The Poet/Purist Catch (Make Me Herman Melville)

What follows is a response to a great article published on The Millions yesterday. In “A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes,” Benjamin Hale discusses the Pulitzer Prize Board’s decision to not award a prize in fiction this year, and various prize choices in previous years. He also writes about the difference he sees between MFA culture, which seems to value art over hype, and New York book culture, which seems more focused on fame and market trends.

As I see it, this difference is part of the catch-22 of money in art. In order for art (and artists) to thrive in a capitalist economy, it must be infused with money; once art is infused with too much money, it tends to lose its intrinsic integrity, and ceases to become art. Once you have written ten versions of the same story in five years, because they keep selling, are you still making art, or are you making a product? And where is the line between product and art if you are publishing what you write, and selling what you publish? Money doesn’t automatically ruin art, but I think that once the monetary value of a creation surpasses the artistic value of that creation, it has become a product.

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As for the poets? In many ways, I’m happy that poetry is as good as exempt from what Hale refers to as “the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce.” In articles like his, poets are always mentioned, briefly, as artistic purists in default of marketability, but I like to think that the choice to be a purist is a deliberate one, and that perhaps the decision to be a purist comes before decisions about genre, and thus simply lends itself to poetry, the “purest” genre. Perhaps the moment that one decides not to be a purist coincides with the decision to focus on a different genre—any genre but poetry? This is not to say that fiction and nonfiction cannot be pure; only that poetry does not allow for much commercial impurity—not because it is inherently superior, but because of market trends. So I’ve worked my way back to square one. Maybe we are purists by default.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that many writers, including myself, work in more than one genre, and/or hybrid genres (which are perhaps as safe from commercial “impurity” as poetry). The problem remains: prizes = cachet = more prizes = a job. I like winning prizes. It makes me feel important, it reassures me that I am making good work (since I have already established a conception of the poetry-publishing world that allows for general trust in editorial opinions at-large), and it can sometimes carry with it monetary rewards, or even the promise of fulfilling future employment.

Being an ambitious purist is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. When Hale writes, of the Pulitzer Board’s snub of The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury in 1930, “It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway,” it strikes me as both cynical and dead-on, which then strikes me as quite sad. Then, I get dramatic: I, for one, don’t want—nay, I refuse!—fame, fortune, or favors as a result of anything other than my writing.

Ultimately, this sentiment (on Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) that I share with Hale rallies my puritanical spirits again: “That is the nature of good art: it provokes.” I would go so far as to say that if a work does not provoke an intellectual or emotional response, it’s not art at all; it’s entertainment. Art wants to unsettle, while entertainment wants ultimately to lull. That’s why cliché serves the “Paranormal Romance” genre that now takes up 25% of Barnes & Noble so well. Encountering the same tropes and phrases again and again is comforting, even if the trope is painted with blood and gore, because we are never asked to understand the unfamiliar. For me, the line between art and entertainment has always been clear, but to think that this distinction excludes the possibility of art that is entertaining is too simple. Art entertains a different set of faculties—it challenges (through form, content, or both), and a challenge is only boring if you refuse it from the start.

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In poetry, the distinction between literary and popular does not always seem analogous to that in fiction or nonfiction. In prose, what is the most entertaining often seems to win popularity contests among the reading public (and those winners certainly are not always the winners of popularity contests among critics). In poetry, the few works that seem popular in the eyes of the reading public are not tripe or pulp. They are not (for the most part) about vampires or zombies or paranormal crime or werewolf drug addiction or undead teenagers having sex. Think of Rilke, Yeats, Robert Frost. (Some might see Maya Angelou or Billy Collins as exceptions here, but even they approach profundity at times.) This is both comforting and confusing to me.

Of course, the general reading public will never fall Hunger-Games-in-love with a poet as provocative as Johannes Göransson, a poet I like who occasionally does write about sex and teenagers and probably sometimes zombies (i.e. “In this chapter you will be played by the pretty little curly-headed singer from the Bangles; my dick will be played by a moron; Jesse Garon will be played – poorly – by the bored ghost of Bertold Brecht; and I’ll be played by an old homosexual with white wispy hair and glasses and a definite problem with booze and nostalgia. Don’t ask me how I’ll be able to make it marketable,” from “Dear Ra“)—but can it be that the reading public actually has moderately good taste in poetry? Or is it more likely that they aren’t given another option, because truly terrible poetry—and I don’t mean stale or unpolished poetry, but more like the verse equivalent of a Nora Roberts romance novel—rarely gets published. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I think it’s the latter. Large publishing houses aren’t going to buy that Nora Roberts sonnet collection (unless it’s ironic), because the bottom line is that poetry doesn’t sell. Thus, it’s left up to the small presses—nonprofits who have already made a decision to be purists (mostly). There is an odd sort of consolation in this.

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At the end of the article, Hale asks a beefed-up version of the old question: fame now, or immortality later? In his version, Satan is doing the asking on a game show: money and prizes now, only to be forgotten later; or nothing but apparent failure until after death, when you will be recognized and immortalized as a great artist (“In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville”)? Accepting the mutual exclusivity in this scenario as given, and readily accepting the position of purist-by-default, I (the weary poet) said to myself (and facebook): “Make me Herman Melville, only Herman Melville.” Then a fiction writer I know said: “I would punch Satan in the nose and take both prizes.” Why didn’t I think of that?

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