Friday, July 17, 2009

What's a Poet to Do? (Against a cry of marginalization)

I read Canadian author Carol Shields' novel Happenstance when I was in graduate school. This was a recreational venture, although, yes, my graduate degree, an MFA, is in fiction (one workshop plus two weeks of a second workshop; two "craft" classes in poetry).

This was around 1995 and memory starts to fail within two weeks of my reading anything, sometimes within two hours; diminishing returns. So the novel was about quilters, but I can't be too specific. I recall there being a convention or assembly of quilters, and the book's focus and tension came from characters' interests and attractions. There was a wry acceptance on the part of quilters that their art, or craft if that's what you want, was not mainstream. That's what really stuck with me.

Granted Happenstance is by a Canadian, a peoples, I am led to believe, with fewer assumptions about the right to life, liberty and fame than Americans have.

One of my poetry "craft" professors lamented the place of poets in society. It wasn't the first time I'd heard that Wagneresque aria and certainly not the last. But I had to wonder why this was so typical a complaint of poets, and one I heard before the publishing industry crashed in (about) '95 (and every year since them).

I would love my poems read by many people. When I write a poem and sense it is nearing completion I get excited. I go to an open mic or submit it to a journal. I've posted a few here. Poets are convivial people, in general, so there's that - we have a desire to chat about what we're doing.

Poets are also a tad egotistical. It is far more common for a poet to think she or he's better than the next, than it is for a fiction writer. The poet who complained has received big grants, is represented by a speakers' bureau and so on. The complaint was luxury, unless this poet expected the same attention as given to Don DeLillo or Susan Sontag. Or Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep.

As vile as the past year as been financially, for this country, and as strong a witness as the AIG, Lehman and Bernie Maddox crimes have been to American greed and ugly inevitabilities of capitalism, I still kind of trust the market. Because the market is people, and while I don't understand people, I love them.

Yup, you got it; don't like individuals but love the group. Sure there's all kinds of brainwashing and the system (pick one, pick any) isn't simply imperfect - it is often corrupt. But the poetry market has bourn Adrienne Rich and Czeslaw Milosz quite well, to name two. Not that they make the bucks from writing, but auditoriums of great and loyal fans turn out for them.

Are poets "marginalized"? I'd like to think of myself as a deliberated scribble in the margin of a high school or college student's class notes. My intelligence marginalizes me. My ordinariness marginalizes me. Writing poetry is what makes me a little different.

Thank you, poetry. I matter.

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