Validate My Ticket to Write

Posted on April 23, 2010


With poetry, as in any art (or even profession), there’s its practice and its promotion. By practice, I mean the poet’s actual act(s) of composing and revising. By promotion, I mean all the other “stuff”: getting what’s composed out into the world, being known (& somehow recompensed) for one’s practice. Jim Behrle has a good piece on the promotion angle. As for composition, each poet has their own method, although Poe’s fiction on his method, “The Philosophy of Competition,” can be engaging.

Poets must always make decisions on how to conduct their careers (within the profession of poetry). So much time and energy is allocated to writing. So much time and energy is allocated to sending forth that work into the world to garner readers and to put the poet into a financial position that will enable him/her to write more works. How much a poet can write and promote their works (and selves) depends on their fortitude. (That old saw: 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.) Some poets have more (intestinal) fortitude than others for the game of promotion; others more fortitude for the practice.

Emily Dickinson is always mentioned as a poet of practice. She is idealized as that poet who never sought to play the promotion game — something that’s not quite accurate. Would she have felt the same about publishing had some misguided (and/or malevolent) editors decided against smoothing out what they considered her rough edges? And she did care what people thought of her poems, especially her inner circle of friends and family (moreover, Susan Gilbert). She even reached out her temerity and contacted the critic T.W. Higginson for his opinion on her work. She did not hide her practice from others — the fascicles her sister Lavinia found in a trunk after he death were no great surprise (and thankfully Lavinia did not burn them as she had done with other papers). Dickinson was not working in a complete vacuum; she promoted her work as she saw fit. Her promotion of her work among her inner circle and the chosen few outside that circle whom she sought to bring closer was her means of validating her practice.

That’s a fairly basic human impulse: We want validation about what we do. Cook a meal and the basic level of validation is that someone eats it,  next that someone says they like it, next after that that they give you something in return for it. What about poetry? Basic level that someone reads it? Next says they like it? After that, give you something for it? If we don’t get the basic level of validation, it makes it more and more difficult to sustain that practice. If a poem is a “communication” (at the very least of one part of one’s self to another part of one’s self), then the basic level of validation is getting read. To sustain an entire human life in the practice of poetry without ever having the validation of communicating to an other (of making that gift) would, in my estimation, require super-human (godlike) dedication to practice. Maybe somewhere, at some point in history, this poetry god existed who wrote and wrote and wrote without any thought for the validation of readership. The poetry god. The poetry saint.

We can all attempt to be saints, but we’re human — meaning fallible. Too long ago, back in grad school, I was counseled by a wise senior poet that if I wanted to “succeed” as a poet I’d have to cease writing prose poetry and dispense with my fascination with surrealism. He also advised that a career in publishing, editing boring texts, would sap any energy for creative writing. I decided that, intellectually, I found the possibilities inherent in prose poetry to rich to give up, and felt (and still do) that surrealism was not a dead end but a platform from which to continue investigations into the psyche and soul of poetry. I also knew poetry would not make me a living and that people paid me for my ability to put magazines and books together, and that I enjoyed that work almost as much as writing what I felt was a good poem. Had I followed his advice, would I be a more “successful” poet now?

That’s not to say I embarked on this path I chose as some sort of saint. I sought, and occasionally garnered, publication in magazines and in book form, felt a rise in spirit when dozens would attend a reading, disconsolate when the readers outnumbered the audience. I want people to buy the books I publish, as well as my own books. I want the validation of being read for the authors I choose to publish and feel defeated when I can’t win them the audience I think they deserve.

But I still persevere. Maybe now not from any vision of saintliness but one that’s probably a sign of minor insanity. I want validation for the authors I publish. And, yes, that’s why I’ll qualify my regard for Rae Armantrout receiving a Pulitzer for Versed. Yes, of course, she deserves the validation. But, then, a great number of poets right now also deserve such validation, and the question I raised previously still remains.

We all can’t go on. But we all must go on.