Becoming the Living Poet

Poetry and Professionalism

Posted on: April 20, 2009

I am continually amazed by how useful Google can be, particularly when I have no idea what I’m searching for. Right now I’m working on a scholarship essay. The essay is about my two least favorite topics: how disadvantaged I am and how outstanding. Ick.

But anyway I was looking for a quote I read years ago. The quote is something like “You’d have to be crazy to want to be a poet, wanting to be a poet is like walking through a rainstorm hoping to be struck by lightning.” That’s an approximation, but it’s an awesome quote. Unfortunately, I have no idea who said it, nor it appears will I ever be able to find it again.

So I Googled the phrase: “no one wants to be a poet” and discovered this wonderful essay by Elaine Equi called Unspeakable Ambitions in an old issue of Jacket.

The first line of the essay is:

The ambition to be a poet is different from the ambition to write a poem — or even the ambition to write a hundred or a thousand poems.

From there the essay discusses how the subject of professional ambition is met with deep ambivalence by most poets (at least officially) because poetry is simultaneously a sacred art form not to be sullied by something as profane as monetary compensation and an eccentric hobby barely worthy of indulgence let alone fiscal compensation. It’s a great essay. Click the link, you know you want to…

One of my favorite quotes from the essay:

What does it mean to create something with no exchange value — to work for free? Among other things, a sense of unreality and invisibility. One poet to another after a reading: “I love hearing you. It makes me feel as if poetry really does exist.”

I guess one of the reasons this essay feels so pertinent at this particular moment is that one of the topics the scholarship essay is “what are my professional goals?”.

I want to write poetry and make enough money to feed myself and pay rent simultaneously; now give me money pretty please.

In my MFA applications I said I wanted to be a poetry professor.

That isn’t a lie. I like poetry and I like teaching, and combining the two sounds like a happy life to me, but I sometimes I think I’d also be happy doing something with poetry outside of academia.

My freshman year in high school I read this book called Poem Crazy: Freeing Your Life with Words and while I had been writing rhyming poetry about trees and holidays since the fourth grade this book made poetry personal and convinced me that someday I wanted to be a professional poet (whether this was a moment of divine inspiration or the first step towards my inevitable downfall has yet to be determined, lol). But in any case the woman who wrote the book taught community poetry workshops where ordinary people wrote poetry and connected with forgotten parts of themselves that were starving for expression. She brought people joy and self-knowledge through poetry. It feels kind of dumb to write on paper that I think that reading and writing poetry can change people’s lives and therefore indirectly change the world, but I really do believe that. I think that would be my ideal job, using poetry to change people’s lives, but I’m not quite sure how to get there so I’m going to try and be a college professor while I figure out how to reach this other much more nebulous goal.

And I might add that being a college professor may turn out to be the real goal. I’ve certainly had some writing professors who changed my life as profoundly as reading “Poetry Crazy” did, but I wish there was some way to allow for more ambiguity in my professional goals as a poet. I feel like I’m going in the right direction, but I won’t really know where I’m going until I get there. That’s what writing poetry has always been like for me, why should my life be any different.

Closing quote:

It’s ridiculous to be a poet. It’s one of the silliest imaginable things you can be; it’s also one of the most important things in the universe, that somebody be. – Ted Berrigan

That quote is taken from a lecture that Ted Berrigan gave to Anne Waldman’s class as a visiting poet at Naropa. The lecture is long, but hilarious, and really politically incorrect in places. But I won’t pressure you to read it yourself….not much anyway…

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3 Responses to "Poetry and Professionalism"

I’m in a very similar place – trying to work out not only what I’m doing with my writing (not poetry, but never mind) but what I’m doing it FOR. So this post really resonates with me because I feel that I know exactly what you’re talking about!

I mean:

“I want to write poetry and make enough money to feed myself and pay rent simultaneously; now give me money pretty please.”

THIS. But without the poetry part.

I think the latter is a useful sentiment even though it feels “fluffy”. The important thing to remember is that especially in the arts there are a large number of people who kind of get the idea that not everything is about money though money is crucial for things like not starving and really do understand the kind of dreams and drives that seem silly in a capitalist concept.

Though it is always silly how we’ve allowed ourselves as a culture to denigrate things like books which have always been known to open up and bring meaning to people’s lives while requiring no explanation or justification for becoming say a predatory lender at a bank, because the latter is a real job making “real” money.

It’s all rather odd to say the least.

[…] a blog post with something completely off topic, so I’m pausing to brag. Way back in April I mentioned that I was applying for a scholarship and that the personal essay the scholarship required was not turning out […]

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