Monday, November 14, 2011

poet laureate

I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts of my artist and art loving friends regarding the matter below. I'm not trying to solicit anything here, I'm just genuinely curious.

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I'm currently enrolled in a French literature class where we study 19th century French theater pieces. The second play we read was called Chatterton by Alfred de Vigny. It's a fictionalized account of a real-life English poet named Thomas Chatterton who lived during the middle of the 18th century. This play depicts the plight of Chatterton, a young man struggling to earn a living as a poet. In the end (spoiler alert), when he fails to do so he kills himself. (According to Wikipedia, the real Chatterton "died of arsenic poisoning, either from a suicide attempt or self-medication for a venereal disease." Either way, tragic.) (Incidentally, his death date is my birthday.)

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Poor guy. Image from here.

For every piece we read in this class we're supposed to write a paper expounding upon a theme or topic found in the piece. For Chatterton, one subject my teacher suggested for such a paper was the role of the poet in society. Her opinion is that the poet is a guide for the people, a person who gives inspiration and enlightenment. And in order to produce works of such enlightenment and inspiration, a poet needs time for constant reflection and pondering -- time that should not be lost in the pursuit of earning one's living, as a factory worker, or a cobbler, or a mason, or whatever it was people did for work in the 18th century. Therefore, as a guide for the people, it is then the people's duty -- or really, the government's duty -- to provide for the living of the poet.

Now, in theory, I don't necessarily disagree with that sentiment. While I'm not much of poetry reader, I enjoy literature, fiction, stories -- dare I say? -- more than the next guy. Not only do I find enjoyment in prose, poetry's sibling, I find a great deal of insight, hope, and wisdom therein. There's no doubt that the written word has been vital to my general well being as a human. I very much agree that writers, whatever their medium, contribute much to the enrichment of our society.

This sentiment in practice, however, is a different story. For one, sadly, not everyone in the society to which I belong will like reading as much as I do. I have friends who celebrate how little they read. That's fine, that's OK. They have different interests, to which they are just as entitled, that I will not begrudge them. Maybe, someone can find just as much meaning in, I don't know, football as I find in reading and re-reading some of my favorite books. (The same can be said for music, or photography, or painting, or film, or sculpture, or name your preferred form of art). So, what complex society of such differing interests and passions will support the poet or writer but not the photographer or painter? Or, is it up to society to provide a living for all these supposedly invaluable artists?

Furthermore, in a society whose government supports the poet/writer/guide-of-the-people, who or what determines who gets to be town poet? Let's say that in a society of 100 working adults there'd be room for one poet. The rest of the working population would have to fill the other important posts: baker, grocer, thatcher, tailor, cooper (someone's gotta make the town's barrels), butcher, farmer, and you get the point. But, what if in this same community, there are 10 individuals who want to be town poet but society has the means to provide for only one? What is the fate of the other nine wannabe poets? Do they kill themselves because they think that poetry is the only profession in which they would find success and enjoyment, just like Vigny's version of Thomas Chatteron?

Anyway, I've been wondering about all this lately -- because being town poet would be a pretty sweet job.

Additional Reading: "Distressed Nation Turns To Poet Laureate For Solace"


  1. Myke, clearly if there were 10 wanna be poets and only one town poet post...I would kill the other 9.

    First,your class sounds rad.

    As much as I would love to have the government support the up and coming artist's guild, I feel like it would in fact take away the purpose/struggle/cliche of that artistic expression. Part of the appeal and draw for artists is that they are independent and risking financial security for creativity.

    At the same time I do feel like someone can indeed write great poetry and still have a profession. So long as that profession does not require much physical effort, which would probably be pretty easy in this day and age.

    (Secretly) I spent a semester in college skipping (aka failing) all my classes just to "ponder" and write poetry. I guess technically the government paid for that but I had to pay it back haha. I can honestly say devoting whole days to poetry did not improve or damage my quality of writing. I mean it probably wasn't Yeats, but my best poems have come from immense emotions or extreme fatigue...always at night.

    As for artists killing themselves because their only passion can not be satisfied by being a professional poet then it seems to me they have some other issues going severe depression or bipolar disorder. And there was probably nothing we could do anyways.

  2. I didn't know you had a blog Myke! It's nice to read a blog where the writer can actually write;) As to your proposed question, I have always had a hard time with this because in my family we have a hard mix between realist left brain and creative right brain and somewhere between all the mixing I came out both.
    I realize that certain jobs need to be done that have a more concrete end, but I enjoy the arts and see that they give real purpose at the end of the day. I can take a picture of a family who doesn't care how creative or beautiful the image turns out, just wanting a picture with all of them together, but they will still appreciate what I give them. They will look at that picture and realize that there is more to their family dynamic than can be put into a cookie cutter shot.
    People may not confess that they need art but our world runs on it. During times of economic unease movies are still attended because they are a release. These talents are given to us for a reason and though the phrase "starving artist" isn't exaggerating much there is always a place for an artist in the world. I think that the story you were relating is a small taste of what I see happening all over the world, in many different areas, such as, an over saturation of artists without ample commissioners. On the other side, I have about 15 neighbors that I know of graduating from law school right now with only half of them able to find jobs.

  3. There's too much that can be written about this to cover properly in a long essay, but I'll try to keep my responses as brief as possible and inline with the questions given:

    It is then the people's duty -- or really, the government's duty -- to provide for the living of the poet What complex society will support the poet or writer but not the photographer or painter? Or, is it up to society to provide a living for all these supposedly invaluable artists?

    I view photographers, painters, poets, writers, filmmakers, sculptors, fashion designers, etc as all being artists. They should all be supported and have the ability to produce art, because like you said, they provide tremendous value to society. We do provide a living for all these artists. To me this argument is really more about Socialism vs Capitalism. In our capitalist society we support artists we like by buying their works. One of the benefits is that everyone has the ability to compete and create art for a living. Theoretically, the art that resonates most with the people at large will be valued highest and the best artists will be taken care of financially. Unfortunately, the best don't always get the credit they deserve - Michael Bay & Stephanie Meyer get paid astronomical sums of money to produce crappy commercialized "art," whereas Vincent Van Gogh and John Kennedy Toole never got financial or critical recognition for the great works they created.
    As I see it, one of the problems with the world right now is that art isn't valued as much as it used to be and people don't have good taste. It use to be that artists were the most popular people in the world next to political leaders. But now Kim Kardashian is the most famous woman in the world (arguably, kind of) but she has literally done nothing of merit. There's a serious problem with society when Danielle Steel and James Patterson are two of the most popular writers today and guys like Junot Diaz and Johnathan Franzen are nearly unknown.
    A problem with the current model definitely exists, but I don't think moving to a socialist model is the answer. Let's say the government chose who got to be artists (poets) and who did menial labor. How is it determined whether the designated town poet is going to be the best poet? There's no way to tell they'll be good - unless they're a prodigy like Mozart. As a youth, Keats showed no signs of notable artistic merit before he was 19. People never thought he'd be a good poet. He never even considered it himself. Then he went on to enjoy one of the most amazing bursts of creativity ever seen in human history from the time he was 21 till he died at age 25. If we subscribed to a Socialist model of pre-ordained artists (poets) we would miss out on people like that. Furthermore, under such a model, art would not progress because it would be stifled and constricted to operate under conventions that are deemed superior by the government.
    My prediction is that the government would judge the merit of works of art based on how well they align to other great works that have already been created. Novels wouldn't be considered great by the government unless they followed the model of Huck Finn. Paintings would need to have a style similar to Da Vinci, Monet, or Rembrandt. Those guys were great because they produced stuff that was radically different than anything that came before them, but that wouldn't be encouraged under a socialist model.

  4. The purpose of new art is to push convention and journey into uncomfortable territory. The best poets of the last 300 years invented new rhyme schemes and played with meter rather than just copying Shakespeare. They pushed the work forward. If the government determined what was good art and what was bad they would have to have a ridged model to judge new works by. Good art doesn't conform to a model. Ginsberg's "Howl," and T.S. Elliot's "Wasteland" would have been disregarded as too confusing and abstract. Faulkner wouldn't have been allowed to write "As I Lay Dying" because it had 16 narrators rather than just 1 like normal conventions of the time dictated. Good work pushes boundaries and moves the world forward. That's how it provides value.
    If you're a photographer today and all you do when you take portraits is get get the subject(s) dressed in nice clothes, take em out to a cool background scene, snap their picture looking straight at them, but mix in a few different poses and add some Photoshop actions…YOU SUCK! You're not attempting to do anything anyone hasn't already done. That's not art. Same thing for writers - if you're writing a book with only one narrator or you're presenting time linearly and everything in the world works out and the hero wins in the end, you suck! You can't be better than everyone else by just copying what has been done in the past (This reminds me of one of my favorite poems, MacFlecknoe by Dryden)

    What I'm getting at with that, is that it's impossible for a governing body to determine whose work will be most beneficial to society because it would be impossible for them to judge properly. It's not how great art is born. If universities are teaching about the literary merits of Twilight in 100 years then I will be come back reincarnated as a Mutant Zombie Panda and destroy everyone.

    What is the fate of the other nine wannabe poets? Do they kill themselves because they think that poetry is the only profession in which they would find success and enjoyment, just like Vigny's version of Thomas Chatteron?

    Toole killed himself. So did van Gogh, Cobain, and countless other artists that produced high quality stuff that no one in their time period liked. The current model is cruel to those who are ahead of their time. It's definitely not a fair model. There's no guarantee that you'll definitely get credit for being an artistic badass….but at least you have the chance to create art and get recognized for it.
    In a socialist model, those 9 wannabe poets are just sent off and forced to become coopers, tailors, and blacksmiths whether they like it or not. At least you have the option to kill yourself in a capitalist society rather than subject yourself to one more Twilight movie.

    Sorry this went on so long, but I think asking questions like this and talking about them is a lot of fun because it gives us a chance to question art and also how we place value on art and possibly make changes to our model.

  5. I'm not sure what the question was exactly, but I have a few words on art, society and the linking of the two.
    First, can anyone (reading this blog let's say, or even expanind, anyone with whom you interact regularly) name the current poet laureate of our country without a google search? Or the last three maybe? Or any of their works? My guess is, if you can, you are either a grad student or . . . well probably a lit grad student.
    I took a poetry class in college and earned a greater appreciation for the art that I had previously passed over in favor of fiction literature. While I find poetry, when well done, to be a great accomplishment, I fail to find it to be any kind of guide for our society.
    Perhaps that has much to say of our culture and values, or maybe just much to say about me, but I'm under the impression that art is vital and life changing for artists, so when artists comment on art, they do so in a way that makes it seem like it guides all of us, but I don't think it does. This point being illustrated again by the general lack of knowledge people have in our own modern country about the appointment of a national poet.
    You could argue that going back to the 18th century people had more appreciation for art and poetry, but that was most likely again, limited to artists or at best the upper class. The average man/woman/child was horribly illiterate for a most of our history as humans, and that has really only changed in some countries in the last 100 or less years.
    Art is so arbitrary I find it hard to say one piece is more important, influential, etc. than another. I find it impossible to gauge the cultural significance. Ultimately I think art affects us more superficially than we'd like to admit. Unless a work of art moved you to become an artist in the same vein how much has it changed you? Most likely it's changed the way you decorate your home, or perhaps the books you read, but what values have shifted? I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but if an accountant is an accountant one day, reads some T.S. Eliot, continues to be an accountant that now likes reading T.S. Eliot what has changed? The form of entertainment essentially.
    Artists will always claim art as being the most important aspect of society, often using terms like soul, heart, life blood and other artsy buzzwords. But engineers will always name their profession as more important and culture shaping (with more reason in my opinion. Compare number of people who know the poet laureate with the number who own an iPhone). Doctors will make the same claim. So will soldiers, lawyers, teachers, etc.
    Artists, and I guess this is where I am going or trying to get to, don't bring anything less essential to the societal table than any other profession. All the arguing in the world won't matter because who is more influential or important all boils down to opinion (except engineers and doctors. If I have a bomb shelter I'm leaving poets in the fallout. I can string my own words together.)So, ultimately, artists being paid to sit around and do nothing and create seems unfair to the rest of us, or at least the rest of those who you could argue "guide society". Also, creating art comes from experience, which often comes from struggles to live, thrive and find your way in the world.
    On a side note I have a poem I wrote about a mutual friend I would love to show you to get your opinion.