(By /BBCNews) Last week, an amateur poet won more than $1m on a TV talent show in the United Arab Emirates. But what does an injection of cold hard cash on this scale do to a poet’s creative impulses?
As poetry readings go, the setting was unique. The Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi boasted light-up floors, backdrop projections and a light show of a kind that would be familiar to fans of Pop Idol, X Factor or America’s Got Talent.
Since February, global audiences of up to 70 million have tuned in to watch Million’s Poet, in which men (there were no female contestants this year) in traditional dress take turns to deliver self-penned verses of a type of colloquial Arabic poetry called Nabati. A panel of judges delivers feedback, the Emirati royal family puts in an occasional appearance, and the contestants are gradually whittled down.
If this format seems alien to the business of poetry, described by Wordsworth as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, then the prize money may also give us pause for thought. When 27-year-old Saif al-Mansuri won the sixth season of the show last week, he took home five million UAE Dirhams – that’s $1.3m or £800,000. As literary prizes go, the only thing that comes close is the Nobel Prize for Literature, which stands at eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2m or £700,000).
“Ordinarily, poetry does seem to be the opposite of show business, and we probably just prefer our poets not to be celebrities in that particular way,” says Don Share, Chicago-based editor of Poetry magazine and a poet himself. “It doesn’t sit well with us, and it’s very hard to explain that. Money is felt to be contaminating and to be antithetical to the values that we expect from poetry and literature and art.”
But, he says, it’s very unfair to resent poets and novelists who become rich, since pop stars, movie stars and even politicians are much wealthier. It’s a good thing, in his view, if Million’s Poet is providing counter-examples to the “stereotype of the starving artist, the poet in the garret”.
That impression, he says, was fixed by the large number of great poets in history who happened to be very poor.
In the mid-19th Century, visitors flocked to the cottage of John Clare, to stare at the “peasant poet” who lived and worked in grinding poverty. There was bohemian poverty too, the type where a poet’s last pennies were spent on absinthe or opium rather than bread. Charles Baudelaire was born to a wealthy family but squandered his inheritance and sank into debt. He said: “Any healthy man can go without food for two days – but not without poetry.” Arthur Rimbaud, living a scandalous life with his lover Paul Verlaine in London in 1872, passed his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, to use their free heating and ink.
The associations between poverty and poetry did not disappear in the 20th Century. “Like many of my fellow poets, we grew up reading the Beat generation – Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac,” says the Friesian poet Tsead Bruinja. “And they were into the hobos, and all that train-hopping stuff. I think it’s the idea that truth is where sadness is, where poverty is, where the booze is. And not where the money is.”
But Bruinja says that he no longer has such a narrow conception of his art-form, and thinks verse can be hammered out of all kinds of life experience. “There’s poetry everywhere,” he says.
As a civilised art, verse has been composed by aristocrats, including Byron and Pushkin, as well as kings and rulers. Japan’s Emperor Meiji wrote thousands of 31-syllable waka poems, which are still available in anthologies today. A number of Arab emirs have become masters of the Nabati poetry form featured in Million’s Poet, including the late ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, and the first ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Jasim bin Mohammad al-Thani.
There is no reason why rich poets can’t feel the hope, love, loss and wonderment they need to create their work, says Judith Palmer, the director of the Poetry Society. “Money solves a lot of problems but it doesn’t stop you going through emotional trauma or suffering bereavement – I imagine that feeling is the same.”