I suffer from a malady born of the late 20th-century notion that one’s avocation can become one’s vocation, having made the gross error of earning a higher degree for something I enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong: I loved every minute of it, had some very fine teachers, and developed an appreciation for Tanqueray that continues to this day.
But despite my mentors’ best efforts to stave off post-graduate writer’s block, the exercise was paralyzing. I have variously blamed my lack of self-discipline, my miserable first marriage, and my penchant for self-medicating. Certainly those were contributing factors. Only now, as I become reacquainted with my writing self, does a fourth factor occur to me: In my quest to become the right kind of poet, I have silenced myself entirely.
To study an art academically is to seek snobbery at its most codified level, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the most entertaining denizens of the contemporary university are the post-structuralists, or whatever they’re calling themselves these days, trying madly to adhere to a wholesale rejection of societal values and meanings, looking down their noses at anyone who would naively attach an aesthetic judgment to a poem or painting.
But among those who do still believe meaning is possible, it’s no longer enough for art to say something; it must say something worthwhile. Now that no one reads poets anymore, it’s paramount that what we write have import and weight, qualities my work evidently did not possess. On my thesis table of contents, next to several titles, one committee member merely wrote, “slight.”
Nothing could have possibly been more damning. Where academic poets (largely) seek to paint themselves in sharp relief against slam poets, whose topics are so highly personal and so highly political, and who, still more unforgivably, actually have an audience, it’s crucial to demonstrate how very seriously one takes poetry.
I’m afraid this expectation has just wrung the life out of my work, or at least snuffed out my interest, in spite of my own soapbox moments on the topic. It forces the writer to be an immediate audience to her own drafts, to judge the worth of what she is trying to say before having said it.
In case you’re wondering, I am by no means retracting any previous proclamations suggesting that poems actually be well crafted. But I am done with second-guessing the value of my own muse. So what if she’s more Shirelles than Shakespeare? There are things to be taken more seriously than poetry, and we would do well to remember it. After all, writing poetry is a lot like playing the guitar. No matter how earnestly they pursue their art, no matter how lofty their ideals, most poets took it up just to get laid. (Even Shakespeare, you ask? Especially Shakespeare.)
So what if I end up no more than a third-rate lyricist, a trailer-park Edna St. Vincent Millay trotting out my past loves for display in iambic pentameter, or four-part harmony, even? There are worse things I could do.
Hold on to your hats, folks. There’s poetry ahead.