Free (Market) Verse

James_MerrillWhen James Merrill died ten years ago, the New York Times Magazine used the occasion to publish an obituary—not of the elegant poet himself but of the entire “poetry establishment.” Without Merrill’s inherited millions trickling down to fellow poets, the magazine predicted, the clubby uptown world of old-style patronage would soon unravel. Donor readings at J.P. Morgan’s former home, easy access to the pages of The New Yorker, cushy tenured chairs, guaranteed publication by FSG and Knopf, and a monopoly on prestige- and cash-conferring prizes—all of it would disappear in short order. Meanwhile, barbarians were at the gate—L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, HipHop poets, Neo-Formalists, Surrealists, Nuyorican slam poets—and it wasn’t another exquisitely crafted, emotionally muted poem that they were clamoring for.

One can forgive the Times Magazine for failing to notice that a sort of reactionary party was forming as well, one with its own axe to grind for the poetry “establishment.” Fronted by a trio of Midwestern white guys with business backgrounds, this nascent movement envisioned a revolution in American poetry, a renaissance of good old-fashioned verse about authentic American life for the amusement and improvement of regular folks. Metrical, memorizable, mom-and-pop approved, the poetry these men dreamt of would make easy money out of easy meaning, enabling poets to earn their keep on the free market rather than depend upon millionaires’ sons or MFA programs to subsidize them. According to them, once poetry was fully deregulated, once its creative and entrepreneurial forces were freed from the fetters of state patronage and academia alike, good and true voices would reclaim the audience that obscurantist snobs had forfeited sometime circa 1910.

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