Tax-free poetry

Want to create real economic stimulus? Stop taxing artists. That’s the most intriguing suggestion put forward by California’s poet laureate, Al Young, in his keynote address to the gathered poets laureate of California’s cities and counties.

Titled “Line Breaks and Tax Breaks: Poetry and Democracy,” Young’s address covered a lot of ground, but easily the most welcome idea—at least, to the gathered poets—was his suggestion that we consider following the lead of the Republic of Ireland and exempt the creators of art from taxes on money earned from their work.

“At first, there were concerns about the loss of revenue, but the people involved pointed out, ‘What revenue?’” Young said, to laughter. What happened instead was both that Irish artists began to stay in Ireland, while artists from other places began to gather there. “And we all know,” Young pointed out, “how their economy benefited.” He drew a comparison to the way that neighborhoods with a concentration of artists (such as Sacramento’s Midtown) will soon attract other businesses and residents.

“The vitality of the arts attracts businesses,” he said.

The first-ever gathering of poets laureate throughout the state, sponsored by the California Arts Council, the Sacramento Poetry Center, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Council, the California State Library and California Poets in the Schools, includes many poets whose appointments are unfunded. Even those who receive a stipend usually spend all of it on their projects—poetry is not, and never has been, a money-making proposition.

But the arts once brought glory to their patrons, as Young pointed out. “The arts are food,” he said. “They are what nurtures and nourishes us.” He exhorted the gathered poets laureate, who included Sacramento’s Julia Connor, to bring poetry into the public sphere as much as possible. And Young stressed the economic advantages to local governments when they put the arts first.

“We have to mine our cultural treasures,” he said. “The arts are something that people will come from afar to take part in, if they know about it.” The task of the poets laureate is to get the word out.

Of course, art—especially poetry—has a lot to contribute to democracy. Young noted the way that W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” made its way around the Internet in the days after 9/11. “In times of darkness, times of impending crisis, poetry always comes back,” he said.

But poetry’s power is dangerous, at least in some places. “In other parts of the world,” Young said, “poetry can get your head chopped off. Here, we let people say anything they want and ignore them equally.”

Um, maybe not if they actually make money. In America, money talks.