How Much Should We Fund Poetry?

1 Sep

In a response to Reb Livingston’s account of self-publishing her own collaborative chapbook, Bill Knott thinks this sort of poetic entrepreneurship doesn’t address the real concern of poetry publishing:

but I’m sorry to say I think private individual projects like hers are largely shortsighted and misguided:

one might say they treat the symptoms, not the disease.

The problem is systemic, and should be attacked on a systemic level——

poetry is the least-funded of the arts,

and that underfunding occurs in a culture/society

which of course underfunds all the arts to some degree,

but poetry suffers the worse——

I don’t have any numbers breaking down funding by the type of art, but I’d argue that poetry is well funded thanks to MFA programs.  The network of university programs is a giant, generalized subsidy to poetry in America (and depending on how the funds are administered to a program, a mixture of both direct and indirect subsidies).  Yes, there are MFAs for things besides writing (e.g. sculpture, acting) but an MFA in creative writing does allow you to get job in an English department¹–you don’t have to teach only poetry with your degree.  That’s broader support than you’ll find for other MFA degrees.

The other issue (which Knott doesn’t address) is why poetry should receive “equal funding.”  Knott’s position has the benefit of not preferring one kind of art over another, but I think this is goofy, especially from a practical perspective.  How much money should we (either through tax dollars or personal donations) dole out for performance art?  For instillation art (if you’re in Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory is quite impressive)?  Equal funding is a refusal to make choices about limited resources. I know why I prefer poetry over other arts, but my aesthetic is not a universal aesthetic (as much as I might pretend otherwise).  But street puppeteers might feel differently about who is underfunded and who is not.

¹ Let’s leave aside for the moment arguments about tenure; these are questions about the amount of subsidy (and the practicality of making a living inside the academy).  But teaching positions clearly represent a subsidy.


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