night out. It is about putting your words out there and being heard and connecting with your audience. Sometimes it is about making them laugh, sometimes about making them cry, sometimes about making them think. It is always about making them feel and remember.

  2. Rosemary Nissen-Wade

    Well said, Linda!

    When I read, ‘Poetry is meant to entertain’ I was rocked a bit. Then I decided it must be a broad definition of ‘entertainment’, in which King Lear and Picasso’s Guernica could also be included. It’s art, isn’t it? And the function of art is not necessarily only to entertain. I was just thinking along the lines of, ‘Poetry is meant to move you’ when I read Linda’s comment above. Yes, that says it well – ‘to entertain, to move, to make one contemplate a different perspective…’

    And I couldn’t agree more with her last two sentences.

  3. Linda

    As a writer undertaking her first didactic training in poetry, I completely empathize with this viewpoint. I just finished wrangling with my first ‘metered’ poem and was amazed at the difficulty in balancing rhythm, sounds, and voice. The result? A mess, but an excellent training exercise.

    Poems, like prose, are meant to entertain, to move, to make one contemplate a different perspective of a vision. I’m not sure what constitutes a good poem, but I know great verse when I read it. And, like the people who write them, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. Peace, Linda


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