The natural order of things is for poets to starve, preferably in attics or other out-of-the-way places from which they rarely emerge, and any right-thinking man must question ill-guided (though well-intended) efforts to change the drill.

Now Paul Theroux is a writer of successful travel volumes (taking trains through Asia, etc.) and novels, and he was in town this week to lecture at the Library of Congress on patronage. Patronage is the system of maintaining poets, dancers and you name it, at some public or private trough so that even though they never sell anything, they get paid all the same.

Theroux, who has always been pretty successful, has the same dark notion that everybody else has (though few express their thoughts on the business) that there is no such thing as a splendid writer who remains undiscovered.

Ruth Boorstin, one of the intellectual (and yet highly agreeable) ladies of the capital, was speaking with Theroux and what about Emily Dickinson? I suppose Ruth Boorstin believes (for as I say she seems remarkably intelligent) Emily Dickinson is the only American lyric poet worth thinking of. And she said Emily once sent her poems off to Boston to see if they were publishable, but the response she got was so discouraging she never made an effort afterwards to have them published.

Well, said Theroux. What does that prove? (Apart from the fact that Boston is hardly the place to begin if you want to sell any art of consequence; they never support anything except Longfellow and Irish politicians, I have noticed).

Emily Dickinson did not lack for money, Theroux went on, so a patron would have done her no particular service. She wasn't starving. Furthermore, she kept on writing her beautiful verses, publisher or no publisher.

Which brought Theroux to his main point: Wirters, and presumably the laborers in less consequential vineyards too, will do their bit regardless of money.

"Nobody is really all that surprises that fine novels are written in Siberian labor camps," he said. Though patrons there are few. People sense that major talents will express themselves, not merely in the absence of cash subsidies, but in spite of hell itself.

Then you have those writers -- he cited James Joyce -- who will simply spend every dime they get, from whatever source, so there is no known way ever to make them financially secure. Joyce, he said, should have been a rich man. His Rockefeller patron and others showered him with cash. They did not make him rich, Theroux went on -- nobody had that much money -- but at least he remained poor only throught the most determined extravagance.

Theroux said that in England they have programs supporting writers and lesser artists, too, but of course not everyone who applies for th gravy gets it. But a study was made of the losers, and it turned out that not one of the losers stopped working. In other words, with or without aid or patronage, the artists kept on producing.

As I understood him, he is not opposed to writers getting a bit of government or foundation or academical cash like everybody else. It's just that he darkly suspects these grants do very little for the advancement of anything.

Sometimes he thinks we have got to the point that no poet today will pick up plume without a grant of some sort. Which is fine, except that current poetry would be equally good if there were no grants at all to poets.

As far as that goes, nobody reads poetry anyway, even good poets like William Smith, so you have a double-barreled argument here. Poets would keep writing without grants, so grants do not relate to the production of poetry anyway, so again the grants do nothing to maintain or spread or encourage culture.

Poetry is the worst example, of course. No other art, except maybe painting, is so easy to pretend to perform, and yet poetry of all arts is the most difficult and rare to excel in.

Arguing with Theroux, which is always agreeable since he has excellent manners and brains, you might have a residual pang that (as I myself believe) the world is stuffed full of excellent writers who never write, superb sculptors who have no wire, and dandy painters who have no stripes or blobs at all. Never having been encouraged or gently led forth.

I think the world is full of mute inglorious Miltons. But grants don't bring them to anybody's attention, because they never got started. In one of Jane Austen's novels the old lady speaks of one who would have been a superb painist if only she had ever learned to play the piano. Funny and, alas, true.

All men produce art, and women do too, in a state of nature, and one thing we ought to distrust is the notion that only the most favored or ethereal few can do it. Everybody should do it, if only because there is no more agreeable way to pass the years. But I think Theroux must be objecting to the increasingly prevalent notion that only rare spirits can guide us, and when these spirits are discovered, why we must shower cash upon them.

He did mention a brutal fact: How much money a guy makes is very important in our society. It is especially important to artists, who love the assurance that they, too, make money and (therefore) must be pretty good. Many an artist does not need or even much want money yet wants the assurance that the is worth a lot of money. Money is an accolade by which one knows one is a knight.

Gibberish aside, however, we have the delightful example of patronage memtioned by Theroux:

The dandy poet, Sackville, (first Earl of Dorset) once invited a batch of fellow poets to Knoll House. Knoll House was and is one of the most lavish and pretentious houses on the face of the earth and I imagine everybody showed up when invited. Sackville suggested they all write some impromptu poetry and let John Dryden (one of the guests) award the prize for the best.

Sackville won. Dryden read the winning poetry, for which he awarded the prize:

"I promise to pay 500 pounds upon demand to John Dryden." (Signed) Edward Sackville, Earl of Dorset.

Even though disappointed, the losers must have agreed it was the best poetry they had heard in quite a spell, and Sackville well deserved the prize. p

There was that other great example, too, of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson was lazier than a redbone hound, as everybody liked to point out. (Which was why he produced the first great dictionary of English virtually single-handed in record time; for lazy men are always the most spectacular workers).

When he announced he would undertake this great work, Lord Chesterfield, who fancied himself rather a patron of the arts, sent Dr. Johnson a gift of modest proportions.

During the years of labor of the great dictionary, however, Dr. Johnson got nothing from his "patron" and when he went to call on Chesterfield he was not even received. So he plugged on, and at last the great work came to publication.

At which moment Chesterfield sprang to life, of course, and wrote Johnson the most effusive praise, hoping thereby, no doubt, to have the great work dedicated to himself. But Dr. Johnson, who had an elephantine memory for slobs, pigs, royal jerks, did not answer politely. He noted the rebuffs Chesterfield had offered him, and he noted that during the long labor Chesterfield offered not one word of encouragement, not one two-pence of support.

"Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumubers him with help?

"The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

Dr. Johnson's withering letters are among the very best for shutting up Lords Chesterfield and debloating them somewhat.

Theroux might have made the point that Johnson continued, even without patronage. Theroux might have observed, too, that it was only the constant hounding and sniping of the publisher that got Johnson to produce the work at all. If he had not been starving, but had had independent means, he almost certainly never would have done a lick of work in his life, for he was a man of rare good sense as genius. Indeed it may safely be said that editors, publishers and barnacles of that sort have done far more for the production of literature with their gross rude threats than all the patrons of the world have done with their flowery gifts.

Theroux said that apart from private patrons, there are academic patrons who feed and water poets by making them writers-in-residence and thus give them a spell in the semi-public trough. And foundations, of course, support many who would otherwise have to do a day's work. Then Theroux said something odd:

"And the public is a patron." That is, people who buy books and stuff are patrons of the arts. The consumer -- to use a vulgar, ugly word for a vulgar ugly, age -- is a patron of last resort. And the consumer is, needless to say, the patron the artist is keenest for. Or at least, it is the only patron a writer cares about, for if nobody reads the stuff, what good is all the patronage in the world?

Possibly it is the artist who is least accepted by the public who is most desperately in need for foundation or government patronage.

A writer, however humble, who manages to get read tends to care surprisingly little for Ford, Rockefeller, Ding-Ling and othe foundations, and to care surprisingly little for the American Blather Gold Medal for Supreme Artistry in Literature Concerning the American Toad in 1981.

If you can persuade anybody to read you, you don't need a prize, you've got it.

And I think this is the ultimate Theroux message: The great reward for work is the privilege of doing it, of course, but the only other reward worth having is the Golden Guffaw of one who laughs (assuming the work was meant to be laughed at).