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.


Bill Knott said...

from Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (1975), page 120:

[Humboldt always said] that poetry was one of the frantic professions in which success depends on the opinion you hold of yourself. Think well of yourself, and you win. Lose self-esteem, and you're finished. For this reason a persecution complex develops, because people who don't think well of you are killing you. Knowing this, or sensing it, critics and intellectuals had you. Like it or not you were dragged into a power struggle.

Alfred Corn said...

Yes, well, remember this is a work of fiction written by a novelist, not a poet. It was based on Bellow's friendship with Delmore Schwartz, a tragic casualty of the mid-twentieth-century literary scene. The opinions expressed in the paragraph Bill quotes are fictional, though they may approximate Schwartz's opinions. It is certainly true that the famous quip, "Even paranoids have enemies" was Schwartz's. And, whether induced by an innate mental condition or by alcoholism or pill addiction, Schwartz suffered to whatever degree from paranoia, I hazard partly because he grew up in an anti-Semitic era. He was a skillful and original critic, often a good poet who certainly impressed contemporaries like Moore, Lowell and Bellow, and the author of a brilliant short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." His life went south at some point, he died young of a stroke, living alone in a Times Square SRO, and his full potential was never realized. A cautionary tale. Let's accord due respect to what was good about him and his work.

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys said...

I read this post and felt, after finishing it, first, a sinking sense of dismay at the mere thought of pursuing the writing of poetry as a 'serious' pursuit, which for some reason I identify with attempting to share with a public (either out of a desire for recognition or a desire for community), and second, relief that at any rate I had chosen another profession and would very likely be a Sunday (or a summer) poet anyway.