Monday, February 12, 2007

My Struggle with Literary Narcissism

I thought that by writing about each circular obsession that afflicts me during depression I might get some closure for my own protection.

I have before written that "jealousy is the essence of narcissism."

The tenth commandment forbids coveting; that's the point where the follower must realize morality is more than an outward observance, though the Pharisees forgot that point. And the three most famous tales of brothers in the Bible involve jealousy. You know them: Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of his offering, which God preferred. Jacob stole Esau's birthright through subterfuge and afterwards fled out of fear. Joseph's brothers left him for dead because of their jealousy; he was their father's favorite and suffered from delusions of grandeur (which later came true).

In all these cases one thing stands out: God plays favorites. He did not not love Cain, but it seems Cain had reason to believe that Abel was preferred, which was purely unfair.

It was prophesied of Jacob and Esau that the older should serve the younger. And despite Jacob's scheming nature, so it came to pass. "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated." What did Esau ever do to deserve such treatment? Contrary to God, Isaac seemed to favor Esau because he was a hunter who would bring home wild game.

Joseph was favored by his father and by God. Why? Was there something in his nature that more recommended him? Who's to know? But weren't his brothers justified in their jealousy, if not their deeds?

This is all ancient history, but here's my point: Some people are luckier, indeed seem to be more favored, than others. As has been well said, it's better to be lucky than good. So here's my dilemma: my success as a writer, commercially speaking, and from the point of public reputation, has been dismal. I have myriad publications in obscure magazines with less than a thousand dollars earned; I am a ghost in the machine of the Net (where several of my former students enjoy more success than I).

Now I cannot be trusted with an opinion of myself, but I honestly think I'm a better poet than the late Robert Creeley, by any standard, and he received a Pulitzer as well as the $100,000 Lenore Marshall prize before his death. Is he lucky or is he better? I'm jealous of him. He also had three poems and two essays taken out of a magazine he was to appear in because he disliked my essays and poems. I had never met him, but the editors of the Cortland Review admitted to me privately that they capitulated to his demands, so I was de-published, a fate that often afflicts me simply by the attrition of literary journals on the net.

I've published close to 100 columns on the Net, but three of the four magazines I wrote for went bust with no archives. Is this my fault? I don't post my best poems in this blog, most of which have been published, since I've been on a formalist tear for my mental health. I need the structure when I'm depressed. But I would offer proof to any interested with some of my best work, if requested in this space or by e-mail.

The question that dogs me: Why should I be jealous of other writers? Why should I torture myself with the unfounded belief that the universe is fair when even the Bible confirms cosmic favoritism?

To be jealous of another is to be cruel to myself. It eats at my self-esteem. Yet the frustration with "successful" artists whom, at least some besides myself agree are my inferiors, gets irritating.

I know success has a lot to do with connections; I have virtually none. I should have gone to an MFA program. It also has to do with persistence; I don't submit enough to the quality journals to generate a buzz, indeed have had seven rejections in a row recently, my longest string of "bad luck" to date. The hard part is distinguishing between luck and mediocre work.

Should I admit to myself I am a journeyman, destined only to entertain himself and a few others with his poetry, condemned to the underworld of the "could have been contenders?" Should I turn critic like William Logan and macerate the anointed to my heart's content?

Here's the problem re-stated: I feel I ought to be recognized more, given the competition extant. But I suppose I should face reality; that's simply not true. It could be my work is slightly anachronistic, so style works against me; well tough, I should change my style if I want to be successful (at 52!).

Acceptance is what I need, but when I read a poem in the New Yorker that simply sucks (and Kathleen agrees), it does irritate me. Then who am I to judge? They won't take my poems, and they have published good ones.

How many of you fellow writers experience this dilemma? How do you solve it? I always tell my students that the only reason to write a poem is to try to achieve excellence, to strive for a good poem. But that sometimes sounds hollow to someone with hundreds of publications and no reputation.

I suppose this should be my mantra: "Work harder and don't worry about the other guy. Follow your own vision, and if it does not find favor in the world, at least comfort yourself with your integrity."

I wish I could actually embrace this mantra. I suffer from writer's envy, pure and simple, and I am not proud of it.

Mood is mixed; irritable and bored.


p.s. Here's a poem that was published and is now open for publication because it was afterwards de-published. I think it may be a good poem. How terrifying it is to try to back up one's boast!

Leaf Sermon

I have been spiritually poisoned
by the unclean, in ignorance
blessed their springs.
In consequence I withered
and drifted down
from green crown to brown humus,
thinned to a fishbone pattern
of cellulose threads.

I washed into a stream
past stones squirming
with black question marks
of dragonfly larvae,
slid through reeds
into eddying pools
where I stalled until the rains
delivered me to the sea.
My last proteins fed the plankton
the humpback swallowed,
whose song woke me,
the ghost of a ghost of a leaf,
to the shocking green astral body
from which I speak:

You who seek
thrill without sustenance,
love without burden,
light without heat—
hollow, hollow men,
Tom O’ Bedlam slim:
Your greatest feat
each workaday morning
is to pull the sheet
from your own faces
to avoid being wheeled
to the refrigerated cases.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dear C.E.,
    I enjoyed your poem, but cannot likewise appreciate it as I've never studied poetry properly. However, I truly appreciate your prose, the manner in which you craft your ideas, the method with which you convey thoughts. Thank you. I look forward to your entries, not only because you offer empathy, but also because your writing positively stimulates my thought process. For a moment I'm out of the swamp.
    Have more thoughts on the "jealousy" angle.
    P.S. Didn't mean to delete comment, was simply trying to edit.

  3. I enjoyed this poem. I'd like to read more of your best work. Perhaps Google can lead me to more?

    I don't know why you have not achieved the success you hope for with your work. Maybe it is that your time has not yet come.

    As always, I admire your persistence.

  4. This is strong work CE. Stanza two is amazing.

  5. Anonymous11:59 PM PST

    xakhlyjnI like this poem, too. I met you last night and we talked about why we reasons so different from yours...your reasons far more intense, more like why I need to paint. It has never occurred to me to be jealous but I think I understand that feeling from afar. I've always used art and writing to keep me sane. And in that sense, published or not, it has served me well.

    Tell beautiful Kathleen hello for me.


  6. Norm, you removed your post, I think, though your e-mail was most valuable.

    Anonymous Pat, I think you are a saint to do things for their own sake and not for recognition.

    Remson, thanks for your encouragement.

    Sam, glad you liked the second stanza. This poem is now unpublished if you should fancy it.

    Furthermore, I urge you all to read my next post, where the idea I formed here in a first draft is more further developed in a second.




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