Poetry and Ambition - Part 2
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.