We inherit in our 60s the decisions we made in our 20s. My inheritance, then, is simply this: a life lived simply and comfortably and joyfully, but without children (no way could I have ever afforded them), or secure retirement from a lucrative career. My career, if I were to so distinguish it with that curious word, was one of poetry. The jobs I held over the years to support myself involved a lot of boredom, mops and brooms and paintbrushes, bars sanded, lights installed, radiators spray-painted silver, mail chewed, digested, and vomited by Pitney Bowes machines. These “occupations” provided a modest amount of social security in my dotage, but not a poolside chaise-lounge in Palm Springs or (for that matter) Jackpot, Nevada.
I timidly announced to people - employers who often prevailed on me to work overtime especially - that while I was theirs to exploit in exchange for money for X number of hours per day, the rest of my time was mine, and I took it very seriously, because I was a writer. I never said poet. That would have invited strange looks and laughter.
I did take poetry very seriously as a form of occupation. Whether I could call it work or not would invite a discussion about the nature of work. I’m sure that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie think of acting as a form of work, but it’s a form of work that sure as hell beats swabbing toilets on a cruise ship, or running mail through a Pitney Bowes machine. Pays a lot better, too.
Europe has never had a difficulty in appreciating the labors of the intellect as a genuine form of labor. That has never been the case in the United States. Thoreau’s experiment in the woods, as lauded as it was once in American letters, always had the patina of curiosity about it, as something bizarre and eccentrically ascetic. It was the severity of his asceticism that somehow made it ok. He endured privation. Therefore, whatever his intellect produced had value.
But what if, rather than words, a person were to concentrate on mathematics or geometry? Without, that is to say, the sanction of institutional funding. Someone whose resources allowed them to do nothing but work out equations. Equations for what? Equations are inherently utilitarian, and so this work, however eccentrically positioned, would have value.
Poetry, which is nothing anyone wants, is considered an extreme indulgence. Poetry does nothing to provide food or shelter. It doesn’t transport anyone, at least not in the literal sense of roads and distance. It’s pretty hard to champion poetic endeavor as a genuine form of work.
If a person produces a best-selling novel that makes a lot of money no one questions for even an instant the value of the author’s work. Money sanctions that activity immediately and unequivocally. So that to write a body of poetry, which not only doesn’t make money but requires a little money to produce, and is considered worthless outside of being a minor entertainment or, at best, an epiphany of folk wisdom, a sustaining parable to bolster life’s emotional upholstery, has something seditious about it.
Even teenagers getting together with drums and guitars in somebody’s garage receive greater respect than the isolated activity of a poet.
Emily Dickinson gets a pass because she lived with her family in a big Victorian house and baked bread and behaved like a proper woman. And that in a New England, Puritan environment. Which makes her poetry all the more wonderful. But nobody would pause to think Emily led a life that in any way rollicked in irresponsibility à la Charles Bukowski.
Walt Whitman gets a pass because he celebrated American industry and the rugged individual. His poetry has patriotic fervor. It’s open and palpable. Everybody gets it. It’s not weird. Not like, say, those freaky French guys, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Rimbaud. No no. Not like that. Whitman is full of backbone, large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate. He didn’t spit on the bourgeoisie. He praised everyone and everything uniformly. The work of the prostitute was just as worthy as the work of the tinner, pike-fisher or President. Whitman doesn’t tax the mind with overwrought images or strange metaphors and is therefore one of us, whoever us is.
Jack Kerouac gets a pass because he was a drunk. America likes its artists drunk. Or addicted. Troubled. Colorful. Chaotic and tempestuous. They’re redeemed by their obvious maladaptation, which threatens nobody’s ego. People enslaved to the workaday world of mind-deadening routine can appease the hollowness of their lives with the excuse of prudence and rationality. If they hadn’t burdened themselves with the practicalities of survival they could’ve been artists, too. Oh sure, I hate going to work, hate the commute, hate my boss, despise my co-workers, but the hell, at least I’m not crashing a Cadillac convertible into a tree or pissing into some lady’s fireplace.
Artists and poets who teach get a pass because teaching is still considered a respectable job. It’s a bit like being a midwife. They’re aiding in the birth of other artists. Who will graduate from college and decide to go into law or business, or (horror of horrors) pursue a life in the arts. Parents whose kids opt for the latter would probably like to strangle the teachers that inspired that decision, but don’t excoriate the profession or the college. There does remain, however, a nasty ambivalence with regard to the humanities in colleges, which is becoming significantly less ambivalent of late and more openly hostile. That’s partly because college now is fucking expensive. Kids graduate with a huge debt. This puts a pretty big stink on the bohemian life.
And yet, poetry persists. The allure of devoting one’s life to poetry is still very much a vocation for some. I’ve met a lot of young poets who evince a character of professionalism about it, which strikes me as very odd, considering the fact there is really no money in it.
It wasn’t until my mature years that it began to dawn on me that my devotion to poetry was not going to result in the kind of life that Mick Jagger leads. No chateau in the Loire valley, no paparazzi, no invitations to read my work at the opening of the Grammy Awards.
The decision to pursue poetry as a full-time devotion is not really a decision at all. It just happens. It’s a drive. It’s a compulsion. It’s a kind of intoxication. Divine madness, if you will. Plato was aware of this. That’s why he chose expulsion from the Republic for poets.
As the two most famous examples have shown, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens demonstrated that you can have your cake and eat it, too. You can maintain a career that pays a comfortable income and write poetry on the side. As you retire into your room to write you may jeopardize your relationship with your spouse and children, but as long as you pay the bills, you will be provided a generous margin for these indulgences.
I had a shot at that route. College was so cheap at the time it was virtually free. I could’ve graduated with a degree in law or, at the very least, a Master’s degree in English literature, without incurring a lot of debt. I could’ve taught or practiced law and still lived the American Dream while retiring into my den to write poetry.
I didn’t. Life was very different in the late 60s. Few people my age thought about careers. We mocked careers. Career was a dirty word. It invited contempt. Life was all about freedom. Free love. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. That came to an abrupt end circa 1975.
People got very serious in 1975. The hallucinogenic, shamanic quest for divine knowledge morphed into leisure suits, mirror balls, exclusive clubs and Backgammon.
I still don’t know what happened. But it happened. And I continued to write. It would often piss me off in the ensuing years when people congratulated me on sticking to my 60s values. The modesty of my life circumstances had nothing whatever to do with maintaining some sort of hippy-dippy asceticism. I wasn’t into yoga or communal living or any of that nonsense. I liked money. I continue to like money. I would’ve loved to have money. But the power poetry held on me was much stronger. It truly was an addiction. It was stronger than alcohol or heroin.
So I guess you could say my inheritance was one of addiction. Though I wasn’t strictly a poet, either. I wanted what Kerouac had: a life as a poet and a writer. I love prose more than poetry, in fact, which is how I started writing that strange hybrid called prose poetry. But that’s another story.
I don’t see my life now so much as an inheritance as a detour. Nobody inherits detours. Detours are detours; they’re not destinations or goals or ambitions, they’re deviations, diversions, unforeseen events.
Detours are most apt to be irritating and bad on the shocks of your car and windshield due to all the potholes, craters, gravel and irregularity of the road, but there’s also something very alluring about detours. Even when they piss you off, they’re kind of fun. They take you where you didn’t expect to be, and you see things you didn’t expect to see. That’s the best kind of inheritance; not the fat check, but the strange painting in the attic that turns out to be worth…. nothing.
Well, alright, this is no fairy tale. Life is no fairy tale. Who wants a fairy tale? Don’t we all hunger for something richer? I know I do. And my life isn’t over.