Saturday, April 24, 2004

The $100 Million Question

What do you do when someone like Ruth Lilly the pharmaceutical heiress leaves your organtization $100 million in her will? That's what the Poetry Foundation is trying to figure out. They have selected John W. Barr, former investment banker and published poet, as president of the Foundation to, one hopes, spend the money wisely. The gift apparently caused quite the hubbub for the organization:

Ms. Lilly's huge gift threw the organization first into ecstasy and then into confusion. In a move that stunned the tight-knit community of American poets, the magazine's longtime editor, Joseph Parisi, resigned last summer. Some took his departure as a signal that corporate auditors were pushing aside true lovers of literature. But, sitting in his Chicago office, Mr. Barr insisted that there would be no conflict between his commitment to good management and his love of poetry. He said Stevens and Eliot "broke a lot of ice for us all" by combining careers in business and poetry. "In both of these fields you use creativity to find order in a chaotic experience," he said. "Business does that in the external world. Poetry does it internally by way of articulation." "To me this is a historic opportunity in American poetry," Mr. Barr said. "Poetry helps us live better, helps us understand the human experience. It is with us at the heights and depths of that experience. Our goal is to get it in front of people whose lives it can change for the better. But I'm also very excited about the management opportunities.
There is talk of grants to poets, sponsoring public events, publishing their own books and creating poetry courses for high school and college. If you ask me, which no one has, a good portion of the funds would be well spent in enlarging the poetry reading audience. People need to be shown that poetry is relevant to their lives and to do that you have to bring poetry to people. What about commericals in the line of the anti-drug campaign, young people, interesting visuals and a short piece of poetry? Or like they do in Britain on the underground, signs on the sides of buses and trains with bits of poems. And I think it might have been Robert Pinsky when he was Poet Laureate of the U. S. who came up with the idea of putting little books of poetry in the glove compartments of new VW Bugs. I'd love to buy a car and find a new book of poetry in it or some other lower priced item like cookies. Instead of fortune cookies we could have poetry cookies. It appears that Mr. Barr might be thinking in creative ways,
He said that much of what the foundation did with its new wealth would be aimed at expanding the audience for poetry in the United States, especially among young people. The Eminem film "8 Mile" was "full of poetry," Mr. Barr said. "I know we can find ways to reach out to people who enjoy that kind of thing."
I'm not sure what "that kind of thing" is, but I'll go with it for now. Just don't forget people over 30 Mr. Barr, we need poetry too.