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One Way Of Looking At It...

Sean O'Brien, in today's Guardian, writes of the affliction of poetry - not, in his way of thinking, a career at all - but rather, a bit of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of thing: one either writes poetry or goes mad, or writes poetry and goes mad, as he memorably, and dramatically, suggests.

I find much of this article convincing, and thoughtful, and useful reading, especially for non-poets, who often don't consider the immense and usually near-useless sacrifice that most poets make of their lives (as O'Brien reminds us Eliot had noted); for every two or three poets in each generation that continue to be read 50-100 years later (name three poets of the 1890s who are really read widely now, other than Yeats, Wilde and Swinburne; okay, now name ten; now name twenty.... now make a list of the 100-200 poets writing now...) the hundreds who also spent their lives on poetry (and it is a spending) are mainly lost to indifference, or studied, if at all, from a purely academic perspective. Most poetry is good, not just good enough, and few poets know, while alive, whether their work will last.

So, O'Brien is reminding the doctors, the lawyers, the civil servants, that, while they may have the villas and the jaguars, they also have the certainty that their careers are defined by a limited but sane purpose; poets have no such safe basis on which to plan or build. This way can lead to "madness" - is madness, arguably, from the get go.

What I should like to add is, that, while the verbal drama of invoking the poet as chief genius of madness (as the Greeks and romantics both believed, as John Berryman knew, and Plath and Lowell and he and Delmore and others not so long ago proved), is both vaguely satisfying to poets (it is one thing to be mainly ignored and potentially useless, it is another to be so but know oneself to be at least part of the agonistic drama that is creation) and even perhaps attractive to non-poets, it is only part of the story.

As I have argued on these posts and pages before, poetry is a recognised isolating, difficult, path (I do call it a career but mean by that simply it has its professional, life-long elements - poetry is a vocation and a career, as the priesthood or teaching, two other Calvaryesque callings) - but it need not be so painful as it often is. If poetry leads to madness, then what can poets do to make it less terrible? Surely, all people who live face the same terrible end - death. The key is to secure a viable way to live, a philosophy, that allows for some consolation, even sanity, in the face of the terror that is our one-way ticket out of here.

Thus, I feel poets should reflect more on their duty to other poets. This is not the same as their duty to poetry, which may be as individual, rigorous and austere as any forty days in the wilderness if they wish - but it is a complementary duty. Poets are too often antagonistic to their fellow practitioners, seeing them (incorrectly) as rivals for laurels. Instead, our fellow poets form a community of the similarly-afflicted. They are our comrades - no other word will do - on the arduous long march to - what? - an unsure, unknown victory, or defeat. Mad we may be, but we needn't be alone in the madhouse. Poets should, as the actors did in Hollywood, form a more solid union, to support each other in times of need. Those times are never far away.
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