22 October 2002

The President's Poetry

When the guy who does the poetry show on the community radio station announced his bid for congress as a Green Party candidate, the Democrats demanded equal time. Now every other week the poetry show is all Maya Angelou. Regular listeners are pissed but feel too guilty to phone in complaints.

Here in Urbana the Champaign-Urbana Arts Council, reportedly well-endowed with state money earmarked for poets, is not listed in the phone directory. Nobody I talked to at the chamber of commerce or public library knows who serves on its board or what exactly it does. It is suspected by some poets who have been around a long time that the UAC gives a private reading now and again to which a few wealthy people are invited, and that the poet who hosts these events owns a ten-acre ranch up near Moraine View and has never been published except by small presses whose identity remains forever obfuscated from scholarship. It's the same story with the mysterious "44 North:" occasionally you might read an article about them in the mainstream papers, but you will never find their post office box or fax number. Whatever projects these local arts organizations fund are closely-held secrets.

During National Poetry Month there was no accountability at the state level for how poetry was promoted or pursued. Without looking at the state's overall poetry needs, politicians might arrange for a poet to give a reading here, or a book signing there, doling out honorariums to constituents well-placed in influential universities. There was no sense of the state's having a larger plan for poetry, no broader vision regarding the state's poetry infrastructure. (The situation downstate is especially bad nowadays, even though the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book was once published there.) There have been allegations of bribery and of poetic licenses being distributed to writers who have not sat before the state's rigorous thesis committee. Poets gave readings at closed-door sessions of congress, state money effectively being using to fund readings closed to the general public. Now the state has had to borrow several billion dollars and there is no sign of any poetry anywhere. In public schools they are reading light verse from the 1950s. With the budget cuts, the state's major research university is no longer able to afford to retain their best poets, much less hire new poets. Even novelists are leaving. This on top of another tuition increase will make the university system no longer attractive to prospective MFA candidates. Is there no accountability? Governor Ryan should have his books confiscated by the state and donated to public libraries. State planners involved in allocating the funds for National Poetry Month should lose their positions and serve time teaching poetry on death row to pay their debt to society.

At the federal level the situation is all but beyond hope. The President of course has become poet laureate for a second term, the statute that a laureate could serve only a single term having been overturned by the new Office of Homeland Poetry (appointed not elected), which is headed up by a major shareholder of the media conglomerate that owns the publisher who publishes the President's poetry. In polls taken of the legislature, more than half have stated unwaveringly that the President's poetry is beyond criticism. It is worth noting that the house's opinion of the President's poetry is divided along party lines suggesting that bipartisan bickering is more at play then any serious appraisal of literary quality, not that this is a surprise really. Scarcely credible to my mind, polls of public opinion show an "overwhelming majority" appreciate the President's poetry, though there is more public skepticism with regard to the quality of his painting. Well, nobody needs to be reminded of the circumstances of the President's being awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize at a time in his life during which he has all but explicitly denied not abusing drugs and cheating on exams: the recount was eventually completed but the results were suppressed. The major newspapers of course are uncritical of the president's poetry, save an occasional angry editorial buried in the opinion section. If the political cartoons can be taken as meaningfully indicative of a popular consensus, it would appear that few outside of the circles of poetry power would claim that the President's writing is credible. In an election year, of course, the President's poetry supplants discussions of any other issue, especially an economy in which the average family of four made about as much per year in 2001 as a Yale poet in 1970.

The President's poetry has been written about elsewhere, but it is the stuff of death and broken dreams. The President's poetry mines the bottom of oceans. Asphyxiation by poverty, exhaust, gas chambers. Millions of new bombs. Fascism's cliche, the President's poetry is closed libraries, unheated classrooms, prisons: ruined language.

Are we to accept as true that the average citizen thinks the President is a good poet? Does anyone really believe that the President's poetry represents our country? Are these the limits of discourse? Has literary criticism failed?

Newspoetry at Spineless Books