I made some evaluative comments about a few poets in the previous commentary. I wrote:
- [Leonard Doughty] is still very much unknown and perhaps that is just.
- Heine is a great poet by anyone’s standards and continues to find new translators in every generation.
- A. E. Housman is also a wonderful, if perhaps minor, poet.
Truth is, I don’t think very many people would argue about these judgments. Having written these comments and knowing that they are comments that many critics could make, I let them stand, but I want to present a counter comment about some of the difficulties of being a poet and living in a world where poetry is unimportant and in a world where poetry is important.
The academic in me, and the ego-driven, attention-seeking poet in me, continues to rate and judge poets. Many of these comments are received knowledge, meaning that people before me have passed judgment and I have, more or less, fallen in line. I do so, and I suppose others do also, for several reasons. One is that we sincerely love the poetry of the poet praised. For me, the poetry of Walt Whitman falls in that category. I think I loved his poems as soon as I read them, and then was delighted to learn that others felt the same way, and in fact there was a great academic machine geared to perpetuating Whitman’s reputation. I had the good fortune in my early twenties at Texas A&M to study with one of Whitman’s greatest scholars, Jerome Loving, as he was beginning his career. Twenty-five years later, I got to read and write about “The Song Myself” with another wonderful Whitman scholar, Jimmie Killingsworth.
Similarly, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I visited a bookstore in St Louis with my family. My father was a history major in college, and he continued that interest throughout his life. Whenever we visited a town and he saw a used bookstore we would visit it. He would look for histories of the Civil War and biographies of generals and the rest of us would just wander around browsing. On this one occasion in St. Louis, I found a cheap anthology of British poetry up to the Romantics. I remember being very enthusiastic about this book, but I can’t really remember why. I believed this book was going to open up treasures to me, as if I had found a volume of maps and I just knew, had some sort of inward faith, that one of those maps had a big fat X on it that would tell me where to find the thing I did not know I was looking for.
When we got back home to Temple, I thumbed through the book, like an autodidact wondering through a forest of knowledge. Most of the poems were beyond me, however one might define that, but in the late Augustans, I found a couple of poets that just fascinated me—one was William Cowper and his long poem, The Task. His project seemed completely nutty—writing about a sofa– but I loved the long stretches of his lines and meters. But my X was the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake. I didn’t need Allen Ginsberg or my professors at the University of Texas to tell me that these poems were delightful and contained secrets I wanted to know. I ended up writing my senior high school English research paper on these poems, much to the surprise of the very gray, literarily conservative teacher.
I also very much enjoy reading and seeing performed the plays of Shakespeare. But I wonder if my appreciation of Shakespeare would be as deep if I had not had several teachers who read the poetry aloud, defined what certain words or metaphors meant, and explained the historical context of the poetry and plays. I will never know the answer to that question because I did not discover Shakespeare on my own.
Then stretching over a long geography of opinion and appreciation, I can say I accept the importance of, say John Milton. I would never say that he does not deserve his high and highly respected place among the poets in English. But mostly that is received opinion. In my college years, I took a class in Milton. I remember enjoying and appreciating, through the guidance of the professor the earlier lyrical poems. Very rarely have I returned to “Il Allegro” and “La Penseroso,” but under his tutelage I was amazed by them. Even more rarely, will I pull out a sonnet or two. But I have had no overpowering desire to return to Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained. Why that is, I suppose I could analyze, but it will be analysis that says more about me than it does about Milton. So a question comes up—should I even ever pronounce an opinion or judgment about Milton? Or should I pass on the received knowledge that he is one of England’s best and most important poets? As a teacher, by not mentioning him, am I failing in my duties, or is it failure to share received but not personally confirmed opinion.
This question is even more important when pronouncing a negative or damning opinion about a living poet. We have heard so many poets, critics, and academics pronounce the failure of one poet or another. Some teachers even attempt to ban such comments from creative writing classes—a form of “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Sometimes, we disguise it as “When you have read more of the poet’s work and considered it carefully, then you will be entitled to your opinion.” Basically that comment is just a form of crowd control. It shuts people up, but it doesn’t move us any further down the road of independent thinking.
So let’s come back to my pronouncements about Leonard Doughty, Heinrich Heine, and A. E. Housman. First, we have to ask—how many of you have ever heard of and read the poetry of any of these three poets? I would guess that if we polled all Americans we would discover that no one but me and a handful of readers of early Texas poetry know of Leonard Doughty. And that, what, under 10% of Americans know and have read Heine or Housman, although Housman’s poems will occasionally be included in a movie, such as Out of Africa, but I am assuming that passes over most people’s heads.
So my point might be, who even cares about how we rate poets? For me, I guess, the question really hits home, because, yes, I would like to be a “famous poet.” Whatever that might mean in this world. I would like editors of journals to see my name, and go “Oh put him in the seriously consider stack” and not be rejected by some assistant assistant graduate student reader whose taste is still being developed. I would like to be asked to read at a university and paid handsomely to do so and be wined and dined by the creative writing department. I would like to be included in the poets.org site for the American Academy of Poets. I would like for a major publisher to ask me for a manuscript.
Among poets at most levels, again however we describe that, there is a lot of looking over one’s shoulder—both to the dead and the living—and asking how do we stack up? Whom am I better than? Why did he get that grant? Why is that poem in Best American Poetry for 2012? It is a situation that can, if you let it, drive you mad.
But is the alternative not to care at all? To become totally cynical about the entire process about the entire enterprise of being a poet, to refuse to send poems out for publication, to take a job that has nothing to do with art and literature and just write, and let it stack up in one’s study or on one’s hard drive. And to really commit to this approach—to destroy it all before one dies, because one has to jettison the hope that the “career” of Emily Dickinson gives us all—posthumous fame because our sister or wife or husband or son or daughter recued our work and by strange circumstance handed it over to a powerful academic who sees the true value of our poems. Isn’t that what all of us, all of us “failures” hope for? Opps, there I go again.
I have to admit, now at sixty, I am sick of sifting individual poets into the proper strata of perceived excellence. In one way, it is parlor game, briefly entertaining, an exercise of wit that is immediately forgettable, a fun evening over wine. “Oh really, you like that Stevens poem? How surprising! I took you to be an imagist!” “Well, if Naomi Nye would ever emerge from Robert Bly’s shadow, we might really see what she can do!” In another, it is an exercise in futility. There is a kind of capitalistic determinism that supersedes scholarly pronouncements and quick opinion. Sooner or later, particular poets rise and fall from the list of those who are published—in journals, books, or on-line—and other “unknown” poets enter the list. Academic politics will support the reading of one individual or school of poets over others, and then change. The MFA/journal/publishing/public performance net work will enhance the career of one person and ignore the talents of another thousand. There is very much a school-yard clique mentality to the entire thing. And there is very much a “who can be marketed to whom” quality about all this.
So when I say that Leonard Doughty probably deserves to be unknown, I am basically making shit up. Maybe Leonard Doughty will be rediscovered by some poet who has lots of fame and make-or-break-someone’s-reputation power and then all of a sudden everyone will be reading Leonard Doughty and talking about what a lonely isolated tortured genius he was, and that finally after decades and decades is receiving his true due. I mean Shakespeare’s reputation dipped in the 17th century. And John Donne’s reputation owes a lot to T.S. Eliot and others who rediscovered him and the so-called metaphysical poets. I have enjoyed the work of New England Transcendentalist poet Jones Very. But most people read Emerson and Thoreau, who are great prose writers, so we anthologize their poetry also. The poetry of Jones Very will occasionally find its way into and out of various anthologies. I would rather read his poetry than either Emerson’s or Thoreau’s. But there you go. I’m in a minority there. And with Leonard Doughty—he opened an entirely new world of Late Victorian poetry to me.
None of this has anything to do with this poem “Hairetikos,” except, of course, to point out that with this poem, I knew I was committing myself to a life with poetry. Up until this point, I was a student and I wrote some poems when I was moved to write poems. I really liked the fact that I wrote poems. Poets were my heroes. Except for showing my poems to a few girls, to fewer friends, and still to fewer teachers, I kept them to myself.
I knew nothing about “how to become a poet.” At A&M, I saw Robert Bly perform his poems in a Richard Nixon mask. That was odd, a bit off putting because I believed poetry to be more noble, but culturally expansive since I had never seen a living poet before. At UT I had taken a class from the poet Alurista in Chicano literature. At the time, I did not know he was a poet, but in a strange way he has had a lasting effect. I learned a kind of magical thinking from him—the Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixlan style of thought. I also learned of the concept from Nahuatl of difrasismo, of flower song.
In my senior year in college I had to do a project for one of my education classes. In 1974, we were still in the new world of alternative teachers and wholistic assignments. The teacher assigned the class to created an art work that somehow portrayed ourselves. So I did a long poem in four or five panels, written in pen, but then painted with water colors. Of course, I was stealing from the etchings of William Blake. I remember asking Neal one night to come in and help me paint clumps of grass. I ended up giving that set of paintings/poems to him.
The teacher, a middle-aged Anglo woman, who no doubt fancied herself an open-minded liberal ready to right the wrongs of American education, was surprised by the paintings and the poems. We had one of those discussions that I had grown used to. It had happened a couple of times in high school. I turned in something sensitive and creative and the teacher was shocked, skeptical about this surly, shy, obstinate boy in their class. These teachers had written me off as what? Some typical ignorant, unschooled, rude, uncivilized, uninterested, critical? What is it that made them disregard me. What is simply this? That I was the bad boy, and they were women who thought that culture was created by good men. Part of this is such a joke and embarrassing to write, because on the scales of bad boys and even of bad boys done good, I am so close to the middle of the road.
The process is that the teacher sees my work, reads it, looks at it, and says, “Wow, that is good. That is sensitive.” She looks for the name of the student who did it, and then she is faced with a dilemma: can it really be correct that this young man, whom I have judged to be a juvenile delinquent, wrote and produced this? The realization is that I went above and beyond the assignment, when previously I had undershot the assignment. The reason, of course, is that the assignments that I under-shot and under-achieved on were, to me, stupid assignments, or to be fair, beyond my organizational skills. The assignments that I overshot were the ones that sparked my imagination and gave me space to be creative.
Anyway so I turned in my project about who I am, based on the Nahuatl concept of difrasismo that I learned in Alurista’s class. I made an A on that project. And then, I don’t know, made a B in the class, because I did not do as well on the assignment about setting up a six-weeks class for 10th grade English on the short story with clear learning objectives and measurable outcomes. So it goes.
So all this relates, it really does. So I prayed: “Make me a weed, a wild and restless thing.” I was finally coming to some sense that I was going to have to find my own way, slightly outside of the normal way of doing things and that poetry was going to be the path or the model out of those normal ways.
It is also very clear was that there was going to be a fairly large price to be paid for being a weed, instead of a cultivated, well-watered house plant. In this poem, I can remember several influences. I think the word “green” as in to “green myself in shade” which is a new kind of phrase for me—Shakespearean, in a way—to use an adjective for a verb. But I think I got it from Dylan Thomas: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / drives my green age.” The ending of the poem comes from T.S. Eliot. The poem is a wish, a prayer to become a heretic, but it is a realization, or assertion that the Heretic is the true believer, is the sacrifice of Ash Wednesday. Someone has got to do the dirty work of moving us humans out of orthodoxy. We will become the system if we don’t watch it. It is so easy to become the system. Whether we call it “the system” or “the man” or “the borg” or “the matrix” so many pressures push us toward conformity.
One of the things that can save us is the moment of poetry. Sure there is the poetry of the system. But even that, the worst, the blandest, the most Hallmarkian card poetry of all Hallmark cards is a step out, because it is a step inside, into the feelings and the heart, and when we feel, we feel as an individual. Our tears and our rage, that soon or later erupts and we experience it. At that moment, we have the opportunity for kindness, for compassion, for the step outside the system and the statistics and the academic generalizations that guide us daily. I grieve for my mother, I miss my boyfriend, I am angry about the policy in Darfur, I love the wind in my hair riding my bicycle, the orange and black butterfly resting wings up like sail on the yellow sand box.
It’s all poetry, and it is all revolutionary. It will change your heart, it will change the world.
Assignment 1: Write a poem that informs the reader what your values are. What is your creed for living, for being a good and or strong person, for producing poetry and art?
Assignment 2: Write a letter to yourself, perhaps in poetic form, from the person you hope to become to yourself today. Tell yourself the things you are proud of, of the trials that you overcame, of the lessons you learned becoming who it is you wish to be.