I once had the idea art is like a tuning fork, that when you strike it just right, that is, find the right words, the right notes, forms or movements, they set something in the heart ringing, and every heart within heartshot rings with the life and spirit of its tone.

“The creative economy” has not been about the arts.

This has troubled me.

I was present at two large gatherings on the creative economy recently, both attended by every high class arts entrepreneur, member of business and government and arts establishment administrator you might find in Maine’s Who’s Who in the Arts.

I was still thinking these meetings would be about the arts, and, as such, somehow about me.

Yes, me. For small as I might be as one poet in our artist-rich, vibrant, huge state, it is my working world of writing, publishing, performing and teaching writing from Kennebunkport to Caribou for 35 years.

What I heard at these creative economy meetings is money, money, money.

It was about how much money the arts bring into Maine.

According to Arts & Economic Prosperity, a national landmark study conducted by Americans for the Arts, Maine brings in $49.2 million, supporting 1,535 full-time jobs, generating $35.4 million in household income to local residents and delivering $5.7 million in local and state government revenue.

And, yes, this is inarguably a good thing.

I attended the creative economy programs, gatherings of the wealthy and the administrators of wealth to support investment in the arts.

But where was the voice of the arts, the voices of artists themselves?

The creative economy meeting held at Portland Stage Company in mid-June was dominated by three speakers.

They addressed a full house of predominantly business and government representatives and arts administrators, telling about how their “cities … have identified art and creative enterprise as key to their success.” (The Portland Press Herald, June 14, 2012.)

Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told the audience, “Portland is the city it is now because of the arts.”

The closest the evening came to anything of what the arts are really about were a few perfunctory remarks by Mr. Landesman.

The two shining, black grand pianos on stage behind the speakers remained silent, their piano benches empty throughout the evening.

Music, too, is speech, and I missed it.

Ironically, nearly all attending this event are people I rarely see at poetry, music or dance performances and art exhibits, unless at a premier venue like Merrill Auditorium or at a performance by an outstanding luminary of the arts world.

“Well, you know,” a friend of a friend observed, “it helps people appreciate art’s importance when they can see its monetary value.”

We measure things, not only the arts, by how much money they’re worth.

There’s the problem!

What kind of people have we become when our primary standard of value is monetary worth?

Shouldn’t we be able to ascertain value by the importance things have for us — material and living — to determine how we use money and not the other way around?

My experience of the creative economy is that it would make a handmaid of the arts.

“It all seemed to be about bringing money into the economy, not enriching the life of the community,” said Odelle Bowman, an actor, director, storyteller, arts educator and executive director of L/A Arts, who attended the event at Portland Stage in June.

“They’re not thinking about cultivating the next generation of artists,” Ms. Bowman said. “Is that a policy that has depth?” she asks.

“When the arts become solely an economic commodity, an economic driver, it weakens art as a voice,” she said. “The arts are to make us think and feel.”

I just read an essay by the economist and spiritual philosopher Charles Eisenstein, who talks of “the light in their eyes” after visiting his young son’s “beautiful nature-oriented camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Yes, I thought, that’s it, too, what happens to us when we fall in touch with whatever awakens our hearts, sets them on fire and shining or humming, for how else would we see such sound but as light in our eyes, which like the tuning fork, sets every other heart it touches afire.

This, it seems to me, is all our work, to keep that sound and light alive in drumbeat, verse, movement, painting and sculpture or song.

This, it seems to me, is one of the high functions of art; and like Joy Harjo says in a poem, itself inspired by the jazz trumpet of Charlie Bird,


“to anyone listening in the dark. . . . Let me hear you

by any means: by horn, by fever, by night, even by some poem

attempting flight home.”

Martin Steingesser was Portland’s first poet laureate (2007-2009)