A poets' union would not strike for fair wages: that's nonsensical on its face. A poets' union would be primarily oriented toward the fair apportionment of cultural capital—toward the redistribution of attention, the primary currency of the art.[Whose attention? Readers'? Does that mean that for every poem by an interesting unionized poet I read, I also have to read 15 poems by uninteresting unionized poets who need the attention? Or do you mean poets' attention? In order to belong to the union, I have to pay attention to the works of everybody else in the union? Are poets who rarely pay much attention to poetry – sometimes the most interesting writers, as they have actual subject matter to address – disqualified?]
But the ultimate goal is not attention, whether in the form of publications or criticism: it's the de-alienation of poetic labor. When Richard Hugo said, "A creative writing workshop may be the last place you can go where your life still matters," he was imagining that the institutional shelter of the university might be enough of a windbreak for poetic labor to flourish, for its products (poems) to retain their use-value (their uselessness-value?). That's no longer true if it ever was: the university is a primary instigator of the desire to turn one's poems into commodities, which in sufficient number can be exchanged for the goods of prestige and jobs (though it's a peculiarity of the system that publishing less can actually vastly increase the exchange-value of your work). Yet many of us cannot resist the temptation the institution offers us to live as poets, to subtract the A from avocation.[Rock on, Garth! Quite like the formulation that I scribbled into my own notebook a couple years back, & the well-theorized version of Donald Hall's still accurate diagnosis in "Poetry & Ambition" from well-nigh 20 years back. The Poetry Industry.]
But the university does not manufacture the cultural capital (whose body is subtle, invisible even, yet real) apportioned to poetry: poets do. And the university did not invent the artwork-as-commodity; it can even, perhaps via its residual fedualism, function as a site of resistance: if not to capital itself, at least to the celebration of capital that cathects exchange-value as the only value into our souls every hour of every day.I'm inclined to see said cultural capital manufactured not merely by the poets themselves, but by entire structure of literate, word-valuing culture – a structure somewhat larger than "the poets," tho perhaps no longer by much. & the university as site of resistance – well, only in pockets: in the richest of the rich institutions, where resident poets aren't continually dogged by metrics of number & productivity, and in the tiny liberal arts institutions which still value actual intellectual & creative endeavor & still value teaching not immediately quantifiable. The Oberlins, St. Olafs, Grinnells.
As weary and aging tenured faculty member, I find more and more attractive, and perhaps ultimately more honorable, the notion of staking out a place in the academy that takes advantage of its "residual feudalism" without directly tieing one's stake to poetic cultural capitalism: perhaps the finest poet of our moment was Director of Studies and Librarian of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge – but never instructor in creative writing; another is codirector of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, and Professor of Religion.
A parable: "Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. 'Do you wish to buy any baskets?' he asked. 'No, we do not wan any,' was the reply. 'What!' exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, 'do you mean to starve us?' Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off, – that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and by some magic wealth and standing followed, he had said to himself; I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one's while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?" – Thoreau, Walden ("Economy")