Ancient Rome’s patronage system was diverse and involved not only the literary arts but embraced the whole society in a pyramid of dependency at the top of which was the king (during the imperial period). There were literary, social and communal gradations on this pyramid; emphasis is on the cultural, that is, the literary. A client-patron (cliens-patronus) relationship was mediated by the writer or poet’s financial straits and the desire for immortality by the patron – powerful, aristocratic or famous, who is nevertheless scared of losing all that to the oblivion of death. Poets after all can immortalize him in verse or prose, dedicate works to him or even augment his public positions while he lives and breathes. Yes, there was politics involved too. The poet could consolidate a patron’s political or social position by augmenting in verse the latter’s profile in the former’s work. It was a mutually beneficial position for patron and poet alike. In ancient Rome the poet did not receive any royalties, had to pay for and even distribute his own works by himself, so having a rich and powerful patron was useful in promoting the writer on the one hand and imbuing the patron with prestige (while alive) and immortality (while dead).
Publius Vergilius Maro, that is, Virgil, Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus and Propertius, also known as Sextus Propertius all enjoyed the promotion and support of Gaius Maecenas, famous patron of the arts in the Roman world and a close associate of Emperor Augustus. Virgil’s Aeneid propagated a god-like Augustus, presenting him as an almost divine ruler; Horace’s odes sings the defeat of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius in Actium in the hands of Augustus. In a world built by slaves, a patron could sometimes raise the social position of slave or serf, who happens also to be a writer. An example was Terence Lucanus, who was a senator and patronized Publius Terence Afer, slave-playwright of African origin. But our focus is on the poet particularly. And this brings us to Shakespeare – known for his plays mostly but also a remarkable poet.
Shakespeare had not just one but a whole group of patrons, made up of figures drawn from the aristocracy of the day. The Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Excess literary circle promoted not only Shakespeare though, but a group of poets and writers, including Shakespeare. The group was referred to either as the Excess or the Wilton Circle, depending on which of those two places it met. Of course some of Shakespeare’s works where dedicated to those members of the aristocracy who supported him – for example the long poems “Venus and Adonis” and the “Rape of Lucrece” are dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. Through the agency of the poet the politician is indeed immortal!
Unlike in Ancient Rome where the poet was an unofficial megaphone of the State, medieval England, from the time of James I, installed a Poet Laureate, who was informally sworn to propagating the Monarch’s political ambitions and formally to composing poems for official and personal royal functions like births, deaths and so on. The position of poet laureate grew from an ancient custom where the King had minstrels and versifiers attached to his household.
For centuries since Charles II a laureate was installed for life. Randomly one can point to Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spencer, Ben Johnson and John Dryden as notable poet laureates of the Medieval, Tudor, Stuart and early Modern periods respectively. It was only from the early Modern Period that there existed a formal office of Poet Laureate in England, otherwise poets were simply adopted or employed by the King as part of his retinue.
The existence of court poets is not confirmed to the West alone. In fact, it probably has it roots in oral cultures and is as old as society in its rudimentary stages. Such that in Oral African cultures the court poet was an integral part of royal court life; the only difference here to the medieval, early modern and modern European cultures being that the African court poet was a performer in the sense that he verbalizes rather than writes down – even with the accompaniment of a simple musical instrument or a lone horn – the praises of the King as handed down from generation of other court poets or traditional lore. Modern African traditional performance poets, like Lanre Adepoju, now employ a complex of guitars, traditional drums and other modern instruments in rendering traditional poetry. The main point here is that like the old English poets, ancient and modern traditional African poets employ poetry in praise of the monarch and are a normal part of official and unofficial court-life.
Were these then professional poets? The answer to that is complex and debatable. Clearly the fortunes of the old poets of the western written tradition were not as strongly dependent on the English kings as much and as completely as that of traditional African poets were tied to the purse strings of African Monarchs. We do know that some English poets, for example William Morris, William Mason, Thomas Gray, Sir Walter Scott and recently in 1984 Philip Larkin, did reject the poet laureateship of England. But is such a life possible today for a poet; such a life of waiting for the crumbs, grain and dribble from lordly tables? For one the poet’s relationship to the audience is much more distant today than in the days of active sponsoring monarchies and direct private patronage.
In late 19th-century Europe the relationship of the poet to the public became mediated through the phenomenon of the literary market due to the rise of the middle class. Direct personal patronage dwindled. Poets such as Wordsworth began to complain about public dictates on the themes of their work. It was the period when the term intellectual first entered the dictionary and such new-fangled diction as genius sprung up. The image of a ‘romantic artist’, who was self-willed and self-directed and above the vagaries of the private ‘control’ of the court, money-ed gentry or a general soliciting public was created in the public domain. Contemporary literary culture has inherited this apparent independence in the figure of the poet; apparent it is only because other patronage systems – like prize-awarding institutions, writers’ organisation, book clubs and enduring national laureateships in the west – have been put in place by civil society. To what extent do such institutions control what the poet produces? First we should look at the possibility of self-subversion inherent in ancient Roman patronage system and then relate it to the same syndrome today.
Trevor Fear quoting Carson (1993, 75) mentions “the dilemma of the artist in a money economy”. He makes particular reference to Ovid’s deployment of the trope of pimping and prostitution with regard to poet and the poem respectively. According to Fear, Leslie Kurke suggests that Pindar tried to negotiate a safe passage between money and corruption in investing his own promotion by the aristocracy with a noble, gentile and sensible use of money. Fear notes that Horace was also anxious and tried in his poems, Epistles 1.17 and 1.18 to represent the poet as matrona fidelis and not levis. Self-serving rhetoric this must have been, especially if the poet abdicates his duty to the society as social critic and the rallying point for cultural progress. Pindar projected the idea that the roman Nobility was a kind friend merely! Well, we know about the brutality of the roman domination of those spaces it conquered. Were the poets guilty or not of complicity? The model should be that of the African traditional court bard or griot, who not only sings the King’s praises but also daubs him in slime and spittle – although through the subterfuge of intricate linguistic decoys – when it is necessary. Akintunde Akinyemi, in a study of the satirical impregnation of Yoruba court poetry, shows how the paid-piper still piped to his patron’s disadvantage with the use of sophisticated literary tropes. When it was necessary the Oba or King was the subject of ridicule or criticism by his court bard. Can this be said for the professional poet of today? – Yes, if the livelihood of a poet depends on prizes, Nobel or Ignoble, awards, laureateships, grants, institutional-cum academic appointments based on his oeuvre alone, then he is a professional poet; he subverts self and his art – unless he is still capable of dispensing his usual critical duties. The professional poet is forced to sing the tunes expected of him and plays up to a gallery of politicians, literary administrators, the beguiled or ignorant public and so on.
When the poet insists on discharging his duties to the society by being overtly critical he falls out of favour or power. Power should not be his preserve anyway because power corrupts and so does money; and these two are infinitely entwined in the game of patronage. Humility, not the monarch’s chambers, should be the poet’s first court. A good example of a poet falling out of favour is the erstwhile Poet Laureate of New Jersey, who was brave enough, in a world running wild with lap-dog poets, to criticize. Here is the poem in contention:
Somebody Blew up America
They say its some terrorist,
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos…
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away..?
Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen,
Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO who who
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!..
The poet was brave indeed and discharged his duties admirably. But from a long-standing poet and no neophyte, one would have expected a more subtle language that would stab at hypocrisy and at the same time disarm. But as that poem stands its language is too close to that of propaganda. It was this one failure that made him fall out of favour; this near prosaic deployment of a language that should be properly satiric and difficult to arrest.
The professional poet abounds today. Is he a pimp; are his poems a form of prostitution. Yes and yes! The professional poet comes in different shapes but his one sure trademark is that of complicity in his own work, his pandering to the dictates of the audience - Wordsworth realized this and rejected dictation from the public; his lowering of standard to meet the poetic fashion of the day as distinct from true innovation; his lowering of standards in style and theme – especially where such compromises his art and craft. The professional poet does nothing else but writes poetry; he is a throw back to the old roman court poet, always ready to fawn, with an ego only smaller than that of his ‘client’ – whoever that might be. He is part of the problem, “lending pith to hollow reeds” as Soyinka puts it concerning certain allegorical characters in The Interpreters.
Amatoritsero Ede is a peripatetic, internationally award-winning poet and ex-Hindu monk born in Nigeria. He has been a Book Editor, was Editor-in-Chief of Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University’s English Department from 2005-2006, where he is now a Doctoral Candidate.
July 04, 2008
New Releases From Gaspereau Press