This summer, in the middle of my poetic journey, I lost my way.
For twenty years now I have invested in the craft of poetry, and, though it’s taken some time to break into the field, I have enjoyed success. My writing has been published, won prizes and ultimately landed me a professorship. I should have no complaints.
But at age fifty I am beginning to question the meaning of these achievements. Is what I think I’ve accomplished, in fact, an accomplishment at all? And where will I go next with my poetry?
My crisis may sound like whining, the caterwaul of a fat cat, but I am genuinely at an impasse. For two years, I’ve been sending out a new manuscript to no avail. While dozens of the poems from the book have found homes at literary journals, for which I’m grateful, no one (yet) wants to publish the collection. Too idiosyncratic for the mainstream? Not edgy enough for the avant-garde? Whatever the reason, my book dwells in limbo—precisely at a time when I feel that I am hitting my stride as a writer.
Writing is its own reward, to be sure, but there’s something amazingly gratifying about the culmination of a project. Having had, previously, two manuscripts vetted and approved, I’m anxious to experience that satisfaction again. But the publishing gauntlet is grueling; six hundred to a thousand manuscripts compete for a single award. And open submission periods, rare as they have become, trigger a similar pileup.
The traffic jam at the transom is no surprise since poetry almost always makes publishers a pittance (reading fees only cover costs) and therefore the number of opportunities they offer understandably are few. Meanwhile, MFA programs, according to statistics assembled by Seth Abramson for The Huffington Post, churn out 2200 aspiring poets per year, all of whom want to see their poems in print. Then there are the untold thousands who come to poetry from outside of the academy. They, too, are eager to join the throng. No wonder the prospect of publishing a poetry book feels like the lottery, pie in the sky.
Great expectations, in this regard, are illusory. For one thing, it may seem that, with the advent of inexpensive publishing software, just about anyone can start their own literary venture. And many entrepreneurs have. Surely this is reason for optimism. But while it’s true that these fledgling publishing houses have been a boon for some poets, even they can’t keep up with the horde of writers seeking publication. Many of these poets are circulating multiple manuscripts in the hopes of landing just one career-sustaining (or career-changing) contract.
Then also it’s inevitable that some of these start-ups will be fly-by-night operations, which makes them unattractive options for serious poets who desire a quality publisher that will keep their books in print, if not in perpetuity, for at least a number of years. And there is the dirty little secret, as well, that some of these new publishers exist only to promote the work of a small network of their friends and colleagues and, if open at all to outsiders, are more or less committed to a narrow aesthetic. So, despite the fact that there are more poetry publishers today than ever before, the percentage of poets who can boast of a book-in-hand is diminishing.
All this is sobering, potentially embittering, and certainly disillusioning. And it leads to the question: what is it that I am chasing? Why do I do what I do?
When all is said and done, I want my poems to be in the converse of this generation. Because I don’t have biological children, I want to put into the world a creative body of work that survives me: compositions that are beautiful, provocative, playful, fresh, mysterious, humane, radiant. And I want my words to be savored, not ignored, not muted.
Sometimes, when I am feeling marginalized by the contemporary poetry scene, I imagine I am responding to the dead—Herman Melville, Wallace Stevens, Joan Miró, Frank O’Hara—which is why the work, however stimulating in its creation, is lonely, regardless of how real my kinship with the past is. Other times, I live in the hope that my audience lies somewhere in the future, that I am creating a readership that is yet to exist, a la Emily Dickinson, even as I write.
But complicating this search for artistic significance is the fact that poetry, in the electronic age, can look like an obsolete, irrelevant, and melancholy art compared with the bright entertainments of television, music, gaming, tweeting, YouTube, sports, comedy, and cinema. The glittering things are difficult to let go of, ours being a celebrity culture, and some of my fellow poets have a found a way to shine continually in the limelight. Perhaps my frustration has to do with the mad wish to hobnob with the decorated, to be one of the “few” who have “made it.” I confess that the laurels look awfully green among the poet laureates.
But my larger question has to do with publishing, in general. When I send out my book to be examined and approved, is it an exercise in vainglory? If I publish the manuscript myself, is it any less self-aggrandizing?
So, as I was saying: this summer, midway in my poetic journey, I lost my way.
And I was dispirited in my own brooding, waiting to receive a phone call from a publisher and, at the same time, condemning myself for needing the validation of my peers.
When the poet writes, there’s so much he can’t control. As much as he maneuvers his lines on the page, as much as he tries to experience the poems as would his ideal reader, he can’t anticipate their reception. If the poems are good but neglected, are they a failure?
As I head into the fall and another season of revising and sending out my manuscript, I try to take encouragement from the example of Vincent Van Gogh, faithful to his art in spite of being overlooked in his lifetime. But for every Van Gogh whose compositions were embraced posthumously, there have to be millions whose works died with them. And perhaps in the next millennium, little, if any, art from the West—including Van Gogh’s—will endure.
Haunted as I am by the impermanence of my own writing, what keeps me engaged in it is the knowledge that making up poems is an exercise not of futility but of faith, an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things unseen. Maybe the artist, inventing in the invisible, imagines not only something out of what appears to be nothing but also an audience, whether that be the Kennedy Center or the cloud of witnesses or the God of all things.
It strikes me as authentically pious to say that no matter how much the poet longs for a community in the here and now—and cries out for it—there is a joy in being creatively occupied, even if, for a while, it means wilderness and solitude. But though I myself am sincere in affirming a life of quiet, perhaps obscure, dedication to my art, I fear that in doing so I may not be completely owning my calling. Is not a part of my responsibility as a poet to aggressively pursue a readership? Might ambition be essential to the writer’s vocation? Can an attempt at greatness in the arts, though potentially vain, also be an expression of fidelity if rightly directed?