What’s the life expectancy of a poem? Twenty-seven minutes. Yes, the life expectancy of a poem is only twenty-seven minutes. Most poems, according to the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland, are not written by poets. Lines of poetry are unknowingly scribbled by all sorts of people on all sorts of things, and immediately thrown away. Of course, poets would say that a poem is immortal. Twenty-seven minutes is an average*. Considering that this average takes into account Horace, Sappho and Shakespeare you could probably guess that millions of poems race from birth to trash in seconds. Most go to their fates never knowing they were poems. For the vast majority, that’s as should be. For the minority, sadness. Think of all the great lines of poetry you and I will never read! It’s upsetting to think that there are people who don’t know that they’ve created something beautiful.
Darker poems live longer. A suspicion on my part. Poems first composed in notebooks live longer still. Fact. Manual typewriters have the same effect. I hope their scarcity doesn’t bode badly for poetry. Wondering about the life expectancy of a poem while writing is similar to having sex and wondering about the life expectancy of the possible progeny. Since poems live longer than ideas it’s best to write without them.
So, exactly how many poems are you expected to write in a lifetime? How long will you live? Keep each pair of shoes you’ve ever worn and you’ll live forever. Each night before sleep, take five deep breaths, hold the last breath for seventeen seconds and you’ll live to 102**. On a small Greek island they believe the color blue is essential to longevity.
If someone neatly tears your poem from a magazine and carries it in their pocket for two days you’ll live an extra week. If someone memorizes your poem you gain an extra month. If the memorization is the result of a school assignment you gain nothing.
A few years ago an article in the New York Times discussed the life expectancy of various types of artists. It was a slow news day. Poets have the shortest life expectancy. No surprise. At least half a dozen people sent me the article.
* Remove all the poems in the Norton Anthology from the equation, what then would the average life expectancy be? I called the International Poetry Registry and Administration in Geneva, Switzerland, and left a message with a secretary. After not hearing back for three weeks I wrote to them, included an SASE, still no reply. Some of my poems are twenty-five years old. Though none of my good, or what I think of as good, have hit this ripe old age.
** You must start this by your twenty-ninth birthday for it to work.