Money sets standards and settles issues. It’s money that measures the worth of each individual, whoever or whatever he or she may be: a pole dancer at a night club, an auto-mechanic, a seasonal laborer in the asparagus field, a military spy hollowing out an enemy dictatorship, or – out of whatever frivolity of youth or deformation of personality – a poet. Can you live off it? It’s the quest for a common denominator, the slightly sneering imputation of a low motive that even the poet-fantasist daren’t go too far away from without risking a stumble. Whoever holds forth unpaid is like someone preaching on one leg: he won’t be doing it for long. The question is a conscious and malicious comment on that flamingo or ostrich position. Live off it is a way of saying: these fruitless verbal stunts, prestidigitations, aptitudes must surely lack in market value what they claim to have in terms of significance. To sensitive poets’ ears it will sound like a threat, a tactless reminder of a bad habit, a warning against something that will surely end up as parasitism...
[Poets these days] are back in the real world, no longer treading astral paths. More skeptical than most rocket scientists, they look about their immediate vicinity, registering the tiniest quiver of a needle, the puff of quartz-dust on their instruments. Still with that fresh, animal gaze – albeit as the natives of language – they escort each new flight and describe things the experts miss. Their task is no longer metaphysics and contemplation of the Pleiades. Even if love and death remain their pre-eminent assignments (because who else is there who would accept them), their radius in the last few centuries has steadily expanded. No philosophical, geopolitical or moral problem has escaped their sensitive soundings. No crisis zone on the globe or in the mind where you don’t run into poets. No dirty work for which they consider themselves too fine or too romantic.
But by the same token, they will no longer stand for all the reproaches that are leveled against them. Someone who is spared nothing in what he does, who has no protection and no esthetic privilege, such a person will at least lay claim to his constitutionally guaranteed space, as part of a properly constituted minority. So one shouldn’t be surprised if these incessantly questioned parties start shooting a few questions back. Trained in self-doubt as they are, they know where the adversary’s weak spots are. It takes them a while to launch into a counter-question, but then they do it enthusiastically, and, as we will see, quite unscrupulously.
The representative question is the why. If you approach the matter unsentimentally enough, a meditation on the subject will surprise you. I don’t want to frighten you, but have you thought about what happens to people who aren’t artists? E. E. Cummings once gave a particularly blunt answer. His barrack-room tone was probably in imitation of some raw recruit. In the introduction to his novel The Enormous Room, he comes up to the reader with a pally “Don’t be afraid” and gets a merry little dialog going. In the course of it, the encouraged reader lets the fearless author talk him into the question: “What do you think happens to people who aren’t artists? What do you think people who aren’t artists become?” – only to be triumphantly shot back at by the author: “I feel they don’t become: I feel nothing happens to them; I feel negation becomes of them.” After that triple salvo – according to the author anyway – the reader has no more questions. At best, it’s a whispered echo of the poet’s final threat: “Negation?”
Well, one could probably be gentler about it. Delicate sensibilities may be hurt by a poet, of all people, arguing so ruthlessly and self-righteously. But why should he spare you a peek into his own box of prejudices, when he is compelled on a daily basis to inspect those of others? Moreover, everything with Cummings has to do with this one, ambivalent concept, negation, which signifies both the process of negating and its effect, the result of disappearance, namely: nothing. And it is precisely this annulling, this deletion, this causing to disappear that is at issue. Are those non-artists, always terribly busy but finally disappearing without a trace, are they not the ones who are condemned to negate everything that doesn’t press itself on them in the form of reality? They are the ones who have no possibility of returning, who spend their lives in the service of their own removal, all for the sake of banality and materialism.
Anyway, they don’t contribute much to spiritual variety. If it were up to them, there would only be the world as is, which means rough and ready, drearily underexposed, a place of torment and tedium, a global Golgotha without witnesses – and not because they are entirely devoid of imagination and playfulness themselves so much as because all their activities are essentially negative, a sopping up of resources, a clearing away of what existed previously, a destruction of terrestrial substance without a chance of any revision, let alone irregularity. In truth, it is they who are holding negation, the philosophers’ rattly old machine gun, in their hands, and it is they, not the bearded wise men of stoa and academy, that have most frequent recourse to it. They don’t have to be ill-intentioned, it’s enough that they continue to do what non-artists do when they are bored. Which means behaving like normal consumers of the universe, always busy, always on their treadmill, a.k.a. ‘the real world’, or ‘commonsense’ or ‘business as usual’.
Oh, that’s just resentment speaking ... In fact, artists and non-artists have a wonderful symbiosis. Each side profits from the weakness of the other and receives its legitimization from it, see above. Only, the one side seems always to have known why as a minority it always had a modicum of modesty, while the other was able to ignore it in its nihilistic philistinism. The wonderful thing about this little argument is the way it sharpens the issue of why. Instead of proclamations as to the function and purpose of their respective activities, it’s an argument about who, bluntly speaking, is responsible for more of the current schlimazel. Probably that’s why the exchange is so satisfactory. Be warned: most artists, frustrated or otherwise, approve of this sort of thing.
-- from "Why Live Without Writing," translated by Michael Hofmann, February 2010 issue of Poetry