BEHIND SEVERAL THEORIES of what happens to a poet during the writing of a poem-Eliot’s escape from personality, Keats’s idea of informing and filling another body, Yeats’s notion of the mask. Auden’s concept of the poet becoming someone else for the duration of the poem. Valéry’s idea of a self superior to the self-lies the implied assumption that the self as given is inadequate and will not do.
How you feel about yourself is probably the most important feeling you have. It colors all other feelings, and if you are a poet, it colors your writing. It may account for your writing.
MR. AUDEN BELIEVED that the fear of failure is the nemesis of American writers. We are so competitive, he says, that we want to destroy all other writers, want to write the one book that is so great it will eliminate all competition forever. Since the imagination cannot cope with such a task, the result is creative impotency. That, he says, is why so many American writers write one book of considerable promise and then nothing else.
Auden may have found this idea reinforced by his relations with Theodore Roethke. If you were beating Roethke in a game of 21 in basketball, he would complain throughout the game that he had thrown his right shoulder out years before and it had never come back. You didn’t have to be Jerry West to beat Roethke at 21, but his implication was clear. Were his shoulder all right, you, or Jerry West, wouldn’t stand a chance. He’d wipe you out, Buster.
Despite Roethke’s unconvincing though often endearing machismo, as a poet he found that failure haunted him far less than success. The possibility that the poem might fail some inner ideal may have been haunting, but acclaim from the outside demanded terrifying adjustments.
MANY AMERICAN POETS seem to feel personally worthless unless they write. One can easily imagine that, given the conditions of the mind, the feelings of worthlessness may become indistinguishable from the impulse to write.
WHEN PEOPLE TELL a young poet he is good, they may be doing him some disservice. They are telling him he is not worthless and so unwittingly they are undercutting what to him seems his need to write. I’m not suggesting we run about telling young poets how awful they are to insure they keep on writing. They will tell themselves that often enough without our help.
I’VE KNOWN OF CASES where the poet’s behavior was adversely affected by “success,” that is, acclaim. Yes, I really am great and everything I put down is great so I don’t have to work hard anymore. Yes, I am great and so have license for whatever I do to others. No, I am not great. I am unworthy of this praise and once others see how outrageous I really am they’ll disdain me and I can get back to writing. I am great and will be a part of literature. Therefore, I must constantly grow through style changes to insure my worth as an artist of stature.
IT WOULD BE IDEAL if some instrument could be developed that could measure a writer’s capacity for success so that just enough acclaim, money, and praise could be doled out to keep the writer going.
TWO CLASSIC American short stories: Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” and Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.” In Hemingway’s story the protagonist, Krebs, by birth and circumstance is an insider. As a result of his experiences in a war and his own sensitivity, he feels alienated and outside. In Faulkner’s story the protagonist, Snopes, a little boy, by birth and circumstance is an outsider who wants desperately to be in. He wants to be a part of what, from his disadvantageous position, seems a desirable life. His father is criminally insane and in his own mind can justify anything he does. Snopes is torn between loyalty to his father and the urge to protect “decent” people from his father’s viciousness. In the end, he informs on his father and as a result his father is killed while committing a crime.
Not from birth and circumstance, but by virtue of how they feel about themselves and their relation with the world, as revealed in their poems, many American poets see themselves as (or really are) Krebs or Snopes.
Krebs: William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Richard Wilbur, e. e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg.
Snopes: T. S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke. Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Louise Bogan, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, A. R. Ammons.
Of the two, the Snopes poets would probably have a harder time handling success since the Krebs poets could be successful without feeling they had violated their heritage. The Snopes poets would feel that their heritage has some deep emotional claim to their loyalties. The Krebs poets could write their best poems without fingering their fathers. The Krebs poets would feel that if something is wrong with their relations with the world, the fault is not entirely theirs.
Both would find success hard to adjust to. For a Krebs poet success means accepting values he knows are phony. For a Snopes poet, success could mean he has cast aside all people (including himself) he believes are doomed to failure and whom he continues to love. In both cases the result could be self-hatred and creative impotency.
CERTAIN FEELINGS can lead to certain stances in the poem. If the feelings are strong enough the stances may be overstances, or poses. This might result from extreme feelings of shame and degradation (Roethke) or intense self-hatred (Dylan Thomas). Such poets I find specially rewarding because they risk looking silly in their posturings. That may be why they appeal to the rest of us.
THE MIND, no matter how antisocial it seems, attaches outrageous importance to things others consider unimportant or dull. Poets of overstance admit this. When I read Eliot’s definition of the objective correlative, I sometimes have the urge to add at the end the words “in polite society.”
TO FEEL that you are a wrong thing in a right world should lead a poet to be highly self-critical in the act of writing. Just as you must assume everything you put down belongs because you put it there (just to get it down at all), you must also assume that because you put it there it is wrong and must be examined. Not a healthy process, I suppose! But isn’t it better to use your inability to accept yourself to creative advantage? Feelings of worthlessness can give birth to the toughest and most welcome critic within.
POETS WHO FAIL (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem. They resist the role of a wrong thing in a right world and proclaim themselves the right thing in a wrong world (not the same thing as Krebs if that’s what you are thinking-Krebs doesn’t care much for the world or himself). In a sense they are not honest and lack the impulse (or fight it) to revise and perfect.
I feel so strongly about these matters that I am superstitious. I don’t know how many young people I’ve heard (usually men) proclaim themselves great artists and then fade into the woodwork. I believe that the moment you declare yourself great you put a curse on yourself. You can get away with it in baseball (Johnny Bench) or boxing (Muhammad Ali) if you have the physical gifts to back it up. But the poet who says “I am the greatest” has damned himself forever.
JEALOUSY IS IMPOSSIBLE for a poet because he has written every poem he loves. Among the beautiful poems I’ve written are “Leda and the Swan,” “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” “The Farm on the Great Plains,” “A Guide to Dungeness Spit.” and perhaps a hundred more.
When I meet a poet who is jealous of the poems of others (reputation is another matter), I’m sure that poet has not yet written a poem as good as he knows he can. When you have done your best, it doesn’t matter how good it is. That is for others to say.
IF YOUR LIFE must be validated in all its anger and hostility to a world you don’t want (Krebs), or in all its regret and loneliness to a world that doesn’t want you (Snopes), the validation waits inside you to find itself in words on the most ordinary sheet of paper.
THERE ARE AS MANY WAYS of feeling about oneself as there are people. What I am talking about is not limited to poets. In others it is often far more sad and far more seriously damaging.
HOWEVER A POET feels about himself, he feels it in such a way that at moments he can play with the feeling.
I ONCE BELIEVED Mallarmé’s statement that within him was that which would count the buttons on the hangman’s vest was a claim to cold-blooded objectivity. Now I believe it was acceptance of a world where the trivial and definite can vie for attention with the emotionally overwhelming. Is Mallarmé’s notion so much different from the man who, after surviving a terrible auto crash and with his wife lying bloody in the car, steps out and begins to pick up small bits of glass? Are words bits of glass? Buttons on a hangman’s vest? On a lover’s clothes?
SHOULD YOU REJECT YOURSELF because you count buttons and pick up glass when all civilization tells you Please, this is hardly the time?
AN ACT OF IMAGINATION is an act of selfacceptance.
ONE REASON many poets drink so much may be that they dread the possibility of a self they can no longer reject. Alcohol keeps alive a self deserving of rejection. If the self as given threatens to become acceptable, as it often does after years of writing, it must be resisted or the possibility that the poet will not write again becomes a monstrous threat.
When Faulkner, replying to the question Why do you drink so much? answered For the pain, he may not have meant to cure the pain. He may have meant to keep it alive.
WRITING is a way of saying you and the world have a chance. All art is failure.
A LONG TIME BACK, maybe twenty-five years ago, a reviewer (Hudson Review, I think) ridiculed William Carlos Williams for saying one reason a poet wrote was to become a better person. I was fresh out of graduate school, maybe still there, filled with the New Criticism, and I easily sided with the reviewer. But now I see Williams was right. I don’t think Williams was advocating writing as therapy, nor the naive idea that after writing a poem one is any less depraved. I believe Williams discovered that a lifetime of writing was a slow, accumulative way of accepting one’s life as valid. What a silly thing we do. We sweat through poem after poem to realize what dumb animals know by instinct and reveal in their behavior: My life is all I’ve got. We are well off to know it ourselves, even if our method of learning it is painfully convoluted.
WHEN YOU WRITE you are momentarily telling the world and yourself that neither of you needs any reason to be but the one you had all along.
I believe the reason Roethke sought out the wealthy for companionship during his last years was that he had come close to accepting a self he had once spitefully rejected. But he couldn’t believe it and wanted proof that the self he was starting to accept was truly of worth. In his mind, only the rich and “well chosen” could verify this.
I BELIEVE the political conservatism of many poets in this culture is a personal conservatism mistakenly appropriated to politics, where it least belongs. If you are a wrong thing in a right world, then you should change and the world should remain the same. More important is the imagination’s impulse to create unknowns out of knowns (my thanks to Madeline DeFrees, poet and colleague of mine at the University of Montana, for this idea). If the knowns keep changing, the process of creating the unknowns is constantly threatened because the base of operations is unstable. It is natural though not necessarily healthy for poets to prefer a world left alone to remain just as it is forever.
A SNOPES POET obviously finds conservatism natural. If Snopes grew up to be a political radical (an understandable development and perhaps a laudatory one), it’s doubtful he would be a poet. Though it’s possible that he would call himself one.
ONE PROBLEM for modern poets is the wholesale changes in what we see, the tearing down of buildings, the development of new housing, the accelerated rate of loss of all things that can serve as visual checkpoints and sources of stability. There is more than temporal correlation between the destruction of the Louis Sullivan buildings in Chicago and the murder of Sharon Tate and companions in Los Angeles.
WITH THE ACCUMULATED LOSSES of knowns, the imagination is faced with the problem of preserving the world through internalization, then keeping that world rigidly fixed long enough to create the unknowns in the poem. (Rilke spoke of this). Today, memory must become thought’s ally. Though the process becomes more complicated and challenging, I believe the accelerated loss of knowns accounts for the increasing number of people writing poems. □