A teacher asked the class once: What makes poetry different from prose?
Poetry doesn't have to rhyme; even Milton didn’t. It doesn't have to be shorter than prose; Paradise Lost is longer than some novels. It doesn’t have to treat of a high subject; there are epic poems and there are limericks.
So what exactly makes poetry poetry? How can we distinguish it from prose? And why, like porn or flirting, do we know it when we see it?
There’s an uproar among the writerly types of this world over their falling fortunes. E-books, Amazon, price wars, disappearing bookstores, niche audiences, fragmentation, the dominance of genre fiction, the proliferation of choices, the impoverishment of both professional criticism and public discourse on literature, overwhelmed old world publishers, clueless new world publishers, and nobody stops texting long enough to read anyway.
But most of all, and most damning and damaging of all to those who place a premium on their words: writing isn’t writing anymore. It’s not even typing. It’s talking.
Those rare birds of this world who make money with their words depend on the perfectly legitimate idea that, despite the last decades’ information jailbreak, their work has value. Writing a novel or researching an article is hard work, harder still to do well, and it honors no one to expect it to be free.
The truth is, as in all its incarnations, being free is terrifying. To the marketplace of ideas, it stinks of death. Why create if the creation has no value? On a long enough timeline, the instinct is that free writing will mean no writing at all - that is, no writing of value.
The editor of the country’s most prestigious magazine has drawn a line in the sand. Harper’s editor-in-chief John R. MacArthur, as lucid and distinguished a character as the old guard can produce, refuses to give away the writing of his contributors for free. He writes often and earnestly on the cultural impoverishment that must result from doing so, with special contempt for the denizens of the bloghetto who peddle their middling wares for nothing and expect professionals to do the same. He bristles at the notion of reducing the ‘well-wrought sentences and stories’ of respectable, pay-walled publications like his own to ‘content’. A painful fall from grace it is, from poetry to prose.
Together with the blue-blooded grandpatriarch of high-minded culture, his old boss Lewis Lapham, MacArthur describes his decades spent doing what good editors do: schmooze advertisers (exactly) like it was their job. Brushing aside his distaste for his father’s lucrative profession, MacArthur acknowledges its power and admits that he ‘fell prey to some of [President Reagan]’s most simpleminded thinking’. In other words, he hustled his ass off, and ‘it didn’t hurt’ that his father was ‘something of an advertising genius’ and that both he and Lapham were ‘spawned by the very business establishment’ they ‘criticized in nearly every issue of America’s oldest continuously published monthly’.
Those halcyon days when daddy’s friends indulged the kids’ muckraking in the Montauk backyard sandbox have, unfortunately, given way to a desiccated media landscape where impoverished writers roam a desolately fact-checked-less wasteland spewing inaccuracy, bad grammar, and incoherent thought. And chief among these incoherent thoughts is the dogmatic assumption that writing should be free.
‘We all know what happens to lemmings...so I decided early on I wouldn’t join in the frenzy of free content,’ MacArthur writes. ‘[We] at Harper's insisted that subscribers continue to pay to read our well-written, fact-checked, scrupulously edited, and extremely entertaining paragraphs.’ As a longtime Harper's reader, I can attest to the fact that the paragraphs of those illustrious pages are just balls-to-the-wall fun from beginning to end. I defy anyone to read an entire page without bouncing in glee.
So why not give away important writing? Why not let the people who read it, say, share it with other people they know who may not be able to get past the paywall when they click on the link, and so ignore whatever secrets the writer (or the eager friend) had to pass on? Why not allow it go viral and make a substantive difference in the cultural conversation?
‘Because good publishing, good editing, and good writing cost money, and publishers, editors, and writers have to earn a living,’ MacArthur explains with the ring of reason.
They’re poets. Poetry has value. Prose doesn’t. And if it’s free, it’s not poetry.
They’re poets. Poetry has value. Prose doesn’t. And if it’s free, it’s not poetry.
A surgeon introduces himself to novelist Margaret Atwood at a dinner party. He says, ‘When I retire, I’d like to do some writing.’ She replies, ‘Really? That’s funny. When I retire I’d like to do some surgery.’
Writing is perhaps the quirkiest of art forms, and here’s why: everybody can do it. You can even do it if you’re completely illiterate. You can dictate a book, even a great book. Writing, while different, is very close to talking, and everyone can talk, and everyone does. What’s the difference, really?
Perhaps as a result of this essential confusion, professional writers are, as a rule, intensely defensive about the legitimacy of their craft. Everyone knows a painter learns to paint and a pianist learns to play piano. What does a writer learn?
Oh, so many things. Grammar - that should serve for anyone who hasn’t had long formal schooling. Accuracy - that’s intimidating because it requires discipline, careful research, and someone else you pay to do it. Wit - that’s the mental weight-lifting that lets well-fed, well-sculpted wordsmiths pose and flex for the camera. Structure - that’s a marvelous fudge factor for anyone who’s been paid to write something long talking to people who’ve never had the opportunity. Insight - that’s the detective work of finding out something people didn’t know before and telling them what it is. Put it all together well and they call it poetry.
A great part of the truth is that we distinguish writing from talking due to the technology underlying it. If you have a quill and need to know calligraphy to do it, you’re writing. If you have to get everything typed out exactly right and printed on thousands of expensive tree leaves, you’re writing. If you’re part of a team of people who are paid to review your words, you’re writing.
So what if you text your friends? What if you instant message them? What if you tweet? What if you dictate your tweet through voice recognition software? What if you don’t pay any more attention to the shape of your words than you do when you’re speaking, and it’s really just talking written down? What if it’s all noisy prose and never poetry?
And what if it is poetry? And what if it’s free?
A scandalized MacArthur informs us that a public library in Lenox, Massachusetts - just down the road from where Edith Wharton wrote stories later published in his venerable magazine - does not carry Harper’s. When their circulation director ‘complained...that the magazine deserved pride of place in the library’s periodicals section’, she was rebuffed. Apparently - get this - a small public library couldn’t afford to pay a monthly subscription fee to one magazine. Those poor librarians seemed to be labouring under the modish misapprehension that people should be able to read things people write for free - no doubt drinking that Digital Age, Google-branded Kool-Aid.
As a progressive alternative to the madness - besides himself and his magazine of course - MacArthur reserves his plaudits for the publishers of XXI (not Twenty-one, please - Vingt et un), a boutique French literary journal that’s only sold in hard copy to paying customers, and whose readers must endure seven days of trials to be granted access to the very handsome treasure chest that contains the bibliography. Kept safely under guard by a Swiss security firm, the Writing is guaranteed to increase in value as long as the multitudes can be kept at bay.
No worries over the poetry pedigree of this sweet little sandbox: it’s edited by a descendent of St-Exupery (the little prince of the Academie Francaise) whose Wikipedia entry is the first I’ve read of a living person whose parents were a count and countess.
There’s such a thing as selling power in this world, and it’s not simply a matter of quality. Elite publications with access to an affluent subscriber base are not the turning tide of substantive democratic discourse; they’re an indulgence, a bubble within the bubble. Writing may not be talking, but a writer who wants to speak to people should be in the damn library. It’s just that the library’s gotten a lot bigger.
Writers do need to make a living, and they deserve honest pay for good work. But the rules have changed along with the proportions, and the simple fact of who gets to be a writer is the elitist undercurrent of the old guard’s anxiety. It really is too bad that some of us in this changing world can’t afford to give away their work, but it must be put alongside the fact that most of us can’t afford not to.
Does that mean we don’t get to write poetry?
In the digital marketplace of ideas, freedom is at hand. It would be scary if it were perfect, and it’s not perfect. It’s eerie. A private organization has, as MacArthur has rightly pointed out with alarm, essentially seized intellectual property the world over and made it available to anyone with an internet connection. It then sold what doesn’t belong to it to advertisers, and the business lunch acquaintances of MacArthur’s go-go 80’s moved right along to dinner in Palo Alto. Google’s tiny coterie have made billions on the work of a bunch of lowly, AdSense-remunerated writers.
And all we got for it is the Library of Alexandria in our pockets.
If you’ve ever taken an interest in the history of European art, you’ve been struck by this simple realization: every freaking picture is of Jesus. Vital, evolving, dynamic, elegant, breathtaking pictures drawn almost exclusively from the bible (overlooking the occasional greco-roman mythical scene). And you likely know why that is: the church paid for it. So what happens when no one pays anything for it?
Here’s a question: how are agents different from pimps?
Artists aren’t selling their bodies, but they are selling something intimate, special, and beautiful about themselves. To overstate it in somewhat confusing terms: they’re selling their souls.
In principle, people who offer up what's desirable about themselves don't require someone to help them do it. That's an illusion that a pimp creates - that you can't survive or thrive without them. Aesthetically minded people are not, by and large, intelligent about power, and they certainly don't tend to have any of it. There's a weakness to beauty - the weakness that pimps exploit to enrich themselves.
In practice, violent and hard-made world that it is, pimps are actually effective in the marketplace. Sex workers who have pimps generally make more money and are less likely to be beaten. The same goes, of course, for soul workers. Even in this increasingly diffused, flat, and communicative world, the usual conduits of power are still going strong. It's massively difficult for someone with beauty to sell to do it on their own. They don't own the store.
So who does? The first great firewall of art is the agent - the street-level hustler of the entertainment world. Who are these agents, and what do they do? Well, according to standard industry practice, they’re entrepreneurs who facilitate the buying and selling of creative intercourse and exact a transaction fee for doing so. They have an overarching agenda to maximize profits derived from other people’s very personal work, and they do it systematically. They have a list that they hone, judge, and try to optimize, and they do their best to shut out their own sympathies in order to bow more completely to the reality of the marketplace. We don’t tend to call an entertainment agent’s client list a stable of ho's, but the relationship's parameters are fundamentally similar: you're being judged on your hotness, not your beauty, and if you cease being attractive to clients, they dump you. As they need constantly remind the softer hearts of the earth, art is a business.
Except that it’s not. That’s why we tend to find prostitution repugnant, rightly or wrongly: we feel that there’s a sanctity to lovemaking that’s made to be shared in joy, not bought and sold in desolation. We think - we like to think - that sex is special, or that it should be if it’s done right.
So maybe you do need a pimp. But should you get one? And much more importantly, should you want one? Is that a self-respecting thing to do? Does it do justice to the beauty you feel inside yourself? Or is it, even at its very best, a fundamentally compromised relationship with a power imbalance so acute it can never be truly equal? Is a sex worker who's glad her pimp protects her and helps her make money empowered in any real sense?
As with so many things, your opinion depends on what you think is real. If money is real, and exposure is real, and a career is real, and recognition is real, then yes, this is real. But if you think beauty is real - your beauty - it's emphatically not.
Some of us out here in the wasteland outside the venerable old sandboxes of this world believe that there are other intimate ways for human beings to connect in this life. Prose you can charge for if you must, but poetry, like sex, is special. And the only way it stays special is if it’s free.
‘In all my scurrying back and forth between Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York,’ MacArthur writes, ‘I never considered a fundamental question: Why did a magazine of ideas, criticism, and reporting need to serve as a sales medium between advertisers and readers; why should advertisers be our principal means of support? Not that I didn’t want advertising or have respect for our advertisers, some of whom were genuinely civic-minded. But wasn’t the truly important compact - really the only relationship that mattered - between reader and writer?’
Some simple truths: I’ve written professionally for a number of companies in my life, and like everyone who’s ever done a job, I always did what I was paid to do. Writers who don’t get paid are beholding to no one but their audience; writers who do get paid are always, always, always beholding to someone else. At the least, they get Chosen to write in the first place - usually by birth or friendship, sometimes by happenstance, and never just because.
MacArthur’s right: for all the years of criss-crossing flyover country for martini lunches with advertisers, he never stopped to consider that writing is someone talking to someone. And whoever’s trying to sell something - especially what they’re saying - is not telling the truth.
I can go to the library in Lenox, Massachusetts, pick out a book of poems, memorize one, go home and write it down, fold the note in half, put it on a breakfast tray I serve to my wife in bed, and apparently be guilty of stealing someone’s hard work and putting poets out of business. You know what? Fuck. That. It’s poetry, and everyone has a right to it - the reader and the writer.
Paying for something doesn’t mean it has value, and not paying for something doesn’t mean it doesn’t. Making poetry free doesn’t make it content; charging for content doesn’t make it poetry. Money doesn’t make poetry. Poetry makes poetry.
In a digital world, writers are basically fancy talkers, and talk is cheap - it always has been. Getting rich with your words is not a very common thing for people throughout the ages, partly because usually, if it’s important, everyone will say it. And if you’re really good and you make poetry out of it, they might keep it with them - maybe even learn it by heart.
Artists may campaign against intellectual property theft, but deep in their hearts, if they’re really artists, they want it to be taken. If artists actually sell their souls the way some people sell their bodies, I guarantee you that every artist has a rape fantasy.
It’s a new world, and some new people are rich, and some old people are angry. And we have the Library of Alexandria in our pockets and a shot at the top shelf. That’s as good as writers have ever had it. Sure, the writing’s free, but so are we.