Friday, June 10, 2005

Is the post below self-regard or transparency? Both, I suppose. It's true that some writer-bloggers devote a lot of space to where they've submitted, where they've been published, etc., and that makes for pretty dull reading. But if people are offended, I wonder if it's not akin to how stereotypical WASPs are offended and embarrassed by any talk of the money which they have in abundance but which they're trained to be discreet about. Publication, when it happens, happens by accident and not because you sought it out or, god forbid, worked hard at it. One sure way to avoid all this vulgarity is to keep it in the family: start your own press or magazine and publish your friends in the name of promoting community. Maybe this is a genuinely purer approach to being a poet, but it can seem as exclusive as a country club—if you have to ask what membership costs, you can't afford it.

In poetryland, the most vulgar thing you can do is flaunt the ways in which poems can be means to an end—fame, notoriety, respect, jobs—and not only ends in themselves. But what offends me more are people who treat others as means to ends: to me that's what's ugly about "careerism." Jim's cartoons are merciless in this regard: they're about poets behaving badly to each other. People idealize poetry as a perfected social space, in which the sheer quality of the work is supposed to take precedence over any other factor: who knows who, adeptness at self-promotion, thank-you notes, etc. (Some people go further and idealize poetry outside the realm of the social entirely, but I think that's malarkey: even Emily Dickinson's concealed fasicles were in communication with a society that she had thoroughly internalized; even the rejection of a given social situation stems from the perhaps impossible hope for a better one.) In the long term, I think the quality thesis is true: however canny a given poet may be about his or her career, if their work doesn't cut the mustard it will either sink into obscurity on its own or generate stronger counter-work that puts it in its place. But in the short term, some good poets don't get the attention they deserve, bad poets don't get the attention they think they deserve, and resentment is the order of the day. If you become prominent, even slightly prominent, in any field, you are target for that sort of resentment, and it will do you no good to protest that you didn't intend to put yourself in that position. Again I think of the distinction between power and justice that I drew earlier this week. Everyone seeks power, it's just that many of us disavow our desire for it, sometimes so vigorously that we deny its existence. But I think if you approach it with your eyes open—if in the case of poetry, you simply admit that you want to be read, that you want your work to have an effect in the world—you have a better chance of constructing an ethical relationship to it, and of being in a position to foster justice. Which in the case of poetry, means the justice of redistributing recognition-power to those who don't have their fair share. Every poet who sponsors work they believe in, whether through a press or a reading series or on their blog, is contributing toward that "inspired dispersal of power" that Henry was talking about in a very different context. The demystification of the workings of the half-concealed machinery of poetico-social production is another contribution toward this project; if it gets mistaken for narcissism, so be it. Besides, I strongly suspect most poets are prone to self-loathing, given how marginal the art can seem and how staggeringly oblivious most of the people we know in our daily lives are to it. A little self-regard might be a healthy thing under the circumstances.

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