Art Is Not a Profit Industry. That's Why We Need the NEA

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An email from an arts advocacy group advises me to call my congressional representatives and tell them that art is a 700-hundred billion-dollar industry providing hundreds of millions of jobs. I must do this to save the National Endowment for the Arts, which President Donald Trump has now proposed eliminating through budget cuts. I can’t, though, and I do believe in the NEA. But if you do something for money, for a job, it’s not art, and the only way to help people make art is to give them spare time — not jobs. I want the NEA to support spare time for people who wouldn’t otherwise get it.

Poetry, generally considered to be one of the fine arts, derives from the Greek verb poiesis, which means “to make.” Yet poiesis is not merely a form of artistry: It is creation itself. All the fine arts, in fact, are methods of poiesis: acts of creation not constrained to fulfill any needs or purposes. This is the difference between the fine arts and the decorative arts.

Writing a poem is not saying what you mean in an unusual or “creative” way. To write a poem, to write creatively, is to immerse in a process of making and maybe discover an insight. The insight can be developed in revision, but it must arise in the writing process. This is difficult for people to grasp. People often use language to say what they mean. To use language as raw physical material, something to play with, with no intention to express a meaning — it’s difficult.

When writing a poem, you use your organs of sense perception to collect data, and then you organize the data, but not according to logic. The organization itself must be felt, and not thought out: You’re feeling for a physical coherence of linked images, pulses (rhythm), sounds (rhyme) and more. You’re building something, yet you’re not sure what — you’re not subordinating it to pre-existing ideas, meanings or purposes.

But you are not making nonsense. You’re rather making more sense than we often do. We use language to express our thoughts, but language has a way of shaping our thoughts, constraining them in ways we don’t realize. And writing poetry is a technique for cutting loose from these constraints — for turning away from the meanings we’re given and toward those we may find.

Robert Frost describes this process in his brief essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.” And many poems comment on it. “Anchor Head,” in Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, winner of a 2010 National Book Award, offers, “my work, a form of rhythm/like the first sex,” a practice that involves “learning through leaning,” leaning on what’s real.

So, poetry — poiesis — is a highly concentrated and disciplined way of deriving knowledge from elemental, pre-verbal, sensory experience. As we are bodies — animals — we can have much in common. For this reason, sensory experience may be particular and expansive at the same time. The arts, like the sciences, are methods of inquiry, ways to know what’s real and ways to share this knowledge.

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