In the 1970s I worked for a company that published classroom magazines and books. A poem of mine was used in one of the magazines. It wasn’t work-for-hire but something I’d written before, so I retained the copyright. This is the poem:
HOW TO AVOID CONTACT
If you keep your eyes straight ahead
and your forehead tense
and your mouth straight, not frowning, not smiling,
then no one will try to talk to you.
Beware. If you let your eyes stray
even one quarter of an inch
to watch another walker,
he may smile back,
unless he too knows
and carefully observes these rules.
To bums who prepare with appealing looks
to ask for money, turn a brusque shoulder.
If someone bumps into you,
never say excuse me—nod, with a smirk.
Above all, avoid the tapping approach
of the blind man
and the slump and shuffle of the old.
They may ask you to help them.
The teacher’s edition of the magazine suggested having students discuss such topics as irony and the values of compassion and caring for others.
A few months later I received a letter from a Southern fundamentalist university that was often in the news because of allegations of racism and other negative isms. Its publishing department wanted to reprint my poem in a language-arts textbook for Christian schools. Those were the private schools set up mainly for white students who would otherwise have to attend newly integrated public schools.
Since I didn’t want to be involved with that university or its publishing venture, I ignored the letter. A few months later I got another letter, repeating the request. Two weeks after that, another letter came. The letters asked how much I would charge for the right to use the poem.
Because of my job, I knew what publishers were charging for reprint rights. The amounts varied greatly, from $25 to use a poem by Robert Frost to the $150 that T. S. Eliot’s publisher demanded, even for a short poem. I decided to get the university press off my back by asking for an outrageous figure: $150. That was a lot of money in the Seventies, especially for a writer somewhat less prominent than T. S. Eliot.
A few days later I got a reply. They accepted my terms and enclosed a contract for me to sign. Oh, my God, I told myself (perhaps using a different expletive). I realized what must have happened: they’d gone ahead and printed the books, with my poem included, before they got my okay.
This was before computerized typesetting and print-on-demand manufacturing. They’d have to destroy the entire stock of books if I denied permission, a loss of thousands of dollars.
My own loss was sleep the next few nights, as the little creatures on my shoulders fought it out. The angel on the right was horrified that I was tempted to take the money, since I was against most of what the university stood for. Appearing in one of its books would suggest that I accepted, or at least acquiesced to, its values.
On the other hand (the little devil on my left shoulder told me) the poem could encourage students in those schools to question the values of their families, their communities, and even—well, it might be possible—the university that sold the textbook. Furthermore, as a publishing professional, how could I sanction the destruction of books?
And, of course—oh, my little devil was clever—my appearance in the book would be an act of subversion, a poetic guerilla tactic.
Last but not least, $150 would be very useful for the terrible financial situation my family and I were in at that time.
For some reason, I didn’t think of hiding behind a pen name if I granted permission. Maybe my commitment to perversity was ruling my actions, or the possibility of notoriety, for whatever that would be worth. I may have thought that boldly identifying myself would have a purging effect on my soul.
My friend Jim was the person I knew with the most impeccable liberal credentials. Right after college he was sent to work in a factory to organize the workers for the Communist Party, which by the middle Sixties had been very much marginalized. Later he worked for a civil rights organization in the South. By the time of my quandary, he had moved a little closer to the center, after some disillusionment, and now that he was raising a family.
The next time we met for lunch, I told him the story. His response: “The hell with it—take the money.” Which is what I did.
I wish I could say that something dramatic happened after that. But no one ever mentioned seeing my name in the book and being horrified or—worse—gratifyingly pleased. Nor did I run into anyone who said his or her life was changed by experiencing my words.
The money did, however, help us through a bad time. Is that the moral
then: anyone can compromise his principles if the price is high enough? Or is it: struggle all you want with your conscience, but it may not matter anyway?
There’s a philosophical position that I would probably maintain today: that
ethics should be self-contained. That is, you do what’s right even if you’re the only one who knows.
And yet a voice can always be heard just below your left ear, saying: “The
hell with it.” It may even use a stronger expletive.