There are many reasons to respect the New Deal state, and many reasons to despise it. I’m afraid for the former, you’ll have to go elsewhere. For I am a hater.
(Recently I found myself, albeit in conversation with someone I dislike almost as much as the New Deal state, describing UR as a “neofascist hate blog.” I am not endorsing this label, of course. But I’m sure some would.)
It is impossible to count the New Deal’s crimes. The list must include everything short of mass murder. And even that is arguable. And what is crime, really, at the hands of the State? Is there really a higher law? Is the concept even meaningful? Who shall pass sentence?
So I hope you won’t accuse me of a failure of proportion when I say that, of all its crimes, the most despicable is the way the New Deal state seduced, devoured and destroyed the arts.
Conrad Roth and I have a little disagreement over the fate of the Western university. He believes that Western academic humanism, though definitely diseased, is not beyond repair. I believe that the entire Western university system needs to be crushed, broken, pulverized, autoclaved, autoclaved again, thermally depolymerized, mixed with radioactive strontium, and shot into the Sun. That is, if the Sun can handle it. If it starts developing huge festering brown spots after ten or twenty years, we’ll know we should have gone with the Oort Cloud instead.
Please do not click these links. There is nothing interesting behind them. Instead, let’s have a look at the cover of Mr. Tolides’ book:
However, this is not the limit of Ms. Karr’s gall. Because what has she done? Serving as a judge, or at least meta-judge (I’m sure she did not actually comb through the slushpile herself), in a contest open to the public with a $30 submission fee, receiving God only knows how many entries, from aspiring poets all over America if not the world, men and women who slaved over their little precious gems, most of which I’m sure were awful, many of which I’m sure were quite a bit more competent than “The Tree,” she has cut the Gordian knot by selecting one of her own students.
Believe it or not, this is actually quite a common practice. (Indeed, Tolides and Karr were officially nailed on this very site.) I’m sure that in the last year or two, if nothing else as the result of the Times story, some rules have been revised.
But this is a little like finding a pubic hair in your soup. “Waiter,” you say, “there’s a pube in my soup.” Your waiter comes over and inspects. “Indeed,” he says. And fishes out the hair. “Sorry about that. Enjoy your meal, folks.”
Note that there is absolutely no shame in the way Karr, Tolides or Penguin handled this blatant conflict of interest. Deleting Karr’s name from the acknowledgments would have been trivial. If it wasn’t done, it was only because no one thought they were doing anything wrong.
How do you think moral compromise happens? Sometimes one person decides to do something appallingly, flagrantly corrupt. (Note how well the corruption of poetry fits my general theory—the National Poetry Series is, indeed, not what it appears to be.) But more often, what happens is a general decline in ethical standards across an entire field of human endeavor. Typically driven by a “race to the bottom” in which only the unscrupulous survive.
Now we can fit our pieces together, and look at how the New Deal destroyed poetry.
Poetry is an industry. It has always been an industry. It is something that people do. Writing poetry is work. You may be paid for this work in money, or you may be paid in the esteem of your peers, or you may be paid only in your own satisfaction. But you are paid.
Before the New Deal, poets were paid either in the esteem of their peers, or in book royalties. To say that poetry as a consumer business worked perfectly would be wrong. For most of the 19th century, the public’s taste in verse was—at least by my standards—lamentable. Your mileage may vary, but I am simply unable to process any poetry written in the 19th century, except for freaks like Emily Dickinson. When I look at, say, James Russell Lowell or Tennyson or even Swinburne, I wonder how anyone slogged through this kitsch, these dreadful archaisms and Romantic artifice. (Of course, I’m quite confident that future generations will think the same of our NPR banalities, race-opera and refried surrealism.)
Certainly the best poetry of the 20th century was written from the ’20s through the mid-’60s. These poets—I am particularly fond of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, etc.—sometimes did reasonably well in the sales department, but they were invariably of a highly critical and negative disposition, and peer esteem was their real currency.
In the ’60s, though, something awful happened. Poetry became a Federal jobs program. To use the terminology from my theory of corruption, it became a form of edupatronage.
The great disaster was the enormous expansion of higher education in the ’60s and ’70s. There is a reason so many college campuses have that abominable Brutalist architecture. Almost everyone who went through this gigantic, state-sponsored indoctrination machine had no reason at all to be there (please allow me to introduce you to Albert Jay Nock). They were there to be promoted in social class, perhaps also to avoid the draft. They were certainly not acquiring either vocational skills or wisdom and perspective. And nor are they still—certain areas of science and engineering, of course, excepted.
The overwhelming force behind this expansion was a massive injection of Federal subsidies. (Of course this was the Great Society rather than the New Deal proper—I hope you’ll excuse me for seeing the whole as a single, gigantic, 75-year-old octopus.) Education, for New Deal Democrats, is just like immigration—a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking.
Here is the way poetry works now. The business is teaching. The currency is the book. Now that Tryfon Tolides has a book, and one published by Penguin at that (rather than, say, Dirt River Press), he can get a teaching job. His teacher, Karr, has “made” him. Just like Christopher Moltesanti.
(Hardly anyone will buy Tolides’ book, for obvious reasons, but this does not matter at all. Except for Billy Collins, Jewel, etc., poetry is not an economically significant arm of the publishing industry. Major publishers, like Penguin, continue to produce it only because they would lose prestige if they shut it down. Poetry is like short stories—the only people who read it are people who write it.)
When I say “teaching job,” of course I don’t mean eighth grade. With a Penguin book, Tolides is qualified to teach creative writing anywhere that has an opening. Of course openings are scarce these days, because everyone with an IQ over 95 is going to college and the system simply cannot be expanded. The glory days of wild metastatic growth are long gone. The university is assuming its grim, Brezhnevian mature form.
And what has entirely disappeared, as the quotes above should make quite clear, is any sense of a mutually critical aristocratic elite. Instead, one ascends in the poetry world exactly the same way that one ascended in the Soviet intelligence services: by joining the right clique and remaining loyal to it. It is a pure pyramidal patronage system.
There is not even a concept of what it would mean to “succeed” outside this system. There is simply no independent pool of taste. There is only a vast river of books released by an endless stream of careerists. A consumer, even if he or she has the best taste in the world, will never, ever be able to filter this Ganges. Which is exactly why no one reads poetry anymore.
And worse, what these careerists seek is not even good filthy money. Teaching poetry is an abominable career. Unless you are ridiculously lucky, your students are subhuman morons, your pay is laughable, your prospect of tenure is nonexistent.
However, you are paid with something that no money can buy, the social status of poet. And no one—and I mean no one—in the world looks down on a “published poet.” Whether it’s men, women, poetry teachers, sheep or little Greek boys he prefers, Tryfon Tolides will always be able to get laid.
What a pathetic and contemptible system! These people are nothing but bureaucrats. And the situation is only getting worse. It’s no surprise that degenerate tropes such as race opera, let alone these greeting-card banalities, flourish in the horrid Petri dish of the modern university. It is tailor-made for virulent Universalism of every sort. The more fanatical and banal your doggerel is, the easier it is to form alliances with other writers of banal, fanatical doggerel.
The blurbs I copied above remind me of nothing so much as the efficiency reports my father used to bring home from the State Department. Every one, if you read them literally, as if they just said what they meant in English, praised him as a sort of low-level Napoleon, a paragon of energy, discipline and effectiveness. Perhaps next year they would make him President, or at least a deputy secretary?
Then he would show me where the report was actually trying to rip him a new asshole, and ensure that he never got promoted ever again. Everyone’s efficiency report looks like one of these blurbs. But those who know could tell the difference. I wonder if the same is true in the poetry world. Perhaps if Paul Mariani hadn’t spent ten minutes curled up on the floor, just dying, shaking with massive spasms of uncontrollable hilarity, after reading “The Tree,” he would have compared Tolides to Rembrandt or Michelangelo, instead of just Vermeer, and got him in as an adjunct at a good state college, none of this “community” crap.
And this is why no one even thought of thinking that it might look bad for Karr to select Tolides, and Tolides to thank Karr. It’s because complaining about conflicts of interests in the poetry industry is like complaining about salacious language in a whorehouse. The entire industry is one giant conflict of interest—a classic self-licking ice-cream cone.
To be precise, the interest it serves is its own, and the interests it conflicts with are everyone else’s. Because not even the students are served. Those who lack the talent to write poetry, which is of course almost all of them, are wasting at the very least their time and very likely a good bit of money as well. No one ever tells them this—it would be considered unethical. And as for those who do have talent, picture them instructed by one of these bloviating quacks, these bureaucrats of love, these revealers of the consequence of being.
No. I’m definitely thinking Oort Cloud here. We really can’t be too sure.