WASHINGTON—The National Endowment for the Arts announced Monday that it has begun construction on a $1.3 billion, 14-line lyric poem—its largest investment in the nation's aesthetic- industrial complex since the $850 million interpretive-dance budget of 1985.
"America's metaphors have become strained beyond recognition, our nation's verses are severely overwrought, and if one merely examines the internal logic of some of these archaic poems, they are in danger of completely falling apart," said the project's head stanza foreman Dana Gioia. "We need to make sure America's poems remain the biggest, best-designed, best-funded poems in the world."
Gioia confirmed that the public-works composition will be assembled letter-by-letter atop a solid base of the relationship between man and nature. The poem's structure, laid out extensively on lined-paper blueprints, involves a traditional three- quatrain-and-a-couplet framework, which will be tethered to an iambic meter for increased stability and symmetry. If the planners can secure an additional $6.2 million in funding, they may affix a long dash to the end of line three, though Gioia said that is a purely optimistic projection at this stage.
The poem is expected not only to revitalize the community, Gioia said, but also create jobs for the nation's hundreds of out-of-work poets. According to the proposed budget, the poem's 224 authors have allocated $4 million for the final rhyming couplet, $52 million to insert hyphens into the word "tomorrow" so it reads "to-morrow," $7.45 for a used copy of John Keats' Selected Poems for ideas and inspiration, and $450 million for a simile likening human fate to the wind.
Some experts, however, say the poem is already at risk of going over budget, citing the soaring $5,000-per-square-inch cost of vellum, and an ambitious but perhaps ill-conceived $135 million undertaking to make the word "owl" rhyme with "soul."
"We've already put 200 hours of manpower into the semicolon at the end of the first stanza," said Charles Simic, poet laureate of the United States and head author of the still- untitled piece. "And I've got my best guys working around the clock to convert all the 'overs' in the piece into one-syllable 'o'ers.' I got [Nobel Prize winner Seamus] Heaney and [Margaret] Atwood stripping all the V's and tacking apostrophes in their place. It's grunt work, but somebody's got to do it if this poem's going to get done."
Gioia denied allegations that the poem is being mismanaged, claiming that he has implemented several measures to keep the project on schedule, including giving no more than two words to each poet, limiting alliteration and assonance to a maximum of three words per line, cutting out all extraneous allusions to Eliot and Yeats, and restricting any unwieldy metaphors hinting at the vast alienation of modernity.
Although the poem is still in the early stages of construction, it has already come under fire for serious structural issues, including a shaky foundation and a half-dozen partial synecdoches.
"This poem is an eyesore," said literary critic Stanley Fish. "The whole right side of the verse is barely being held up by a load-bearing enjambment, and it seems as if they just sloppily patched up all the holes in the piece with plagiarized Rod McKuen passages."
In addition, the tenuous line that was being drawn between the narrator's mortality and winter unexpectedly collapsed on itself Monday. Two poets were killed in the incident.
"Sure, some of the imagery might be beautiful, but is this poem actually going to be useful?" Fish said. "Or are people just going to look at it and go, 'Huh. Interesting.' Why not put this money toward something everybody can enjoy, like a TV pilot or a New Yorker cartoon caption?"
"The government needs to stop throwing billions of dollars at the arts," he added.
Fish cautioned that previous attempts to funnel money into poetry had been cut short before they were fully completed, resulting in the large number of unfinished, million-dollar poems that are still lying unread across the country to this day.