Thursday, March 31, 2005

Poetry and Ambition - Part 2

"1. I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems...

2. If I recommend ambition, I do not mean to suggest that it is easy or pleasurable...

5. True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever..."
See "Poetry and Ambition," http://www.poets.org/poems/prose.cfm?prmID=3333

Operating under the premise that Donald Hall is a rational human being, I think that here we have a prime example of Hall as Showman. The argument that one must ambitiously strive to write great poems that live forever is perfectly fine, if it is taken as one of exaggerated showmanship. Sort of like Michael Jordan wagging his tongue in midair on his way to a slam dunk.

If the argument is intended to be an intellectual one, then it is far more troublesome. That is, I do not believe that one who spends a lifetime writing poems must write "great" poems, at least in the way that Hall appears to define "great," which is "to make words that live forever." (For the moment, let us pretend that "to make words that live forever" is not a loaded claim.)

For example, I think that there are plenty of young and old Asian-American poets who are writing poems that are not published. They write for ease and pleasure. They write for friends and loved ones. They have no ambition for publication. They have no ambition for external commendation beyond their own sense of self-worth and/or their close knit circles. If they are young and unmarried, perhaps they are writing for a boyfriend or girlfriend. Perhaps they are writing for themselves. Perhaps they are writing in their private diaries. They write for their own relaxation, happiness, and release. Such is their ambition. They "get" something out of writing poetry beyond the joy of external approval.

Thus, if Hall's argument is intended to be intellectual, then I would counter that these Asian-American poets have perfectly good reasons to spend their lives writing poetry. If writing poetry makes one happy, then there is no reason why one should not spend a lifetimes doing it. Striving "to make words live forever" is neither the only legitimate justification for the writing of poetry nor the only form of ambition.

Now moving on to the claim that a poet should seek "fame in the old sense, to make words live forever." I do not know what Hall means here. Perhaps Hall is imagining that poets have access to time machines that allow them to skim the canon of the next million or billion years of poetry and to thus figure out what words are going to live forever. But if we live in a world not of science fiction, then I am not sure how any poets can seek to make words live forever, at least without having some preconceived notion of "words that live forever" that is rooted in the past and present.

In fact, Hall's naming of poets in his article suggests that the "words that live forever" in poems are the words of white male poets. To this claim, one might respond, Oh, that's such a cliched argument that's been done to death in the annals of multiculturalism and feminism. Perhaps. But go back and look at Hall's mentioning of individuals from Milton to Johnny Carson. Unless I've missed something here, Hall mentions only Caucasians and Caucasian poets in his references to "great" poets and almost no female poets. More interestingly, and ironically, his calling for poetic ambition in poems-to-be-written thus functions as a de facto calling for a reproduction of the past.

Here are a couple interesting questions: Are there words that live forever? Are there poems that live forever? Let's compare a poem about Chinese-Americans working on the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s versus one of Shakespeare's sonnets about love. Shakespeare's sonnet has withstood the test of time. Love is universal. But a poem about Chinese-Americans working on the Transcontinental Railroad can also withstand the test of time. And knowledge of this chapter of American history can also be universal. It is about choice -- poems or words or moments that seem to "live forever" now, "live forever," because they are chosen to be the survivors at specific times in our intellectual history. For example, it is a choice whether to remember the enslavement of African-Americans, whether to remember the Holocaust, etc. I am not sure whether there is such a thing as an external quantum of words independent of linguistic, economic, cultural, social, and political times and desires.

18 Comments:

Blogger Roger Pao said...

Ok, people, I just spent almost an hour making that last post, and Blogger gave me 3 error messages and had me whimpering in front of my laptop before it finally published. Methinks I should probably type elsewhere first and then cut and paste into Blogger.

10:20 PM  
Blogger pam said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:29 AM  
Blogger pam said...

Blogger's been having technical issues with their post editing mechanism, so good bet to compose elsewhere and then paste in! :)

I'd agree that there are many reasons that people write, not all of them having to do with high falutin ambition. Also that the notion of a text's "immortality" is a loaded and problematic one, as it is ultimately readers (and publishers and academies and other organs of cultural and political distribution) who choose which texts live on and which are forgotten.

On the flip side, I tend to agree with Hall in his core criticism, which I see not so much as poo-pooing hobbyists or even "professionals" who write work intended more for a personal in-the-moment audience than for "universal humanity," as addressing the problem of rampant careerism among some contemporary poets in the U.S. I see him critiquing the phenomenon of the career poet who is ambitious to attain a poet's burnished position (accolades, publishing with this or that press, getting this or that teaching job in an MFA program, etc. etc.), but hardly ambitious at all about the poem (other than about its ability to garner the burnished poet position). And I think he rightly characterizes this phenom as the result of the University's evolution into a increasingly corporate entity.

So help me if I sound like the grumpy ole man, but I do wish more writers would take more care with their work before circulating it or calling it done, and that they would set the bar higher in terms of what the text can do, how far it can go as art--aesthetics-wise, emotion-wise, mental-wise, the whole shebang.

But your comparison example between the Shakespearean sonnet and the history-narrative poem brings to mind the crucial question of valuation (which has been discussed in another form on K. Silem Mohammed's blog http://limetree.ksilem.com/archives/2005_02.html): namely, how do we determine the value of a work of art? By its aesthetic or craft qualities? By its worth as a historical or cultural document? By its ability to "speak" to us personally?

Anyway, I think the issue of valuation is key to understanding the ongoing struggles surrounding the notion of works that foreground or otherwise theorize social/ethnic identity.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Pam, yes, cutting and pasting is definitely the smart way of doing things. :) I should've learned my lesson after my first post was devoured.

Yes, I agree with you on the gist of Hall's primary argument, which I don't dispute. I think that Hall does an effective job of identifying the problems of careerism in poetry.

As someone who revises incessantly, I actually don't agree with Hall's position on revision (discussed in this article ans elsewhere) if it's intended to be a recommendation for other poets. In other words, I don't feel a poet must revise any of his or her poems. It should be up to the individual poet.

And as much as we often like to say we can tell, I don't think that we can usually tell whether a poem has been revised or not, or if it has, how many times that it has been revised. The inference is usually "bad" poem = no revision, "good" poem = much revision, but that's not necessarily true. The only time that it may be easier for a person to tell is if there are spelling errors and obvious grammatical mistakes. Other than that, it's difficult to tell, IMHO.

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