Racing For The Prize, Part 1 (Michael Boughn)

The following is the first of a two-part installment.  The article was previously published in Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): (193-199).  It is republished with permission of the author.

Not long ago I was “short listed,” as they say, for a big literary prize. How big is big, you well may ask.  Big enough to get my name on lists in a bunch of newspapers across Canada, but “big,” as we all know, is a relative term inflected by a lot of different factors. For instance, is the prize for poetry or fiction?

In the current world of literary value, the biggest prize for poetry, even if the pot is richer, will never be as big as any prize for fiction. Smaller fiction prizes provide endless material for cultural pundits to speculate on in the arts sections of newspapers across the country. Fiction prizes even have their own season—headlines announce “the race is on,” and photographs of serious looking writers sport captions indicating who has pulled ahead. Like horses. Or dogs chasing fake rabbits. They are interviewed and profiled endlessly. Poetry prizes and their nominees, meanwhile, languish far down the page in long, unadorned lists somewhere under the nominees for children’s lit.

The big prize I was nominated for was a poetry prize, so even though it was referred to as “prestigious” in a congratulatory form letter from the large cultural institution proffering the prize, things soon sank into a slough of silence as the fiction contests heated up and speculation intensified as to who would win the most races that racing season. Still, even though it immediately was swallowed by poetry’s cone of silence, the nomination did cause me some discomfort because it was a big prize for poetry and a couple of years before I had made a public statement making fun of such prizes.

I made that statement when my previous book of poetry, a swell if obscure little book called 22 Skidoo, received a swell, if obscure, little prize called The Friggin (yes, that is an anagram). The Friggin Prize was not a real prize, although I did get a shiny sticker for the front cover of my book (that’s another story) and fifty bucks for beer, but it wasn’t real enough, in the scheme of prize quiddities, to deserve even a long list, much less a short one. In fact, the somewhat sassy slogan of the Friggin Prize was, “No long list; no short list; no guest list; just the Friggin Prize.” It was obviously an insouciant little prize with something of a chip on its shoulder, and it called for an acceptance speech equally insouciant and chippy, which I happily composed.

I was fortunate because it was a somewhat scandalous time for poetry prizes and I was handed some juicy material for the speech which, in the true spirit of the Friggin, made fun of all those big prizes and the culture of commercialized writing they seem to reflect. In England, for instance, a contestant for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, admittedly not a prize in the literal sense, but certainly a plum with lots of prize-like trappings, was busted for slandering another distinguished poet competitor in order to better her chances for the job, an act more appropriate for a boardroom brouhaha than a poetry contest.

In Canada, meanwhile, the same big prize I got nominated for was awarded the previous year to a young man whose writing teacher/mentor was on the jury that made the award. She had also written the introduction for the same book. When it was suggested that this might be construed as a form of blatant nepotism, that the relations were a little too close for justifiable comfort, she turned on her accusers damning them with the vicious label “dada poets,” apparently a state of literary being that mellifluous lyricists hold to be in ultimate bad taste.  But then, as one of those Dada artists, Max Ernst, once said: “Art has nothing to do with taste. Art is not there to be tasted.” Except, perhaps, in Manitoba.

I pointed to these and other prizes in the Friggin Acceptance Speech as examples of a writing culture that has lost sight of poetry’s mission because it has become focused on prizes and races, so much so that many people write with the prize in mind. I did have a good time poking fun at them, but beneath the fun lurked some potentially serious issues about the relation of commerce to art, issues that have been around for a while now, at least since Michaelangelo complained about what a drag it was to have to adjust his work to the philistine expectations of his patrons.

Outside a rag tag band of Dada poets, however, we now mostly ignore those issues since everything, including poetry, has become professionalized with its own university programs, career courses, and commercial measures of success of which the prize has become a key indicator. A recent issue of Arc (“Canada’s poetry magazine”) which focused on prizes and contests, for instance, contains a story by John Barton (“Getting on the Island: Literary contests as reality TV on The Aquarium ChannelTM”) about a “famous” poet who introduced himself to another poet (his guest) at a dinner party by demanding to know how many awards he had won. It is not hard to find something to make fun of in such a culture.

Of course, once I got short listed for the big prize I was soon hoisted on my own petard. Some blogger who no doubt Googled the nominees as soon as the lists were published, joyfully discovered my Friggin Speech and reprinted two paragraphs under the heading “Michael Boughn’s Gov-Gen Acceptance Speech?”

And then, of course, having the judges that bestow the prizes for literary excellence write the excellent introductions to your excellent book before they give you the prizes for your excellence—that too is literary excellence above and beyond the normal kind of excellence which is usually just kind of run of the mill/  We, however, are here because we know better. Poetry is not about truth or beauty or, heaven forbid, making things out of words. It’s about getting the prize. It’s about being on the committee that gives out the prizes so you can make sure your friends and students get the prizes, because if they don’t get the prizes, then what the hell does that say about you?

Whether that would have been my Governor General’s acceptance speech is now a moot point. I have done more outrageous things at various points in my life, but in this case I probably wouldn’t have, if only out of courtesy to the Governor General, who, after all, is the representative of the Queen to whom I swore allegiance in 2001. It took me thirty-five years to come to an understanding that would permit me to take that oath in good faith, and being a poet, that is someone who takes—or at least ought to take— words seriously, I am not about to violate it now.

No doubt the blogger who posted the excerpt would have seen this as “selling out,” a thought that crossed my own mind, however briefly, causing the discomfort I mentioned previously. The phrase, “selling out,” describes a debased relation between art and commerce. It is implicitly premised on the idea of a potential authenticity to art, or at least a value that, if not transcendent, or grounded in some realm beyond the quotidian, is at least outside the market, including the prize market.

Exactly what that value is remains difficult to put your finger on. It seemed the blogger positioned the quote in such a way as to accuse me of inconsistency or hypocrisy, of abandoning my personal values (there’s that word again) in order to reap the recognition and money—especially the money—that goes along with a big prize. It is easy to be insouciant and sassy when there is nothing at stake, but will you stick by your words when there is dough on the table? What about your personal values then?

Value is a troubled concept these days. It used to be seen as grounded in the transcendental, existing beyond the commensurable and the comparable. The whole transcendental thing, with its claim to a realm of absolute value somewhere beyond the contingencies of this sloppy world, however, went out the window a while ago. The industrial revolution was one of the main culprits in its demise, as well as the institution of science that gave rise to it.

In Henry James’s 1878 novel The American the first word of dialog, the question, “Combien?,” is uttered in that maximum security lock up of transcendental value, the Louvre. Christopher Newman, the very rich and successful American businessman of the title, utters it while trying to hustle a good looking young copyist, offering to buy her bad copy of Murillo’s “Madonna.” Not that Christopher Newman, archetypal American art philistine, would know good from bad, even if he was interested in art rather than attractive French women. Still, the point was made – in 1878 – in a world of abundant copies, mass production and mass consumption, art doesn’t stand a proverbial snowball’s chance in the nether regions of withstanding the avalanche of commodification that has redefined value. It’s all about the money, dude.

Within that context, though, the idea lingers in some circles that art—at least certain kinds of art—ought to be a bastion of integrity against the prostitution of mind and spirit that capitalism offers up as culture. That was the implicit idea at the core of the Friggin speech. Selling out has to do with tailoring your work to a market, consciously or unconsciously adjusting your creative decisions, in order to maximize the work’s attractiveness to potential buyers (or prize awarders). But as much as artists need to create they also have to eat, and if you are not independently wealthy or supported by someone who has a regular job, presumably selling your art helps in that regard. If you can sell it, at least you can go on making it rather than starving to death in a grubby basement apartment while the world waits with bated breath to find out who is going to win the latest literary contest.

But is art—all of it—just another commodity in the market to be produced and consumed, a race for the prize, or does it still potentially lay claim to some other realm or mode of existence?  While it is fashionable in some intellectual circles to go on about the end of authenticity and originality, the death of the author, and so on, real writing does go on and I don’t mean by that the kind of writing associated with the phrase “Writers and Poets.” “Writers and Poets” is a nonsense phrase invented by the hordes of graduates from arts management programs to explain what they are supposed to manage.

When I raised this issue in a public forum, asking what poets are presumed to do if not write, there was general agreement that the word “poets” in this context means people who do not earn money from writing, whereas writers, at least potentially, do, a crucial distinction for arts managers. Arguing that that was not a bad thing, a terrific poet (Peter Culley) who writes books that those who award prizes are apparently severely allergic to, responded by arguing that in fact “poetry is being ruined by people who are trying to turn it into a ‘real’ & non-fucked (commercial) activity instead of the art form reserved for deadbeats & losers who don’t want to be bothered by worrying about asshole audiences . . ..”

The writing that is at stake in Culley’s thinking is of another order than the one implied in “Writers and Poets,” one that has recourse to a sense of . . .  what are you going to call it if not authenticity or integrity? Well, say attention, attention not merely to some thought of the world arranged in an aesthetically pleasing formation that can win a prize. Culley’s thinking has this writing taking place at a point where every word resonates with a field of meaning that opens up to the extraordinary and uncontainable complexity of the sounding of the world—that kind of attention, the kind where every choice, which is to say every word, every syllable, opens the sentence, the line, to what is always opening beyond it.

There is an adventure in that that most prize awarding panels find, well, stupefying, because mostly they have been trained to read (and write) a conventional (prize winning) verse (the Commercial Poetry Product) that is taught in the professional writing programs that the judges have been trained in.

It is hard for me to argue with Culley’s point, given my own writing, notwithstanding the—I think “fluke” would work adequately here although someone else has suggested “luck” as more appropriate—of the big prize nomination. Not that Cosmographia—a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic didn’t deserve it, if only for being the only post-Lucretian faux micro-epic ever written not only in Canada but the whole world, but the flukiness of the process as a whole is legendary among those who have participated on various art booty panels—not that it could be otherwise, though it does seem usually dominated by a certain narrow range of sensibility.

Brian Fawcett, in an essay called “Why Sharon Thesen Doesn’t Win Poetry Prizes,” locates four crucial characteristics of the prize winning sensibility: 1) earnestness, free of all irony; 2) an addiction to repetitious tropes illustrative of the poet; 3) the ability to campaign tirelessly for themselves; and 4) a craving for public recognition. I think you could safely add a fifth, which would be the deep, heartfelt belief that intimate revelations of their inner most selves are endlessly interesting.

Someone long ago pinched a phrase from Levi-Strauss (was it Lowell?) to describe the difference between the academic verse of 50 years ago, which arguably created the conditions for the current culture of career oriented verse production, and what was then called “the new American poetry,” after an anthology of that name that came to typify an adventurous kind of writing, a phrase still in circulation, saying the one was “cooked,” the other “raw.” Sounds nice, but like so many nice sounding things, it doesn’t really work if you actually think about it. The poetry that is supposedly raw is just as closely and carefully composed as anything deemed cooked.

“Open” and “closed” capture more of the thrust of the argument (as the poet Charles Olson famously located it in an open field), both in terms of the relation to form, as well as the range of address, although no doubt there would be just as much argument about that as about any other dichotomy. Perhaps not even “open,” but “opening,” to keep it transitive, in process. It is a fidelity to the opening that I would locate in relation to this question of a writing with no value (or absolute value which is the same thing) which takes place outside the closure of any economy or system—or, for that matter, any theory, an opening between the writer and the language of the world she or he lives in that constantly moves toward the unanticipated, the incommensurable. In either case, the result is something called creation.

Not that there is anything special about that. “It is bread and butter,” Jack Spicer wrote, “pepper and salt. The death / that young men hope for.” Emerson had it as familiar: “I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” he wrote. The commonness of that opening—“This ocean, humiliating in its disguises,” or what Emerson calls the “plastic and fluid” world—leaves us with a lot of options when it comes to writing—or making anything for that matter, and while commerce can be—and often is—the enemy of that process, that is not always the case.

One of the great moments in U.S.American cultural history occurred in the 1920s and 1930s when burgeoning American pop culture gave rise to the idea that “music could have substance as well as mass-marketability,” as Will Friedwald put it in his biography of Frank Sinatra, one of the great benefiters of that moment (15). Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern,  Hoagy Carmichael, Kurt Weil, Harold Arlen, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers were not ruined by commerce—commerce made them possible, and I doubt even Peter Culley would begrudge that.

For some, though, this is so-called “low art,” and thus automatically of negligible value in the hierarchy of values. Its saleability is seen as grounded in offering comfort and reassurance to audiences, the ready confirmation of their expectations, rather than challenging them the way something called “high art” is supposed to do.  Its claim to “creativity” is seen as of another order. Harlequin romances and TV sitcoms (and, to most CBC listeners apparently, banjos) command the depths of low art. High art, on the other hand, occupies art galleries, museums, myriad corporate boardrooms, and, of course, the stages where the race prizes are distributed at the end of the literary racing season.

This high/low distinction has haunted thinking about art since the 18th century and its spatial language is a reminder of the lingering social hierarchies that defined the difference. These days the difference is often confused with questions of genre, where certain genres are assumed to appeal to the mass market while others don’t. Television is low art, opera is high. Literary fiction is high, crime fiction is low. Each has its own contests. Poetry, because of its pre-MFA-creative-writing-program history as a serious art, clings to some vestigial value, even though it has become so marginalized that its actual value is paradoxically low—hence, poets and writers.

Michael Boughn worked in the Teamsters for nearly 10 years before returning to university to earn a PhD in 1986 after studying with poets John Clarke and Robert Creeley. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Iterations of the Diagonal, Dislocations in Crystal, 22 Skidoo / SubTractions, and Great Canadian Poems for the Aged Vol. 1 Illus. Ed. Cosmographia – a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic was short listed for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2011, prompting a reviewer in the Globe and Mail to describe him as “an obscure veteran poet with a history of being overlooked.” He has also published books for young adults, including the Maple Award nominated Into the World of the Dead, a mystery novel, and a descriptive bibliography of the American poet, H.D. He recently edited (with Victor Coleman) Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book for the University of California Press. He has also published numerous articles on film, writing, architecture and music, most recently “The War on Art and Zero Dark Thirty” in CineAction. He has taught courses at the University of Toronto since 1993, recently focusing primarily on American writing with special emphasis on the innovative writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *