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Porno For Poets

By D.A. Powell

Jonathan Mayhew posted the following response to the excerpt of an interview with Philip Levine that I included in a recent blog entry:
“I heard Levine give a reading years back and say he cut his lines in half because the New Yorker paid by the line. He could get paid more for the same poem that way,
just by
doing
this”
I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a criticism or an appreciation. It seems that Mayhew is saying that Levine has altered his art for commercial reasons. To which I respond, “yay, Philip Levine!”


I’m not saying that poets should compromise their integrity, such as it is. But if they feel comfortable modifying their work in such a way that they make more money in the process, why not? Painters and sculptors and damn near everybody else gets “commissioned” to do work for corporations and other wealthy entities. Maybe a number of poets get commissioned as well, but my guess is very few. So, if a poet can wangle an extra buck out of The New Yorker, why shouldn’t he?
To calculate a poem’s worth by the line is silly—are there painters who sell their paintings by the square inch?—but if that’s what the magazine’s policy is, I don’t blame a poet for trying to increase his yield by changing the shape of his lines. That might also help the magazine to fit the poem in between the real writing and the ads.
I don’t really believe it’s possible to prostitute one’s art. The fact that someone would pay X dollars per line for anything means that it has value. Every poem should have its price. For many of the poems we write, the price is loneliness, illness, existential crisis, doubt, toil, anger, love and loss. I’d much rather have the price be a dollar amount, at least then I’d know when the amount is finished being paid.
At the same time, I would love to suffer nobly for my art. I would rather have my poetry never sell, to have it sit in the bargain bin at a dusty bookstore and slowly be nibbled away by mites.
I don’t mind wrestling with the contradiction. Sometimes I want to be pure and noble. And sometimes I’d just like to have a little cash.
sellout.gif
[I plagiarized most of the above from one of my own emails—but who hasn’t done the same?]

Comments (30)

  • On August 6, 2008 at 12:47 pm Matt wrote:

    I’m going to start a corporate-sponsored poetry movement called C=I=T=I=B=A=N=K. Spread the word.

  • On August 6, 2008 at 6:16 pm Kenneth Goldsmith wrote:

    Warhol used to charge by the square foot. And he would often include a blank canvas along with a portrait and charge extra for it.
    Anyway, D.A., I completely agree with you. I’ve said as much here on Harriet.
    Kenny G

  • On August 6, 2008 at 6:32 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Yes. Having earned a certain bit of kizzash from my writing, I’m, like, would you rather I got paid to bulldoze the rain forest or something? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
    Anyway, we know what Dr. J said about blockheads.

  • On August 7, 2008 at 7:08 am Henry Gould wrote:

    I THINK this post is tongue-in-cheek… but in just case I’m wrong about that, I guess it’s time for this gunslinger to pull out the old Bible quote :
    “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
    Which raises the question : is writing poetry serving God?
    If one believes that conscious Being grounds all reality; and if one believes that poetry is a comprehensive expression of human intellectual and creative freedom, and as such, a kind of artistic reflection of that ultimate Being; then it becomes easier to accept that notion that, yes, writing poetry is a kind of service to God and the truth.
    At least I think this is roughly how Dante understood it.

  • On August 7, 2008 at 12:36 pm D.A. Powell wrote:

    Henry,
    What if the two masters are art and academia?
    dap

  • On August 8, 2008 at 7:06 am Henry Gould wrote:

    The problem seems to be with the TWO. You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “hate Mammon”. In fact in another passage he says something like “make friends by means of the unrighteous Mammon”.
    And if you’ve lived any length of time in the world, you’ll notice that those who serve God, though they keep Mammon at arm’s length, have a decent respect for it; while those who serve Mammon, far from hating God, often have a good deal of respect for same.
    The problem is with the TWO masters. In the old days a poet had to wear a different hat in academia (teacher, scholar…). Now one can be an “academic poet” by way of the MFA industry. Two hats in one. That situation has always seemed a little tame to me. But then I’ve worked in an Ivy League academic library most of my adult life, which migth also be considered rather tame, for a poet.

  • On August 8, 2008 at 8:23 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Then again, there’s also the saying that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”. (The “eye of the needle” was, apparently, a narrow gate in Jerusalem.)

  • On August 12, 2008 at 12:26 pm Tara Betts wrote:

    I am amused to say the least.

  • On August 12, 2008 at 1:16 pm Doodle wrote:

    Amused? Why, pray tell (pardon the pun)?

  • On August 23, 2008 at 9:16 am John Gallaher wrote:

    I’ve always been under the impression that mammon gets paid by the number of responses in a comment stream under a post about god.

  • On August 25, 2008 at 10:51 am Patrick Durgin wrote:

    “The fact that someone would pay X dollars per line for anything means that it has value.”
    And how would you specify that value? And if you are unable or unwilling to specify it, how can you assert that every poem “should” have its price–how do you render such an imperative legible, much less persuasive? And if you are unaware of what makes it both sporty and clever to either “wrestle” with or deny the “contradiction” between commerce and artistic production–e. g. the distinction between use value and commodity value–it seems very disengenuous to pretend to being either in a post on the Poetry Foundation’$ blog. Warhol’s bratty brilliance depended on an implicit recognition of the unraveling of the modernist avant-garde’s supposed transcendence of commercial circuits of artistic “production.” He was a master manipulator of context. But here there seems to be something of an erasure of any particular sense of either (context or production).

  • On August 25, 2008 at 11:50 am Doodle wrote:

    It seems very disingenuous coming from academicians, too.

  • On August 25, 2008 at 1:27 pm michael robbins wrote:

    The value is already specified: “x dollars per line.”
    Maybe you could specify art’s “use value” for me.

  • On August 25, 2008 at 5:29 pm Maya wrote:

    “Use value,” of course, can’t be specified in the way Michael seems to want it; that’s why it’s use value rather than an exchange value, a quality rather than a quantity. In this a poem is not special object; a linen coat also has no quantitative value until it enters into exchange. I can say of the poem, “it helps me think.” Or of the coat, “it keeps me warm.” This isn’t a specified value. But it’s use value.
    I guess the interesting question is whether poems get better when subjected to the pressures of exchange, of the marketplace—if indeed it’s the case that “if they feel comfortable modifying their work in such a way that they make more money in the process, why not?” I know lots of people who feel comfortable modifying stuff they sell in such a way that they make more money in the process, from mousetraps to subprime loans; not convinced it’s better stuff, yeah? What’s gained by submitting poetry to that logic, but for the short sharp shock of juvenile iconoclasm?

  • On August 25, 2008 at 5:46 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Actually, use-value is, obviously, specificable & it is most certainly a quantity. Marx even says “The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. . . . When treating of use-value we always assume to be dealing with definite quantities.
    The point of my comment, which was facetious, was that, as Marx told us, “Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.” I know perfectly well, in other words, what the use-value of a poem is. I was calling attention to the amusing fact that Patrick’s argument requires us, if we take it literally, to posit, with Marx, that a poem “has value only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.” Which no one here (or anywhere else, presumably) would agree with, precisely because a poem is not the sort of commodity Marx had in mind.

  • On August 25, 2008 at 8:12 pm Maya wrote:

    Michael, first of all, Marx—if you must mention him—is perfectly explicit that use-value is the social form of wealth etc once it is entered into exchange and its quality as use is converted into quantity as exchange, and not before. He uses “value” in a stable way that your comment doesn’t; that other interest we may have in a poem is exactly not “value” in Marx’s sense, and he notes that “value occurs when the relative and equivalent form of value confront each other.” “For linen to have value, the value must be expressed in relation to some other commodity.” If a poem isn’t entered into exchange, it has no value.
    And had you finished reading, you would know that Marx did indeed have “that sort of commodity in mind,” and is perfectly explicit about the matter: “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature. Later on he sold the product for £5 and to that extent became a dealer in a commodity.” Doesn’t have value ’til exchanged for a commodity. Use value not “value.” Can’t be specified as “value” before entered into circulation. Poems too. Ding.

  • On August 25, 2008 at 10:40 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Well, “Maya” — ahem — I think yr argument is w/ Patrick, since I was “perfectly explicit” that use-value has no existence apart from the commodity, which has no existence apart from exchange-value. So yr tutorial is unnecessary. I’m pointing to the fact that Patrick is confusing the issue by imagining one could subtract use-value from exchange-value in order to get some ideal “value.” Indeed, my whole point is precisely NOT that the poem has some “value” outside circulation.
    By the way, if you had finished reading, you’d have realized that the entire purpose of the section of Capital you cite is to distinguish the sort of labor Milton performed from that of the “productive worker” under capitalism. The former is “a dealer in a commodity” “to that extent” that he sold his product for 5 pounds — & to that extent only. But the latter’s “production is subject to capital & only exists with a view to its valorization.” Milton’s labor may be exploited in the circuit of the circulation of commodities but it specifically is NOT “productive labor” in the sense of producing capital for capitalists.
    In other words, Milton’s poem must enter into circulation to have value (I never denied this) but it does not produce surplus value & Milton is not “living labor” incorporated into “the self-valorization process of capital” as “simple money.” As Martin Jay has it, “the category of value” “is created when abstract, invariable, mechanically homogenized time is split off from the lived time of concrete production” — decidedly not the circumstances under which Milton was writing, which is precisely why Marx chose a seventeenth-century poet for his example.
    Ding dong,

  • On August 26, 2008 at 12:56 am Maya wrote:

    Well, “Michael”: duh. Sort of. Which is to say that you oscillate between obvious and wrong. Patrick actually asked quite a reasonable question, which regards the mysterious process whereby the “value” (in the universal equivalent) of a line of poetry gets specified — an interesting question about social relations, meant, I gather, to inquire after Doug’s sort of arbitrary voluntarism/tautology that things have value because someone pays for them.
    And so he distinguished between exchange and use value, since it is exchange and not use value that appears via social relations. At which point you endeavored to contest this by asking to have use value specified. This meaningless request was then shored up by adopting the position of a merchant — surely you recognize that Marx is being facetious when suggesting that use value becomes “reality” by entering into exchange; he’s using “reality” in the sense of “realize a profit,” not in the sense of “come to exist.” Those who cannot imagine use value as a quality and must have it quantified are exactly those he’s criticising at that point, ding dong ding.
    Meanwhile, as I trust you know with your ample mercantile reading, the passage on Milton (I was citing the Economic Manuscripts by the way; whoops) isn’t particularly designed to distinguish between historical eras; he is distinguishing Milton from “a writer who delivers hackwork for his publisher.” And that, not your forest-for-the-trees-ing, returns us to the actual issue at hand, which is whether the conversion of poems to exchange value might impinge upon their quality; whether there is a contradiction between artistic and economic production, or whether we should merely celebrate it.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 1:49 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Whoops indeed, but what’s that meant to point out? That I had Capital in mind because I had cited it & entered its title by accident, I hope. Surely not that I had no idea which book I had in hand?
    You’re simply wrong that Marx doesn’t mean “come to exist,” for that is precisely what “realize a profit” amounts to: that it is only in its production of profit that something becomes “real” for the merchant. Value isn’t a thing of air: it’s the particular, material form taken by social relations. But he’s also not being facetious. Without exchange, something has utility, but it doesn’t have “use-value,” which doesn’t exist outside commodity exchange. The whole point is that, under capitalism, value is meaningless outside exchange relations. Which is to say, no, it is use-value and exchange-value that appear via social relations. You’re confusing utility & use-value; they are not quite the same thing.
    As for the Milton passage, you’re right, but if you don’t think he was also concerned to distinguish among historical eras, you allow him far less nuance than he possessed.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 1:59 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    By the way, Joshua (I assume), in yr initial haughty response to me you made the same point about use-value that I just made above. And I still don’t see why Marx “did have indeed have ‘that sort of commodity in mind'” if you concede that he is in fact distinguishing the commodity produced by Milton from that produced by productive labor. But I notice that every time we get into it on this blog we end up exchanging barely veiled insults. Which is neither productive nor valuable. So I leave the last word to you.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 2:03 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Oh, & could you inform me how to produce an em-dash in these little comment boxes?

  • On August 26, 2008 at 9:38 am Doodle wrote:

    I think I may be alienated from the products of some people’s labour. And I can’t say I have a preference between juvenile iconoclasm and the post-graduate kind on display here.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 5:16 pm jane wrote:

    Sir Robbins, I’m not quite sure who you think you’re talking to. The only marx I know about is punctuation marx: I believe opt+shift+hyphen will do ya.
    j
    ps to dudle: I too dislike it. I prefer more material clasms.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 8:17 pm Doodle wrote:

    I think that Sir Joshua is making things too complicated again. An HTML em-dash is just
    ampersandmdash;
    where you subsitite an & for the word ampersand, above; don’t forget that semi-colon!
    (Were I to type the HTML for it, you’d just see… an em-dash.)
    Meanwhile, I count my material clams like the rest of you, not that I earn too many from poetry. Gotta buy those commodities, you know, AC to keep the lights on in my campus office and my computer battery charged, fuel for the airplanes that take me to my poetry gigs, books about material realism, oil — and copies of Milton’s poems.

  • On August 26, 2008 at 11:41 pm jane wrote:

    I gotta get some of whatever dudle is smoking (as well as some of those physics texts yr reading)! How is that easier? The way I learned requires a single keystroke with modifiers, and works in word processors as well as html. But to each their own clavieroclasm, I spoze.

  • On August 27, 2008 at 12:17 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    now I shall produce em-dashes the way silkworm produces paradizeloss.
    p.s. i don’t understand doodle’s instructions: & + m-key + – ?

  • On August 27, 2008 at 9:27 am Doodle wrote:

    Now don’t get all dialectical on me, or I’ll have to eat more sugar and watch kitschy TV shows!

  • On August 27, 2008 at 11:16 am vijay wrote:

    Someone’s inner stalker is showing!

  • On August 27, 2008 at 12:16 pm Michael Robbins wrote:



  • On February 4, 2009 at 11:05 pm Derek Catermole wrote:

    Wow, you people all here crazier n’ shit.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008 by D.A. Powell.