The Representative of the Verse (Part IV): The Writer as Non-Commodity
As a 30-year-old graduate student, broke and unknown, without a professional pot to piss in, but with an age-appropriate ability to drink and speak with other adults, I was afforded a rare window on the minds of successful poets passing through the little hamlet where I took my studies. Maybe it was because I was a nobody that these admired poets—poets who’d been finalists for major awards, who were professors at top-tier schools, or had sweetheart 1-1 visiting loads—felt comfortable, toward the end of the evening, confessing their career resentments, insecurities, and grief at having been passed over. Meanwhile, so-and-so, the very picture of mediocrity, received every available ray of adoration and cashed every check.
Well into my 20s, before I knew any real life published poets, I assumed they must be the best people on earth. I’d grown up hanging out with musicians, and was acquainted with the dynamics of small pond politics, but I assumed poets would be different, immune to trivial stuff like envy and resentment, because they invested their energies in the numinous and kept in touch with the inexorable approach of their own extinctions. If they were not immune, at least they were fully conscious, right? At least they knew how to draw meaning out from the infection (poem as poultice) as when Alan Dugan forecasted the current social marketplace, writing “To a Colleague. From the Country,” I’m jealous of your life … I hardly know /you so why are you doing this to me.
There were exceptions, of course (more on them later), but a surprising number of poets I encountered turned out to be merely people-on-earth, not the best, not the worst: living and breathing to be sure, but every bit as petty, needy, competitive, and scared to die as the rest of us. I’d made the honest mistake of conflating the art I loved with the artists who’d made it. The poem is always wiser than the poet. That’s the first lesson.
In time, I came to understand something else about those poets, (and later still, about myself); in their multiplicity of ages, races, genders, poetic schools, and aesthetic inclinations they shared something basic and tragic in common. They’d confused their work’s reception with their own self worth. They’d confused literary accolades with love and acceptance. For many writers, love and acceptance were lacking in either the family of origin or in the formative social sphere, or both, a lack that may have driven them into the arms of poetry to begin with. That was the second lesson. No matter how it looks from the outside, a couple of Camparis in, most of us remain that cast-out kid desperate for the love of the withholder.
Of course, it was true of prose writers, too. I’d seen people post a picture of themselves receiving a substantial national honor one day, then publically lament being snubbed for a different national honor the next. On one occasion, I heard an author (and person I like very much), express concern over the lack of radio coverage for their book with honest to god worry in their eyes. And that book had done outrageously well. I mean, it was everywhere. Or so it appeared to me. To the author, all they could see was where it wasn’t.
And look, I’m not here to gossip or sell anybody out. I’m just as covetous, afraid of vanishing, and prone to taking my life for granted as the next guy. But I do want to make a point about a danger every artist faces. On some level, we understand that the ultimate joy and pain of writing are between us and the work, and no one else, but it’s easy to forget this when the year-end lists begin their exclusionary promenade. When the group photo is uploaded, most people reflexively scan for themselves.
To convert the thrill of another’s triumph into dejection over one’s own loss is symptomatic of an addiction to approval. And as is true of any addiction, the first step to recovery is admitting the problem.
Very few of us are able to make direct contact with ourselves. Our simplest move out into the environment is interrupted by our need for favorable comment or interpretation by established authority. We either fear that we will not get approval, or we accept outside comment and interpretation unquestionably. In a culture where approval/disapproval has become the predominant regulator of effort and position, and often the substitute for love, our personal freedoms are dissipated.
Viola Spolin wrote … in 1963.
It is tempting to believe that being chosen for a particular job, or publication, or book contract, or award, will bestow a security that will finally allow the writer to rest, signaling her arrival once and for all. But arrival is a fiction. One horizon gives on to the next, the gal with the Guggenheim won’t have arrived until she gets the call for the MacArthur. Salvation lies always in the next hit.
I don’t think these writers are unique in their sense of scarcity. I’m sure scientists, celebrities, entrepreneurs of all stripes, the most talented hairdressers—I’m sure they ride the same waves of warmth and disappointment. Thanks to social media, we now have unprecedented access to all the shit we aren’t getting, all the lists without our names, all the parties we weren’t invited to. And it seems to me, if we hope to have any shot at joy, or at making something of lasting value, we’re going to need to summon uncommon insight in response.
We’re in luck.
Every once in awhile I meet a poet who makes good on all my moony assumptions, who walks around with the wisdom of their poems still inside them. Poets who seem mostly awake, and in my family’s parlance, to have their heads “screwed on straight.” A truly exceptional few have been under 40, (usually having endured major illness, war, or another crushing loss), but more often they are decades older, and five or more books into their careers. They’ve buried friends, partners, and parents—in some cases whole communities. They’ve survived displacement, addictions, poverty, and the tedium that sometimes accompanies security. They’ve weathered storms of being lauded or ignored. They’ve kept the marriage alive, they’ve continued returning to the work.
I asked a handful of these, my betters, if they had a line or two of advice for the rest of us. Advice for weathering storms both private and professional. Advice for the long haul.
“Always be willing to overthrow the laws that govern your practice as a poet,” wrote D.A. Powell, an artist who has taken his own advice. “Writing is the one place to be under no obligation to stay within the realm of expectation. Frighten yourself a little. Frighten everyone else a lot.”
And the poet Timothy Liu wrote: “Administrations come and go, so build up an archive of favorite poems that you think you'll be wanting to read at the end of your life, however long or short your life will actually be. Maybe you'll include some mystical Sufi love poems? Poems that address injustices? Poems that explore your deepest psychic wounds and conflicted identities, aiming for catharsis and a chance at redemption? Commit your archive to memory. Be able to recite as many as you can around a campfire from dusk to dawn. Then you will have created the ground of your being from which to write, from which to make a contribution, enter the conversation. And who knows, maybe someone someday will commit your words to memory, completing the circle.”
Maybe. Maybe someday. Who knows. Not us. Not our place to know. But in the meantime, don’t you want to sit at that fire?
One evening, in grad school, some of us were standing around in Ted Mathys’s kitchen. I admired Ted’s poems; he’d already published several books and I guess I wanted what he had. I must have signaled something to that effect, because he said, with real pain, “I mean, I have a couple of books and all that… what I’m worried about now is whether I’ve written anything that matters and will really last.” Then he mentioned John Keats, dead by our age, and all of us in the kitchen withered a bit in that shadow.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that I hadn’t yet devoted myself to what was inside of me. No mature artist wants what another artist has made, because the mature artist knows what it took to make it. Sure, there are some for whom truth and beauty and execution align with ease, but they are rare, and just as often walk away from their talent for having had it come so cheaply.
To that end, one of the truest things I’ve read about becoming a writer was said by James Baldwin in his Paris Review interview:
If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real...Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.
The effort is real. For me, that’s been the most important lesson.
Jane Miller, who has maybe the healthiest ego I’ve encountered in a poet, made a related comment when I asked her for a little advice:
if you have other choices by all means take them;
if you have no choice but to write, you will find yourself there
Frighten yourself. The effort is real. Find yourself there.
I was once accused of being a “natural artist.” The person who said it was a man I’d loved back when he was a boy and we were both aspiring poets. He’d meant it as a compliment, and I’d taken it as such. But I kept chewing on it, and days later found I was irritated. This man had been, in my estimation, the superior writer. But he was young, and the greatness of his work was largely owed to talent, a little instinct, and boatloads of charisma. When inevitably hard work was required, he turned away. Or so it was my impression at the time.
I resented the suggestion that I kept writing because it was in any way natural to do so. You see, spending all of one’s free hours living in books and computer screens, breaking and unbreaking a line, rewriting the same sentence 50 times, doing so day after day for years, for decades, beating one’s head against mediocrity and occasionally breaking through (and I’m not saying this is how it has to be done, I’m saying, that’s how I’ve had to do it)—while there are certainly rewards involved and not a little pleasure, take it from me, friend: there’s nothing natural about it.
I felt irritated by the comment, until I remembered how this boy had suffered. Upon further consideration, it seemed just as likely that he’d turned away from his gift because his structure couldn’t withstand the demands of the process. I’d known many talented ruins with this trouble, folks who hadn’t received enough luck or love early on to later meet the requirements of endurance. Folks whose need for love, or to be out of pain, pressed them toward more instantly available sources. Girls who’d wasted their abilities propping up a boyfriend, or a drug habit. People of all genders who’d balked with the first difficult critique, not because they were lazy, but because a source of pride had become just another source of shame.
In this respect, the cliché of the tortured artist is misleading. In order to make art at all, much of one’s psychic structure must be intact and accessible.
This brings me to the fourth lesson. Every so often I receive a message from a writer who would like to know “how’d you get a book?” They’d like to know if I wouldn’t mind reading a manuscript or sharing a contact or making an introduction. Some of what they want to know, they’ll need to know if they hope to work in public, and I’m usually happy to oblige. But in a few cases, I’ve worried there was an unstated assumption driving the query: that becoming a writer is a matter of being well-connected, of anointment by position or byline. If that happens to be your assumption, I don’t blame you. It’s in the ether. But if it is, please consider this advice from Don Mee Choi.
Mine is very practical. Get a job to pay for all your basic necessities. You don't need to teach poetry to be a poet. And if you want to stay in one job for a long time without complaining, find something that is socially relevant. Use your weekends or days off from work to read and write. Meeting with this and that poet won't help, but reading poetry in translation will.
It matters who you know, inasmuch as the who you know is you. Inasmuch as the who you know is a cherished body of work, another’s beloved body, courted through careful study and celebration. It’s important to be well-connected: to yourself, to the living world, to texts you love and admire. Keep eating, and if possible, keep the electricity on.
Cultivating a practice of appreciation is one source of sustaining nourishment. I’ve lost count now, but that’s another lesson.
Approval is a drug with diminishing returns. The addict’s receptors dull over time, and she needs more and more of it to get high. But she can choose to align with something greater, something uncommodifiable, beyond the purview of panels and judges, more enduring than the “market.” For in her desperation to win the approval of the withholder, a sad substitute for love, the poet fails to register the real love that is already present between her and the work. A love that flees her petty resentments and restless desires. As John Coltrane wrote, a love supreme breathes through us so completely...
By my lights, that marriage of breath and vessel is far more supernatural than natural, but still, I agree with Jane. I don’t feel like I’ve had much choice in the matter, at least not in a lifetime sense. Day to day I might choose Netflix, or walking in the woods, or sex over writing. But over the long haul? I keep finding myself there, at the campfire. And I hope we’ll see each other there soon. I want to hear what you’ve come to recite. I want you to frighten me a lot. I believe there’s room in that flickering circle for all of us.
Just as I reached the end of my riff, one more letter floated into my inbox, from the poet Brenda Hillman. If you’re short on time, you can skip everything I’ve written and just read this, as it seems to distill all of the above and then some. There’s no cure for the terrible hunger, but this “soup packet” as she called it (“40 years of thoughts boiled down into one cup!”) should stave it off for a good while.
Dear emerging, pre-emerging and post-emerging poets,
Lisa has asked me to write you a note in case you are feeling discouraged about some public aspects of poetry. It’s hard not to be discouraged when there is so much ignorance helplessly displayed toward our art. It is not surprising that you feel overly sensitive when poetry—or your poetry—is ignored. Books of poetry are left off “best-of” lists; they are rarely reviewed in major venues and when they are mentioned, it might be only for some perceived aspect of marketable content. Try to get past this. You are bringing your rare imagination and your love of language to the culture that needs those things. Poetry is not a “specialized field.” It has universal and eternal value. It is something most people start writing when they are children. It is what humans read to each other at weddings and funerals. It takes us into vast spiritual adventures. It enacts original dreams. You do not need to dumb down your art or ignore a century of modernist practice to please what is sometimes called a larger audience. It is not a poet’s job to simplify the mystery of existence or its lexicon. Is the life of the soul ever easy? When you feel downcast, keep in mind those who have encouraged you along the way and write for them; imagine a stranger who may be reading one of your poems in secret someday. Try not to think about people who are writing facile things on the Internet. Remember the radical ancestor poets who have gone before, especially those who received less acknowledgment than they should have, those whose genius was insufficiently recognized. Their poetry provides excellent company, as does the work of great living poets who offer inspiration and consolation. Read across aesthetic lines and identity groups, assembling a varied canon. When you feel paralyzed by the pointlessness of temporary fashion, or when dull or predictable work is lauded, try new things that will surprise you as you work for the joy of the process, remembering that all a writer needs are four true readers and one of them can be a tree. Never look at your phone when walking downstairs. Do not destroy your body by self-medicating under poetic stress. Just write new poems and read them to your community. Keep the ego in balance because the ego project is doomed to fail. If you don’t receive the rewards you deserve from “the outside world”—and you very likely may not— try to celebrate the good work of others; hold love in your heart; work for justice for humans and non-humans and keep writing. love, brenda
Lisa Wells is a poet and essayist from Portland, Oregon. She is the author of a poetry collection, The Fix (2018), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and a book of nonfiction forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2020. Her poems and essays can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, The Believer, n+1, the Iowa...