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ambition

If asked what my greatest ambition was, I’d admit it was still to write a great poem–not a great poem as per some throng of critics, or high powered literary figures, but great to one talented, intelligent, engaged reader who I trust to never let me down in terms of aesthetic judgment. This reader exists only in the mind, as a sort of faith. At times, this reader has found partial embodiment in certain individuals, but never full, and never in that “Admiring bog” Emily Dickinson joked about. The bog never liked me much and, at an early point in my so called writing life, I had to realize the in crowd might patronize me, even hold me in a sort of pleasant regard, but I am not idol material, and on those rare occasions when I have been “Worshipped” I did my best to dispossess my worshippers of that opinion, even highlighting my flaws (usually ad-nauseum).

To put it succinctly, I am a failure, but I am a failure in a worthy game, and that is better than being a success in a rigged contest. The University encourages networking so as to build your profile, ballyhoo your accomplishments, and promote your career. I must be some anachronism because I find that sort of ongoing and relentless self promotion to be immoral, even evil. If you are not standing for something more than yourself, then you are not standing. That’s my own personal feeling on the matter, and I am, no doubt wrong. The self Whitman stood for was as much a creature of faith as the “ideal” reader for whom I wish to write a great poem. The self of networking differs in this respect from the self of true community in that it sees others only as means to an end, public service only as a means to an end. It does charity to be “Seen.” It is Machiavelli Lite. Its self is all Ayn Rand meets Machiavelli and has a blood drive. It believes in nebulous words such as excellence and achievement. When I speak of greatness, I mean it in a far from nebulous way: I mean to fail at something so magnificent, so sublime, so beautiful and good that even your failure seems, in the best light, holy. I sound like third rate Don Quixote, but why not? Better that than a third rate Ayn Rand.

I did things lately I would never normally do: I asked a student of mine who has become celebrated to write a blurb for me. This was not easy, or even close–not because of pride, but because I love this former student, am proud of him and felt I was taking something good and decent and lowering it to the level of business–which I was, but I did this because I have a wife and baby, and most of the people who have power over me do not think like me: they think in names, they think in terms of who is published where, and who went to what school blah, blah, blah, and, frightening as this may be to me, they are true believers in this crap. I need to care about my daughter and wife–not myself. My former student was gracious enough to write something for me, but I am in great conflict and pain about it. We spent years eating very unhealthy food together, sometimes at 2 in the morning, talking about everything–including poetry. He helped me as much as I helped him, and I don’t mean in terms of a career–I mean in terms of helping me remain a human being, helping me do time in this existence, in this place. To sully that by asking for an intro or blurb was hard to bear, but, I feel necessary. Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what is necessary anymore. As you grow older, you think you know and that is horrible. I really don’t understand what it truly necessary. I do know I chose the vocation of marriage and children, and this is greater and more important than my vocation to teach or write a great poem–but if I don’t promote myself, or do what I can to meet the world where it is–am I a good husband or father? Hell, no. To compromise and cheapen myself in this respect is holy, but it is not holy to be a true believer in this crap: it’s all a lie. All of it: the kudos, the achievements, the publications are all a lie and a lie can be a beautiful thing–like a great fish story–provided you don’t start believing in it yourself. My greatest ambition is to write a great poem, and I know this is also true of my student who is now somewhat famous. I know I did not fail him in this respect. I did not teach him to believe the wrong sort of lies.

The reader you wish to write for is an act of faith. If I teach this poetry at its highest level, then I teach you to fully immerse yourself in the study of poetry as a way of life–not as a course. You cannot teach poetry as a course. Work shopping is not enough. Anything done in a workshop could be taught online: any form, any aesthetic, any period of literary history is available online–just Google it. What I have to give is complete immersion in a faith that failing at the highest levels is worthwhile. I am teaching you to stand for more than just yourself. If I don’t teach you that, then Obama ought to replace me with an online course, and the babble of faux achievements ought to rule forever. Amen. To be a failure in the best way possible is a worthy thing. The world won’t understand it. The world understands “published in” and “Studied with.” When you go to get tenure, or into graduate school, you’ll be lucky if they look at the work first. I won’t lie: network, schmooze, do good things in order to be seen, do all that stuff, but remember if you are truly ambitious as I am, as my former student is, this won’t ever satisfy you. The crap they put on school promotions will be just that: crap. I want you to want to write a poem as great as Keats. You want to believe that somewhere, in some room late at night a great reader Whitman claimed every poet needed is reading your poem with compassion, and understanding, and more skill than you could ever imagine. This reader is more important than you are–because he or she is your soul stripped of the ego, the flaws, the petty envy and ambitions, and he/she exists when everything else is damaged. I can teach you to believe in this reader. If I can’t, then let’s just follow the syllabus. I’ll assign, you execute, everyone will be happy or not happy according to the usual process, you’ll get your grade, I’ll get my paycheck, and my daughter Clare will have a roof over her head. None of these are bad things. On paper, we will call it an education. That’s the neutral term for being processed. I want to believe there is more to life than mere process. Hell if I know, but I want to believe this is an amazing privilege–to preside over something greater than myself. The jury is out. Who knows? Judging by University Facebooks, and bios, and vitae, I’m wrong. That’s OK. I’ll cross that bridge when I burn it.

Herman Melville doesn’t announce the ambition of Moby-Dick directly. He kind of sneaks it in. It comes in late and sideways.

At the start the feeling is almost haphazard, and Ismael says, as if in afterthought, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery parts of the world.” It’s imagined as a minor event in “the grand programme of Providence,” a little headline lost between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.” When the ambition is announced, it’s done almost obliquely. It’s done as if the narrator had lingered a little longer than necessary in the library, hoping somebody else would write the book so he wouldn’t have to: “As yet, however,” he says, “the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature … As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors.”

It’s more admission than announcement. It’s a cautious, carefully phrased version of what Walt Whitman wrote, when Whitman, the endless self-promoter, repeatedly claims in poetry and prose, essay and interview that his goal with Leaves of Grass was to put himself and his country, a whole living person and a wide, ever-undulating democracy, into a poem. Melville’s aim is no less ambitious, to put a whole living whale into a book.

Melville isn’t quite so brash to sing of himself, though, or to equate directly himself with the country as a whole. He worries, also, that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.

Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.

There’s so much out there, so much art that doesn’t promise anything. That makes no claim, and no attempt at anything. We’re awash in pop and flutter, blog and clutter. It’s not that little works can’t be great, whether they’re chapbooks or minimalist novellas or graffiti, and it’s not that least important texts of an era, its disposable and mass market texts, can’t actually be really interesting, but there’s no effort, no attempt so great I should yearn for it to succeed.

There are, of course, several very legitimate critiques of such ambition-driven books, of works that weigh this much and have this size. Feminists say phallus. Freudians say ego. Both comments can be kind of true, I think. Both are fair critiques. Megaworks can have the hubris of Manifest Destiny. But ambition, even by itself, even with nothing else sustaining it, can be, for me, a source of value. The scope and scale attempted, even if it fails, means, at least, there’s an attempt at something important, to be something significant.

Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.

I’ve tried and failed to read Zukofsky‘s 803-page, 40-year poem several times. I don’t know that I’ve even gotten to the middle, though I flipped ahead far enough I know, towards the end, it devolves (?) into musical scores. The first time I picked it up and tried to read I was in a cafe and the waitress, an older lady, asked me if the sequel was B, which basically sums up the work for me.

I mean, I know there are passages in “A” I have found moving and meaningful and riveting –

“Love speaks: ‘in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time, now
Weep, love’s heir, rhyme not how song’s exaction
Is your distraction — related is equated
How else is love’s distance approximated.”

and,

“‘You write a strange speech.’ ‘This.’”

and,

“– Clear music –
Not calling you names, says Kay,
Poetry is not made of such things,
Music, itch according to its wrongs,
Snapped old catguts of Johan Sebastian,
Society, traduction twice over.”

– and I find it interesting how World War II breaks out in the poem, and I can tell you something at least of why people who think it’s important think it’s important –

“Lower limit speech
Upper limit music

No?”

– but I don’t know that I can argue that it is. I read it, though, and try again because of the ambition, because, even if it fails, “A” seems like it’s trying to do something serious, something important, and because it seems like it’s making, as a work, a promise to be worth while to me. It is or has the air of a grand experiment, of something that can be believed in, invested in, even as it seems to falter and fail.

Even as I struggle with Zukofsky, I find I can believe in him based even on so slight of a thing as ambition. I find myself willing myself to want this experiment to endure, to want to believe, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, to make the comparison between the work and the nation, a comparison Walt Whitman would love, that something “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

There’s something that’s consecrating about the struggle. There’s something worthwhile about the effort even if it fails.

Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”

With Michigan, in 2003, he started a work that promised to contain a country. A map of a place that is an idea and a feeling, a vision and an angst, our home, the place half known and half remembered and misremembered, mythologized and reinterpreted, the place where we are lost.

In Illinois, in 2005, he continued that. The map moved outward and Stevens started to show us the shape of the country he felt, beautiful and strange, scary, sad and mournful. I know, for me, part of my affinity for the work was the way what it described was the home I’ve known, the country I’ve lived in — this was no Whitman ebullience, but a county of serial killers to feel sorry for, of factories as empty as suicides, cities which were once great, and this was no Melvillian pursuit of transcendence, but a country of UFOs to wonder at and miss when they’re gone, of bible studies where we pray over people with cancer but nothing happens — but besides that, ignore that, the work was a promise of scale. This work was claiming to attempt to do everything that can be done with the art form, to be big enough to be important, to try, try to take the whole scope and scale of what we know, all fifty states of our experience, and put it in a series of albums.

Now he’s abandoned it. Two albums, a cycle of songs about an interstate, if you want to count that, and that’s it for the Fifty States.

It’s like the car broke down on the first day of a road trip.

Stevens is free, of course, to produce what he wants to produce, and if it was a gimmick, as he’s said, then it was a gimmick. But I was willing to trust, when it was clear he was trying to do something worth doing. I was willing to engage, when there was this promise of vistas. Without that effort, that attempt at greatness, that attempt to do what Whitman did or Melville did, to get a whole man, a whole whale, a whole life or country into a work, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s worth my attention.

I thought Sufjan was trying to do something.

Drawing courtesy of Matt Kirsh, who is, ambitiously, drawing a picture for every page of Moby-Dick