Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Struggle with Literary Narcissism, Revised

I revised my spontaneous post of the 12th. But first another poem from my archives:


These giant marigolds are orange torches,
heavy with radiance.
A breeze touches them,
the whole bush quivers
beneath the weight of blooms.
They are a short, furious life:
They call to the sun and cry to the stars,
flame forward and decay,
spit dry seeds like ash and vanish.

We bloom on the stems of our ancestors,
wishing to explode like these marigolds
but fear if we flower too brightly
someone might snap our necks,
or worse, the central stem collapse
from the weight of insane glory.
So we run from our own immolation
and the peppery smell of death.

(published and now de-published in Free Cuisenart)

My Struggle with Literary Narcissism, Revised

"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 later forgot that point). Coveting is not far from jealousy. One covets things; one is jealous of persons. And the three most famous tales of brothers in the Bible involve jealousy. You know them: Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of God’s preference for Abel’s offering. Jacob coveted Esau’s birthright and stole it through subterfuge and afterwards fled out of fear. He was jealous of Esau’s standing as the firstborn. Joseph's brothers left him for dead because of their jealousy; he was their father's favorite and spoke of his dreams of greatness (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 good reason to believe Abel’s sacrifice was preferred, which was purely unfair— unless you get into Christological excuses that Abel’s offering of a lamb was prophetic—but theological hindsight doesn’t help Cain much. So he murdered Abel out of jealousy. And deep down, with all defenses stripped, isn’t that what we would all do if we could get away with it? To murder the person we think is unfairly preferred above us, to rid the world of an inferior writer who won a Pulitzer and give ourselves the prize? Because it just isn’t fair, is it? It’s quite a cautionary tale, this first murder in the Bible. The motive is “the green-eyed monster.”

It was prophesied of Jacob and Esau that the older should serve the younger. And despite Jacob's scheming and hardly admirable nature, so it came to pass. "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated," Jehovah says. Can you imagine anything so patently unfair? What did Esau do to deserve such treatment? Contrary to God, Isaac seemed to favor Esau because he was a hunter who would bring home wild game. And though we know Esau was hairy, a hunter, and impulsive, Jacob was a liar and a cheat. One can again take refuge in theology, that the promised one, whether David or Christ, needed to come through a specific genetic line. Again, such hindsight does little to help Esau’s despite.

Joseph was favored by his father and by God. Why? Was there something in his nature that more recommended him? Who's to know? His father rubbed it in by giving him “a coat of many colors.” Given this favoritism, weren't his brothers justified in their jealousy, if not their deed? They left him in a pit in the desert to die, but enjoying God’s favor, he was rescued by some camel traders. Later he became the salvation of Egypt and his family, but such utilitarian reasons as these later results won’t wash in the name of an almighty God. He could have saved Joseph’s family and Egypt by any number of other means—he’s God, after all.

All this is 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, and he received a Pulitzer as well as the $100,000 Lenore Marshall prize. My feelings for him (for other reasons as well) go beyond jealousy to a prideful condescension. I think sometimes that if I truly humble myself, perhaps I can see more value in his work. So far I’ve not succeeded. As it is, though he walks among the dead, I still feel a sense of injustice when I think of him as his acclaim. (I could say the same the same about a number of other poets both living and dead.)

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? My mother preached success through merit, and the academic system does the same, but these illusions, bestowed by a controlled environment, have nothing to do with the real world in any field of endeavor.

To be jealous of another is to be cruel to myself. It makes me the self-appointed center of the universe. Since this isn’t true, it warps me and eats at my self-esteem. I tell myself I should not be jealous. Yet my frustration with successful artists whom I believe (and some others agree) are my inferiors, itches like sand under the skin of a rhinoceros.

I know success has a lot to do with connections; I have virtually none. I sometimes think I should have gone to an MFA program to rub shoulders with poets of reputation who teach because they can’t otherwise make a living. They in turn have to justify their teaching by promoting their students.

Success also has to do with persistence, and I know I don’t submit to the quality journals enough. In trying I have recently received a string of seven rejections, my longest string of bad luck in a long time, though it can mainly be ascribed to the quality of journals I chose, all top flight, paying journals. Strangely, after I receive a rejection I suddenly, in a flash of insight, notice everything that’s wrong with my poems and usually agree with the editors. Yet it is often hard to distinguish between bad luck and mediocrity. I try not to send mediocre work out, but who am I to judge?

Should I admit to myself I am a journeyman, destined only to entertain myself and a few others with my poetry, condemned to the underworld of "I could have been a contender?" Should I turn critic like William Logan and macerate the anointed in vengeful sweetness? Should I blow off poetry altogether and concentrate on paying non-fiction?

Here's the problem re-stated: I feel I ought to be more recognized as a poet, given the competition extant. But I suppose I should face reality;: it’s simply not true. It could be my work is slightly anachronistic, so style works against me, but that’s no excuse; I should change my style if I want to be successful, even at this late date.

Acceptance is what I need. Sometimes by reading other poets of current renown I can see their virtues and better accept my place, but when I read a poem in the New Yorker that simply sucks, it does irritate me. Then who am I to judge? They don't want my poems and often publish good ones.

How many of my fellow writers experience this dilemma? How do they solve it? I always tell my students that the only reason to write a poem is for its own sake. But that admonition sometimes sound hollow to one with hundreds of publications and little to show for it.

I suppose my mantra should be: "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 artistic integrity."

This is a noble and Parnassian view, but in my flawed humanity I cannot embrace it. On the other hand, jealousy won’t help my art. What I wish is to be delivered from the feeling that I deserve better. I should think more on Cain, Esau, and Joseph’s brothers. Yet how does one wait in peace hoping to get lucky? How would Yeats have felt if he were completely ignored?

Old, unlucky poets should not give in to bitterness. Their curse must certainly be that they can’t give up writing. Whoever discovered Emily Dickinson gave us false reason to hope. The best reason to hope is to assume one’s art has yet to mature to the point where it will be recognized, avoiding comparisons in the interest of improvement. The best antidote to jealousy, or if you wish, a sense of unfairness, is to lose yourself in the poetry of others. Yet at 50, with a few glaring exceptions, most poets’ best work is behind them. Still, let the band play on. The soloist is not always the best player.


  1. For me, the whole poem is these lines:

    These marigolds are torches
    heavy with radiance.
    We bloom on stems. We run
    from our own immolation
    and the peppery smell of death.

    Oh, don't cringe. It was already published, right? I'm just saying that there is more power, more holy hell this is some fanfuckingtastic writing in those five lines than in the rest of the poem. I guess what I'm saying is, that if I were critting this on a board, I'd say the other lines in the poem feel like they're trying too hard. Does that make sense?

    I'm reading the novel Sideways right now so night after night I'm confronted with page after page of writing that's trying way way way too hard. If you've seen the movie and were completely charmed by it as I was, do yourself a favor and DON'T read the book. The writer obviously had a thesaurus on hand while writing. Every word choice is so horrendously awful that I find myself wanting to give up on the book again and again. My personal favorite example, the one that sticks in my head is the description of a young woman making her way through a crowded room thusly:

    She shoehorned herself through the crowd.


    Then there are the incessant wine descriptions which sound like they were lifted right out of Gourmet magazine.

    Oh, my. I'm forcing myself to finish the damned book because I bought it, plunked down cold hard cash for it, and dammit, I ain't wasting that dime.

    I'm not saying your poem is awful. It's not. It's good. But geez oh man, the lines I pointed out are so damned good.

    It will be a long long time before I forget marigolds as torches or the peppery smell of death.

    And that's what good poetry should do, don't you think?



  2. Ah, Laurel, kind of you to comment. I think to cherry-pick the best lines ignores the value of modulation, of set up, and for me, at least, the poem would be less for the loss of music like "spit dry seeds like ash and vanish." But I understand your seeking the best of the best. If any of us could attain that all the time, I submit it would be unreadable. But I spoke about this long ago in my essay, "On Modulation."

    Happy Valentine's Day again!


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