Steve Schroeder's Monday, April 24, 2006 post.
Yesterday, Steve Schroeder wrote that he was (I think) unhappy with Richard Wilbur's winning of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award...mostly because of his age and the noticable preponderance of badly-aging poets who have previously won the award. Several people have chimed in and it seems the main two reasons people agree with him are:
1. That older poets shouldn't, for some reason, continue to garner recognition and/or awards.
2. That large monetary awards should not go to people who "don't need the money."
I have to say, I'm a bit appalled by both of these lines of reasoning. Our society is built on a system which continually rewards productive employees...and generally, the longer their tenure in a position, the greater the reward they receive. No corporation/business worth its salt rewards a short-term employee better than a long-term one. Bonus money becomes higher as your stature in a company grows, monetary compensation becomes larger as you "put in your time" with any given employer. Salaries only rise greatly for truly valued employees, as do perks and bonuses. People need to "prove" themselves worthy of recognition before they GET recognition and the best way to get your talents recognized is to be consistently good at what you do. What better test of talent and consistency than time?
Why should it be any different for a poet? Almost anyone can get "lucky" and write one or two very good poems....even one or two GREAT poems, for that matter....but not everyone can write great poems consistently over one, much less several, decades. Should we reward the "One Poem Poet Wonder" handsomely? Sure...why not? But shouldn't we also reward the guy who's plodded along for 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years and repeatedly given us great poems, as well? And who should receive more in the way of "reward?" - the One-Shot Dude, or the dude who's devoted his whole life to improving, enriching and perfecting his craft?
Regardless, due to the nature of The Ruth Lilly Award, which is awarded specifically for "lifetime achievement" the question is rendered moot. It's very simple, in order to win a "lifetime" award, you must prove that not only are you very good at what you do, but also that you have lived a lifetime. It's only the "old" people who can do the latter successfully.
Reason #2 is a bit more complicated. If I am reading the comments right, the theory is being bandied about that people who already have money shouldn't receive more money because they "don't need it." Try telling that to anyone who believes that they, themselves, are not entitled to recognition at work in the form of a raise or a bonus. The greater the recognition, the greater the show of appreciation. In our society money talks......money is the way we show appreciation and give honor for someone's accomplishments. To say a poet who's already won monetary awards shouldn't receive yet another monetary award is ludicrous. Would Hollywood decide to give the famous leading lady's salary to the walk-on starlet in her first performance simply because she "needs the money more?" Nope....she is going to have to prove she is worth it - just like the current leading lady had to....by showing the world her talent and her perseverance. (Maybe even her boobs as well - but fortunately that's not relevant yet in the poetry world.) A first year lawyer doesn't make nearly as much money as a lawyer with 26 years in the same law firm - nor should he. Think of the years you've already put in at your job, regardless of what that job may be - would you want to find out that a new hireling was making the salary and receiving the same perks as you? I sincerely doubt it....in fact, if it WAS ok with you, I'd be worried about your sanity.
The bigger point is - what gives us the right to decide who "needs" the money and who "doesn't" need the money? From what I can tell, Richard Wilbur is married and he and his wife raised and supported 4 children on his salary as a college professor. I don't know what his salary was during his tenure in the 50's and 60's - but if he were working today, based on the current pay scales, he'd be making anywhere between $51,000 and $85,000 a year. Due to the fact that he's been retired for quite some time, I'd feel safe saying he lived on (and saved) a whole lot less than that. Teachers, even teachers of the well-respected and long-term college professing variety, aren't in it "for the money" - simply because the "money" isn't there for them. Besides which, there are very few 80 years olds in today's world who will tell you they are entirely comfortable living on their pensions. Just ask my mother - or your own. Their life savings just aren't stretching with today's economy. I doubt that Mr. Wilbur feels any differently, or that his expenses haven't risen dramatically right along with the rest of ours.
In his lifetime, Mr. Wilbur's largest poetry awards have been 2 Pulitzer's, a stint as Poet Laureate of the United States and the Ruth Lilly Award. If you break that down, it's a total of $20,000.00 for the two Pulitzers, $35,000.00 for his year as Poet Laureate and $100,000.00 from The Poetry Foundation. That's a grand total of $155,000.00 over a career which began in 1947 when he published his first collection. In other words, he's been richly and repetitiously awarded to the tune of the grand and glorious amount of a whopping $2,583.33 a year.
You-all are right - no one deserves to receive that kind of money more than once.