Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dickinson's Drawer: Cop Out, Or Solution?

I have long envied athletes and scientists. Their accomplishments are quantifiable. You either jump X number of feet, or you don’t. You score X number of points, run so many minutes per mile, eat more hot dogs than anyone else at the local hot dog eating competition, or slam dunk the final winning point at a basketball game. You discover a cure for cancer, calculate the rotation of a planet, map the position for each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of atoms that make up the ribosome, or discover that a silkworm has eleven brains. There is no ambiguity. No room for subjectivity. People may hate you, your family may despise you, but you did it: you discovered a cure, won the game, or pole vaulted X number of feet and won the gold medal for the United States. Hurray!! Hurray for you!

Poetry is not like that. It is all subjective. Every little bit. A body of work sent to the ever-so-sophisticated postmodernist journal X is rejected, but later accepted by the ever-so-sophisticated postmodernist journal Y. What does that mean? How do you interpret that? The editors at X were poorly educated snotty jerks whereas the editors at Y really knew their stuff? So that even though your work has been accepted, and will go to print, or be published online (which is another matter), you continue to have doubts. But doubts about what? A poem is not an ingot of iron or gold. It does not have a specific density, atomic number, or chemical valence.

Human consciousness is baffling. If judgment precedes experience, the experience will be colored by our bias and expectation. We hunger for novelty, yet fear the unknown. Despise socialism, yet complain about bad roads. Continue to believe Obama is a progressive, although he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, transferred the country’s wealth to Wall Street, and signed a one-year extension of the Patriot Act, authorizing wire-taps, allowing seizure of records, and permitting lone-wolf surveillance.

Go figure.

Some argue that the mind is an independent substance, others that the mind is in some sense identical with neurobiological properties, but is not reducible to them. Outside of pi, the formula for finding volume, and the speed of light, the truth is a chimera. And since a poem is little more than an amalgam of words, there is no greater chimera than a poem.

Here is another scenario: you submit a body of work to the Willy-Nilly Journal of the Arts knowing the value of your work is stupendous, pure, unqualified genius, the best work seen in America at least since Whitman, since Gertrude Stein, since William Carlos Williams, since Adrienne Rich and Diane di Prima and Yusef Komunyakaa, and it is rejected. Whhhaaaa??!!! you think upon getting the rejection in your email, or snail mail. You feel like you have just been hit hard in the back of the hand by a two-by-four. Or found out your best friend has joined the tea party.

But the worse is yet to come: the journal that rejected your work has gone ahead and published work that is clearly inferior to yours, thus pouring salt in the wound, which had only just begun to heal.

Salt? Did I say salt? Sulfuric acid is more like it.

Literary rejection is a gauche subject, a violation of the taboo on self-pity. Most people choose not to discuss it. It is beneath them. It is ungainly and self-defeating to admit to hurt feelings. Most people take the healthy, well-adjusted approach, shrug their shoulders, and think of a rejection as an opportunity to improve their work and submit it again. It’s not the end of the world. I am a strong person. I will not give in to bitterness.

I wish I could be like these people. I wish I could transcend these petty feelings and chalk up the inconsistencies of judgment and value in the literary world to the vagaries of subjectivity. But I can’t. I believe it is something worthwhile to talk about. I believe recognition for one’s work is an innate human need. And we are long past a time in which a school or movement was around to provide support for a newly developing aesthetic. I believe just the opposite has occurred: that there is now so much poetry out there, and such a huge variety, that all standards seem to be lost. The flowers are indistinguishable from the weeds.

The ideal position to be in is that of Emily Dickinson. She felt a compulsion to write poetry. She lived and breathed poetry. Her life and poetry were cognate. Intertwined. But if her biography is any indication, what literary ambition she may have had appears to have been little more than a tremor. She wrote 1,800 poems during her lifetime, of which only 11 were published. Completed poems were neatly copied in ink on sheets of folded stationery which she arranged in groups, usually of sixteen to twenty-four pages, and sewed together into packets or fascicles. These manuscript books were her private mode of publication. Their careful preservation suggests that this constituted a form of publication, perhaps a substitute for the more traditional mode of publication in a book, or journal, in some form or another that would reach that fickle, errant, abstract entity called the public. Did she feel confident that her poetry would one day be discovered? Or did it matter at all to her whether they would be discovered or not? Did she feel that once she had given her poems life, they did not require feedback from the public?

I yearn to be like that. I want to follow Dickinson’s example. I want to be free of literary ambition. Free to write for the sheer joy and liberation and enlightenment of writing. The sheer enjoyment of swimming in the language, dog paddling, doing breaststrokes, or just floating. Or diving way, way down to see what is on the bottom. But as far as prizes, awards, grants, prestigious magazines, who cares? Who wouldn’t love to be in that position, insouciant as a swallow, indifferent to having an audience, impartial to praise or criticism? It is the poem in and of itself you care about. The poem has a being. You know what its worth is. That is all that matters.

Or am I kidding myself? Doesn’t a piece of writing need another pair of eyes to complete the circuit? Isn’t the medium of language inherently social? Language isn’t paint, or clay, or the whine of an electric guitar. Words were evolved for the purpose of exchange. Albeit a poem isn’t a carpenter yelling instructions at you at a construction site. It’s words set free in a kind of play. You assemble your words, it’s brilliant, you submit it, and it’s rejected. Now the poem has a taint. You feel insecure. And we’re back to square one. Why didn’t I just put it in my collection and forget about it? The secret of its genius could have been preserved, hung in some Eden, like Orlando’s poems to Rosalind engraved in the bark of the trees in the Forest Arden. Jacques: I pray you, mar no more trees with writing love songs in their barks. Orlando: I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favouredly.

Dickinson’s fascicles have become my ideal. I would love to have that consciousness in my head. The joy and purity of writing without the indignities and topsy-turvy craziness of submission. Of hungering and waiting for people to find your book, buy it, read it, and comment on it. How often does that happen? How many writers and poets (be honest now), feel real triumph when a book is published? Feel that it is making a difference. Awakening minds. Nourishing souls. Inspiring people to perceive things differently. Most importantly, inspiring them to buy your book. So that you have bona fide evidence that your book is actually reaching people and is not just languishing on a shelf in a warehouse like a stillborn baby in a jar of formaldehyde. But how can you reach the public when there is so much poetry out there, and so few people read poetry? There is far, far more poetry than there exists an audience for it. Most of the audience is other poets: people competing for the same awards, publishers, jobs, and grants. Were it not for the heroic efforts of a few independent booksellers, who allow a book to sit on a shelf for however long it takes for someone to discover it, poetry would have no avenue to the public at all.

And sometimes, you’ve got to wonder why you do it at all. Why you continue to write. There are two surefire methods to get people to avoid you: ask them to help you move, or read one of your recent poems. Ask them to do both, and that is the last you will see of them.

There is a quid pro quo in poetry: attend my reading, I will attend yours. Publish my poem, I will publish yours. It is a circular, incestuous world. You begin to feel stale and confined and foolish in it very quickly. And so you ask yourself again: why? Why am I doing this?

I doubt Dickinson ever wondered about that. She just wrote: “Surgeons must be very careful/ When they take the knife/ Underneath their fine incisions/ Stirs the culprit… Life!” And then she stuck it in a drawer, and went back to weeding, or sewing, or making bread.

I began writing at about age 14. I published a silly, satirical newspaper for my eighth grade class on a tray of gelatin which I inked with a carbon paper. By age 18, I wanted to be the next Rimbaud. An illustrious, drunken, enfant terrible with a retinue of sexy women and beatnik pals. But this was 1966. High ambitions for the kind of recognition we now confer on musicians and rock stars was not so improbable. Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso were all huge colorful romantic figures whose names conjured visions of enlightenment and joy. The difference between being a poet and a rock star was negligible. This was also long before MFA programs, the internet, blogs, Facebook, rap, slams, and Myspace. Long before the small press phenomenon, when having a book of poetry published garnered real respect, not just glazed eyes and someone lazily remarking, oh yeah, I have a book coming out next month, and so does Blah Blah, and Tina Jehoshaphat, and Bingo Ringo.

MFA graduates have a justifiable sense of entitlement about publication. They’ve taken out humungous loans to pay for a tuition that would rival the budget at NASA for a launch to the international space station. Somebody had better damn well publish their book. But that one book ain’t gonna do it. Recognition for one’s accomplishments in the world of poetry are not easily obtained. It takes more than one or two book publications to get you a coveted spot on the literary map. It helps considerably to graduate from an ivy league school, or at least have enough money at your disposal to do some serious social networking, attend conferences, give talks and readings in different cities, go to parties, host workshops, and clink martini glasses with New York editors. Sound a bit like the life of a politician? Welcome to All The King’s Men. Written, incidentally, by Robert Penn Warren.


Harald Striepe said...

Patterns - our minds can only think in patterns, they make crude patterns of the world, they try to match patterns, they assign them truth.
All of this could be just an artifact of how our minds work, and not reality at all.
The most human of all pattern inventions is assignment of good or evil, great or bad.
This pattern is likely to have the least to do with reality.
We are cosmic dust lost in time. None of what we are or do is significant to the universe, only to us.
It is just the human mind ... playing. Have fun with it!

John Olson said...

"The most human of all pattern inventions is assignment of good or evil, great or bad."

True. I realized one day evil really doesn't exist in nature. If a lion brings down a gazelle for breakfast, that might be brutal from our perspective, but it isn't evil. Evil is a social phenomenon. But I am clueless when it comes to figuring out where a sense of the sublime comes from. Or beauty. Or the invention of ice cream. Anyway, rich, fascinating answer Harald.

peN said...


Thank you for this intelligent post and for your thought-provoking blog in general. Recently I was asked to participate in the Richard Hugo House blog's April "Get to Know a Local Poet" feature. They said they'd send a few questions and I could answer by email, which I did.

What Sam Hamill told me, in reference to a local Open Mic host was quite central to your theme:

"It's not the process, it's the LIFE of poetry. All this clamoring to be public is not only a nuisance, but a squandering of money and good will. These are not budding Buddhas. They are Oni—little poetry demons that trivialize the life of poetry, which is a path, not a destination. In the great not-knowing, there is only the learning, the path, the Way. The little Oni keep dancing and trying to become Big Devils, undermining principles and true practices."

You say you long for Emily Dickenson's consciousness. I say assume you have it and proceed accordingly. And if someone who you respect happens to ask you for a poem to post, or publish, you'll have a lot from which to choose.

Your biggest audience is in the future. Start thinking of a suitable epitaph for that day, probably 30 years from now, on which you'll need it. In the meantime, enjoy the rush of bringing remarkable, original poems into the world and that of being married to someone who can do the same, and act as an intelligent reader of your work. You are quite fortunate.


Steven Fama said...

I've always figured that the Emily-view -- writing for oneself -- must predominate. Anyone who writes for any length of time (a decade or two, I'm talking), does so because it's necessary for them to write. It's the inner compulsion theory of creative work. The idea that no matter what, no matter the rejections and no matter that nobody reads, the writing must be written.

John Olson said...

Yes, the Emily-view is critical to one's mental health. It's fundamentally a matter of making the realization that the gatekeepers who accept or reject one's work are heavily flawed, and that a true evaluation of one's work is a chimera.

Here is a lovely quote I found by Robert McCrum writing for the UK Guardian: "According to one biographer, Samuel Beckett kept a neat, handwritten list of the 42 publishers who rejected Murphy in his wallet for years. Beckett said that he kept the list because it comforted him to know that so many people were wrong about his writing. In Worstward Ho, he coined the perfect credo for the literary world: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"