Tuesday, April 25, 2006


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.


Steven D. Schroeder said...

Honestly, I don't have any problem with Richard Wilbur getting a lifetime achievement award. He's done a lot--he deserves it. I think large-scale spending money that way is stupid--but then, I also think giving CEOs multimillion dollar bonuses is stupid. And by the way, Wilbur and the rest of those big-name old-guy poets can command five figures for showing up and giving a one-hour reading. I'm not sure what the fees are for judging a contest, but they're likely four figures.

Lo said...
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Lo said...
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Lo said...

Granted, I was not thinking of "reading fees" and "contest judging fees" when I wrote this. I'm not sure it matters, though - it's still not much money scattered over a lifetime, is it?

Besides that, it's not a "reward" per se, fees are "earned" money for services rendered, even if it's grossly overpaid. (Which thousands for a hour's worth of reading sounds like, unless you figure in travel and lodging...or compare it to the hourly speaker's fee someone like Stephen King or Jon Stewart or Donald Trump commands.) I will be the first to admit I have no idea of how it all works in the poetry world. I'm scared enough at the thought of reading a poem in front of people that even tens of thousands of dollars couldn't make me do it.

I think multimillion dollar bonus money is stupid, too - unless, of course, I'm the one getting the bonus. It's nice to get letters of appreciation and plaques and trophies - but somehow it's that green stuff which commands the most attention and which people try the hardest to attain. Probably has something to do with needing to eat...and wanting the occasional steak in place of the customary hamburger.

I begrudge no one any "reward", monetary or otherwise, simply because I am honest enough to know that I secretly want one myself. It's why, after all these years, I've finally begun entering poetry contests as well as sending submissions to magazines.

It's called validation and while it may be stupid - in today's poetry world it's also becoming increasingly important.

shann said...

well- being an 'older poet' (56)though not by any means famous- I'm a little scared of being shut out-

There's a $10,000 Weinstein award for a 'poet in central virginia' that I crave- I'm giving myself ten years to get it, though I think I deserve it now, and God knows need the money. I hope I can live ten more years to see.

But I get weary of poets under 30 who get big awards and then are NEVER heard again when the rest of us wrestle poems, venues, and the apathy of our colleagues every day for years and get nothing.

I forgot my point- reduced to grousing.

Rob Mackenzie said...

These awards are such a lottery, but it is nice to win when you win, and I'm sure Richard Wilbur is very pleased.

Why him and not several other poets of a similar stature? Who knows? He deserves it as much as anyone though.

Michael Snider said...

I don't think there is anyone else of Richard Wilbur's stature, not since Anthony Hecht's death. His winning was not like a lottery--as Christian Wiman said about the award, if you're going to bet on anyone being read 100 years from now, Wilbur's a damn safe bet. Who else?

As Hecht once said, if Wilbur had done nothing but his translationsclassical French theatre, he would still be a national treasure. His libretto for Bernstein's opera Candide may be the best opera libretto of the 20th century. He still writes. at 85, poetry of the highest quality.

Wilbur is actually pretty well off. He gets handsome royalties (or so I'm told) from his translations--and they are well-deserved. But, as Lo pointed out, his income is irrelevant. The award is for a lifetime's achievement, not based on need, and that is stipulated in the terms of the endowment. And as Lo also pointed out, a hundred thousand dollars is chump change for a life's work.

Tom said...

Poetry has many factions, and should be treated so. The mind-blocks serve the best purpose, and form screens for only the best to pass through, ideally, but clubs and cliques do form temporarily. The better the poet the better the business man. If a poet is smart enough to write decent poetry, he is smart enough to go out and make money. Making money is not hard at all. It is rude to the world to expect to be paid for your poetry, when the poet is to write such poetry the world will ask to pay for it.

Lo said...

Yikes, Tom....it's rude to desire compensation for poetry? (At least I think that's what you're saying, altho I'll be frank and admit I'm not quite sure that's it.)

If that's the case, then I have to ask if we consider poetry to be "art." Because I know for a fact that most artists desire and expect compensation for art produced. Painters sell their paintings, photographers sell their photographs, novelists sell their novels, singers sell records, musicians give concerts, etc etc. Maybe not the mediocre ones, but the "good" ones get paid....and generally, the better the artist, the higher the fee his art commands. Why then, is it expected to be so different in the poetry realm?

I've also got to disagree with you on "the better the poet, the better the business man." While there are people who are multi-talented and can wear several hats and wear them all well, there are also those who are really good at only one thing....and if that "thing" happens to be writing poetry it doesn't necessarily follow that they will be equally skillful in a business setting.
Not to make a charicature out of it - but we all have our little mental picture of the "mad" artist...and it's not always a false picture. I, personally, know of several "poets" who just aren't capable of surviving in the real world without a whole lot of sorrow and difficulty. Their heads just aren't made for reality...nor are their hearts.
Granted, it's not all of us, it's not even most of us, but it is some of us.

Personally, I have no business sense at all. When I was employed, I spent whatever I made and if I accidentally couldn't spend it all, I found some way to give it away. I worked often for free and I worked often for less than the going rate...simply because I loved my chosen field. I was never "successful" in a monetary sense, but I managed to feed my children at least once a day and keep a (sometimes leaky) roof over our heads and I was always content with "just enough" so that I never felt the need to go out and find one job which I liked less but which paid better than the two I already had. Not very smart business sense at all, was it?

Now that I think about it - if you're right - maybe that explains why I'm not a really good poet, either.


Tom said...


I said 'expect' not 'desire.' There is a world of difference. Back later, just running through this evening.

Tom said...

One can expect to be paid if you install a new roof on someone's house. One cannot expect to be paid for a poem, which has no value, because the interest comes from someone else's choice beyond need.
The better artists (poets & visual artists grouped) are better business men. Shakespeare bought a lot of real estate and so did Robert Frost. Leonardo, a mix of many things, was good at business. Poor Van Gogh was an exception, but Picasso was not, being very smart with the art world. There are many examples of this trait. This is why I have always said that one of the worst things a poet can do to themselves is be a teacher--because the first thing they are taught and the first they teach is to conform. All art has a fundamental risk factor, otherwise it is boring. If a poet is able to write exceptional poetry, it is because of the directed use of intelligence, awareness, not mere intrinsic talent in the individual, which is also a big factor. There are genius poems and there are talent poems. Many talented people do get derailed, especially musicians, who often show a pattern of carelessness, but a good many get and keep their act together. One of the main character traits of creative people is practicality. This is because every element in a work of art must essentially be practical, part of the whole. Where many artsts/poets slip is when they think they can be clever and live simply and "have" more time to be creative--a false assumption, becuase the world keeps changing too rapidly these days. The simple cottage by the lake is usually around $250,000 now adays. Back later.

Lo said...

Hey Tom,

I agree with a lot of what you've said - especially about the "risk factor" and the part about not teaching.

We had a saying back in EMS - "Those that can - do. Those that can't - teach." I always felt a bit bad about it, mostly because I also taught. :) But I "did" too, and that got me through the thought.

People ask me why I don't teach still, and I think it's for that very reason. If I'm not able to actually "do" it, I don't feel the same comfort level I once felt in teaching it.

That being said, poetry is NOT EMS, and most lit. teachers DO write and many of them write very well.

Being totally unschooled, however, I have my private reservations and idiosyncrasies about that whole ball of wax.

Thanks for weighing in. It's good to hear other opinions. Makes me think and thinking is never a bad thing.

Tom said...

When I talk about teaching, I mean to only reference poetry and art. Think of Van Gogh in a class room,--it is ludicrous.
Of course we need teachers, but if their goal is to advance their art, they should not teach, and if they do, only temporary. Input equals output, inlevel equals outlevel. Water seeks its own level. The chain breaks at the weakest link, etc.