I've always been fascinated and amused by the way poetry, and the identity of the poet, are portrayed in popular culture. This clip from the opening of Roger Corman's 50s camp classic, A Bucket of Blood, pretty much says it all:
The poet you see there, in a version of the "beatnik coffeehouse", recites a poem that's silly, yet snobby, pompous but dumb. As he says: "the artist is/all others are not." And he sounds a bit ominous: "Some artists will bait a hook and let you bite upon it./Bite hard and die./In his stomach you are very close to immortality."
If you're familiar with this spoofy flick, you know this is foreshadowing. The anti-hero of the film, a hapless would-be sculptor named "Walter Paisley", takes these ideas too literally -- and starts killing for art. He covers the corpses of the people he murders with plaster to make instant statues: triumphs of the beatnik grotesque.
Even in "serious" poet movies, from Sylvia to Pinero, from Hollywood to Indie, directors seem most drawn to "mad" poets, who usually meet a bitter end. Poetry and the other fine arts apparently threaten not only the individual's health, but society's. Think of even the successful poet in Henry Fool. After his mother finally reads his epic, she slits her wrists. Whatever happened to the longer, if eccentric, careers of colorful characters like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein?
Whether poets and artists are actually more self-destructive than, say, dentists, seems an impossible question, though there are (controversial) theories about the "tragic genius." But I think you can read the popular association of poetry (and the arts in general) with death and danger, also as an allegory about relations between "high" and "low."
Popular culture, plugged into big audiences and profits, is often portrayed by big media as vibrant (even druggy rock stars often "turn it around"). The same media constantly write the obituary for the entire art of poetry. Box office death is translated into biological death, as if you'd have to be self-destructive to spend so much time on something worth (in terms of money) so little. In essence, the for-profit economy finds the gift economy incomprehensible. And dangerous.
Why the Vampire Never Eats His Lover...
And, aside from poetry's lack of popularity, such contemporary mythology speaks to an older anxiety about the aesthetic. Like the figures on Keats' Grecian Urn (or the sculptures in A Bucket of Blood), the arts seem to freeze their figures, to mummify them (and us), in order to make them immortal. Henri Bergson, the philosopher of modernism, put it this way back in 1910:
"While works of ancient sculpture express faint emotions which play upon them like a passing breath, the pale immobility of stone causes the feeling expressed or the movement just begun to appear as if they were fixed forever, absorbing our thought and our will in their own eternity."
This association of high art with death is one of the reasons why, in popular culture, the usually aristocratic vampire, that ultimate aesthete, never eats his lover (usually one of the common folk). If he did, the snobs would win. And vampirism would lose its great popularity.
But will such cliches go away, as more and more people create and write for free -- as they do online? Do the arts become a "living" option when everyone's an artists?