Becoming the Living Poet

What If My Poetry Is Never Useful To Anyone Other Than Myself?

Posted on: April 30, 2009

What if my poetry is never useful to anyone other than myself?!?

Ever since I’ve been trying to work through my stuck rather than run from it all my fears are starting to speak to me in more concrete terms. I actually like the change. They seem smaller and less earth-shattering when they speak in words rather than increased levels of adrenaline. They also seem rather obvious, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful.

So I’m going to make a really embarrassing confession, and I’m hoping that writing it down will take some of the shame out of it. Right now I’m in the middle of a big fat poetry writing block. I haven’t been writing much poetry and when I do write it I can’t get myself to sit down at my computer and type it out. So I have an untold number of poems sitting in notebooks that I haven’t revised or even reread. And I haven’t written a new poem since the first week of April.

One of the reasons that this confession is so embarrassing is that part of me feels like now that I’ve gotten into an MFA program, which was this big hard thing to do that I’ve been working on and obsessing about for years, that I can’t afford to give into luxuries like writer’s block. I must write all the time, and when I’m not writing I should be thinking about writing, and if I can’t live up to this standard than maybe I have no business being a poet because maybe being a poet isn’t really my calling.

Writing about not being able to write and questioning what it means is really scary for me. It doesn’t feel entirely safe because even though I’ve had moments of doubt (or hours, or days, or weeks) about whether or not I should be a poet pursue poetry professionally. Even though I’ve agonized over whether my desire to be a poet is really worth all the sacrifices I will need to make and have made in order to do it.

Still, I always find some way to move on from that omnipresent doubt because it has become a familiar part of my internal landscape. It’s the end table you always bump into on your way to the refrigerator – it’s given you a fair share of bruises, but it isn’t something you think about except when you’re rubbing your throbbing leg.

I think my real fear is that I’ll say it aloud: I’m not so sure this whole trying to make a living as a poet thing is such a good idea.

And then one of my friends (or possibly all of my friends) will tell me that they’re glad I’ve come to my senses and that the whole thing always seemed like a phase to them anyway.

I actually did have a friend tell me that once years ago. She thought that I was trying to turn my hobby into a career and that it would both poison my enjoyment of the hobby (which has happened to some degree because now writing poetry is fraught with “shoulds” and worries over whether my work is up to snuff by professional standards) and be impossible to do profitably (I’m not even going to pretend that this isn’t a genuine concern, if I didn’t think I could jump back into SEO and web content writing as a career if this crazy poetry thing doesn’t work out, I don’t think I’d have the courage to try it at all).

So as always happens when you talk about stuck I’m running into a whole bunch of other worries when I try to talk about just one. They cling to each other like band members at a school spirit event.

But the original worry came up loud and clear because I was reading Havi’s post about the thing that stops you from doing the thing. One of the things that Havi mentions is that one way to get past the stuck is to focus on helping what she calls “your right people.” Your right people are the people who need exactly what you have, warts and all, and will find what you have to say helpful just because you’re being yourself.

Havi is convinced that everyone has right people, and not just right people in the sense of friends who you can be authentic with. She means it in a business sense. She thinks that everyone has right people who will pay you for being you. Obviously this involves setting up a business where you figure out how to capitalize on being you, but in the end, you’re the product.

The point is I’m still not convinced that poet me is going to have right people.

And if me being a poet leaves me with no “right people” then it is essentially a selfish endeavor and if it’s only a selfish endeavor then why am I trying to build a career out of it? Not only am I going to fail because no one’s going to want to pay for something that doesn’t benefit them, but it calls into question why I’m even bothering. Shouldn’t I be trying to make the world a better place with my career choice, particularly if I’m not going to financially benefit from my professional choices?

I think these fears are wrong (though my conviction on this point is a little shaky). I think my poetry will have value to someone because I find value in the work that other poets do, and it doesn’t follow that my poetry wouldn’t have value just because it’s mine.

Whether my work is any good compared to what other poets are doing is a different stuck entirely.

Another theme of my stuck that I’ve recognized that I’ve been kind of dancing around and will have to make peace with is that whether something has monetary value and whether something has Value with a capital V are two different questions.

I often ask myself: if I was certain my life as a poet would have Value with a capital V but was equally certain that it’d never have value; if I would still choose to do this poetry thing.

Right now I feel like I’m kind of gambling that I can have a life of Value and still produce enough value to pay rent and eat, but what if they really are mutually exclusive? Will I just give up? Could I just give up?

But the truth is if it becomes clear that I can’t really be a living poet (like my blog title) there will be no running from it. A reality is more solid than a fear and I will be able to tell the difference. I will face the impossibility of my lifestyle head-on and react or collapse accordingly. And if history is any indication I’ll react. I know it seems cliche, but I’m a survivor, and I’ve developed a certain uneasy certainty that when push comes to shove and I’ve backed myself into a corner, I’ll react with a survivor’s instincts.

So back to the current stuck…

The current stuck is: even if I wrote the most professionally awesome, academically respected poem the world has ever seen it would still be worthless because it wouldn’t say anything that would be of any use to anyone. It wouldn’t change lives the way Walt Whitman’s words do in Dead Poet’s Society (if you’ve seen the movie, I’m talking about the character, Todd Anderson).

Honestly writing a poem that reverberates across the space between persons and catalyzes a shift in consciousness that leads to positive change in a person’s life is a very tall order, but if I never try I’ll never get there.

In this case it really does take courage to try and if I look deep inside myself I can acknowledge that I have that courage and always have; even if it feels foolish, self-aggrandizing, and incredibly vulnerable admitting that I think I can write that über Valuable poem someday.


1 Response to "What If My Poetry Is Never Useful To Anyone Other Than Myself?"

[…] Near the end of Thursday’s incredibly therapeutic freakout post in which I started working through my fear that my poetry would never be useful to anyone other […]

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