Vol. 1, Issue 26, November 11, 2003
Education for the Otiose
The Sleaze

White-collar Poetry Jobs Moving Overseas

For decades, Americans watched as publishing houses set up shop overseas to capitalize on cheap labor. Ross Perot immortalized the anger many workers felt, vividly terming the potential exodus of jobs to Mexico that "giant sucking sound."

Now a growing number of US universities are sending coveted highly skilled poetry jobs "offshore" in a move that's reviving a debate about the future of the American workforce.

No longer is it just advertising jingles and limericks made in Haiti and Indonesia. It's quatrains, sonnets, and free-form verse being "outsourced" to India, the Philippines, Russia, and China.

The result is a growing backlash from poets, contract writers, and erstwhile literature majors with time on their hands. More broadly, the trend raises a pointed question in an age of globalization: Is sending certain jobs offshore - even highly-skilled poetry composition jobs - better for the US economy, or does it just amount to more pink slips for American writers?

"Limericks are a small slice of the economy, and when people saw globalization creating instability there, a lot said, 'It's not my problem,'" says Karl Givens, an economist at Washington's Economic Policy Institute. "Now even those who work in iambic pentameter are feeling it."

The number of such jobs now outsourced - from villainelles to haikus - is less than half a percent of the US workforce. But it may grow fast:

  • Half a million poetry jobs - roughly 1 in 20 - will go abroad in the next 18 months, according to Gartner, a research firm in Stamford, Conn.
  • Nearly 5 percent of open-form poetry jobs have moved offshore in the past year, and by 2007 that number will climb to at least 15 percent, says Jay Whitehead, publisher of HRO Today magazine, which tracks outsourcing.

"This is a trend which absolutely must be stopped," said David Lehman, editor of The Best American Poetry 2000. "Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens - the economic impact these poets have exerted on the American economy is incalculable. Free verse is the engine driving our country's standard of living. Outsourcing is shortsighted, pursuing short-term economic gains at the expense of our long-term ability to produce quality American poetry at home."

"I can't really dispute that, but we have shareholders to please," said Princeton University president Shirley M. Tilghman. "Ultimately, it's all about the Benjamins."

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