Is it possible to be a millionaire poet?
- 31 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
Last week, an amateur poet won more than $1m on a TV talent show in the United Arab Emirates. But what does an injection of cold hard cash on this scale do to a poet's creative impulses?
As poetry readings go, the setting was unique. The Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi boasted light-up floors, backdrop projections and a light show of a kind that would be familiar to fans of Pop Idol, X Factor or America's Got Talent.
Since February, global audiences of up to 70 million have tuned in to watch Million's Poet, in which men (there were no female contestants this year) in traditional dress take turns to deliver self-penned verses of a type of colloquial Arabic poetry called Nabati. A panel of judges delivers feedback, the Emirati royal family puts in an occasional appearance, and the contestants are gradually whittled down.
If this format seems alien to the business of poetry, described by Wordsworth as "emotion recollected in tranquillity", then the prize money may also give us pause for thought. When 27-year-old Saif al-Mansuri won the sixth season of the show last week, he took home five million UAE Dirhams - that's $1.3m or £800,000. As literary prizes go, the only thing that comes close is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which stands at eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2m or £700,000).
All this raises questions about poetry and our preconceptions of poets. As Robert Graves put it, "There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either."
"Ordinarily, poetry does seem to be the opposite of show business, and we probably just prefer our poets not to be celebrities in that particular way," says Don Share, Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine and a poet himself. "It doesn't sit well with us, and it's very hard to explain that. Money is felt to be contaminating and to be antithetical to the values that we expect from poetry and literature and art."
But, he says, it's very unfair to resent poets and novelists who become rich, since pop stars, movie stars and even politicians are much wealthier. It's a good thing, in his view, if Million's Poet is providing counter-examples to the "stereotype of the starving artist, the poet in the garret".
That impression, he says, was fixed by the large number of great poets in history who happened to be very poor.
In the mid-19th Century, visitors flocked to the cottage of John Clare, to stare at the "peasant poet" who lived and worked in grinding poverty. There was bohemian poverty too, the type where a poet's last pennies were spent on absinthe or opium rather than bread. Charles Baudelaire was born to a wealthy family but squandered his inheritance and sank into debt. He said: "Any healthy man can go without food for two days - but not without poetry." Arthur Rimbaud, living a scandalous life with his lover Paul Verlaine in London in 1872, passed his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, to use their free heating and ink.
The associations between poverty and poetry did not disappear in the 20th Century. "Like many of my fellow poets, we grew up reading the Beat generation - Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac," says the Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja. "And they were into the hobos, and all that train-hopping stuff. I think it's the idea that truth is where sadness is, where poverty is, where the booze is. And not where the money is."
But Bruinja says that he no longer has such a narrow conception of his art-form, and thinks verse can be hammered out of all kinds of life experience. "There's poetry everywhere," he says.
As a civilised art, verse has been composed by aristocrats, including Byron and Pushkin, as well as kings and rulers. Japan's Emperor Meiji wrote thousands of 31-syllable waka poems, which are still available in anthologies today. A number of Arab emirs have become masters of the Nabati poetry form featured in Million's Poet, including the late ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, and the first ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Jasim bin Mohammad al-Thani.
There is no reason why rich poets can't feel the hope, love, loss and wonderment they need to create their work, says Judith Palmer, the director of the Poetry Society. "Money solves a lot of problems but it doesn't stop you going through emotional trauma or suffering bereavement - I imagine that feeling is the same."
The American poet Frederick Seidel is perhaps unique among contemporary English-language poets in his willingness to discuss the trappings of wealth, from fine dining to his love of Ducati motorbikes. He was born into a family that had become wealthy in haulage, and has lived a comfortable life - "I live a life of laziness and luxury" he begins one poem. But his poetry hasn't always been well-received, with one critic calling him a name-dropper.
It might also be difficult for poets to adjust to the new rhythms of life that coming into money thrusts upon them. A lot of people find that when they have the time to write they suddenly can't, Palmer says. On the other hand, coming into money may help a poet. Bruinja says the added attention might mean a poet's output changes slightly, but he or she can also buy a nice house and enjoy peace and quiet. Seamus Heaney said that he felt more pressure after winning the Nobel Prize in 1995, but described his cottage in Wicklow, Ireland as a "haven".
Bruinja is one of just a dozen or so poets in Holland who live by their pen, but this involves a lot more than just writing. He covers his mortgage with a hotchpotch of readings, special commissions, sitting on committees, creative writing teaching, writing a column in a newspaper, and a helpful government grant. The income from sales of his poetry books, he says, is negligible - a couple of hundred euros a year.
Don Share says a common experience in the development of a young poet is for someone - a parent or friend, perhaps - to take them aside and warn them that there is no money in what TS Eliot described as the "mug's game" of poetry.
Why is this? Unlike visual artists - who can become very well-off indeed - a poet's product is immaterial, and therefore harder to commodify. Poems can be everywhere at once, and there is a sense in which they belong to anyone that can read, says Share. "What we love about poems is that they become ours. One thing that seems to be very important is for people to feel a poem has a value that is incalculable."
But he also thinks poetry is undervalued because it is not seen as proper work. As the Serbian-American poet Charles Simic once quipped, most poems are too short to be seen as valuable. "They give the impression it took no time to write them. Ten minutes tops. To write a 600-page novel takes years."
Share relates a recent conversation amongst his poet friends on Facebook, after one of them was invited by a neighbour to give a workshop in a school. When the poet asked if she would be paid, the neighbour was appalled. "The idea was that she should share her expertise and her work for free, and that it was outrageous to ask for money in return."
One way to look at Million's Poet is to see it as a product of a tradition of patronage. The show was the brainchild the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the contestants' poetry is often, although by no means always, in praise of the Gulf's leaders. Perhaps this kind of poet is more immune to sudden wealth than a poet of the purely romantic kind. After al-Mansuri won Million's Poet he told the audience it was the start of a journey and they would see much more of him in the future.
Patronage of the arts has not disappeared from the West, although it tends to operate on a corporate or civic level, rather than a personal one. An exception to this is the "adopt a poet" scheme operated by the Poetry International Foundation. The foundation's director, Bas Kwakman, laments that it is almost impossible to survive as a poet nowadays, but he doesn't begrudge al-Mansuri his $1.3m prize.
"I wouldn't care if he adopts a rapper's style with beautiful cars and expensive sunglasses, driving by the beach with beautiful girls," he says. "Let him be a bigger rapper star. And afterwards, at night, let him write beautiful poetry."