IN 2002, THE US-based Poetry magazine got a windfall. Ruth Lilly, an American philanthropist, gifted it close to 200 million dollars. There is not much money in poetry. It is a form of literature that is in its twilight and its sustenance is not a function of mar•ket demand, just the helping hand of governments, grants and fellowships. With 200 million dollars in its pocket, the magazine established a Poetry Foundation which, because of its vast coffers, became somewhat central in popularising and promoting the form.
And now we hear that the Foundation will reward poetry not on merits (whatever that nebulous term means) but political appropriateness. This comes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that led to the liberal world drowning itself in a sea of racist guilt even if they were not racist.
Poetry Foundation’s response to this is in a letter last week, first stated as intent some time back and now in concrete measures it seeks to take. This included: ‘The Poetry Foundation made a commitment to distribute $1 million over the next two years to sup•port individual poets and writers, and to organizations fighting for social justice, and working to advance racial equity in poetry and affiliated art.’
In short, money it got for the service of poetry is now being used for a political project. Why should anyone have a quibble with it? Between a poet who is fighting for social justice and one who is not, isn’t it self-evident who is more deserving? Change the terms of the comparison a little. Why not, for example, give the support to poets who were born blind or abused as children? Pit one bleeding heart against another, it becomes somewhat more complicated.
Also consider the second order effect of promoting a political project. What would be the chance for any poet, who is not remotely of the same view, getting any grant whatsoever from the Foundation? And if money is on offer for a certain type of poetry, then why would that not be the first port of call for any aspiring poet.
The creative world has refused to acknowledge what it is facing ever since social media unleashed the era of social justice through tweets, and then followed it up with carrots and sticks offline to enforce it.
Can you imagine a manuscript of Lolita going to a publishing house today and having any chance of being published before Woke employees saw in it a justification of child sexual abuse and threw it into the dustbin?
The enforcement of virtue, and the posturing that goes along with it, can’t but straitjacket the imagination.
Unless the mind is free to go wherever it chooses to, it will find nothing new.
The Poetry Foundation is in the US but what it is doing is a phenomenon that touches the cultural sphere all over—the dictatorship of the middle•men, the one-mind arbiters of the creative world.