Thursday, October 20, 2005

Looking at the new Poets and Writers I was saddened by Kevin Larimer's sympathetically written account of Bin Ramke's resignation as editor of the Contemporary Poetry Series—hounded out of the job by the resentniks of F0etry. It's certainly no victory for poetry, though I'm glad to hear that Georgia plans to continue publishing it in some form or other. Ramke tells Larimer that he always thought of himself as more of an editor than a contest judge,admitting, "Certainly, I can be faulted for a certain casualness in process over the years. I never considered the process to be a contest, but rather a method for casting a wide net, for inviting lots of different kinds of poetry to be considered for publication." What I think has happened over the course of the 22 years Ramke edited the series is the ever-intensifying professionalization of poetry, with a corresponding anxiety about the first book as all-important credential for the teaching jobs that MFA programs reflexively train their students for. In a way Ramke's attitude was a hold-over from a superficially more genteel era in which poetic ambition was less firmly tied to economic ambition. What some have perceived as Ramke's failure to enforce the boundary between judge and crony may in part be the result of his attempt to enforce this older boundary that separates an editor's aesthetic judgments from the professional fate of the writer whose work he or she publishes or rejects. This age of innocence, if such it was, is clearly over. Contests exist to produce the poet as Professional with a capital P, leaving aesthetic judgment (and tacitly, the actual reading of poems) in the dust. (Poet, Professional, Poetry: as Larimer and Ramke lament, the last "p" gets the shortest shrift in these discussions—we should write it poetry.) Those who see contests (correctly!) as an accrediting process are (correctly) outraged by the "certain casualness" of their administration, just as the consumers of tests like the SAT and GRE would be outraged by malfeasance on the part of ETS.

What's lost? Poetry itself, as I've said; but also sacrificed is an idea of "career" that arguably precedes the category "professional" and which ideally outlasts it. That is, career in the sense of what's produced by the arc of a creative life, produced in collaboration with readers present and future—in a word, the old goal of immortality. The careers of Shakespeare and Dickinson, Langston Hughes and Lorine Niedecker, are still going strong—in many cases, stronger than they were when the poets were alive. (Two dead poets whose careers have just received must-deserved boosts through the publishing of their collected poems are Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan.) Properly stated, a poet's career refers not to the career of the person but of the work: in the sense I want to use the word anyone concerned to share their work with others is fostering that work's career. Profession can have an influence on career: the canniest poets will use their professional perks to advance their own careers (canny and generous poets advance the careers of others as well; you could argue that "career" is always a social category while "professional" associations are only guilds). The caricature of the Professional is the poet wholly obsessed with the perks and privileges accorded to his person and his ego; the caricature of the Career Poet (trying to avoid the word "careerist") is the poet who lives, to the point of self-effacement, Pound's credo, "It matters not at all who writes great poems, but it matters very much that great poems get written." Those who tend too much toward the first pole look pretty crass to those who tend toward the second, while diehard Professionals tend to resent or ignore the Career Poets and are the first to cry foul when they catch the Careers playing by their own rules on what has become a Professionals' field.

Most of us, of course, fall somewhere in between these extremes, and I often experience a kind of parallax effect when regarding them. For example, the crew at F0etry seem wholly uninterested in Career (they often seem uninterested in poetry, period): they raise Professionalism to a pitch of hysteria that in their eyes justifies all manner of slander, character assassination, and standards of evidence unworthy of the name. But the pieties of high Careerists (okay, I succumbed to the term) are nearly as irritating when they take the form of broad and general indictments of MFA programs, the desire for recognition, poets who teach or otherwise make their living in the poetry-industrial complex, etc. And most of us are suspicious of those who grandly recuse themselves behind the curtain of Career while racking up every Professional point in sight. Some of us even make satirical cartoons about them.

The new issue of P&W also contains a feature on eighteen first books ranging a reasonable aesthetic gamut (though there's nothing from very small presses and thus nothing genuinely odd or outre). I'm glad to see my friend Sarah Gridley's Weather Eye Open listed, and there are other books on the list I'm going to order for the bookstore. But the article as a whole teeter-totters between Professional and Careerist perspectives. The author (Kevin Larimer again) begins by invoking the "great first books of poetry" by such safely canonical authors as Eliot, Stevens, Hughes, and Ashbery. And it ends by proposing hopefully that "maybe some day one of the recently published debut poetry books will get the attention it deserves, and future generations of poets will look for it up there on the top shelf, along with the well-worn copies of Prufrock, Harmonium, The Weary Blues, and Some Trees." But the bulk of the article is devoted to profiles of the poets (with actorly head shots) as Professionals and their books as Professional Documents: here are the categories on the form I imagine each participant must have filled out:
Graduate degree:
Time spent writing the book:
Number of contests entered:
Representative lines:
In the works:
A bit of advice:
The tension between "Influences" and "Blurbs" is worth an essay in itself. Of these topics, only three are devoted to the question of Career (Representative lines, Influences, and In the works), while the final category is open to interpretation. Most of the poets use it to offer Professional advice: "Keep sending it out"; "Submit to presses that can accept several good books a year"; "Read first books and know which presses are receptive to your particular aesthetic." A few are Career-oriented, or blur the lines: "the purpose of publishing a book [is] to share your work with others"; "Practice all forms of literacy—visual and emotional, too"; "It is necessary, in my opinion, for poets to find the fire within, to know why they write and never compromise their work for the sake of publishing." Sarah eloquently splits the difference: "On a practical note: Go in fear of epigraphs. Obtaining permissions consumes time and money. On a philosophical note: In readings some of Walt Whitman's prose accounts of his travels in the West, I came across a Shoshone oath which he had made a special point of recording: 'The earth sees me, the sun sees me: shall I lie?' I think the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to keep the endeavor that clear, that strong, that focused." Amen, Sarah! And the epigraphs bit is good advice, too. Perhaps a dialectical relation between Profession and Career might be possible: to give or not give your book an epigraph is both a practical and an aesthetic decision. The rules of the poetry game will serve as well as any other set of rules to constrain a writer and stimulate her creativity. That strikes me as being at least potentially a more productive path than becoming either an insincere, ass-kissing, backstabbing Professional or a holier-than-thou butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth Careerist.

Still, it would be more healthful both for poets and for poetry as a whole if the Career side of the equation was allowed to exert more pressure on Professionalism than the other way around. To engage Jane from an eccentric angle, the Professionals often treat the Careerists as if they were the victims/perpetrators of false consciousness who refuse to acknowledge the material conditions—the social networks—that have helped to enable their success. But the reverse is just as likely to be true: not only do many Professionals deny the role social networks have had in their own "getting ahead," but more fundamentally they don't engage with those ideas of the social that can have a crucial role in the creation and sustenance of actual poets and actual poems. Professionals have friends and associates, but no comrades. And maybe that's what they hate the most about the Careerists, whose modes of association suggest an alternative to the zero-sum economy the Professsionals are committed to.


The Blah Brain said...

Hey, you live in Ithaca? So do I! ha

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