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Journal, Day Five
I’ve come to the last station on the spur line, where the conductor is going to toss me off the observation platform, perhaps into a handy swamp.
As I child, I rode the Edaville Railroad through cranberry bogs south of Boston. This privately owned narrow-gauge used to steam five miles or more into the bogs; the old line, having been closed for years, has reopened with a smaller section of track and without the old engines. As a child, I found steam engines more a real railway than the sleek sleeping cars I’d taken from Boston to Philadelphia. I was in my thirties before I knew that my father’s father’s father had driven locomotives on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
My great-grandfathers were a cross-section of 19th-century life in the North. On my mother’s side, outside Boston, one owned a livery stable and the other was proprietor of a failed grocery. On my father’s, in Pittsburgh, one was a locomotive engineer and the other a river rat who became chief engineer of the steamboat Boaz, which plied the Ohio. My grandfathers were both salesmen. One started at fourteen and became eastern sales manager for Quaker Oats. The other, having graduated from Carnegie-Mellon, declined into drink and a series of wasted jobs. My father was a salesman. I write poetry.
Hart Crane’s father invented the Lifesaver candy. Louise Glück’s invented the X-Acto knife.
Every fall I go out to Tucson to see a friend. The Tucson sky, when clear, is the color of turquoise. I don’t know how the town fathers manage to dye it that color, but I compliment them. Tucson is surrounded on all sides by mountains—the Santa Catalina to the north, the Rincon the east, the Santa Rita to the south, the Tucson to the west. Geologically it looks impossible, but I never bet against geology. I like a town that offers a mountain in every direction (I live the rest of the year on the old seabed that is Florida or in the fens of England)—Wordsworth would have loved Tucson.
My friend in Tucson keeps an Oscar hidden under the cushions of his couch. He was young when he received his first nomination (that time, he lost), which he framed and hung in his bathroom. He has developed a sensible attitude toward awards.
Poets who write for awards are idiots. Poets who want awards are idiots. Look at the Pulitzers from the thirties: Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, George Dillon, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Hillyer, Audrey Wurdemann, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, Robert Frost (again), Marya Zaturenska, John Gould Fletcher. One poet of the first rank, two or three of the third, and then oblivion. You don’t see Pound or Eliot or Stevens or Moore or Williams. If you think the poets awarded the prize in the nineties will fair better, think again.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t accept awards. It’s rude not to accept something people give you. Perhaps every award should be replaced with a saguaro cactus.
My theory about publishing poetry is so depressing, I’d rather not put it on the page. Here goes. Take the trade and university presses, and the better independents. The first year, I suspect most poetry books sell between 500 and 1000 copies. Let’s say 750. Perhaps 250 of these go to libraries, where ten get taken out and read. (By this I mean read cover to cover. Otherwise it’s not reading; it’s browsing.) Two hundred are bought at readings or by fond friends and ignorant relatives. Of these copies, 20 might be read (if we’re talking about my relatives, the figure is lower). The remaining 300 copies are bought by the few people in the country who read poetry, and of these fifty copies might be read. By my count, the book gets fewer than 100 readers the first year. Perhaps the book receives one or two reviews (an editor told me that half the books he publishes—this is a New York publisher—get no reviews at all.)
The second year is worse. Now the book sells 30 copies, of which perhaps five are read. The books in the libraries gather another 10 or 20 readers. The third year the book sells 15 copies, or is remaindered. After six or seven years, the public library copies get sent to the Friends of the Library sale. The university library copies gather dust. My advice is, if you want to write poetry, learn to love silence.
Say, then, that in three years, in a country of 300,000,000, a book of poetry sells 800 copies. You could search through five football stadiums, each seating 75,000, before you could find one buyer. If I’m correct that only about 100 of those buyers finish a book of poetry, you’d have to search through 40 stadiums to find even one person who had read the book. We live in a minor art. That doesn’t mean we love it the less, or hate it the less.
There are exceptions; but—let’s be honest—few poets selling ten or twenty thousand copies will be of any interest 50 years later. There were dozens of poets who sold much better than the young Eliot or Pound. Stevens’s Harmonium sold so poorly it was remaindered for 50 cents a copy. If you sell a lot of books and want a lasting reputation, hope that you’re Robert Frost.
Lisa Kilczewski asks where in poetry I “find wisdom about the meaning of life, loss, aging, fear, and dying.” I’m not sure, in my hunkering atheistic way, I understand the question. I don’t look to the poem’s content for the meanings of life, or for consolation in the losses life demands. I find solace in the language itself, in the way meaning plays through syntax and form, in the blink of wordplay or the cocked gesture of the well-turned phrase. I don’t say there isn’t meaning to be had—I can’t read a passage of Shakespeare without feeling instructed in mysteries, both in the language and in what the language says. (The King James version of the Bible does that, too—though the supernatural parts have no meaning for me. I read it as Oscar Wilde did, to find how things come out.)
For me, though, the life of poetry is the language. Donne, and Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson, and Robert Lowell, and Geoffrey Hill touch me that way. There are recognitions of the small and sidelong in life in Hardy, in Larkin, in Bishop, in Justice that I find nowhere else; but, for me—and I hope this sounds radical—the life carries the language, not the other way around. The language doesn’t hold the meaning; the language is the meaning.
Epilogue: Coronado Beach, California
In a hotel room by the sea, the Master
Sits brooding on the continent he has crossed.
Not that he foresees immediate disaster,
Only a sort of freshness being lost—
Or should he go on calling it Innocence?
The sad-faced monsters of the plains are gone;
Wall Street controls the wilderness. There’s an immense
Novel in all this waiting to be done,
But not, not—sadly enough—by him. His talents,
Such as they may be, want an older theme,
One rather more civilized than this, on balance.
For him now always the consoling dream
Is just the mild dear light of Lamb House falling
Beautifully down the pages of his calling.
I knew an old woman who had taught herself English, having arrived at Ellis Island in the twenties, by reading Shakespeare in the New York Public Library. She ran the bookstore near Skidmore, before the college moved to the edge of town. When I met her, during a stay at Yaddo in 1975, her husband was dying and she was scraping out a living selling books and pencils from the front room of her house. When her husband died, she told me, “For the first time in my life, I tried to read Shakespeare and it meant nothing.” There are times when even poetry is not enough.
My last words on poetry:
I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!