Last Friday, I wrote semi-facetiously about my poetic ambition. It would be easy to infer from my relative lack of motivation for pursuing publication apart from this blog that I have little or no ambition for my writing – in fact, I’ve drawn that inference myself from time to time. Isn’t “poetic ambition” in fact something of an oxymoron for me?
But when I examine my motivations more carefully, I find no lack of that mix of supreme self-confidence and submission to the demands of craft and inspiration that adds up to ambition in other writers. And it’s not as if I haven’t made concerted efforts to seek publication in the past. A combination of laziness and arrogance convinced me that it simply wasn’t worth the time and effort: sending out 25 submissions for every one acceptance drains the budget for stamps and robs one of time that could better be spent reading, writing or – best of all – going out in search of new material. And the payoff – publication in literary magazines – isn’t really worth it to me, because I don’t happen to enjoy most literary magazines; they strike me as, by and large, pretentious, elitist, and not very much fun.
In a way, I think I’m very ambitious for my work, in that I’m not content to be read chiefly by other poets. I want to be able to speak to the concerns of so-called ordinary people – at least, those among them who like to ponder the age-old questions about love, death, the place of humans in the cosmos, the nature of our relationship with the numinous, and so forth. A lot of practicing poets seem content to win the approval of their academic peers, or aspire to write truly difficult poems that will intimidate their competitors for a proliferating number of prizes, fellowships and honors. But I’m encouraged by the example of poets like Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, or Martin Espada, who refuse to retreat into a privileged world of private meanings and continue to risk everything for the possibility of reaching another heart. What insights they bring to their work are no less profound than the obscurantist ramblings of a Jorie Graham or the remote and threadbare visions of a W.S. Merwin – to say nothing of the nihilistic circle-jerk currently masquerading as an avant-garde. The difference is simply that they haven’t given up on the prime directive of good writing: to communicate in living language.
Well, O.K., I don’t really need to air my poetic prejudices here in order to make my point. Why do I write? At root, it isn’t about changing minds or even reaching other people; it’s about pleasing myself. And this is where the most audacious kind of ambition comes in. If I were ever completely satisfied with the work of any of my poetic masters, I’d have no need to write another poem. But through no fault of their own, they’re not quite writing the poems I want to read, so I have to write those poems myself. This impulse stems not from insecurity and competitiveness, but from a lust for the authentic insight, by definition unique and unrepeatable.
It sometimes seems to me that a world of pure inspiration exists, like another dimension in science fiction, parallel to the familiar world of the senses, and accessible to anyone who pays close attention. Paying attention to language – something almost every minimally competent poet learns to do – is only part of the equation. We also have to learn how to listen, how to see. We have to leave the scriptorium on a regular basis and risk an encounter with the Other, and bear witness to the way in which even the most ordinary things and occurrences can turn strange and slip from our grasp.
I do still aspire to print publication, but on my own terms. I think some of my most successful experiments here at Via Negativa have been those that blur the lines between prose and poetry, and many of what I consider my greatest hits involve a call-and-response combination of photos and text. But I know how expensive it can be to publish books in color. While I don’t rule out publishing a book-length collection of miscellaneous lyric poems, it no longer excites me the way it used to. I have specific ambitions for further narrative poems along the lines of Cibola and for thematically unified anthologies exploring specific questions, but whether they bear fruit will ultimately depend not so much on my desire to write them as on their need to be written. And therein, perhaps, lies the key to this whole puzzle. If there are good, true and beautiful things that can only come into existence through me, then it’s my responsibility to see that they get that chance. If there aren’t, hey – at least I’m staying busy!