New York Times: An 80-Year-Old Poet for the MTV Generation
This is troublesome. I’m sure it’s a great laugh for Ashbery, but from there outward it’s a big swamp. The last thing colleges need is more students who are into poetry. And for god’s sake don’t give us any more poets. America already has more poets than it has poetry readers.
Getting more college students to read by having them watch MTV is, well, an unorthodox strategy. It’s more likely MTV’s looking to get kids who like reading to keep watching MTV. College is among the last surviving ecosystems where literature still thrives. That’s because students do actually read in college, and also because the university financially supports literary forms, like poetry, that can’t compete in the marketplace (Ashbery has taught at Brooklyn and Bard Colleges). We don’t need more English majors either (it’s already the largest humanities major); what we need is to educate people to figure out what to do with English majors. Because now too many of them are drifting from graduation into, say, those permanent-freelance entry-level spots at Viacom subsidiaries like MTV or mtvU, where they work long hours for no benefits and symbolic pay. I know, boo hoo for them, but by churning through these idealistic young employees like fossil fuel, Viacom insures for itself that this system doesn’t get fixed from the inside; and by giving the privileged and wealthy a leg up, since they can afford to work for no pay, Viacom keeps the youth culture media firmly in the hands of an established elite.
Richard Lloyd’s study of the culture industry in Chicago, Neo-Bohemia, offered a depressing analysis of the economics behind the production of art and media. The survival of forms of creativity like music and poetry depends on the volunteer or low-pay activity of large numbers of culture workers—called bohemians or hipsters in other contexts—who through their labor make possible the proportionately few musicians or poets who emerge to wider success from these urban neighborhoods (or “scenes”). But these culture workers also through their low pay for high skill work guarantee the vast profits of major media companies like Viacom. (For Lloyd’s study, this included the neighborhood-gentrifying hurricane that was the arrival of the Real World Chicago). Just like it originally depended on the donated labor of musicians, Viacom now requires a constant replenishment of English grad fresh blood to make its products cheaply, and this arrangement with Ashbery is stacked in its favor.
Some oddities from the Times article:
-“The excerpts were chosen by David Kermani, Mr. Ashbery’s business manager, and two interns and an employee, all in their early 20s, in his office. ‘We were just trying to pick lines that were catchy and sort of meaningful in some way.’” Meaningful? You are aware this is John Ashbery, right?
-“But the mtvU gig — which is unpaid — came with few strings attached, and was not very demanding of his time, he said.” Unpaid. Viacom has $25.75 billion in market capitalization and the poet, who is 80 and still has a day job, is going unpaid. Even the music companies aren’t giving MTV their content anymore. Ashbery’s getting worse treatment than the 22-year old coffee gofers.
-“By Melena Ryzik.” Does anything in the Times shout “read skeptically” as clearly? Though this article was some blend of press release and actual news, Ryzik’s usual beat is Style section updates on what crazy hipsters in the outer boroughs are into now, like cocaine or Justin Timberlake.