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Vast Eternity II
The reason I started musing on the literary version of separation between Church and State—the separation between poet and critic—is because I think more and more we’re getting these hybrids, the poet/critics (or “pitics”) (or “croets”) who feel that they can straddle these two distinct bodies and attempt to satisfy them both, as if the point of studding is the mounting and not the siring. Would that it were so; there would not be nearly as many lame ponies limping about, half-workhorse and half-racer, too thick-boned to run and too delicate to work.
And it’s not that I think an adept critic can’t also write a good poem, or that a good poet can’t also write essays. But, as I heard Justin Cronin say once (and I don’t know if he got it from someone else, but kudos to Justin or to whomever first said it) the tools of the maker and the tools of the critic are very different. The mindset is different, the approach to language is different. A poet must surrender to duende. Whereas a critic should probably lay off the duende and stick to reasonable propositions based upon close reading.
Oh, and yes: these are broad assertions. Someone will no doubt list a couple dozen croets of note. Bully for them. I’m not interested in how many times the recessive gene is expressed, thereby creating fish with legs or gigantic five-leafed shamrocks. That doesn’t mean that evolution has taken place; it simply means that exceptions may exist in all manner of species.
Write poems because you want to write poems; write criticism because you want to write criticism. But don’t write criticism because you want to assert a case for your poetry. Let someone else be your advocate. Write the kinds of poems that other people fall in love with.
Wayne Miller recently sent me a copy of an interview with Philip Levine from 1998. It originally appeared in Rattle, issue 10. The interviewer was Alan Fox. In the interview, Levine reminds us that the publishing, the prizes, the notoriety—these are all ephemeral. The “work” of being a poet might include a certain amount of review-writing and committee-serving. But ultimately, what matters is the writing itself:
“Well, there are two avenues I think you have to talk about because we live in two poetry worlds. About a year ago, I had a terrific argument with a guy who administers a book prize. He had chosen a committee that I thought was just hopeless, and I, being a fat-mouth, told him so. I said, ‘You shouldn’t have these people on this committee. They shouldn’t be giving prizes. These are people with very narrow agendas and so they are going to be fighting amongst each other to push their agendas.’ I said, ‘You should choose people with much broader tastes who can accommodate each other and who care about a great variety of American poetry.’ And the guy said to me, ‘You don’t think I know anything about poetry, do you?’ I said, ‘I didn’t say that.’ ‘No, you think I just don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground, right?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t say that. You obviously don’t know who these people are.’ He said, ‘I studied with Robert Creeley. I know a lot about it.’ I said, ‘I’m not talking about that, I’m not talking about poetry eternal.’ I used the classification of the Catholic church. You have the church eternal and the church temporal. In the church eternal, the priest is Jesus Christ’s shepherd on earth. In the church temporal, he may be trying to make time with the little boys. To the altar boys he may be a real creep, but in the church eternal he has a function that is an eternal function. I said, ‘I’m not talking about poetry eternal, you know a lot about that;’ I knew because I had read a book he’d written about William Carlos Williams. I said, ‘You know a lot about that, but you don’t know anything about poetry temporal, which has to do with making out, getting ahead, pushing your agenda, pushing your friends, earning points from other people, getting renown, fame, jobs, all that crap.’ Then there’s poetry eternal where you draw strength from Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, and you encapsulate it in your own words and you pass it on to the generations to come.
“I try to get my students to focus, and young poets to focus, to forget about all this temporal crap. If they were my students at Fresno State where I taught for years, they were already so behind the 8-ball. They’re going to send their poems to the The New Yorker and it’s going to be from Fresno? They’d say, ‘From Fresno? Oh shit.’ (both laugh).
“Whereas if the student is a student at Columbia or Harvard, the poetry teacher gets on the phone and says to the poetry editor at The New Yorker, ‘I’ve just found this wonderful, talented young man (or woman), you must read.’ ‘Of course I’ll read it, send me the poem.’ So I try to get them to focus on poetry eternal. I didn’t even know there was a poetry temporal until I was well into my 20s. I didn’t know poetry was a business. I had no idea. I didn’t even bother trying to publish. I didn’t even know how you would go about it. I didn’t even know it was important. I was just trying to write and to become a better writer. Then at a certain point when I had two children, my wife was about to have the third child, I realized I was going to have to go to work (laughs) and I didn’t want to go back into industrial Detroit. I began sending my poems out and I was lucky enough to get a lot of them published, and then I began to have to have truck with this poetry temporal. And it hasn’t been such a pretty sight. In that arena, poets are no better than anybody else. So my central thing is to try to get the students to focus on the eternal aspect.”