And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love…
~from Hart Crane’s, “The Broken Tower”
I suppose I could offer up nuggets of wisdom to you like: use number two pencils, write outdoors, listen to Bach’s Aria variata in A minor, look at the sky for the thing that’s missing, etc. Or I could argue that you should read everything by such-and-such poet, that such-and-such MFA program has a higher ranking and is therefore where you should definitely go, or that such-and-such publisher will give your work the attention it truly deserves. Don’t get me wrong, all of that is very nice and some of it might be helpful at times, but what I’ve been thinking about lately is “the vast gap between talent and genius,” as B.H. Fairchild put it, and what practical advice could possibly be offered to aspiring poets in the 21st century to help their work transcend mere talent.
Yesterday, I had the good fortune to travel to Southern Illinois University Carbondale and listen to Sandra Beasley read from her new book, I Was the Jukebox (2010, Norton), at the Little Grassy Literary Festival, and I had the added luck of traveling with writers James Crews and my sister Lindsay Mossotti—two wonderful writers in their own right. Beasley’s reading was spot on. She opened with the poem, “Osiris Speaks,” which tells the story of a dismembered king Osiris and Isis, his queen, gathering his remains in order to make him whole again. In the myth, Isis finds all “but his most kingly part,” as Beasley said in her introduction to the poem, which was believed to have been swallowed by a fish. Her delivery was nothing short of perfect, and the last four lines stayed with me long after the reading was over:
…Every king, in the end, is his only
audience. Every queen picks up the pieces.
Isis, every fish in that river is a child
of mine. You are my net. Hold me.
On the two hour drive back to St. Louis, we ended up talking at great length about what single quality can make a poem greater than the sum of its parts, can make it transcend aesthetic concerns, schools of thought, and even time itself. We resolved, more or less, that the quality lives in its emotional resilience, lives somewhere in the raw viscera of it, or as James put it: “it has to have the animal stink of human emotion.” With Beasley, that emotion was palpable. Even now, just look at how the king’s cold admission of culpability in those first two lines gets rounded off by his tender plea: “You are my net. Hold me.” True emotion is complicated like that. The truest emotional response is always going to possess that uniquely human blend of intimacy and insecurity.
But how does one learn to replicate that “animal stink” in his or her own work? Can it be taught, or is it something that can even be actively sought after? Dana Gioia’s infamous 1991 essay that appeared in The Atlantic, “Can Poetry Matter?” says that poetry demands “individual suffering,” and that even the threat of suffering provides “the collective cultural benefit of frightening away all but committed artists.” But if suffering is the key ingredient in producing emotional resilience, Gioia fails to specify exactly what kind or how much produces the best result (which makes for a terrible recipe really). Instead, he goes on to romanticize the days when poets were academically trained but were not institutional fixtures; when poets were visionaries; when poets were poorly paid critics and editors, or worked outside of the literary world altogether like Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams. Gioia’s twenty-year-old essay ends up having much in common with a present-day, right-wing conservative speaking nostalgically about the “good old days”—times when miscegenation laws were still in effect; when the vast majority of American’s never attended college; when homosexuality was considered a psychopathic, paranoid, and schizoid personality disorder; when a woman’s rightful place was at the helm of a vacuum cleaner; when the world was indeed anybody’s oyster (that is if you happened to be educated, straight, white and, of course, male).
But I don’t want to pick too much on Gioia’s unfair comparison of the present to the past because I’m still curious about his claim that individual suffering is the moniker of the true artist. There’s great precedent for his argument. Just think of all the “committed artists” who were often committed to institutions or ended up dying lonely, painful deaths believing in their hearts that they failed. Keats did so at only twenty-five years of age. Whitman wrote confidently in his thirties: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there,” but then on his deathbed in his seventies was reduced to: “I suffer all the time: I have no relief, no escape: it is monotony—monotony—monotony—in pain.” And these are only cursory examples. So many artists have suffered, and the hallmark of that suffering seems to be a deeper understanding of humankind’s emotional and physical fragility. But the question remains: how could one translate suffering into practical advice to aspiring poets in the 21st century?
Let’s imagine for a moment the single word “Suffer” written on the chalkboard on the first day of undergraduate workshop, the quiet murmur as one student wonders if the word is a prompt for a poetry exercise: “Maybe we’re supposed to write a sonnet about suffering, how should I know?” Then the teacher rises slowly from his seat, points to the word with one long, crooked finger and demands: “If you have never suffered from bipolar schizophrenic rage, third world poverty, violent drunkenness, racial and sexual bigotry, dengue fever, tuberculosis—if you have never been stabbed in the heart in a knife fight in Tijuana, trampled to death by a herd of angry bulls in Pamplona, lynched by a lynch mob in Alabama, dragged through the streets of New York City stark raving mad, then get the hell out of my classroom and stay out until you have!” Oh, what empty classrooms we all would have, and still the question would loom: can Gioia’s assertion be quantified in order to determine how much suffering is enough suffering to produce great art? The short answer is no.
The long, more clinical sounding answer would say something like: the severity and duration of the pain (psychological, emotional and physical) that one must experience before the supreme and enduring perspective surfaces in the art (an end which is by no means guaranteed) is something not consciously determined or controlled by the artist. An end can be determined of course, meaning, Sylvia Plath can keep sticking her head in that oven, Weldon Kees can forever launch his body into San Francisco Bay, and Frank Stanford can pump bullet after bullet into his sodden heart, but the cause of the torment cannot. So the suffering must be organic in a sense, or at least unavoidable, which means the imaginary “suffering assignment” proposed earlier is out of the question.
But maybe we don’t need any disorders, diseases, violence, assignments or gimmickry at all. Maybe “to live,” as Nietzsche said, “is to suffer” and “to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Following his logic, we could argue that to have survived the genetic lottery, to have been yanked screaming into this world and to have lived the sum of a life in the face of disease, war, and natural disaster, is to have suffered. And don’t we already assume the collective burden of humankind’s suffering every time we open a newspaper or open a history book whose pages may as well have been printed with the blood of martyrs—the trick must lie somewhere in its meaning, in our ability to make sense out of all that suffering.
In truth, that imaginary, undergraduate workshop teacher could have just as well written the word “Love” on the board and berated his students for their lack of experience in that department; for, as Ezra Pound wrote in Canto 116 (Pound, a life-long sufferer of psychotic-organic depression as the clinicians dubbed it), “If love be not in the house there is nothing.” But finally, what I’m talking about here (what Gioia should have talked more about in his essay) is not suffering or love at all; I’m talking about life, plain and simple; I’m talking about the cumulative kind of experience Ron Wallace jokes about in an essay where he discusses a poem that only took him half an hour to write: “Did [it] take thirty minutes to write? Or thirty years?” I’m talking about the boldness and bravado of Whitman’s claim: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” I’m talking about the “animal stink of human emotion” that saturates the best poems of every generation.
So here it is: the boiled-down, real, and practical advice I’d give to aspiring poets in the 21st century: go out and do something, anything! You needn’t drive across the country to a literary festival or board a rocket ship bound for one of Jupiter’s moons in order to achieve this—think local, think love. There’s something timeless and universally palatable lurking in the most trivial of human interactions, in even the smallest eyelash of human emotion, but it’s your duty to gather and organize them into lines. Elements of craft can be learned. Life can only be experienced. Now, go out and experience it, get the hell out of my classroom!