Why do you write? Why did you start?
Ron Silliman writes:
“. . . it was clear that giving it your all, writing exactly what you thought needed to be written, regardless of whether it looked comfortably familiar or not, was the only way to go. Anything less really was just too boring, too timid. Why even bother?”
And it gets me to thinking how similar are the impulses that get us all into writing, and why we’re often so crabby. Is it true? Do we all basically agree with Silliman’s initial impulse? And how funny, then, to agree, as the forms of our agreement take such radically different, and contradictory, paths. So that what Silliman found boring, others found liberating. And the path of Silliman’s investigation, others find boring (but probably not timid).
How interesting it all is, as I’m thinking again about Charles Wright’s introduction to the current BAP, and his assertion that very few good poems are being written today, and that he’s not finding the thrill in recent poetry that he found in Berryman and Roethke, etc. And then Bill Knott commenting the other day on my blog to say that while he doesn’t like Charles Wright’s poetry, he does agree with his assessment of contemporary poetry, about which Steven Schroeder commented that such an assertion possibly says less about the age we’re in that the age of the poets making the assessment.
(Addendum: Bill Knott [see comments below] has written in to say that I'm misquoting him. I hate misquoting people, and did so unintentionally, so here is the part of his comment that I was thinking about, now as a direct quote:
"Schroeder's right: it's his [Wright's] age, which is my age too—— /// I don't like Wright's poetry, as I've declared many times on my blog, but I agree with his general sentiments here [though the cuisinart metaphor is for desperation]
. . .it's a generational difference gap, of course . . . your impatience with his attitude is the same as Wright's impatience 30-40 years ago with Allen Tate et al . . .")
But but but, I want to keep saying, all ages have a very high percentage of poetry that doesn’t last. Is there really something about our time that is somehow worse? Or less sympathetic?
I always get a sense of dread when I meet someone for the first time, someone who doesn’t read poetry, and they want to connect, so they say something like, “I do like that one poet, what’s his name again? Oh yes, Billy Collins.” And I have to decide how to respond. I don’t want to hurt their feelings by saying what I think of Collins’ work (boring and timid might suit), after all, they’re just trying to connect, to be nice. But I’m frustrated. I feel bad. I think to myself that the reason they like Billy Collins’ work is that he is the contemporary poet who has been sanctioned and given to them. Where and how, I haven’t a clue. Maybe on Prairie Home Companion or something?
I think of how much I’m moved by John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Martha Ronk, Mary Jo Bang, Michael Palmer, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, Mark Strand, and so many others (and younger poets like Kevin Prufer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Zachary Schomburg, G.C. Waldrep, and on, seriously, it’s a long list), in ways as important to me as my first experiences of Berryman, cummings, Stevens, etc. Of course, I'm not trying to say a young poet, with only one or two books out, is "the same as" Wallace Stevens. I'm talking about my experience of discovery.
Maybe what I’m really asserting here is that artists confuse taste with value. Or, to put it a different way: our personal taste clogs up the gears of being able to asses the state of the art. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where my ability to have that first sense of discovery blunted by either time or inclination (or perhaps Wright is correct, as I get the impression from his comments about the poetry he's finding that he feels perhaps we’re living in a lesser time after a great time, and we’re so much a part of it we can’t tell the difference [I hope and trust that’s not the case, by the way]).
And yet, isn’t that very thing the reason we start writing in the first place? It was for Silliman, above. And for me as well. And for all of us. To write what we need to write. To not be boring. To not be timid. I started writing out of that explosive experience of something new there on the page. Something primary. And then (and this is what I think Silliman also means), when I first started publishing, and writing after that initial joy of language, I found myself writing away from, and in the face of, writing I thought was being highly praised when it shouldn’t be, while poetry I thought wonderful, was being improperly discounted. Specifically, I wanted to write against the poetry of Philip Levine, Rita Dove, and later, Billy Collins, and on.
So, is that also the case with all of us? And then another question for you: what got you started writing? What has kept you going? Do you write against other forms of writing?