Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Les is more than I can handle

It will always have its detractors, of course, as anyone who has suddenly come into money will, and anyway, detractors are to any institution what air is to a whale. But Chicago’s Poetry Foundation is at least putting some of that money where its 96 year-old mouth is.

In its annual newsletter just arrived on my desk, Foundation President John Barr states

Recently we counted up… and were surprised to find that our partners number more than 40 different national and local academic and cultural institutions. The collective effect of all the Foundations activities in 2007……was to place the poems in front of 10 million people.

On top of this there is Poetry’s ongoing commitment to awards. Now, you may share some of my scepticism about awards (look no further than the winner of this year’s Archibald in Sydney), but at least Poetry is going some way to unclogging the funnel and allowing some real and lasting talent to slip through. There is also Poetry Foundation’s initiative American Life in Poetry, in the words of John Barr, a syndicated weekly column of poems selected by former poet laureate, Ted Kooser and published by the Foundation with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. That column now reaches more than four million newspaper readers each week, and the program is being expanded to offer a free poetry syndication service to newspapers (you hear that, SMH?!!) featuring book reviews, op-eds, and articles on poets and poetry. In addition to continuing a series of broadcasts on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer......

As you may have intuited by the dots, I could go on, but all this vibrancy and optimism is making me dizzy. I am a native, after all, of that hoarse whisper south of the line where our only poetic “institution” is a bloated avatar for all the good we inherited, whose skewed pronouncements on those less fortunate than himself speak volumes for his clinical condition and not much else, and whose output seems to yellow and blister at each fresh reading. Had I a fraction of his money (this is a man, need I remind you, who could afford to return an enormous government grant, in essence buying copy to air his pithy grievances), then I assure you I would be doing my utmost to explore ways of salvaging what remains of this island’s proud literary heritage. Let’s face it, Poetry are drawing up the blueprints.

It behoves none of us to draw too many parallels between Americans and Antipodeans. They are a programmatic race infused with an energy alien to us. They are only ever looking in one direction (the Iran-Iraq war is, after all, ancient history to those whose parents’ taxes largely subsidized its prosecution and the eternal “liberation” of 2 million souls), while we are forever in two minds. In fact, just this morning I was struck on reading Don Bradman’s classic “A Farewell to Cricket” that he refers to heading off to the “New World” when setting sail from Sydney for his tour of North America as though leaving the “Old World” behind. Only the pedant in me was struck by it.

The great Don’s Dominion-esque approbations aside, institutions such as The Poetry Foundation enrich us all, Antipodean or American, poet or passing stranger. Did I mention their decades-old “Open Door Policy”? It was enshrined thus by founder Harriet Moore in 1912

The Open Door Policy will be the policy of this magazine – may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free of entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.

Though an institution with plenty of money (it is in the process of building its own headquarters, for God’s sake, in downtown Chicago!), Poetry has never really forsaken its modernist roots, ie that vibrant, exploratory, oftentimes reckless spirit so characteristic of the first two decades of the twentieth century, workshop of that thundering rollercoaster on which was conceived this island’s all-too-partisan equivalents. “it is a strange bird/this world/whose habit is/to fight itself/whose left wing/and right wing/tear themselves/bitterly apart”. So said Michael Dransfield, back when our “institutions” were still young. But someone needs to tell these dons of the dilatory that the old bird is dead. That the wings weren’t clipped but blasted clear out of a September sky. Someone needs to tell these grand old cocks to either shit or get out of the nest and give this chick some room to hatch.

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