Holding Fast to a Sinking Ship

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While scanning through the comments of another blog, i found what appeared to be a calloused remark. The blog, it should be mentioned, was comprised almost entirely of original poetry, which some of you may have noticed is also, of late, my preferred vehicle of expression. The comment was this: “No one reads poetry anymore. Write a real novel and get paid.” i am forced to wonder at the motivations of the commenter. Were they truly expressing a disdain for things poetic? Were they attempting to help the writer by telling a hard truth? And what precisely constitutes a “real” novel? Does this imply that somehow poetry is fake? i will first concede that his point is mostly accurate. A fairly comprehensive resource for writers, Poets and Writers (despite the word “poet” being of first prominence in its name) nevertheless lists only two literary agents in the US who are willing to accept poetry manuscripts unsolicited. In comparison there are hundreds for fiction. The poetry section in my local bookstore is comprised of only two shelves, one of which contains mostly duplicate copies of The Iliad, and is tucked discretely into the most remote corner of the store. i would be surprised if even the employees knew it was there. Nearby, there are multitudes of shelves for fiction, so many in fact that several sub-categories are more abundantly stocked than poetry, most notably, “Teen Paranormal Romance,” which itself contains three packed-to-brimming shelves.

So the commenter’s point is valid, to some degree, though it was made as tactlessly as possible. But it certainly exposes that there are at least two philosophies about writing. The first is this commenter’s position: writing is a business, one in which certain strategies are viable and others are not. It is not wrong, and not impractical, and truly if someone wishes to pursue writing merely as a means to “get paid,” then there are obviously genres that are lucrative and those that are not. Poetry being the latter.

But i do not tend to hold this philosophy myself, for a myriad of reasons. Primarily, i have never seen writing merely as a means to an end, which is, i believe, what this particular theory reduces it to. It becomes no more than a task we perform, lumped alongside countless other efforts from which our heart is detached yet we perform nevertheless because the period at the end of that sentence is a dollar sign. i also believe that writing is art, not business. Again, there are many varieties of writing that are business, but poetry is not among them. No honest poet (and frankly no honest novelist either) does what they do for the money. Certainly if it becomes possible to make money from one’s art then it does not make one disingenuous for taking that opportunity. But if it is the goal from the outset, then something has been lost, chiefly, the point of writing in the first place. i find that i do not write for what i may get out of it, but ultimately for what it may get out of me, and for what others may gain through my writing. This, i think, tends to produce ultimately better writing, and the mark of what is better is not measured by my bank balance. It is measured by factors as nebulous and mysterious as the art of writing itself: great writing is that which is inspired, and that which inspires. It is that which cannot not be written, because both the writer’s soul and the world need it.

The world needs poetry, even if it doesn’t know it. It is a form, though commercially unpopular at the moment, that has existed for centuries, and will exist for as long as people write. It is the only way, sometimes, that man can express meaningfully the stirrings of his heart, and thus i will press on. Though it may not enable me to “get paid” as regularly or as much as i might wish, i cannot give it up simply because it does not thicken my wallet.

Though there were only two shelves, the poetry section contained work by artists that have been dead for centuries. Homer, Shakespeare, the anonymous writer of Beowulf, all are immortalized on that shelf. No book in “Teen Paranormal Romance” was published more than ten years ago. And ten years hence, a few may still survive, but i have my doubts.

Money comes, and is spent, and then is no more. Poetry, good poetry, will remain, and generations and people for years to come, God-willing, will be reading it and gleaning from it. So write on poets. It is you, and not those suspect chroniclers of lycanthropy, who will be remembered, for it is you who are touching the eternal.

***

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  – Matthew 6 : 19 – 20

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3 thoughts on “Holding Fast to a Sinking Ship

  1. The very words “Teen Paranormal Romance” give me such a shudder. I don’t care if I am just expressing the stereotypical response of a 30something man, but it’s sad to see such a pathetic sub-sub-sub-genre take over such huge real estate in the few (alas, mostly giant-corporate cookie-cutter) bookstores we have left.

    But the more important point about poetry is ringing loud truth, brother. I sometimes forget for a season how important poetry is. Then I rediscover it. Right now I am slowly working through a slim volume of Wendell Berry’s poetry, called “Given.” It is so beautiful. I’ll share some with you soon.

    Josh

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    • The better part of me wants to have grace for novelists who choose to use their craft to follow whatever commercial whims the culture provides. Obviously it can be difficult to make substantial money at this craft and some of these writers may even genuinely enjoy what they are doing.

      The worse part of me wants to scream and throw the books into the street as if they were moneychangers in a temple.

      But instead i will take the high road, and simply state that it is unlikely, except in a metaphoric way, that you will ever see the words “vampire” or “werewolf” in this man’s work.

      …and except in this comment as well, i guess. But that is it! Thanks for reading and for the encouragement as always.

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  2. Pingback: Fiction is a Fiction. (or: Fiction is History) « inputoutputmodule

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