A familiar episode pops up in more than one of the biographies of Modern poets, e.g., W.C. Williams and E.A. Robinson: the neophyte poet with trembling hands tenders a pitiful sheaf of poems to a famous professor of poetry for a judgment on whether he should sacrifice his life on the altar of poesy.The great man glares at the pages over a pince-nez for interminable minutes before he slides open a drawer in his desk and says, “I, too, sometimes scribble such verse, and this is where I put them.”Then he slams shut the drawer. I think the time has come to put the poems I write in a drawer, but I’m not slamming it.
Of course in the biographical story the young poet disregards the Exalted Poetry Authority’s purely aesthetical advice and goes on to become famous. The message is persistence, the call of genius overcoming the world’s mundane resistance.In my youth, creative writing professors encouraged me to major in creative writing with the implicit notion that I would become a creative writing professor who would write and publish poetry.Back then, my poetry writing professors took professoring seriously as a job of work and in select cases as mentors, but they were essentially dedicated to poetry.The best ones were primarily poet-professors rather than professor-poets.The best literature professors were more dedicated to literature than to the business models of the universities they worked for or careers within over-specialized parameters. I did not become famous, but from a dedication to making poems that was always more akin to a spiritual avocation than like a professional career I’ve been nimble enough to live a relatively uncompromised and interesting life.
I had a lot of luck. I was privileged to grow up in a literary atmosphere, but what “insider” breaks I might have had provided mixed results, but that is an issue sourced in resentments that I’ve learned trump objective discussion. Like most poets, I’ve been envious and ungrateful, but the truth is that smart people have liked my poems and, despite all sorts of feckless imprudence regarding career savvy, I’ve ended up in modestly comfortable circumstances.I credit recovery from disastrous alcoholism, that forced me to change my life radically with a simple program for living, with giving me an independence I wouldn’t have otherwise had the courage to pursue.“I have had my day—I will not repine,” Washington sighed to Lafayette.
Of course if magazines were clamoring for my poems I wouldn’t be putting them in a drawer.I have nothing against art for art’s sake except as an aggressive ideology, but poetry is a mouth, as Auden said, and mouths appreciate ears. Editors who once liked my poems have retired or died, and what I write doesn’t interest the new gatekeepers. Life isn’t fair, and I never wanted art to get “democratized.”Given a choice between lucky in love or with parking places, it’s startling how many choose the latter. That said, the little rejection slips deject me even more than when I expected them in my seedtime yet presumed I had world enough and time.The few acceptances only afford me a momentary, mild relief.I won’t perish from any job if I don’t publish.My poems are a wild land that has been “discovered” many times without anyone ever bothering to colonize them.The now-ubiquitous MFA programs of the creative writing industry have created a massive inflation of mediocre poetry produced by professionally credentialed poets, and in that economy it would take a lot of grinding work to improve my sales quota.I would have to blitz the market with a blizzard of multiple submissions to online and traditional journals.No thanks.
I have no sense of a sympathetic audience.I don’t know many other poets anymore, but most of the poets under fifty years old that I meet seem like guarded professors who evince no interest in me as either a fellow poet or a person because officially credentialed poets are now taking up all the tables in the Starbucks. Nor do I want to hang out with them at writer’s conferences where people are furiously taking notes at “How to Get Published” panels.Even the old days when the venue was to strut around with your sports coat around your shoulders like a cape, get in a drunken fist fight with a reviewer, and commit adultery seems flat and stupid now.No matter how it’s played, the game has gotten old and boring. Only the poems themselves survive as they slowly gestate and come aborning.Whether we work together or apart, poets aren’t kindred spirits anymore.The bottom line is business, and my poems are not “work-related, nor do I call my poems “work.”
As my interest in publishing flagged, some friends say to me, “Even though you’re alienated don’t you want to still be in the poetry world?”To leave a trace, I suppose. The truth is that these concerned friends never read the magazines that might putatively print one of my poems—but now they can click on my website. It seems to be a thing-in-itself conundrum: can a poem be a realized thing if it hasn’t been tagged as having “appeared in The Arrogant Review?”Younger professor-poets tell me, “I’m sorry but I’m not familiar with your work.”No need to be sorry, I pay no attention to you either because ludic imagining and capitalist production don’t mix. Older professor poets who found their safe places in the industrial workshops ask me if I’m still writing.Why would I be still producing when I’m out of business?“Good! Good for you!” they congratulate me with bluff condescension. They will never click on my website.Having to read poems has become a professional job for them that feels like grading papers.Nonetheless, they believe in believing, even though belief is impossible.
I am an old man, an old white man, but I am not resistant to change.My disappointment with the changes of my time is that they have solidified every shitty thing that I wanted changed.How come Progressives live all cozied up with each other just like the Conservatives? What has a classist, dilettante multiculturalism done to fundamentally confront the fatalism about the human tide of misery?Apologists for capitalist globalization point to how many have been raised from a poverty level, but they deliberately omit pointing out how barely above poverty so many have been raised, at what cost to their happiness, nor do they mention the many millions of others set adrift in utter desperation.Contemporary poetry has merely reflected the “misapprehensiveness of the age” that Browning presumed was the poet’s role to correct.
Does it seem like I'm getting too bitter? All the winner poets will tell you that getting bitter is "bad for the poetry, bad for clever woebegone irony, delightfully mannered imagery." Get bitter and you fall through the cracks of poetry. Well, "what the martyrs call the world" is largely indifferent to old men. Old yes, but I know how to use the internet as a terrific tool without being its tool, andI know better than to let the morning paper turn me into one of the legions of Zoloft eaters.When I start checking if the door will hold my belt tight, I’ll start taking that tool.Life is suffering caused by the anxiety of Desire, and the noble effort to make that unnecessary.
So here are some of my poems. They are in a drawer alone with America.They are prayers that don’t ask for anything.If you like one, you can print it and fold it in half and put it between the Holy Bible and Birds of America on your shelf.If they bore you, Facebook is but few clicks away. "Afterlife"