It came, the end of poetry,
Not quietly on cat's feet
But loudly on a sea of cash
When Ruth Lilly heiress
To pharmacopia willed
one hundred million dollars
to Poetry magazine.
You heard the poem right: one hundred mil. That's enough to put every poet in America on the dole for the entirety of his/her life. Now the question is: what's a poet? What's poetry? And what's Poetry magazine?
Before the Lilly gilding of poesy, the largest source of gravy for poets was the U.S. government. In the 1970s there were tens of thousands of poets on ATD (Aid to the Totally Disabled), a welfare program that paid about $300 a month to anyone who said they were crazy. In San Francisco in 1972, just declaring that you were a poet got you on ATD. The bureaucrats of the Great Society understood this much: you had to be crazy to be a poet. Everyone knew that poets worked for the spirit and that there was no profit in it. ATD created the present-day poetry boom, by licensing thousands of crazies to go out there and commit poetry.
The U.S. government didn't look too closely at what kind of poetry they committed, so poets enjoyed the liberty of expanding the definition of the genre, pushing it past its rectangular rooms into the streets and bars and into the living human voice where it morphed back into song and sometimes into politics. Poets of the ATD age ended up by deeply disturbing the makers of page-boxes, who took refuge in the academe and held tightly to one or two strongholds of conservative lyricism, such as Poetry magazine. Help for the besieged mandarins came with the rise of the right-wing, who found the ATD poets an easy target for discoursing -- in prose -- on the decline of American values and manners. The rebels tumbled off the welfare rolls, and the verse-boxers marched to the edges of the campus holding up the banners of manners.
The enemy lines were eerily quiet. The fields were empty. There were no barbarians. Nor was there an audience for the ivory-edged poemettes they hurled at the void. Not a single hand stretched from the bushes holding the handful of dollars necessary to buy their lyric volumettes. From far in the distance, they heard the din of cities throbbing with spoken poesy and the jazz of speech, and the rattle of new technology making a book in two hours and distributing it in four.
Betrayed and angered once more by the transmorphing powers of their chosen art and by the mockery of ever-faster communication tech, the armies of the rectangle retreated once more into the classrooms where youth mocked them. No matter how hard they boxed their students, the young things still flocked to the slam lounges and the zines.
All through the wars one bastion stood: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Here, at $2 a line, the stodgy, steady, boxy and tight was upheld. And now comes one hundred million American dollars, America's new ATD, now renamed APD, Aid to the Poetically Disabled. Just as ATD, Aid to the Totally Disabled, created armies of poets without borders (but with a P.O. box), APD is going to create armies of specialists to cure the formally disabled and disable the totally incurable. They will do this by handing cash to anyone willing to read their poetry. They will buy back their audiences straight from the dins of iniquity and fill thus the dens of antiquity.
Bless your pills, Ruth Lilly, you've turned the hand of time!