Ann Lauterbach on Wealth, Fame and Power:
Art is not entertainment, and it is not decor. It is one of the rude fallacies of our time to want to reduce all art forms, and in particular literary arts, to their most facile and elemental role, and so deny their potential to awaken, provoke and elicit our glee at being agents in the construction of meaning. As Martha Nussbaum points out, "We are accustomed by now to think of literature as optional: as great, valuable, entertaining, excellent, but something that exists off to one side of political and economic and legal thought, in another university department, ancillary rather than competitive." We have, she adds, "narrowly hedonistic theories of literary value." Our world---late twentieth century America --- is relentless in its desire to dictate to us what we desire; it wants to assign and to determine how we construct and construe meaning in our lives, it wants to tell us from where our pleasures come. It wants us to believe that only Wealth, Fame and Power (WFP), in some combination or another, are worthwhile goals, because only WFP can confer ---what?--- celebrity.
Celebrity: the modern, secular form of martyrdom, where individuals are cast into the riotous blast of an eviscerating, obliterating light. How many personal disasters of every conceivable kind --- suicide, homicide, divorce, addiction --- before it is understood that celebrities are victims? "Their divorce was more predictable than their marriage."
With the insistent picturing and telling of Celebrity, it is of course not uninteresting to be a poet. John Ashbery once remarked, "To be famous, and to be a famous poet are not the same thing," by which he simply wanted to point out that the world of poetry is not included in celebrity picturing and storytelling. Why is this? Because the economy of being a poet subverts the received relationship between ambition, money, and success. Poets must acknowledge this fact a priori, at the outset; must, in a sense, agree to it. Many persons in many fields have an increasingly hard time making a living, and endemic poverty caused by social oppression is not something to be lightly set aside. To be poor in this culture carries all kinds of stigmas, and invites all kinds of rhetorical evocations of the American Dream, which holds that the pursuit of happiness is necessarily tied to the capacity to earn a living. (What constitutes a "living wage" in a culture driven by WFP is worth a pause, as we witness the slow but certain shrinkage of the middle class and the institutions of social transformation --- schools, libraries, museums, newspapers, research universities, concert halls, and so forth --- in which it has traditionally invested.)
A living wage: that which allows a person sufficient freedom to feel she/he has some control over her/his destiny; an alignment of capacity to activity which leads to a sense of sufficiency.
Nonetheless, persons who wish to become poets in this culture must make a kind of promise or vow, like St. Francis, in which they agree to a kind of economic obscurity, at least in relation to the writing of poems. The history of the embedded relation between poverty and poetry is not just a romance but is linked to the history of spiritual resistance, a resistance which characterized the initial founding of America, sometimes with dire consequences, and which finds its greatest secular expression in Emerson's Self-Reliance. People are disturbed when poets make a decent living as professors; they think it is a sort of bad joke (but of course newsworthy) when Allen Ginsberg sells his archive to a major university for big bucks, as if some breach of decorum had been committed. They are not equally bemused when movie stars, baseball players or television news commentators get millions upon millions for acting a part, playing ball, or reading aloud the news in front of a camera.
When poets make Money something is askew. As if, for every celebrity---say Michael Jackson or Madonna or --- exploding in the firmament like giant stars, there needs to be a shadow figure, an obscure Other toiling away in the dimmest corner, lost in the dark matter of the universe, never to be found by the searching lenses of far-reaching cameras. Poets must hold down this invisible portion of the universe, the part that we never see but guess at, lest the whole thing fly apart in a final radiance of destruction, on the incendiary flames of outrageous (mis)fortune.
Off-camera and out of earshot, watching the night snow fall, noticing that snow contains myriad nows.
There must be some remnant habit of willed obscurity, of volunteer poverty for an acceptance of an inequity, a gap, between work and recompense, in which some vague need is met, a sort of spiritual critique, an antithetical motion, however far-off, however imperceptible, of the equation of happiness with the capacity to buy things, many things, more things than one could ever possibly need. As if, on the Day of Judgment, poets will step forward out of the crevices --- the tiny rooms, the smoky bars --- by the hundreds and thousands wearing dark glasses, like a great witnessing Chorus, to proclaim the faith of little children, the hope of the excluded, and the charity of the hard moments.
(She catches sight of herself in the mirror. Go in fear of hyperbole.)
[From The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking, 2005)]
Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...