In 1876 an American Civil War veteran named Eli Lilly founded a pharmaceutical company. He did pretty well for himself: you can thank Eli Lilly & Co. for, among other things, methadone, Cialis and Prozac. But Lilly's reclusive great-granddaughter Ruth is apparently more interested in poems than in Prozac. In 2001, when she decided to give away part of her fortune in charitable donations, she singled out a venerable but impoverished little literary magazine called Poetry. Her gift came to around $200 million.
Money and poetry rarely have much to do with each other, especially in such a stunningly large quantity. Suddenly the small staff of Poetry was swimming in cash--it's the literary equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies. Now they're using Lilly's gift to mount a comeback for poetry. But can money really bring a dying art form back to life? And is it just possible that poetry was better off where it was?
Chances are, you don't read much poetry, at least not the new stuff. Don't feel bad, hardly anybody does. To hit the best-seller list for verse, a book has to sell only around 30 copies. Poetry is the spinach in America's media diet: good for you, occasionally baked into other, tastier dishes (like the cameo that W.H. Auden's Funeral Blues made in Four Weddings and a Funeral) but rarely consumed on its own. In the hierarchy of cultural pursuits it sits somewhere just below classical music and just above clogging.
If poetry is dead, who killed it? In the 19th century it was a vital part of Western culture. Writers like Byron and Tennyson were practically rock stars. "Every newspaper in the U.S. printed poems," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "At the end of Longfellow's life, his birthday was like a national holiday."
But the 20th century saw the rise of Modernism and brilliant but difficult and allusive writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. (Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in Poetry magazine.) Poems became less like high-end pop songs and more like math problems to be solved. They turned into the property of snobs and professors. They started to feel like homework. "It's thought of as a subject to be taught instead of simply an art to be enjoyed," says Christian Wiman, Poetry's editor.
Maybe $200 million can help. After ensuring its own financial well-being--"It's always been on the brink of going under," says Wiman--Poetry magazine begat a larger entity, more suited to wielding nine-figure sums, called the Poetry Foundation. The foundation needed somebody to run it who was equally at home serving art and Mammon, and they found what they were looking for in John Barr, who spent 18 years at Morgan Stanley before co-founding a boutique investment-banking firm on his own. During that time he also published six books of verse and taught in the writing program at Sarah Lawrence. "For me all the stuff I've experienced in the business world was, in a deep way, feedstock for my writing," Barr says. "I think living broadly and writing boldly go together."
A small, sun-baked man, Barr is unusually smiley and energetic for a poet, and he set about his job with a distinctly unpoetic efficiency. Starting in February 2004, Barr commissioned a corporate-style study to find out who was reading poetry and who wasn't. Readings were hosted; prizes and fellowships were handed out; an elaborate, handsomely designed website was launched. Working with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation started Poetry Out Loud, a national poetry-recitation contest for high school students, which was won this May by one Amanda Fernandez of Washington on the strength of her thunderous version of Sterling A. Brown's "Ma Rainey."
Barr also ruffled some feathers. A zealous and unembarrassed populist, he declared his determination to make poetry less morose and more entertaining. He endowed a post called the Children's Poet Laureate. He created the Mark Twain Poetry Award, "recognizing a poet's contribution to humor in American poetry." Barr also published several essays criticizing the state of American poetry. He accused it of "intellectual and spiritual stagnation." He called out poets for being addicted to lyric poetry (as opposed to, say, epic or satirical poetry) and for being obsessed with formal experimentation. He dissed M.F.A. programs for churning out careerist, cookie-cutter poets who were "sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy."
Not everyone in the poetry world took Barr's criticisms kindly. A response from Sidney Wade, president of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, included the words peculiar, laughable, nonsense and offensive. (Poetry, to its credit, printed most of the letter.) "I can name 20 exciting poets writing today in one breath, and, I bet, so can you," wrote a blogger. "Perhaps what has gone stale is Barr's reading of contemporary poetry."
In person, Barr plays down the controversy. "We're definitely not trying to dumb down poetry," he says. "We're not trying to introduce the notion that we would judge quality by book sales or even accessibility. But if poetry has somehow lost touch with a broader readership, there's an opportunity to reverse that. People are going to love poetry when they get back to it." As that last statement suggests, Barr has a tendency to express himself in marketingspeak, which may irritate his critics as much as the actual content of what he's saying. "It's easy for an academic to attack him," Gioia says, "because he's not talking in the elegant patois of the English department. But he has enormous practical capabilities."
Should poetry be more entertaining? Have we failed poetry by not bothering to read it? Or has poetry failed us, by not seducing us into reading it? Even if you don't agree with Barr's solutions, he has at least admitted a fundamental and painful cultural fact: that something has changed, that the great voices of our time no longer speak in verse.
The $200 million won't change that; nothing, not even money, can get people to enjoy something against their will. What poetry really needs is a writer who can do for it what Andy Warhol did for avant-garde visual art: make it sexy and cool and accessible without making it stupid or patronizing. When that writer arrives, cultural change will come swiftly, and relatively effortlessly. And Barr will be waiting, with a check.