This talk was originally titled “You Can Be the Next John Ashbery”—a common dream among the experimental set. Ashbery represents, to that cross section of artists, a pinnacle. Jovial, often buzzed from merlot, Ashbery has been peddling his obtuse work for centuries and now seems to rule from atop the anthill. He has never had to sacrifice sense into his art to obtain anything. Awards, acclaim, floozies: they are all his for the taking. But I personally decided that I found this dream too modest. Although it seems like America is hostile to all things poetic, even though it seems that there is no room whatsoever in the American mind-set for anything complicated or difficult, plain as it may be that Americans have no time or energy to devote to real art—I know deep in my soul that the time is right for the poet to once again take his place in the firmament next to other oddities of popular culture: mimes, boxers, racehorses, mind readers, and babies trapped in wells.
When I speak of Relentless 24/7 Careerism, I would like you to think of a whirring buzz saw cutting away at chilly permafrost. Before there was such a time as now, in which poetry is a profession with codes of behavior, cushy jobs, and an understandable path through life, the poet was alone: smoking marijuana, sleeping with friends’ spouses, unable to see the big picture or to plan with any certainty what tomorrow might bring.
We no longer live in those dark times. Now the path of the poet is worn and true. She simply reads a bunch of poems, writes poems, gets some kind of writing degree, writes more poems, publishes books, teaches poetry, writes a selected and a collected poems, lives long enough to win a bunch of awards, and ideally has a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike named after her someday. The student becomes the teacher to create more students, who then become teachers and lift the poet higher and higher, pressed against the firmament, no doubt someday blocking out the sun. It is a simple dream, like Amway or any other kind of ruthless pyramid scheme, like the Mafia. The question remains: how does one become a general in this army, as opposed to just a dues-paying pawn?
You might think the answer is to write great poems. The cream rises to the top, right? In my experience, no. The most famous poets are not the most gifted, the most daring, or the most geniusy. Fame and poetry mix best through steady mediocrity, the creation of a “poetic voice” and a concrete underpinning of institutional power. You ought to write poems that scare or challenge no one, poems that are speckled with the kind of folksy charm people like in politicians. Be experimental in name only. All those French poets everyone claims to love, who wrote about cow’s uteruses or what-have-you, died in the gutter with massive cases of chlamydia—certainly not the kind of romantic death that contemporary poets ought to strive to emulate.
No, writing great poems is not a prerequisite to being a famous poet. It might be a hindrance. Write one great poem and people will say, “Why are all of that poet’s other poems not as good as the great poem?” Write two great poems and they’ll say, “Fluke! Look at these other 1,000 very ordinary poems!” And so on. There’s no pleasing these haters. That is why you must destroy them with your steady success: that ever-spinning blade that cracks the ice. Be cautious before all else! Caution leads to eventual greatness.
How can you become the most important poet in America by tomorrow? It’s not as hard as you think. Poets used to have to pass out poetry-reading flyers by hand, one at a time, or publish poems one at a time in magazines, slowly building a career. But technology has changed all that. Now you can spam every poet in America with every new poem. Start a fan page for yourself and your books on Facebook. Blog about your every thought—they don’t even have to be astute thoughts. Most poets in America have boring office jobs in which they are screwing around on the Internet most of the time. Just mention the names of as many contemporary poets as you can in all your blog posts. You will catch all the self-googlers self-googling. Self-promotion is the only kind of promotion left. Without poetry reviewers to rely on, only you can spread the word about your product. And if you spread it suddenly, relentlessly, brutally, then you’ll have name recognition from here to Hawaii . . . and that’s all you need, because there are two kinds of poets: those you’ve heard of and those you haven’t. Almost all of us fall into the latter category, but not you! If only you take my advice.
Your interactions with other poets should always be filled with code phrases: “What are you reading?” “What are you working on?” “When’s your next book coming out?” This allows you to follow up with what you’ve been up to and when your next book will be coming out. And you should always be working on something. Whether it’s an epic poem about the life of Bill Buckner or a poem to go along with every Beatles song ever written, the gimmick is the poem. Without some kind of angle or catchy theme, your poem might as well be called “Ignore Me.” America hates poems; the best way to be an important poet is to eschew poetry almost entirely.
If, as Charles Olson argued, a poem is an exchange of energy between the writer and the reader, then we can imagine the relationship between poets as a constant exchange of power. Institutional power, fame, importance—these are constantly at stake in every interaction between poets. Since very few non-poets read poetry, it makes sense that our audience is 98 percent poets. And poets are more easily manipulated than most artists. Our art is based on the most subjective of terms—it rises and falls based on nothing tangible. One minute you’re Mark Van Doren, the most important poet in the world. The next you’re Yvor Winters, mostly forgotten. Does anyone in this room know who the current U.S. poet laureate is? [Five hands rise, and a few call out the name Kay Ryan.] I’m sure she’s a very nice woman, but even this position of stature is no more enduring.
So how does the ambitious poet with dreams of chairing a department or being published by a huge New York press deal with the sort of intrinsic anonymity that comes with being a poet, subject to the cruel twists of fate of the tests of time? Thankfully, there are more poets than ever before. Most have paid cash money to identify themselves as such. Every interaction you have with another poet must leave you triumphant and must leave them fearing and adoring you. It’s not enough to merely have poets like you—like is not a strong enough emotion to propel you anywhere, except maybe to bed. Fear is one of humanity’s great motivators. Fear equals Respect. And Success. Most poets are desperate for any kind of foothold in the genre, any sign at all that they are making progress upward toward their dreams of tweed, tenure, and cultural domination. It is a good exercise to be constantly visualizing yourself in granite on some kind of Mount Rushmore of poetic immortals. You, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou. You, Charles Olson, Lorine Niedecker, and Elizabeth Bishop. Or fancy European writers, if dominating America isn’t good enough for you. I applaud your ambition in all its forms, I ask you to turn it out overtly upon the world. It cannot be held back, nor should it be. Poets will see this swagger in you, this furious halo of anger and hunger, and it will overwhelm them. They will have little choice but to supplicate.
Relentlessness does not come easily to poets. They are generally a stoned and timid bunch, playing with their beards or sitting mousily with hands and ankles crossed. Poets do very little 24/7, except perhaps worry that they’re not as widely popular as they should be. Worry does come naturally to the poet—it must be suppressed with booze or sex (or in my case, in which neither of those is a possibility, baseball). And how does one imagine a career being built out of all of these weirds used weirdly? There are many paths through the art. Having enough money to sit in a log cabin all day watching foxes make out, with berries on one’s breath. Having an entire university beneath one’s command. Ability to drag friends in for a little merlot and sloppy sex with students.