Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ambition and Ego

Thanks to Ashley McHugh over at the Linebreak blog for linking to this old article by Donald Hall on Poetry and Ambition. Many of you may already have read it, but it was new to me. It covers many topics that occupy me in the late dark nights. The article was written in the early 80's, yet the points Hall makes seem as prescient today.

Here is one blurb:
Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix. One of our eminent critics compared Lowell's last book to the work of Horace, although some of its poems were dated the year of publication. Anyone editing a magazine receives poems dated the day of the postmark. When a poet types and submits a poem just composed (or even shows it to spouse or friend) the poet cuts off from the poem the possibility of growth and change; I suspect that the poet wishes to forestall the possibilities of growth and change, though of course without acknowledging the wish.

Hall goes on to chastize the MFA movement and workshops specifically. I tend to disagree with those who categorically blame MFA programs for some perceived deterioration of the quality of contemporary poetry. However, the point Hall makes about the weekly workshop and the students' desire for affirmation and praise rings true. I certainly remember the sting time and time again of having a poem fall flat in front of my peers. Yet that sting spurred me to revise and revise and revise. It was crucial for my development as a writer that I be told I wasn't a bright shining star.

Hall's point is that a poet's ambition should be to achieve the greatness of Dante, Keats, Yeats, etc. and that the publish or perish climate of today tends to work against that goal. One thing that stands out is when Hall mentions that if any of us achieve true, lasting greatness as poets, we will never know it since only time (past our lifetimes) will tell.

It's a long article, and I'll continue to chew on it.


Monda said...

Hmmm. My first impression is that Hall has a terribly masculine view of poetic greatness. Heroic poetics and ambition are large monuments and we're all craning our necks upward. Small topics make small poetry, he says, yet that's the crux of feminine poetics.

Maybe it's just been a while since I've had my fist in the air, but that's what Hall's semi-rant seems to be saying.

I have to agree with him on the McPoem, though. Pick up a stack of literary magazines (I did this last night - a luscious B&N trip in the cold) and there they are, lined up like little soldiers, page after page. Occasionally there's a gem, but mainly there's just a marriage of Poetry Machine and Ego that makes me sad.

I need to read Hall's article again when my feminist fist unclenches. I'm glad you brought this up.

Sandy Longhorn said...

I had the same issue with gender in the article, Monda. Yet, as you point out, the sad state of the McPoem is ongoing. In the end, I found it helpful to be reminded to be aware of that rush to publish mentality, and the rest is material for a longer entry.