Saturday, June 6, 2009

Money for Poems

This week the annual Griffin Prizes for poetry were handed out: fifty thousand dollars to a Canadian poet and fifty thousand to an American (international) poet. Who won isn't as important as the fact that the prize exists, exists to draw attention to the art. It places a top hat on the bundle of rags on the street corner with its Hortons cup extended: Spare change, mister?

There is no poet in this land who can earn fifty thousand a year just by writing and selling poems. As prolific as he may be, however fruitful his labours, he lives by teaching, lecturing, working at other aspects of living with his hands or his mind to put cash in his pocket and credit in his account. An artist puts a price on the painting he offers for sale; if someone likes it, it will sell at that price. Musicians tour and play at rates set by their unions. Professional actors must work for scale. And literature ...

Literature. There are usually markets of all kinds that pay for short stories. With enough time and energy a good novel can be sold and published. Non-fiction and biographies are never out of the public interest. And then there's poetry. When is the last time you paid a dollar or two for a poem that impressed you?
So, how do we value poetry, place a price on an individual poem? I can remember that when I was younger I would pay the price for a complete volume of poetry just because I had heard or read one of the poems. In the same way, I would buy complete albums of music just because I heard and liked one song. No more. And no more mimeographed poems for a dollar a piece; no more four colour poster-sized illustrated poems for ten. The market we hoped existed was even more ephemeral than the foggy dew.

In poetry there is no trickle down effect. You don't hang a bright light in your garden and tell your plants, Reach for that goal. You water and feed and fertilize all the things growing in that garden and work toward greatness. To create a tall plant, you develop and stimulate the roots.

We don't need fifty thousand dollar prizes so much as the simple act of paying an artist for his work. If you hear or read one moving poem, buy the book. If it has not been published, offer the poet a dollar or two for a typed or hand written copy. He'll be thrilled. Besides, that's where the money should be going.


Carolyn said...
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Carolyn said...

What a fantastic idea. How about busking, reading your selected poems, with the hat placed upside down beside you?

Poetry can be a lonely road to travel, embrace the audience and they may embrace you.

No more hiding away in the attic scribbling, poets need to get themselves, and their words, Out There!