If only for myself, I wanted to mark this transition. My stay in London (with trips to Morocco and Paris) is now at an end, and I won’t be back for several months It’s been a sparkling and useful visit (leaving aside the six weeks I lost recuperating from the broken foot). Old friends seen again, new acquaintances made, and a reckonable amount of work done. The past two weeks have been conducted under the sign of departure, with goodbyes said to friends like Kathryn Maris, Fiona Sampson, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Mimi Khalvati, Martha Kapos, Ruth Fainlight, James Byrne, Jean McRae, John McCullough, and Anna Robinson. Oh, and Kathryn introduced me to the American poet Linda Gregerson, who is here on her sabbatical, working on Renaissance theater. Special events these past weeks have included seeing the terrific film Milk with my friend Miguel Mansur, a trip to Hastings with Mimi Khalvati, and a talk given by Charles Simic for the Poetry Society. I hadn’t seen Simic for decades, but, even with the inclement weather London has been having, a nearly full house welcomed him at the Bishopsgate Institute hall. I recall that many years ago (in 1970, I think) Richard Howard told me he’d been made the head of a new poetry series at George Braziller (the publishing house). And his first choice for the series was Charles Simic, a name I didn’t know at the time. But Richard gave me a copy of the book, and I saw that something original and distinctive was being done in it. That didn’t mean I predicted that Simic would one day be Poet Laureate of the United States, but that is how things worked out. Actually, he spoke about his two years holding that post, and confirmed what I’ve said here: there is an enormous amount of interest in poetry, witness all the thousands of requests, queries, demands, invitations, debates, and whatnot that came to his door. But I’m aware that these facts will not prevent people from reverting to the old, false refrain: “Nobody’s interested in poetry.”
This doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with writing, but give me a minute. Newscasters have been obsessed this past week with the question of Bonuses for Bankers. Heads of failing banks have been interviewed by British Parliament, and some of them are about to roll. Apparently the same is happening in the U.S.A. For many years, without having a forum for it, I’ve been saying privately that the absurd salaries for CEOs was an abuse, one that, first, unconscionably widened the gap between rich and not rich. Second, that it cut deep into corporate profit; and third, that it was a fraud. Why a fraud? Well, the reason always given for these megasalaries was that a failure to do so would mean the CEO in question would go to another competing corporation and sell his talents to them. But wait a minute. If we concede there is a going rate, a stratospheric average, just who established it? Corporate boards of directors, that's who. If corporations had agreed to put a cap on salaries, there would be no greener pasture to run to. But they've made a tacit agreement not to do this. In this one way, CEOs from competing companies are loyal to each other, I mean, to their category. The salaries are huge because boards of directors vote them huge. That’s in their interest, sure, but not in the interest of the corporation and its profits. It is a scam. Bonuses are only one facet of this larger problem of disproportionate pay. Let’s focus on bonuses, though. Their justification is (in theory) that they stimulate hard work and creativity, leading to greater profit. We’ve just seen that they do no such thing. Several of these chiefs have admitted they have no particular banking expertise. No seasoned and knowledgeable pilot has been at the helm. Hence the financial meltdown from disastrous policies adopted and pursued.
In any case, why should one’s willingness to work hard and think creatively depend on bonuses? Millions of people work hard and think creatively and yet their compensation remains the same. So, why do certain “professions” expect bonuses? Because they can get them, obviously. Putting aside my writing and the payment I received for it, and focusing solely on my teaching (which I did for more than twenty years), I can say I always gave it my best, with no expectation of a “tip” for doing so. The implication of the bonus system is, “If you don’t promise me extra boodle, I’m not going to do good work for you.” I think that is shameful. Nobody ever gave Abraham Lincoln a bonus, or Florence Nightingale, or Marie Curie, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Kyle Smith who lays down asphalt on the highway or Mary Brown who works at the daycare center or Private Gillis who got his foot shot off in Iraq. Why are corporate types not willing to work hard (and responsibly) for what is already a vast salary by most measurements, unless it is topped off by still more loot? Sheer greed, cutting into corporate profit and, these days, awarded at the taxpayer’s expense. The only difference between these lazy fat cats and the waiter at the local pizza house who sweats for a tip, is that the sums involved are staggeringly disparate. No, there is another difference: the waiter has no advance assurance that there will be an extra. The CEO does know. The waiter works like a navvy to get that tip. The CEO doesn’t have to, it’s part of his contract. And let's don't even get into the fabled "exit package." O'Neal at Merrill Lynch got one valued at about $140 million in 2007. And others I could name got staggering amounts as well.
Right, but what has all this to do with writing? OK, the sound-bite you hear absolutely everywhere these days—at publishing houses, at arts funding organizations, at magazines, from organizers of reading series—well, all administrative desks involved with writing and publishing is that, because of the “credit crunch,” there is no money to do what the organization under discussion used to do. Funds have been cut and, besides, people can’t afford to buy books or tickets to readings, etc. That is infuriating. It’s not enough that these corporate frauds have wrecked the solvency of our citizens and our government, they are also hindering the production and publication of new literary works (and artworks in other genres). For this they should receive a bonus from the taxpayer? Has the world gone insane? (Answer: Yes.) But can we get sane again and stop paying CEOs these gargantuan salaries? And certainly—certainly!—not pay bonuses to them on top of that.