Category Archives: Considerations

I will refuse.

“You get up on your little 21-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there is no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

                                                                                  –from The Network

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Back When

“Wasn’t there a time when American writers were let alone by personality mongers and publicity monsters?”

                                                                                  –Jack Kerouac

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Confessional

I don’t write to be liked, I don’t write for acceptance. Countering a steady diet of rejection, I remind myself of this:

“It is not surprising therefore that the most representative literature of our times is light, easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be—as its primary and almost exclusive objective—entertaining. But let’s be clear: I am not in any way condemning the authors of this entertainment literature because, notwithstanding the levity of their texts, they include some really talented writers. If today it is rare to see literary adventures as daring as those of Joyce, Woolf, Rilke or Borges, it is not just down to the writers. For the culture in which we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them and this demand creates a pressure that becomes a powerful incentive to writers.”

This, from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture, a highly sobering, indispensable discourse on the current state of arts and letters.

Though why not aim high? And especially having read Joyce, Woolf, Rilke, Borges—why not aspire to join their ranks? To match what you admire?

So much talent today, effectively homogeneous: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Believe. Go alone. They’re hardly critics, if all they express is opinion. A critical response must, at the least, situate the work in question. Reviewers—but who cares, except the vastly impressionable consumer?

Last word, Truman Capote: “…I’ll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers.”

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“Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything.”

“Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.”

                                                        –The Lessons of History

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Residual

It’s hard, when daily you’re forced to witness the works you treasure, to which you’ve devoted patience and breath, abused and devalued most by those who should be staunch advocates and defenders. I lean on Guy Davenport: “All of this points to our having a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read.” We get what we deserve. We force-feed our children “pleasant, undemanding reading” and do everything to make sure that it positively stays down. Dare to object. Flannery O’Connor’s observation remains spot on: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” That’s To Kill a Mockingbird, incapable of aging—of aging well. “Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.” How is that possible?

“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.” That’s Richard Hofstadter decades before our great awakening, bolstered by the internet. “I will refuse.”

I lean on my friend and former mentor, Douglas Smith: “Writing and reading always swim together.”

Because an age may fail to recognize genius, or erringly (and stubbornly) approves some lesser talent—is hardly the determining factor: Shakespeare remains foremost…peerless, eminent, unrivaled. To those convinced all writing is equal (as all painting, music, etc.), and that judgment is arbitrary and wholly idiosyncratic (personal/subjective)—there’s really nothing much I can say.

 

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“Nothing for me.”

Thank you for sending us “—————————.” As writers, we understand how much work goes into creating and submitting your pieces. Unfortunately, this work does not fit in with the current issue on which we are working. We appreciate you taking the time to send to us, and we do hope that you’ll try us again.

It’s a business, that’s all. Pursuing publication in literary magazines takes a seasoned callus, a quick snicker for the form rejection concluding all correspondence with various selecting committees (editors…no—unless editing equals arranging, as a florist assembles disparate flowers in a slender vase). Peremptory form rejections enforce, as a common factor, power over. The imbalance always favors the selectors, never the writer. I’m not inclined to submit—I offer.

“As writers…” So they admire the sustained effort, long hours immersed in solitude, dead ends and sacrifice. Then why the dismissive form rejection? When I invest my work with hours, days, weeks, months, a year or more—and for an essay well short of a thousand words…the return is a pre-conceived, timid template with minimal investment from the respondent. And yet—I’m required to craft a witty cover letter, outlining personality and endeavor. I’m required to notify them immediately should I need to withdraw my work. I’m required, I’m required.

“As writers…” The implication: they’re better qualified, especially attuned to style and nuance, and more sensitive to subtlety and complexity than, say, a common reader. The correlation is hardly absolute. Flashback: the fine crop of graduate students commenting on my work lacked refined reading skills and sharp judgment, fondly rejecting outright anything that “did nothing for me.” They were prime for teaching, with swift recollection of names, dates, titles, first lines. Perfect for appeasing little inquiries.

I ask fair reading. I’ve stumped for that before. For those positioning themselves “as writers,” why no acknowledgment of mechanism or craft, which my work necessarily employs? Ah, I outpace myself. First they must know the devices.

“As writers…” Apparently in their vast reading this selection committee failed to register the lean etymology of the verb send. Heavily transitive, it has little force minus a direct object. Intransitive, send has scant leeway in its employment: e.g., “send out for pizza,” “send for an updated catalog.” Someone who can’t construct a simple sentence will grasp my writing? It’s a losing prospect. How easy to misread draught for drought… 

Abandon all hope, ye who submit here. All hope of adequate response, timely decision, engaged reading, professional conduct. No offense—I began writing years before many of these readers ever took a breath outside the womb. I eagerly submit to masterful writing. I’d much rather converse with Balzac, Dickinson, Defoe, Austen, Beckett, Shakespeare et al.

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Mirrored Halls

“Why read, if what you read will not enhance mind or spirit or personality?” I take great issue with Donald Hall’s claim of a widespread increase in competently written poems. Why sanction competence? Then again, advanced readers—superlatively engaged—are required, desperately necessary, ones who can actually discriminate beyond a mere like or dislike. “A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes.” The term “competence” saturates commentary, and to retain any distinction must be divorced from technical aspects of craft and tradition. There exists a terrible disconnect—between the study of forms and technique, and the application of such knowledge. It’s as though nothing rubs off on today’s students. The burden of proof lies on Hall et al. to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, incontrovertibly, that so much excellent writing is in fact being written. I see no overwhelming evidence of that. “Poems that demand—and reward—rereading are rare, almost extinct.”

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Decline and Fall

          The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

             –Jeremiah 8:20

F. L. Lucas: “And one of the things that reduce me to annual rage and despair in correcting examination papers is the spectacle of two or three hundred young men and women who have soaked in poetry for two or three years, yet seem, with rare exceptions, not to have absorbed one particle of it into their systems; so that even those who have acquired some knowledge yet think, too often, like pedants, and write like grocers.”

That “high and ancient art” doesn’t rub off so easily, with mere exposure. The practice of writing verse—decent, substantial verse—remains elusive, not quite available to just anyone (contrary to popular opinion).

Jean de La Bruyère: “There are certain things in which mediocrity is intolerable: poetry, music, painting, public eloquence.”

W. H. Auden: “A poet over thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that much of what he reads is modern poetry.”

I am of an age where I can’t afford to waste time on petty grievances, department store annoyances and bland epiphanies presented as poetry. Despite the ubiquitous I, most contemporary poetry stops short, remaining largely impersonal—insufficiently transformed and infused by the writer.

An overriding, unhealthy irreverence for tradition and craftsmanship rules the day.

I object, opposed to all this disproportionate fussing over the death of one beloved celebrity. How unlikely…rarer still that such a commodified ego, gracing presidential inaugurations, commanding thousands of dollars per appearance—would truly be in the service of Language, indebted to Poetry.

With many indifferent to significant departure…

Gone…Gabriel García Márquez.

No more the disconcerting elegance of Russell Edson.

While there’s plenty advantage in avoiding the classics—dangerously sobering.

It’s enough to champion masterful writing.

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What Was Lost

I open by alluding to the work of Herbert Morris, unfairly overlooked amid triumphant commercialism, disposable art…shameless, unabashed self-promotion. Taxing intelligence, quietly insisting: reader required, no idle spectator—

          The body knows deceptions long and lucid.

The masters have gone, banished from healthy curriculum. The loss is bitterly quantifiable. Emerson: “In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.”

The simple act of having written, of piecing together a few lines of verse—in no way necessitates publication. Though why listen to anybody else? Everyone a priest, everyone a poet. Why bother with Horace (echoed by Robert Frost and several others), advocating a lengthy period of total sequestration? Poems must settle on their own. And that takes time.

Like the relentless cicada, generously provided a protective bone, spared its own deafening crescendo…today’s poets (I cringe evoking that designation) dash onto the stage, impervious to criticism.

The work itself…subdued by the incredible demand for notice—desperate push for publicity. Next in line, poet laureate of the cul-de-sac…where longevity takes the prize, rewarding senescence over quality of thought and masterful composition.

I ask fair reading.

But it makes perfect sense, as the deluge continues to overwhelm, that advertisement steals the primary focus of today’s writer, with increasing effort devoted to marketing. “Vanity of vanities…”

Joseph Epstein, ca. 1995: “To provide only a single depressing statistic, I read somewhere that there are currently 26,000 registered poets in the United States. Where, it will be asked, do they register? With the Associated Writing Programs, I gather, which are chiefly made up of teachers of writing, who are even now busy producing still more poets, who will go on to teach yet more poets, who will…so that in twenty years’ time we will have 52,000 registered poets. Degas, more than a century ago, remarked: ‘We must discourage the arts.’ Sometimes that doesn’t seem a bad idea.”

Prediction fulfilled (and likely exceeded)—that’s an annual buffet of 1,000 poets per week. Revolting even to the most determined glutton.

There’s little I can admire in much contemporary poetry.

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