Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Do Poets Want?

Every now and then, the Academy of American Poets sends me a letter asking me to subscribe to their newsletter and receive sundry other benefits in exchange for my contribution. I'm not quite sure why I'm on their mailing list, but several explanations present themselves. They gave me a prize, once, and a poem of mine was published in one of their anthologies. I've also committed other acts that could get me on the list: subscribing to poetry magazines, writing a book of poems, being an English prof, etc. But what interests me here isn't their interest in me (or my money). What I'm interested in is their pitch. Check out the opening paragraphs of their letter, class, and tell me what it is they think I (and any other poet on their list) want and need:

Dear Friend,

Today it gives me great pleasure to invite you to become an Associate Member of the Academy of American Poets.

As Chairman of the Academy, I very much hope you will accept.

In joining us today, you will enter into a new and exciting relationship with the best American poets of today and tomorrow. You will receive public recognition for your role in nurturing the art of poetry. And you will receive a number of material benefits which will bring you closer to the center of the American poetry world.

That's right, class: the "material benefits" are beneath mention at this point. Here, at the start of the pitch, the writers have chosen to concentrate on selling their real products, which are (yeah, you guessed it) BELONGING and ESTEEM, or at the very least the hope/illusion of them. I become something far more esteemed than a subscriber: in exchange for my check I'd become a member (just like the subscribers to National Geographic -- uh, I mean the members of the National Geographic Society). And I'd have a "new relationship" with the best American poets (I suppose the literal truth behind this statement is that I would, in a very minor-league way, be a patron of their art, but the implication seems to be that I'd somehow know them better, maybe even meet a few by a large fireplace in an oak-panelled room where we would sip brandy and discuss Anthony Hecht). Also, I will "receive public recognition for [my] role in nurturing the art of poetry." Woohoo! Will there be a plaque of some kind? Perhaps laurels? I'd like laurels.

As if all this this weren't enough, I will be brought "closer to the center of the American poetry world." Ah, at last! I will be loved! Valued! Picked out of the common mob and taken to...to...to where, exactly? I mean, what center? The Iowa Writer's Program? The SUNY-Buffalo English Department? St. Mark's in the Bowery? The 92nd Street Y? The Poetry Center of Chicago? The Kelly Writer's House? Helen Vendler's doorstep? John Ashbery's loft? John Ashbery's pharmacist? Or, in some weird real-life version of the Commodore Vic-20 era movie Tron, will I be transported physically onto the internet and placed inside Mark Scroggins' blog? Wherever it is, I'm sure the inhabitants (with tweeds or with pierced tongues, with sherry or rare B-sides by The Fugs) will see, accept, value and love me. At last, at last, at last...

By the way: the Academy of American Poets is a fine organization, and I support their outreach efforts and their desire to do some good for poetry. I'd really support any effort on their part to give me a grant. That's the kind of "public recognition of [my] role in nurturing the art of poetry" I could get down with.