EP&M Online Essay

What It's Really All About
Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, CUNY

One of the occupational hazards of teaching is unwanted interference from others.  In the lower grades and the high schools this is a serious problem, with principals and PTAs and school boards constantly tyrannizing the individual teacher, forcing him to follow their pedagogical policy rather than his own best professional judgment.

The college professor has it easier, but he too must face such hazards occasionally.  There's always some pest trying to influence what you do in the classroom.  It might be a department that has temporarily gone ga-ga over some silly pedagogical theory.  It might be a hotshot dean with a bug up his ass. It might be an overenthusiastic colleague enthralled by a half-baked notion, or a curriculum coordinator with a power complex, or a chair who wants to "shake things up."  All of these people will cause you endless trouble if you let them.

The best thing you can do with such interference is to smile politely, exchange some meaningless chitchat with the people who are behind it, and then go about your business as usual.  You will have no peace at all in your teaching career if you try to satisfy every absurd suggestion and crackpot notion that your colleagues come up with.

Remember that academics love to hear themselves talk, and a great deal of what they say is mere chin-music designed to fill up the dead air in departmental meetings and faculty dining rooms.  Fretting about it--much less acting upon it--would be stupid on your part.  Besides, academics have notoriously short attention spans.  The brilliant new concept that they're committing themselves to wholeheartedly today will be totally forgotten in three weeks.  You'd be a complete chump to take what they say seriously, or let it disturb your equanimity. Smart professors ignore it all.

There's an analogous situation in the world of poetry.  One of the worst things you can do as a poet is spend a lot of time listening to what other poets are saying.  I don't mean you shouldn't read their finished work--far from it. It's always good to read poetry.  But what you should ignore is that mass of pointless gossip, chitchat, gaseous theorizing, debate, and cud-chewing that goes on among poets day in and day out.  Like all chatter it is ultimately meaningless, trivial, and depressing.  You don't need it.

The most important thing that you have to do as a poet is work on your own poems.  In the light of that priority, is it really important to know which two poets have switched lovers?  Or who is getting divorced?  Or who attended which book party?  Or what poet is bisexual, or an alcoholic, or about to change jobs? Only airheads are interested in stuff like that.  Unfortunately, from the increased volume of such gossip it's clear that the poetry world has had a huge influx of airheads.  And the internet has turned this flood of ephemeral blather into a tsunami.

I can't think of any antidote to all this extra-poetic buzz except to point out a few elementary and irreducible facts.

First, the most important thing that we can do as poets is produce good poetry.  All our other activities are ancillary to that task.  And really good poems are so rare that we have to work ceaselessly to bring them into existence. Face it--the bulk of every poet's labor will be false starts, failures, and mediocrity.  We produce a few flawless gems now and again, and that's about it. If you think otherwise, you're an incurable Pollyanna.

Second, the actual time we have to produce our best work is limited.  It's a very safe bet that everyone reading these words will be dead within a short period--say, forty years.  Since that is so, do you really have a lot of time to waste?  If indeed God has given you poetic talent--if you have a flair for producing linguistic excellence--then why on earth would you spend your days chatting with other poets rather than putting your talent to work?  Why the hell would you be gossiping and networking and partying?  Why would you be signing up for conferences, and gabbing on web forums, and attending book parties, and going to open readings and discussion groups?  Does any of that stuff really mean  anything, in comparison to writing a fine poem?

A lot of pseudo-poets are doing all this because, deep down, they know that they lack any significant talent.  All their extracurricular activity is designed to hide this melancholy fact from themselves and from others.  It's a lot easier to get dolled up for a book party (isn't that phrase an amazing oxymoron?) than write an excellent sonnet.

Third, be very clear about human nature.  Other poets aren't your friends. They're your competitors.  They have a vested interest in seeing you fail, or appropriating whatever they can from you in ideas, skills, and approaches.  Do you actually think they have the slightest interest in helping you become a better poet?  Get real.  Poets are first and foremost narcissists, and only altruistic at the third or fourth remove.  They will help you in the following situations: 1) if you're sexually attractive and available; 2) if you're a weak poet and therefore not a threat to them; 3) if you're a member of their power-clique; or 4) if you've got something they want.  In such situations a poet will deign to be the Great White God, or the Mother Hen, and help you out.

Are there exceptions?  Sure.  But don't count too heavily on them.  Remember the "Precept of Prudence" penned by an eighteenth-century poet:

In Things of Moment on thy Self depend;
Nor trust too far thy Servant, or thy Friend;
With private Views thy Friend may promise fair,
And Servants very seldom prove sincere.

Fourth, it's always dangerous to get overly involved in any aggregate of persons.  Artists are inevitably compromised when they get sucked into a colony or a collective.  They succumb to groupthink and conformism and consensus-worship and in-fighting.  They lose sight of their individual gifts, and begin to ask that fatal, talent-killing question: If I do this, what will the others say? Remember Sartre's blinding insight: L'enfer c'est les autres.  If God has truly given you artistic ability, use it without consulting other people or asking their permission.  After all, who the hell are they?

Finally, remember that in the long run the only thing that matters is what sits on the printed page.  Centuries after every schmuck you know in the poetry world has left this sublunary sphere, the sole significant remnant of our lives will be the poems we have produced.  So forget the discussion groups and the chatrooms.  They're not worth your time.    

                                                                        Joseph S. Salemi    
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