Ambition without careerism

I need to stop saying I’m not ambitious about poetry. I am actually highly ambitious… for my writing. I try like hell to avoid repeating too many received ideas, I read as widely as possible, every day I push back against my natural laziness where word choice is concerned—I work hard at poetry.

It’s the whole publications-and-awards business that I have a hard time with—literally. The older I get, the more zealous I am about preserving time for walking, contemplating, and reading—a mix of poetry, mostly in single-author collections, and nonfiction. I’ve whittled back my news consumption to just a few independent media voices, for a total of about ten hours a week. All these things feed the poetry, which, now that I am no longer in a marriage or LTR, I can devote my full attention to whenever I’m most alert and attentive: first thing in the morning, especially, but also at any other time throughout the day when an idea might hit.

So sending work out is a huge time-suck, but that’s not all that makes me neglect it. Tellingly, I find myself quite enjoying it where haiku and haibun are concerned, because the global network of English-language poets working in Japanese short forms is welcoming and relatively unpretentious: someone who just started writing haiku a month ago has as much chance as a veteran with dozens of books and awards under their belt of landing an acceptance at virtually any journal in the space. It feels like a genuine meritocracy. And author bios are rare in such journals. The overwhelming emphasis in that community is on the poetry, not the poet, within a spirit of mutual assistance and support.

So if mainstream poetry culture were like that, I’m sure I’d take more of an interest in submitting, maybe even occasionally enter a competition. I’ve just come to really loathe academic poetry culture, which seems so divorced from the real world: a hierarchy existing seemingly for its own sake, whose members cling to a decades-out-of-date conception of their own cultural significance. Poets like to console themselves with the hope of some kind of literary legacy, but the reality is that even in the unlikely event that humans survive the next hundred years and give rise to a new, healthier civilization, the literary artifacts they’ll be most interested in from the late 20th and 21st centuries, as they seek to understand our genocidal and ecocidal ways, will be things that had a mass audience: genre fiction, the screenplays for TV shows and movies, pop and rap lyrics, etc. Poetry, not so much. Just as when we want to understand the Elizabethans, we tend to read a scruffy playwright who was barely even regarded as a real writer at the time. Except for a few scholars, who still reads Sir Philip Sydney?

Needless to say, I’m only free to adopt this attitude because I’m not in academia. I certainly don’t blame my academic colleagues for following the conventional route. Though with tenure going away and the American university system increasingly inaccessible to all but the wealthy, I’m not sure how much longer teaching will make sense as a profession for poets. Catering to the elite is already distorting the politics of poetry, favoring a corporation-friendly, cultural version of leftism focused on ethnic and sexual or gender identity to the virtual exclusion of class politics. So bourgeois. So much less threatening to the status quo.

And this kind of material is so in vogue now with the funding orgs and academic gatekeepers, a curious kind of anti-lyrical flatness is taking over—which I actually don’t mind, since I’ve grown rather bored with the dominant autobiographical lyric, and I think it’s good to get more ecological and political concerns out front, as long as didacticism can be kept at arm’s length. So if/when the academic system collapses, I think poetry may emerge stronger (because true strength comes from diversity), however bourgeois it may seem now. But will anyone read it?

Who knows. I write because I can’t not. It’s how I seek to understand the world. And one of the great things about my Pepys erasure project now is that I can see my progress from ten years ago, as I make new erasures from the same diary entries and always compare with my previous attempts. I see plenty of decent poems, but few truly satisfying ones, and for the first couple of years, no real vision or coherent voice. Now I think I do have that, and it’s hugely rewarding, even if some days still don’t produce works of genius (whatever that may be). So I feel the past ten years were well spent. I’m glad I didn’t waste them trying to get big.


These ramblings were brought to you by an all-day rain. See what kind of BS I get up to when I don’t go for a walk?

11 thoughts on “Ambition without careerism

    1. I got the impression that the British university system isn’t in crisis, either, but I might be wrong about that. Certainly they are farther along in the process of destroying the middle class.

  1. I spent the afternoon drafting a blog I’ll post tomorrow about the if/ when collapse of academe and the way it shapes the arts. I hear you about appreciating the community you’ve found and your resistance to prestige-striving, although I’ve been having a hard time letting go of it. It’s my job but also my personality, I think. And who my parents were. All the stuff that shapes us for good and ill.

    1. Yeah, my parents were the primary role models for my iconoclasm, too, I think – both my mom in determining to have a career as a naturalist writer despite being a nearly full-time homemaker, and my dad for resisting the pressure to advance as an academic reference librarian, instead doing the whole back-to-the-land thing and getting involved in international librarianship issues, leading eventually to a second career as an independent peace scholar after taking early retirement from Penn State. I realize how lucky I am to have been raised by two such people, who encouraged each of us kids to pursue whatever weird interests we might have over whatever society deemed important. They were counter-cultural in the best sense of the word, and encouraged us to think for ourselves. So my older brother becomes a philologist of the first order, learning dozens of languages and making a huge contribution (in my opinion) to the extremely unfashionable science of epigraphy with his efforts to decipher the Indus Valley Script, and my younger brother becomes a geographer authoring widely cited books and papers on biogeography and ethno-ornithology, especially his work on cycads and Australian fire-hawks. I’m the normal one, LOL.

      Looking forward to your post!

  2. Yeah. I now feel that having failed to land an academic job in the 1980’s was probably the luckiest break of my inordinately lucky life. I have time to read and think!

    1. I hear that. Various roads not taken do present themselves to one’s imagination at this stage of one’s life. I have to remind myself from time to time that I have been in fact, as you say, inordinately lucky, all things considered.

  3. Hi Dave, Very interesting piece. I’m no great fan of the competitiveness either, but re this bit, though – “someone who just started writing haiku a month ago has as much chance as a veteran with dozens of books and awards under their belt of landing an acceptance at virtually any journal in the space” – that to me isn’t necessarily a good thing. My experience of the EL haiku/tanka/haibun community over many years is that there is often a (well-intentioned) rush to heap praise on the efforts of beginners which in the long run is to their detriment, because they might think they have nothing to learn; and that there’s often an inability to differentiate poems with real poetic merit and originality from those without. The almost total lack of constructive criticism doesn’t help either. I’m generalising of course, but how often do we see bog-standard haiku lionised, not just in social media but in competitions and in journals. There needs to be a happy medium, doesn’t there?

    1. Interesting. I hadn’t really focused on that, but now that you mention it I can certainly think of examples, and can see how it could be detrimental, though in general I guess it’s a question of “skillful means,” as the Buddhists would say (since so many haijin seem to be Buddhist): knowing when kindness and encouragement are needed, but being able to offer a good critique if one knows the poet can take it in the spirit in which it’s meant. Since so much communication is necessarily online, though, the absence of a Levinasian face-to-face encounter makes real critique a bit challenging, in my experience.

  4. Makes perfect sense to me Dave. I have a similar reaction to the poetry world – and distaste for the self-regarding, self-sustaining, critical super-structure led by academics for the benefit of academics.

    1. Living out in the country and spending a significant portion of one’s time outside, as I know you also do, certainly helps put things in perspective, doesn’t it?

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