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greatness

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.

Photo Credit: Marco Muñoz

I have found that all work, including the so called professional and creative work of teaching at a university, boils down to certain false indicators which we must endure. In point of fact, the factory may be a little more accurate: you can’t fake a spec. Doing a plate within two tenths of a thousandth run out over eight feet of stainless steel edge cannot be faked. It’s a spec. It is not wholly accurate but it’s within a range of accuracy far more precise than any sort of academic measure. But even with the finest technology, there is no such thing as zero tolerance. There is ever closer proximity to zero run out, but no complete absence of deviation. All measurement is approximate. As my teacher, the great tool maker, Joe Pilot, told me, “It’s just as easy to say everything is wrong as it is to say nothing is perfect. Error is the only reality we know, and the one thing we are least likely to forgive or admit.”

When universities only brag about their award winning students, they show themselves to be the same sort of collective idiot who preferred the operas of Meyerbeer over Wagner, or Rosini over Mozart. The measure of greatness is awards. By this measure, Pearl Buck was a far greater writer than Eudora Welty, and equal to Faulkner because, hey, she won the Nobel prize. The measurement of greatness is: 1. Awards 2. The word of mouth of one’s peers. 3. Posterity and duration. If one wins big enough awards, one’s peers side whisper that one has have gone down the crapper (awards seem to raise envy and lower estimates of talent). If one wins no awards, one is consigned to career hell. If one is still known after death, so what? You’re dead. I don’t think Mozart enjoyed his fame after death. Wagner was lucky enough to be embraced in his later life, but for a good 20 years, he was in the shadow of Meyerbeer who was considered Europe’s top opera composer. Wagner spent most of his time running from his creditors (literally). In a writing world controlled by academics, only awards matter, because it is the pathology of measurement known since the first grade. After all, these are A student types. I would define an A student as fitting the standard idea of a good mold almost perfectly. Originality, true originality, is not what A students are about. A students uphold the standard. In short, when university people say they want great writers, they are lying. What they want are writers who fit the mean of the highest standard mold.

Greatness is a an error that becomes the new standard. As my teacher, Joe Pilot told me, “you can’t see anything new that comes down the pike because your eyes have no frame of reference for it. You can only see it when it first starts to get turned into a standard mold, when its newness has already begun to wear off. You can only see it when it resembles something you have already seen. A truly original piece has got to resemble something in the past, or people can’t see it. The Greeks accidently invented the steam engine in 400 BC, but had no frame of reference for it, made a couple toys powered by it, and then forgot it. We didn’t see a steam engine again for over a thousand years–when the age of mechanics and Newton made that kind of thing imaginable. All genius, all originality is an error, kid. The world does not progress by excellence or correctness. An error that has an advantage to it is how the world goes forward. An error with an advantage, a fortunate sin, is how we always get to the next base. We move by a series of errors. We call them truth, or perfection after the fact. We are full of shit. It’s like a guy who trips on a stair, but is smart in his error, and turns it into a new dance step.”
I made an argument against award pathology. I brought up students who were not award winners, but who were making a true living in the arts (or almost a living) ten years after they were my students. I brought up those who are doing excellent work, who may not be winning the big prizes. I said a university must not base its reputation on award winners alone. It ought to rest more importantly on building a population of students and alumni who have the ability to see what is not readily visible, and who can create a milieu in which true greatness is likely to transpire–the holy accident which confounds all professional expectation because it is, after all, outside the schema of awards.

Universities should serve the fortunate accident, the judicious error, the mutation. They should do this by teaching students how to achieve the standard without believing it is a true measure. They should instigate and agitate for the “perhaps.” Creativity is founded on the perhaps. Perhaps this pratfall is not a stumbling, but a new form of ballet. Let us see what we can do. It is impossible to explain this to functionaries. For them the proof is always in the pudding. They never think that the pudding was some sort of deviation from the norm that the cook turned into a favorite dish.