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?

Originally Published: November 10th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. November 11, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    She wants to be seen, of course–but for herself, and not for her yellow hair.
    Or, for her witty status-update comments, and not for her shabby workshopped-to-a-ghastly-pallor imitations. Because what is representational about it, when it has been planed so efficiently that it could have been made by anyone.
    Now those athletes, though, they aren't going to like Kirsch's dismissal of their mere techne one bit. Of course, they probably won't read his essay, because they're too busy BEING FAMOUS. Really famous, I mean; not "famous" as in "Simic is a famous poet" as in, me explaining to my sophomores how they should go hear this famous person read when none of them have ever heard of him nor do they own any of his, erm, product.
    Thank you (speaking of cultural capital) for juxtaposting these so profitably.
    I just have one question–do I really have to decease in order to merit my own personal ancestor-cult? Why can't we just get the sucker fired up now?

  2. November 13, 2008
     Aaron Fagan

    Our deep history was, at different times, spent in ancient oceans, small streams and savanna plains–and not office buildings, ski slopes or football fields. This extraordinary disconnect between our past and present means that our body falls apart in certain predictable ways. The major bones in human knees, backs and wrists arose in aquatic creatures hundreds of millions of years ago. Is it any surprise, then, that we tear cartilage in our knees and suffer back pain as we walk on two legs or develop carpal tunnel syndrome as we type, knit or write?

  3. November 13, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Mr. Share, I have become obsessed with this post.
    Yet each time I come to it, how to respond fails me.
    You are right about this Adam Kirsch being arresting.
    ". . . messianic age..."; or should it be: messy antic age?
    We grant immortality to certain poets ". . . because
    they please us with their arrangements of words."
    ". . . literary ambition . . . is a sin." Yes and maybe.
    I am who I am, and who I am is ever changing.
    Still, I am more like John Clare than like Ron Silliman.
    I first came online in April of 2000, but it wasn't until
    early in 2007 that I seriously began to seek out and
    connect with other writers. Even though most of the
    poems I have written are online, they are lost in space.
    Unlike Bill Knott, who has a crowd of those who admire
    his poems and a crowd of those who dis his poems, my
    comments (it appears) on other blogs outrank "my sullen
    craft and art" things. Then too, from approximately
    1987 to 2007 I was more into Number Theory and
    Wall Street than poetry.
    I would say this In-Formation Age, this Age of High
    Capitalism, has had more impact on poets in both
    positive and negative ways than is recognized. I,
    not being a good salesman, became a happy, idiot
    consumer. In each stanza of one of my poems in
    which I list specific human attributes as they relate
    to me, "I am an almost" appears. In one part of my
    epileptic brain I have delusions of grandeur, and in
    another part/ mires of self-loathing.

  4. November 13, 2008
     Don Share

    Thanks as always, Brian. I like the John Clare reference.
    I Am!
    by John Clare
    I am–yet what I am none cares or knows;
    My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
    I am the self-consumer of my woes–
    They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
    Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
    And yet I am, and live–like vapours tossed
    Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
    Into the living sea of waking dreams,
    Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
    But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
    Even the dearest that I loved the best
    Are strange–nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
    I long for scenes where man hath never trod
    A place where woman never smiled or wept
    There to abide with my Creator, God,
    And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
    Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
    The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

  5. November 14, 2008
     unreliable narrator

    Only, why does man trod while woman smiled and/or wept? Though admittedly, they do.

  6. November 16, 2008
     Brian Salchert

    Was over at J J Gallaher's site tonight. He has a response to
    Adam Kirsch's article there, and also a highly interesting and
    surprisingly related post on the physicist David Deutsch--but
    you need to watch the TED video and then take the link to his
    under construction personal site where you need to scroll
    down to the "What is your law?" question and take the
    answer link to Deutsch's Law. To me his law and his three
    corollaries make this physicist a literary critic.
    The comments beneath the Rumsfeld video are also
    worth reading.