I’m interested in spiritual practices and like to attend demonstrations of them, such as Catholic masses, which is the tradition within which I was raised and which still seems frightening to me, but also beautiful (the stained glass interiors, in such contrast to those rented office spaces I’ve looked into and seen people swaying with raised hands—I haven’t entered there, but would like to, though I suspect I’d feel extra tourist-y in this environment).
But I have been trying to pursue, as of the past few years, the practice of Lojong, or mind training, which derives from about 40 proverbs from the Buddhist tradition, You don’t have to be a Buddhist to mind-train (I’m not—too much vocabulary and enumeration) (though I liked hearing Uma Thurman’s father, who IS a Buddhist, say that when he got mad at Dick Cheney he meditated on himself as Dick Cheney’s mother, as she was sixty years ago, nursing baby Dick Cheney at her breast).

One of the basic ideas is to assume all pain, all blame, all misguidedness--to take it in, and give compassion out, matching one’s breath to the idea of taking and giving. Or so it seems to a dilettante, a dimwit, a hunter and pecker of spiritual belief.
So anyway, the poetry connection: “Don’t be competitive” is one of the proverbs. Ego-surrender, as cliché as that phase sounds, is the general idea. But I wonder if poetry is possible without ego and without competitiveness. I’m thinking: Whitman, Roethke, Richard Hugo etc. And I’m also thinking that this is why men are so well represented in the canon—women are more prone to live lives of ego-surrender. (Insert comment about blogging here). The women we know of, take even someone like Emily Dickinson, generally had a strong sense of their importance—think of Dickinson taking the trouble to fabricate her sheaves (I don’t really believe she believed poetry was the auction of the mind). So it (the gender lumpiness) is not just a matter of digging up “forgotten texts.”
Yet the so-called po-biz is a competitive game that we participate in. It’s distasteful, but I’m not sure how to curve my way around it. Except to do this maybe-useless compassion send-out, which matches the maybe-uselessness of poetry when it comes to poetry’s ability to change the scheme of things.

Originally Published: August 17th, 2008

Lucia Perillo grew up in the suburbs of New York City. She earned a BSc in wildlife management from McGill University in Montreal and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before earning an MA in English from Syracuse University. Perillo was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Dangerous...

  1. August 17, 2008
     Chris Piuma

    But I wonder if poetry is possible without ego and without competitiveness.
    Oh, that one's easy: Yes.
    And I’m also thinking that this is why men are so well represented in the canon–women are more prone to live lives of ego-surrender.
    Oh, well, yeah, getting into the canon (or at least, the Norton Anthology-style canon) probably requires competitiveness, whether on your part or on the part of someone who comes after you, sure. But that's not the same as poetry, is it?

  2. August 17, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    >But I wonder if poetry is possible without ego and without competitiveness.
    Oh, that one's easy: Of course not.
    >And I’m also thinking that this is why men are so well represented in the canon–women are more prone to live lives of ego-surrender.
    a) No, this isn't why. b) No, women aren't.

  3. August 17, 2008

    A lovely meditation here, Lucia Perillo--one that is so dearly connected to all the partisanship that exists around poems these days. Oh it seems that it is always about everything but the poems themselves (which may contain more than enough conflict if they're good). So much warring. So many contests and competitors. So many identity politics. So many poetic schools. So many new gimmicks and tricks.
    Chris Piuma is, of course, correct and I'll go further: (1) Poets need not be competitive. My wording is important because it is poets that are competitive, not poetry or poems. (2) Women are no more competitive by nature than men. But, certainly, by nurture--by social norms, media images and all sorts of imprinting--men are perceived to be more aggressive and many (though far from all) sweat the dye that is cast for them.
    But when you use the essentially Freudian term ego you raise an even deeper concern than the topic of competitiveness and partisanship among poets.
    That concern is this:
    1) Is writing poems an act of self, a kind of self-fashioning?
    2) Is it entirely impersonal?
    3) Or is it an act of bearing witness to people and things that go beyond the self?
    The great Philadelphia poet Eleanor Wilner had an answer to these questions.
    Arguing against T. S. Eliot's championing of the impersonal in his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Wilner said the following:
    In place of impersonal, I would propose transpersonal, for it keeps persons–individually
    and collectively–in the picture, yet gets us beyond the merely personal. The word refers
    to the ability of the poetic imagination to remove us to the place where we can join our
    lives and perceptions with those of others. For while impersonal negates the personal,
    transpersonal (its prefix from the Latin trans, across or crossing) points to the connection
    between persons, and that across distances of time, culture, geography." (From "Playing the Changes" anthologized in BY HERSELF: WOMEN RECLAIM POETRY (Graywolf Press, 2000, page 227)
    Perhaps if more poets thought of their practices as transpersonal vocations, as truly generous practices that bear witness to others far more than advancing their own egos, then perhaps those poets would be less concerned with prizes, position, greatness, inclusion, exclusion, in-group, out-group, prestige, and even publication.
    Perhaps they would be less competitive.
    But I dream too much.
    And dreams explode.

  4. August 17, 2008
     Chris L

    Can you be competitive without paying any attention to competition? I think you can, and it's not exactly a Zen koan to figure out how. Just write what you want to the way you want to when you want to and don't worry about what the rest are doing.

  5. August 18, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    "The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in the field--literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc.--is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. The network of objective relations between positions subtends and orients the strategies which the occupants of the different positions implement in their struggles to defend or improve their positions (i.e. their position-takings), strategies which depend for their force and form on the position each agent occupies in the power relations."
    --Pierre Bourdieu, "The Field of Cultural Production, or: The Economic World Reversed"

  6. August 18, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Your words shall be your judge.
    The poems themselves reveal the artist's personal limitations : the egotism, narcissism, delusions, apathy, indifference, bias, complacency, ignorance, stupidity, etc. etc. Style and subject-matter are also a mirror of the moral state of the writer (and of the culture within which he or she works). There's no escape from this.
    There's no point in worrying about the social relations of poets as PERSONS, since everything is revealed in the quality of the work itself, its virtues & shortcomings. The same goes for sociological constructs like those of Bourdieu. It's irrelevant. Everything is there in the poetry itself.
    Part of the job of criticism involves the moral evaluation of a work of art in its social context. In this the critics, like the poets, are more than aesthetes : they are grappling with the relations between aesthetics and society, between beauty and ethics.
    Your words shall be your judge.

  7. August 18, 2008

    Oh, there are people who will say, without pause, that poets should be competitive because that is part of art-making. And there are poets who justify this by pointing out that the world is competitive for this or that reason.
    But sometimes it's important not to be overly concerned with the way the world is.
    Rather, it's important to be concerned with what the world could be and to live according to one's ideals, hopes, values, and dreams.
    Most of the vulgarity of the world comes down to people's individual personalities. Regardless of their upbringing or any trait assigned to them, some people's individual personalities are foul. The foulness fluctuates over the course of their lives--it's dynamic--but it still persists. These people could be competitive, self-absorbed, hurtful, unaware, unhealthy, pretentious, and the list goes on, regardless of what anyone else says. These people rarely question or correct these attributes of their personalities over the course of their lives. On the contrary, they justify their hurtfulness. They find reasons to torture, for example, overlooking even their own data that says that torture often fails to extract useful information. Further still, advancement in many occupations and affairs seems to demand self-absorption, pretentiousness, competitiveness, failed integrity, gossiping, vengefulness, greed--the worse possible traits. And the collective incentive to change these individual traits rarely becomes a national or a local mandate. Liberty and equality are often opposed. Laws may protect equal rights in greater measure but rarely are liberties legislated. People are free to be harassing, competitive assholes and bullshitters all the way up to the point that such acts become criminal according to sometimes hair-split definitions.
    Poets who are like this are no different from any other vulgar person. They don't want to change even if they sense their own vulgarity because these traits are actually valued, justified, and celebrated in our world.
    Often (naturally, it seems) competitiveness is deeply irrational and illogical. As these fallacies rise, so falls reason, self-challenge, and the will to change. There are times when I wish people who espouse nonfictional opinions (columnists, bloggers, colleagues) would be guided to memorize the major logical fallacies (http://www.logicalfallacies.info) so that at least they would have structures to examine when they are being manipulative and irrational in their nonfictional thinking and expression. (Fiction and even poems may revel in the illogical.)
    What do we do?
    If more people spoke up (even in a blog conversation like this) and said and actually, actively believed, Poets don't have to be competitive, then it is just possible that the values of our collective consciousness would become more and more informed by the goodness and hope that I and so many others still find in poets and poems.

  8. August 18, 2008
     Don Share

    Re competitiveness and ego-surrender, especially in the context of the blogosphere, here's an excerpt from a comment by Anne Boyer on the slow poetry thread that was linked on a Harriet thread the other day:
    "I've become convinced that any time a woman enters one of these male-only comment box streams (or other, non-institutional realms of intellectual debate) anything she contributes will be perceived as 'emotional' and not 'intellectual,' not so much because of the actual content of what she writes, or the tone she employs, but because of the general anxiety on the part of the men that she has interrupted their 'game' by speaking at all, and the psycho-sexual issues men seem to have with engaging in intellectual discourse with women, esp. (but not solely) on the internet."

  9. August 18, 2008

    Don Share: I love your contributions on Harriet and everywhere you do good work and I think Anne Boyer is right about online sexism in comments sections on blogs.
    But literary and artistic blogs rarely get the level of "troll behavior" found on other forums. Trust me on this. It is also a matter of the blog-in-question. Some people's blogs stoke flames of discontent and invite bad conversational practices. Those blogs I avoid. I like Harriet because it is well-moderately (thank you Emily Warn) and even when it gets heated (as it really can sometimes) the exchange is far more civil and thoughtful than not.
    But pointing out the sexism overlooks other forms of online nastiness. On literary blogs, sometimes a commenter who joins the conversation is unengaged or shot down simply because they have no perceived position or because their perceived professional or personal identity carries no easily discernible prestige.
    Henry Gould is one of my absolute favorite blog respondents and I also adore his elegant, philosophically rich poetry. A few times on other blogs in the past I found that when Henry Gould raises a clear, well made point, others savage him overtly or covertly without really listening to what he says. Henry Gould is not a woman. But he keeps enriching the conversation and speaking up.
    Sometimes, just having your say and continuing to speak your truth is an antidote to nastiness.
    After all (besides the motiveless malignancy of trolls) on blogs, when people put down or savage a respondent their real goal might well be to silence you.
    So without letting it overly consume one's time and life, I say to Anne Boyer (and anyone faced with online nastiness):
    Keep on talking.
    I'm listening!

  10. August 18, 2008

    Vulgarity has always been one of my guides. I think that somewhere T.S. Eliot says that good taste is the measure by which we judge a poet (someone can help me?). But I will never succeed if this is to be the measure.
    Nevertheless it would be good have a frams of mind of equanimity about the trappings that lie outside the writing irself, which is how we self-fashion, as opposed to, say, by bowling. Wilner's idea of the transpersonal is appealing to me because I have the delusion that I can communicate via the poem to the 5 people who will read it. However that seems a little old-fashioned, even to me. The reader be damned, who cares about the reader? Or theories, which seem like teflon hamstrings to me.

  11. August 18, 2008

    I don't think any poet really believes "the reader be damned". I think they believe in what they are doing, and that they are in fact communicating with readers. I trust them. I don't always understand certain types of poetry, but I trust that the poets are not actually trying to mess with people, and I respect what they try to do, even if it goes over my head.

  12. August 22, 2008

    I wanted to say a couple of things. One is that I admire many poets of outsize ego--can't think of how it is possible to speak without believing one has something to say that should occupy a larger-than-ordinary pocket of air. This is a different thing than competitiveness, which is a small thing, a waste of mind. I haven't figured out how to reconcile my Lojong practice to my poetry practice, which could benefit from more ego (to service it at least to the extent that I'm willing to get out of bed.)
    And of course I really do like the reader and want to lick him or her all over. But when we right, we=I, aren't we writing to some more glamorous version of ourselves? Who else would we want to please, not that we're in the business of pleasing anyone.
    And I do think child-bringing-forth siphons off a lot of ego. Unless a woman doesn't let it, but there is danger in that mode of mothering. And the roster of famous poets gives adequate proof.