Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gay Poetry in Britain

Moving to matters literary, I want to reflect a bit on the scarcity of poetry involving gay male experience here in the U.K. There are several prominent lesbian poets, forthright about their lives to varying degrees. I’m going to hold off giving their names, just in case they’d prefer not to be part of this discussion. The situation with gay male poetry, though, is very different. Two decades ago Jeremy Reed wrote poems with gay subject matter, but no longer seems to, or else doesn’t publish them. Since Reed, I know of only one book-publishing poet (Gregory Woods) who uses that subject matter in his work; but he is not famous. It might be helpful to hear him give an account of his experience. A few years ago Magma magazine (to its credit) assembled an issue on the theme of gay poetry, and Woods was queried about his publishing history. Here’s the link:


His account of what happened isn’t at all encouraging, but it sounds plausible, based on my experience. I’ve noticed that, when books by gay males are reviewed by straight males, the latter do everything in their power to make sure the reader understands that the reviewer isn’t gay. The easiest way to do this is to deplore the subject matter. Not much better is, “Although I’m not myself gay, I can understand…etc.” I’ve even seen, “When I showed this poem to my wife, she said… etc.” Whatever else these dodges mean, they suggest that the stigma of being gay, even in countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized, is enormous. On the other hand, I know straight men who are sometimes mistaken for being gay and who find it amusing or flattering, in any case, no big deal. But that’s not the situation with most, and you have to wonder what secret fears and insecurities make some individuals so touchy about the topic. Oh, and the other fact to take note of is that straight women reviewers are almost always less damning when they review gay male poets.

The issue also comes up outside the realm of reviewing; it affects publishers’ acceptance of the work. My friend Mimi Khalvati told me the story of a gay poet (whose name I will leave out, since I don’t know if he’d like being mentioned). He was associated with an important poetry magazine, published gay poems and poems on other topics in many other magazines, won prizes, gave readings, etc. He tried for ten years to get a book published, to no avail. Eventually, he gave up trying. That is too bad.

At the Chroma magazine party mentioned a couple of blogs back, I met a young poet who received one of the annual prizes given by the magazine. His name is John Mccullough. He has published two pamphlets, won prizes, and has appeared in many magazines, as well as The Guardian. Some of his poems involve gay subject matter, but not all. He has decided, though, not to censor himself nor to worry about public acceptance, which strikes me as courageous and admirable. In an e-mail exchange, he said:

“I hope that the British poetry world is ready for a first collection with lots of poems featuring gay speakers - most successful poets have written them after already having proved their poetic worth with other successful collections rather than trying to prove it with poems which investigate gay history and such. Sometimes I don't know if maybe I should be moving away from it and trying to be relevant in other ways. I hope that love is something which transcends gender and that my love poems are sufficiently universal. I know that gay poems comprise less than half of what I write but I don't want to be tidied away into the drawer labelled 'gay poetry - for gay people' - it's even tinier than the one labelled 'poetry'.”

John’s comment about the “universal” appeal of poetry reminds me of something I read in an essay by a very prominent British gay male poet in whose work you can’t find any evidence of the nature of his sexuality. (And he is not a political conservative, in fact, is sited on the far left of the political spectrum.) He was discussing love poems written in the second person rather than the third, and noted that this allowed the reader of whatever gender to identify with the poem’s speaker—as presumably some of them couldn’t do if the pronouns were gendered. In fact, this poet uses the approach himself; all his love poems are written to “you,” never about “him.” And yet I don’t find the argument convincing. “Upon Julia’s Clothes” is written in the third person, and I’m able to identify with the speaker instantly; it’s quite a sexy poem. Just as easily I can identify with Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” or his “They flee from me who sometime did me seek.” And I'm aware that straight women readers also respond to these poems. Further, I know some straight men who read Cavafy’s poems about men and find them fully engaging. But, obviously, not all do.

When you consider that British (and Irish) fiction includes gay male authors who are celebrated (Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin, Adam Mars-Jones, Jamie McNeill), you have to wonder what forces here operate against gay male poetry. I should point out, too, that the American poet Mark Doty has a considerable following in the U.K., and that Thom Gunn, during his lifetime, was almost universally admired here. So there’s no automatic and incontrovertible rule saying gay themes cannot interest the British readership. (That's assuming of course that the work has literary merit apart from its non-routine subject matter.) My guess is that if more poetry book editors were women, we’d see more books by gay male poets. That isn’t the situation right now, but perhaps it will change. For John Mccullough’s sake, I hope it will, and for others’.

Monday, November 24, 2008


The pages here dealing with the recent election reported European euphoria about our new President. Americans living abroad also experienced this, but in a different key, some part of which had to do with being freed from the burden of embarrassment (or shame) concerning government in the home country. We could feel we were a progressive nationality again, no longer despised by most of the world.

Now that the shouting has died down, it’s time to look at a negative political theme that surfaced on the fourth of November. California voters passed (though not be a huge margin) Proposition 8, a measure overturning a court decree earlier in the year that had legalized marriage between people of the same sex. Two other states (Arizona and Florida) passed bans against gay marriage and one other a ban against adoption by gay parents. There are, obviously, no Federal guarantees or protections for gay marriage or gay civil rights in general. From the standpoint of marriage (or civil unions), this puts the U.S. in the rear guard of progressive legislation, behind the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Gay civil rights are of course guaranteed throughout the E.U., just as they are in the government constituted in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

The reason commonly given for the U.S. failure to remain at the forefront of progressive legislation in this area is the power of fundamentalist Protestant sects and the Roman Catholic church in our country. To which we should now add the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), who spent huge sums of money on TV ads during the months before Election Day to persuade Californians to pass Proposition 8. This was done in contravention to Federal law, which prohibits churches or any tax-exempt institution from engaging in political activism. And I gather that legal briefs are being prepared to challenge the Mormons’ right to tax exemption on the basis of their direct intervention over the past months.

But does Christian religion really account for disapproval of gay people and opposition to their civil rights? In Roman Catholic doctrine, abortion is a more serious sin than homosexuality, but no state nor the Federal government outlaws it. Biblical prohibitions against same-sex relations are mostly limited to Levitican law (which Christians are not required to follow) and one or two ambiguous statements made in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Jesus never mentions homosexuality or abortion. On the other hand, in more than one instance, he castigates divorce, and the Roman church has fallen into line with this prohibition—though of course annulment can provide a loophole for practicing Catholics who want to get out of a destructive marriage. But certainly neither state legislatures nor Federal law would ever institute a ban on divorce. And among the fifty-plus percent of couples who have divorced in America, millions must be Catholic or fundamentalist.

So I don’t think the widespread prejudice against gay people is really based on religion. Religion is used merely as a justificatory screen for personal uncertainties and fears. We should also note that many atheists are thoroughly homophobic and opposed to gay rights. The explanation has to lie in human psychology and the near-universal template of the nuclear family: Dad, Mom, and a couple of siblings. Anything that disturbs that template introduces insecurity and stirs up emotions of fear and fear disguised as anger. The populist objection to same-sex couples is expressed as, “It was Adam and Eve--right?--not Adam and Bruce.” That’s about as far as the reasoning goes; in other words, reason isn’t in the picture at all.

The term “marriage” did not always have a religious meaning. Atheists have freely married in civil ceremonies for a very long time. To go back in history, we discover that marriage was primarily a legal entity, set up to regulate exchange of property and guarantee lineage. In the Roman church, marriage was not a sacrament until the 13th century. Before then, it was rather looked down on. Except for the high nobility, marriages were not permitted inside church sanctuaries. In his Epistles, Paul devalued marriage in favor of celibacy but conceded, “It is better to marry than to burn.” If the religious right of the past few decades has decided to regard marriage as primarily a religious rite and to reinforce its religious status through law, then the federal and state government should have nothing to do with it, in keeping with the Constitutional principle of separation between church and state. If marriage belongs only to religion, then, as far as government is concerned, all unions between people of whatever gender should be regarded simply as civil unions. “Marriage” would become the property of our various sects, which could then decide who is qualified for it according to their own canon. Such is now the case in France, where men and women sometimes enter into civil unions without proceeding to religious marriage. So long as the legal rights adhering to civil unions between people of the same sex are indistinguishable from those attached to religious marriage, then I see no objection to civil unions for gay people. Government should also recognize that for state purposes, marriages between men and women are civil unions and nothing more, and legally demote marriage’s definition to a purely religious meaning as is the case with “baptism,” which has no legal status or force. But if government continues to apply the term “marriage” to unions between men and women, it should also be applied to couples of the same sex. The argument that marriage deserves special regard because it is designed to assure proper rearing of children instantly falls apart when we note that millions of married couples have no children, either by choice or for biological reasons. I don’t think that even fundamentalist extremists would deny that those couples are married. There is also the fact that many gay couples have adopted children or are bringing up children of one of the spouses in a process of joint parenthood.

The reasoning above will not convince those who don’t reason, I know. I don’t expect gay civil rights to be instituted overnight. Education is needed, and the schools have to do their part in this and not be swayed by fundamentalist objections. But at the private level gay people will also have to take action, first, by being forthright about their identities and speaking to those who don’t understand sexual difference and therefore fear it. Some of the most rapid changes of heart occur when homophobes discover that a family member belongs to the minority they have been vilifying.

Nearly forty years ago, I interviewed the celebrated British philosopher A.J. Ayer. Among the things I asked him about was his view on contemporary philosophy’s engagement in political issues. He said that it could play a part and cited his own activism with respect to the legality of sex between people of the same gender. He was heterosexual and the change wouldn't especially benefit him. But he had unusual powers of mind and therefore could see past the unreasonable objections to sexual variance. I’m not sure how many people besides gay historians will recall that the U.K. passed the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults, as late as 1967. Ayer’s activism deserves part of the credit. He worked for its passage not because it would improve his own condition but because justice and reason required it. It must be that the same spirit of reason and fair play has led the U.K. to make gay civil unions legal in its domain. And this brings me to a question already raised in earlier entries of this blog: Given that no legal disabilities attach to homosexuality in Britain, and that its society is largely secular, why is there so little public expression of gay experience here, and specifically in poetry? But this blog is already too long, so I will postpone that question for a day or two and wait to see whether readers want the question explored before writing further.

(On a personal note: I no longer have to use crutches, my foot is nearly well.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Travels with Charley

“Charley” is the name I’ve given to the stick (crutch) I never go anywhere without these days. Yes, it seems I've reached the third part of the Riddle of the Sphinx, and become a creature who goes on three legs. Someone asked me why I hadn’t mentioned the foot injury in this blog. Actually, I did mention it a while back but didn’t make much of the topic because the barebone truth is people don’t like hearing about ailments. Anyway, said foot is on the mend, and, in my usual way of trying to turn drawbacks into advantages, I’ve been making mental notes (possibly useful later on in some piece of writing) about public response to disability, even if what I’m dealing with right now doesn’t really qualify as that. As you're hobbling along, some people race in front of you with perfect aplomb and may even jostle you, though just possibly they don’t see the crutch. As for public transport, I notice that young women usually stand and offer you a seat. Almost no men do, proving once again that women are nicer than men. Some people are kind, some people look fearful, and some angry. Larkin’s “The Old Fools” is worth rereading in this context.

The above suggests that I haven’t kept to my rooms. Right. I have to go out, limping or not, otherwise the walls start closing in on me. I even taught a class for Kathryn Maris, who is in the Creative Writing department of Morley College in South London. And I attended a party for Chroma magazine (edited by a man named Shaun Levin), which publishes lesbian and gay prose and poetry. The magazine’s annual prizes were given out by the guest of honor, Sarah Waters, an author I very much admire, particularly her London-during-the-blitz novel Night Watch. Its lesbian characters are fully realized, and one of them is an ambulance driver, which is a reminder that women have risked and continue to risk their lives in wars that male leaders initiate. I spoke briefly with Sarah Waters and was impressed by her serenity, naturalness, and warmth. Appropriately, today is Remembrance or Armistice Day, and I was startled to see on BBC this morning that Britain numbers three survivors from the First World War, men well over a hundred years old. Although, if you survived the trenches, what can't you survive?

Last night I went to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End to hear Mark Lawson interview Seamus Heaney and Dennis O’Driscoll (whom I used to correspond with back in the late 80s, before he had become known), on the occasion of the publication of a book of interviews O’Driscoll conducted with the great laureate from the North of Ireland. It was a house packed all the way up to the rafters, further evidence that no one cares about poetry. All ages, sorts, and conditions attended and applauded wildly at the conclusion. I wonder what it’s like to be the object of so much adoration; probably intimidating, but not altogether disagreeable. Heaney led things off with some prose poems, then Lawson put a series of questions to both participants; and finally Heaney read a few poems, including an impressive recent one based on the gospel account of the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends on a pallet through the ceiling of a room where Jesus was speaking, a room too crowded for them to enter any other way.

I knew that Heaney had recovered from a minor stroke a couple of years ago, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I think, the spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Perhaps only forty people made up the audience. At that time I was living with J.D. McClatchy at Silliman College, in one of the suites of rooms allotted to faculty who were willing to serve as Resident Fellows for the Yale’s colleges, a responsibility McClatchy had briskly signed on for. I believe Heaney read several of the “Glanmore” sonnets, one of his loveliest sequences. Anyway, considering no one had arranged a reception, it seemed natural to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman after the reading. When he came in, I recall shaking the hand of a vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing bluejeans and a cotton shirt. I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings, and who could blame him? Harold Bloom, who sometimes attended Yale poetry readings, didn’t attend that one; it was only later that he got to know and admire Heaney’s poetry.

The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when we were living in New York. Seamus (the first name seems to suit this least arrogant of poets) had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By then Seamus was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Mary, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans swarmed around her husband. (That was often my role in those years, speaking to the wives of the artists, a practice it seems that Alice Toklas automatically fell into when famous visitors came to call on Gertrude Stein.) I found Mary unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being very beautiful. Theirs would seem to be that very rare thing in the lives of poets, a thoroughly happy marriage. (Richard and Charlee Wilbur, and Robert and Ellen Pinsky are other examples that come to mind, along with Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat here in London.) I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Seamus was moved to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was roughly at that moment that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that Seamus would one day be tapped for the Nobel, there was no mistaking the ability. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that added to my reluctance to attempt to stay in touch in the years after—not that sincere admiration always suffices as a base for a long-lasting association. If I’d had enough brass to pursue the connection, there would probably have been some kind of response. I see many writers acting out their notion that being sharp and condescending is a sure sign of greatness, but Seamus’s example is enough to give the lie to that notion.

Anyway, I could meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. He's one of the few contemporary poets I've read in entirety. It's a piece of luck that we have that work in a time that isn't especially favorable to poets and poetry.

It suddenly strikes me that I haven’t mentioned the availability, beginning ten days ago, of the new collection of critical essays (see the column to the right). What jogged my memory is that one of the essays deals with Heaney’s poetry. Besides Heaney, there are essays on Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf, Auden, Bishop, Derek Walcott, Thom Gunn, Anthony Hecht, Adrienne Rich, Larkin, Marilyn Hacker, Derek Mahon, and one on poems involving travel. Worth the detour, I think.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Turning Point

When people preface a statement with the phrase “Words can’t express…” you know you’re going to hear quite a few words, and this won’t be an exception. I snapped awake at four A.M. London time last night to see where the election stood and got the news that Obama had just gone past the 270 electoral votes needed to win. A huge weight slid off mental shoulders, a weight built up over the eight groaningly awful years when the U.S.A. had been pushed into a terrifying decline by leadership incompetent and unethical to a point words can’t express. These were years when I got out of the country whenever I possibly could, ashamed of what my nationality had come to stand for in the global picture. Two stolen elections, an intransigent monopartisan Prez, WMD’s, the fictional “yellow cake,” the preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation against the will of the U.N., Abu Ghraib, the endless occupation, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and thousands of Americans killed or maimed for life, the Patriot Act I and II, phone-tapping, people detained at Guantanamo without habeas corpus or access to counsel, the refusal to sign Kyoto Accords and simultaneous undermining of environmental regulations at home, the Enron implosion, the Administration’s “outing” and dismissal of Valerie Plame, the politically motivated dismissal of legal personnel by the Attorney General, scandals revealed and then buried by the press, the abandonment of the poor of New Orleans devastated by hurricane and flood, the gutting of social programs, the showering of tax breaks on billionaires, financial deregulation and the unleashing of greed and resulting credit collapse in the financial sector… words cannot express. And it's drawing to a close, hallelujah!

BBC coverage gave me a picture of the wild mood of relief and celebration in America. Yet what comes as a delightful surprise is the exhilaration I’ve seen over here. The U.K. and all of Europe are jumping up and down and cheering. It’s as though Obama had been elected President of the World. Which, in an odd way, he has been. I find this humbling. The truth is, much of the globe deeply admires and enjoys the good things that U.S.A. has brought to the global table. It’s quite clear that people everywhere hope the President-elect can restore to full operation the America that they like and have emulated throughout the 20th century. It’s not just Americans who wanted America back. BBC channels were interviewing all sorts of people here for their reactions, and one incident reported was that a black child walking down Oxford Street, when he heard the news, said, “I’m going to be the first black Prime Minister!” Which means that Obama’s example has become a focus of aspiration not only for Americans but for people of color all over the world. Fixing historical pivots or turning points of any kind are always a bit arbitrary, but maybe we can say that today marks the end of the long, inhumane colonial imposture, based on the concept of a superior white overlord and an inferior dark underling.

When the January inauguration takes place, it will be almost exactly 400 years since the first Africans were brought as captives to North America. The story of their slow, agonized liberation is one of the great epics of modern history, to be placed beside other struggles of a like character, such as the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, the varied peoples of India, of Southern and Northern Ireland, and former colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. An epic deserves a resounding conclusion, and that conclusion comes with the new Administration. Although. We should know in advance that there will be some disappointments, Obama will not manage to do everything we might want him to do. He is a human being, not Superman, and from the Bush Administration he inherits the biggest governmental and economic disaster since the Hoover years. I intuit that he is more Centrist than Left. He has Congress to deal with, fifty fractious states, and a judicial branch mostly put in place by the previous Republican Administration—facts that for good or ill limit his influence. But his value as a symbol is unquestionable. The change he will bring will come partly by the decisions he makes, but also simply by his historical identity. Being a redemptive symbol is no small thing. If an African-American can be President, why not a woman, why not a Jew, why not a Native American, a Latino, an Asian, and why not a gay person?

If we turn to the arts, this may be the best moment to advance a theory that has been on the back burner of my mind for several years now. When the government of a nation is as terrible as ours has been for eight years, the arts necessarily suffer. During the Bush years American artists lost their confidence. The fiction that America and its cultural productions stood for freedom and justice was exposed as a fraud. Most artists thrust their heads safely in the sand and produced art that made no reference at all to what has been going on, winning for themselves some sort of sponsorship from the right wing, and at the same time a pitiable irrelevance. Others—the minority—responsibly tackled the problem of making art and witness, imagination and criticism, somehow coincide. We have a few glowing examples of an engaged art made in the past eight years. But here’s the painful paradox: for whatever reasons based in human psychology, art whose prime motive force is didactic doesn’t inspire complete and unqualified assent. Art is most itself when it praises and when it consoles. How, during the last eight years, could American artists find much to praise in America and to console us for what it had become? Perhaps, perhaps, a new era is being ushered in, when it will be possible not to feel shame and anguish about our nationality, or at least not so much as to prevent us from working well and rediscovering the confidence that made American cultural productions as bold, original, strongly constructed, and liberating as they have been for nearly two centuries. I heartily hope it will be so. Words cannot express how much I hope it will be so.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Evaluating the Poets

In the previous post I mentioned James Fenton, whose value as a poet is well known; but possibly some readers may not be aware that he is a learned and brilliant writer about visual art (mainly in a series of essays for The New York Review of Books); and among the English-language poet-critics writing about poetry, I’m inclined to think he is the best. Confirmation can be found in a collection of essays published several years ago in a book titled The Strength of Poetry, which includes studies of Wilfred Owen, Larkin, Marianne Moore, Bishop, Plath, Lawrence, and several having to do with Auden, who is no doubt the figure that most influenced Fenton himself. Reading these essays, it dawns on you again that being a poet and writing poetry are impossible assignments—I mean, that poets are faced with problems that can’t be neatly and sensibly and permanently solved. Fenton touches on the issues that made poetry difficult for the figures discussed, issues connected to nationality and/or politics, gender, sexual orientation, poetic style, and mental or physical health. It seems that sooner or later a poet will do, say, or write something judged truly terrible, and punishment won’t be long in coming. The public imposes a very high moral, political, and aesthetic standard on poets, demands that no suburban life could ever fulfill, certainly. And it does seem that poets don’t for the most part make balanced choices. If not dogged by mental illness, most suffer from at least mild neurosis (even the strict rectitude of Moore has its disturbing side, when you reflect that she always lived with her mother, until the latter’s death, and never formed a love-relationship with anyone else). More commonly, twentieth century poets suffer from alcoholism, which sometimes leads to suicide, as with Berryman, or relatively early death, as with Thomas, Auden, Lowell, and Bishop. I haven’t taken a close census, but it seems clear that the majority of poets’ marriages or long-term relationships are broken off after a few years and affairs seem to be quite common even during the course of lasting marriages.

Personal problems and writing would be difficult enough in themselves, but once an author has actually produced good work in manuscript, there arrives the excruciating problem of how to bring it to a public. Here beginneth the long and grueling struggle with magazine and then book editors, the years of incomprehension and rejection, at least for work that departs from standard expectations. I’m not sure that even the sterling virtues of Moore helped her avoid disdain for contemporaries that were successful because unoriginal or only original. Then, when publication does materialize, it lanches another nightmare, the slow and often ill-considered response of reviewers and critics, who can stop a career in its tracks, and not always for the purest of reasons. Magazine critics are underpaid and sometimes an underlying resentment at the unfair working conditions of the critical profession is taken out on the book assigned. And there are many obstacles to fair and objective assessment. Men critics may have it in for women or women for men or straight for gay or vice versa. Critics who are friends of a writer belonging to one faction may blast a writer belonging to another—if in fact those critics aren’t themselves poets with factional loyalties. A critic who has ever slammed a writer isn’t likely to change his mind later on; doing so amounts to an admission of fallibility, and that is a no-no in professional circles. Actually, vendettas can go on for decades.

As for favorable responses, the specter of horse-trading or one-hand-washing-another is so endemic to the literary world that it is completely taken for granted, and I don’t see how such practices could ever be reformed, given that the numbers of people involved are rather small, and that for good or ill almost everyone knows everyone else. And how does one solve this dilemma: I am to award a prize to a book this year, and, meanwhile, one of the candidates is a friend of mine, whose book I believe to be the best by far among the contenders. I am in no doubt at all about this. So do I disqualify that book merely because the author is my friend? The choice is between "conflict of interest" and perjury. If we must perjure and this choice is going to be the universal rule, I think we can expect that writers will soon avoid establishing friendships with other authors. Out with Coleridge and Wordsworth, with Forster and Woolf, with Moore and Bishop, with Bishop and Lowell—all of whom advanced each other’s case in public. Still, it would be refreshing if now and then a writer praised a known enemy in print, or a prize controlled by one faction were awarded to an author belonging to another. I search my memory and don’t find more than a couple of instances of such a thing in the past thirty-five years, a dismal statistic. In French literature of the early 20th century, a much discussed concept was l'acte gratuit, the "free act," one not controlled and determined by mere reason or self-interest. Several French writers, notably Gide, tried to achieve such "free acts." But when it comes to contemporaray literature, what we see is the most robotic exercise of self-interested choice. Participants are career-machines and, with electronic predictability, react in ways designed to maximize personal advancement. After all, it's the capitalist way.

So there it is, the inconvenient life of the poet. My advice to those starting out? If you can possibly choose another pursuit or profession, do so immediately! There are Sunday painters, so why not Sunday poets? It’s not worth ruining your life trying to be the next laureate. Enjoy writing for itself. Unless of course you just can’t help it and, no matter what, have to suit up and get out there on the path to public acclaim.