Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Gary has posted a long and impassioned response to my post below in which I bemoaned the reading habits of fellow MFAs. I don't really feel the need to defend what I said, but I do want to clarify something: when I complained about the usual suspects read by these folks, I was not objecting to their not having read New American and Language poetry, etc., because I myself was mostly unaware of that writing. I was dismayed, rather, by how few of them seem to have read or be interested in the canon with a capital C: the metaphysical poets, the Romantics, Browning and the Victorians, even much of Stevens or Eliot. You know, the Tradition. Do you NEED to read that stuff to write good and interesting poetry? Of course not. But it makes it a lot easier to have a good and interesting conversation about poetry, and that's a big part of what I went to grad school for.

How much or how little that education had to do with my relative success as a poet is probably not determinable. I mostly agree with Gary's Hard Work + Talent x Unreliable Other Variable equation, though he's left out the Willingness-To-Go-Into-Debt-And-Forego-A-Living-Wage-For-Years-And-Years factor. And there are social networks, which do not at first take the form of publishing coteries and people who help to circulate one's work, but in grad school took the simple form of other mostly young people committed to writing and therefore reinforcing one's own commitment to writing—an environment that decreases somewhat the obvious insanity of the writing life. So I was very lucky indeed to end up at Montana with that particular group of writers. (I realize one of the names I left out that I really shouldn't have was that of Nicole Cordrey—a fiction writer, but very much a participant in the little social bubble we built to shield us somewhat from the crushing indifference of the rest of the world.)

One thing I can't sufficiently address is the "something" that was given to Richard (and by implication me) "not given to others and that something which many may deserve is only available to a few, not because of talent but because of resources." I take this something to be publication? Publication of a book? What exactly is the nature of the limited "resources"? Surely they include not just the limited number of venues to publish in (and we are talking about print publication, right, the sort validated by hiring committees?) but the limited number of readers for poetry? Some people complain there are too many books, but I don't agree; I'd be very happy if everyone could publish every book they wrote. Print on demand might eventually make this possible. Of course then the bar that one has to leap over to get a job would have to be moved; maybe it would be the number of reviews or even the number of sales that would determine a poet's "legitimacy." Which doesn't get academic poets out of the market—how could we be unless academia as a whole somehow exited the market, whereas current trends show it being drawn deeper and deeper in?—but certainly provides new options for those who don't pursue academic careers because of the WTGIDAFALWFYAY factor. At any rate, I feel here there's some obscure connection between the prize of publication and the willingness or lack thereof to read what's new, what's out there. I mean, most of the poets I value are obviously profoundly engaged by (always more than one) tradition of writing as well as, necessarily, the accurate and idiosyncratic perceptions of their world. There may be naive artists, but a naive poet is hard to imagine—Ronald Johnson comes to mind as a great bricoleur in the tradition of Le Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers guy, etc., but his materials included huge chunks of various poetics and traditions: Blake, Pound, Olson, etc. These are the materials. I think any artist worth attention tends to be interested in materials: painters love paint, etc. That many talented and attention-worthy painters, writers, etc., do not receive attention is a proverb. But not engaging with their materials is a surer recipe for obscurity.

Read the John Adams cantos this morning and will perhaps have something to say about them later on.

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