Venture capital for poets.

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Nov. 26 2002 5:39 PM

Willy Lilly Nilly

Venture capital for poets.

For some time now, a poet's life has been a lose-lose proposition of little fame and long struggle for a teaching post and a good pair of shoes. But last week poets across the nation rejoiced and then hurried to the fax machine. News had come that Poetry magazine, a monthly based in Chicago, and one of the few magazines devoted exclusively to the form, had received a $100 million gift from Ruth Lilly. The mysterious donor is an 87-year-old heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune (the company manufactures Prozac, among other things), who once wanted to be a poet herself and now wants to promote "public support of poetry." "It's a good thing, an unambiguously good thing, that Mrs. Lilly has done," Billy Collins, the poet laureate, told the New York Times. The Times' book columnist praised Lilly's "stunningly pure benevolence." Because Lilly's own poems had been rejected by Poetry, the story was quickly spun as all the more touching—the call to Advance Contemporary Poetry had trumped any possible grievance.

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In fact, the gift, though well-intentioned, is foolish. Perhaps literally so: Ruth Lilly has been mentally incompetent, by law, for some 20 years (few of the major papers bothered to report this). Her estate was managed first by her brother and is now controlled by her lawyer, Thomas Ewbank, who worked out the details of the arrangement as it was announced by Joseph Parisi, the editor of Poetry.

But the real problem is that the gift is the essence of bad philanthropy—an overblown act of generosity that undermines its own possible efficacy. Poetry, which had a staff of four, an annual budget of $600,000, and a circulation of approximately 12,000, is suddenly among the best-endowed cultural institutions in the world. (The Guggenheim Foundation's assets are $219 million.) There's little evidence that Parisi will be adept at managing large sums of money or the publishing house he reportedly plans to start; and yet the Lilly bequest means the sun will never set on Poetry's empire.

Even if Parisi uses the money well, there's no way that he can validate such a large donation to a single small publication—especially when there are hundreds of cash-poor poetry magazines in America, some of which are very good. And so far he has not sounded terribly imaginative. According to the New York Times, he wants to "use the money to educate middle school and high school teachers in the richness of poetry." (Alas, no pun was intended.) Apparently, he envisions programs where teachers meet active poets "and ask them such questions as 'Where do their ideas come from?' and 'Why do you write?' The best way to spend money is with teachers in workshops." Parisi was speaking off the top of his head, but this trickle-down view of poetry promotion seems wrong-headed. We're expected to believe that teachers across America, after an inspiring seminar with a Live Poet, will return to their schools, jump on their desks, and, with a kind of irresistible Dead Poets Society brio, begin declaiming, "Every woman adores a fascist!" or "They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad!" in turn sending droves of students out to buy poetry books and kick-start the poetry economy. But, as charming as Billy Collins may be, putting public-school teachers in a room with him and some coffee and crullers isn't going to lead to a mass buyout of the Graywolf backlist.

If Lilly were truly interested in advancing poetry, the best way to do it would have been to spread the wealth around. Lilly should have given $10 million to 10 different magazines or started a nonprofit foundation with an elected board to hand out grants to writers. This would have started a conversation, not a cultural hegemony—and it would have distributed Lilly's bets across the literary table, instead of investing them all in the hope that Parisi becomes poetry's Lorenzo de Medici. It would also mean that more people interested in poetry could make a living by means other than teaching—either at magazine jobs with real pay and benefits, or simply by writing. Poetry, at the high end of the market, now pays $2 a line; a measly $28 for a sonnet, as the Times pointed out. Lilly's bequest could ensure that the next Wallace Stevens doesn't stop writing poetry because he's made only $6.70 in royalties (the astonishingly low sum Stevens received six months after the publication of his debut collection, Harmonium).

Even if the $100 million were spent more effectively, America still wouldn't become a country of passionate poetry readers. My 15-year-old brother would still ask for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for Christmas and not the collected works of Elizabeth Bishop. But the money could have been useful to a broader number of people within the poetry community; and galvanizing a world from within sometimes changes the way it appears to the world without. What Lilly shook up, unfortunately, is a snow globe within a snow globe, and Parisi is going to have to go to great lengths to make sure the money doesn't just flutter prettily to the floor.

Why, then, has the gift met with so much praise from poets and publishers alike? The reasons are obvious: It's great that anyone cares this much about poetry, and most writers are happy that the word "chapbook" has been in the news at all. Besides, the elephant in the room has already cast its shadow. Other magazine editors don't want to look ungracious, and poets don't want to alienate such a key potential benefactor.

Whatever Parisi does, the empty rhetoric about poetry's richness has to go, or students will feel sweaty and nervous just at the sight of a slim volume on the table and begin to daydream wistfully of the new Vin Diesel movie. It's like Marianne Moore said, of poetry, all those years ago: "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond/  all this fiddle./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in/ it after all, a place for the genuine."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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