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Editing yourself out… and in.
We open on a tiny flat in Dublin. A young poet sits by a window, writing. But something is wrong. The poem—eloquent, sonorous, carefully crafted—feels off. Studying the page, she suddenly realizes why, and the reason hurts harder for having been so easy to miss: she edited herself out.
So begins Carmine Starnino’s review essay – in the November issue of Poetry – which kicks off with a consideration of Eavan Boland’s work; it is she who is sitting at the window. Starnino continues:
“Being a woman,” Eavan Boland later explains in her memoir Object Lessons, “I had entered into a life for which poetry has no name.” No name because Ireland had no models for writing about being a mother, daughter, or wife. Here was a cause begging to be espoused. But championing the poetic merit of “wholly female” subjects is useless if a poet is still at the mercy of inherited doubts about what she can say about those subjects. Old styles, argues Boland, can’t be trusted for shifts of consciousness. After all, by clogging the psychological channels between self and style, convention doesn’t just trick us into seeing certain attitudes as trivial, it ensures we don’t catch on until too late. Boland’s dilemma, therefore, was intriguing: she had an open field, but not necessarily a free hand. Using existing forms to register what she felt as a woman meant tradition’s decorum police could—and did—quietly impose their own artificial perceptions. How, then, to speak for yourself? The answer was to reboot Irish poetry’s available modes.
Now let’s juxtapose this with Adam Kirsch’s essay in the same issue, the web version of which is entitled, “Literary Fame in the Time of Flame Wars.” Kirsch writes:
According to Hegel, “Self-consciousness exists…in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized.’” The infant wants only this, the king and the millionaire take roundabout paths to achieve it; but the writer alone seems able to obtain it immediately. Writers write in order to be recognized. To be recognized as good writers, yes—but that is not enough of a goal to explain the frenzy of literary competition. If writing were simply a skill, demonstrating that one possessed the skill, even in supreme measure, would be as technical and trivial an achievement as something in athletics. It is because writing is a communication of one’s mind and experience—one’s being—that it promises to gratify the original desire of spirit: to have one’s being confirmed by having it acknowledged by others. Writing makes others the mirror of the self.
And we can see Boland, and writers like her wanting just to be heard, struggling for confirmation and acknowledgment. But Kirsch asks how much of this is a good thing, and takes up the economic model of scarcity:
… there is not enough recognition to go around, so every human being’s just claim cannot be met. Beauty is the currency, as arbitrary as gold or paper, in which recognition is bought and sold. We grant great writers the dignity of having really been, the posthumous recognition that we call immortality, because they please us with their arrangements of words. Because of how well they wrote, we remember not just their works but their letters, travels, illnesses, aspirations—we feel with and for them. But we do this as irrationally as the peahen rewards the peacock with the biggest tail feathers, which have nothing intrinsically to do with reproductive fitness. If the scarcity of recognition is a symptom of the world’s fallenness, then literary ambition is a form of complicity with fallenness. In other words, it is a sin. Because there is not enough money in the world, people steal; because there is not enough power, people do violence; because there is not enough recognition, they make art.
Agree or disagree, Kirsch’s conclusion is arresting:
When [the future] looks for traces of us, it will not turn to novels or poems, but to e-mails, blogs, and Facebook pages. Mind will treasure these evidences of its own past, and devote all its infinite resources to interpreting them. And because it is infinite, it will have more than enough attention to give to each of our lives. Even the least articulate of us will become the focus of a kind of ancestor cult, subject to the devoted meditation of innumerable intelligences. The first will be made last, and the last first. At last, the scarcity of recognition will give way to the plenitude that has always been the mark of the messianic age. If only we could be certain that this was the future we had in store, no poet would ever have to write another line.
Kirsch’s piece begins by looking at Keith Gessen’s infamous debut, All the Sad Young Literary Men, about which he says that “both writer and readers treated the book, properly, as an assertion of self, and the only question was whether that assertion ought to succeed—whether Gessen ought to become famous.” Starnino, by contrast, looking at Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s merfolkian epic, The Fifty Minute Mermaid, finds “the alternate reality of a woman trying to ‘take it all in.’” He says that her “frantic fabulating, with its deadpan exaggerations, suggests a desperate wish-fulfillment.”
So that woman by the window – who is she, really? Is she a poet, preparing for the task of taking it all in, to “make room in her heart” without having her heart burst? Is she going to turn not to poetry, but to the convenient comfort of bonding with her Facebook friends? Does she want to be famous?