Every good poem is a Trojan Horse.
But if the poem is a Trojan Horse what does it carry within? What secret does it hide? Among other things, often it's the author's own ambition.
The ambition to be a poet is different from the ambition to write a poem -- or even the ambition to write a hundred or a thousand poems. Often these two ambitions seem to work against each other. But in the long run, isn't this antagonism highly productive and therefore, worth paying some attention to?
"Oh to be tongue-tied/ like Dante/ or Petrarch!"
-- Vladimir Mayakovsky
To speak publicly of personal ambition in poetry is considered bad taste. Yet privately, most poets I know speak of nothing else.
"Poems are written by men, and not by anonymous splendors. The stronger the man the larger his resentments . . ."
-- Harold Bloom
"I've always wanted to be a/ dead great man though not exactly dead but/ I'll never make it/ partly because not a man/ partly because this is no world for greats."
-- Alice Notley
One of the reasons why Pound is so influential even today is because he presents an acceptable role model (more to men than women) for combining unbridled ambition with (as well as under the guise of) aestheticism. The only thing close to a similar role model for women would be Gertrude Stein with her wonderfully epic (almost parodistically so) projects such as The Making of Americans and Everybody's Autobiography. What I've always especially admired about her is the way she makes pronouncements and passes judgment on whatever crosses her path -- Pound "the village explainer" included. Yet rather than being revered, she's still extraordinarily marginalized and therefore, not the kind of figure women poets seek to emulate in the same way men do with their beloved Ez.
Many contemporary women poets have problems with ambition. We are ambitious, but we still seem to find the idea hard to voice or enact publicly. Of course, male poets are also frowned upon when they seem too openly aggressive and competitive -- as if this sort of behavior were the province of businessmen and somehow beneath the dignity of the artist.
"It is an aristocratic tendency, by the way, to disdain commerce and "commodification." Art is supposed to be a sacred activity."
-- Paul Hoover
"Child counts as twin when born with webbed feet because it has eaten his brother in the womb."
-- Bruce Andrews
I love stories that show the pettiness of "the great". Envy, resentments, bad behavior -- all this brings them closer.
In his essay "Poetry and Ambition" Donald Hall suggests that the desire for publication and the pursuit of fame have replaced or at least seriously diminished serious literary ambition in American poetry today. In part I agree. I do, however, have a problem with the distinction Hall makes between an acceptable and an unacceptable kind of ambition. In other words, when one competes with dead poets (i.e. the canon), it's considered noble because one wants to be a great writer. In contrast, when one competes with living poets, it's petty because one wants to be successful. But does anyone ever pursue these two goals separately?
In poetry trying to determine who should be allowed to have ambition is a bit like trying to determine who should be allowed to have privilege and money. Only those who are already successful are allowed the luxury of it--or the possibility of transcending it.
Is it even possible to separate personal from artistic ambition? "My God, it would take Christ himself to decide what's ego and what isn't."
-- J.D. Salinger
One thing that always bothered me about writing poetry is that I thought my mother approved of it because it was a "feminine" thing to do. Sort of like being an interior decorator of the mind. Williams once called Stevens poetry "bric-a-brac". And Stevens responded (not offended it would seem) by inscribing a copy of his book for Williams with the words: "More bric-a-brac."
But poetry is also considered a "feminine" occupation in that there's little or no money to be made from doing it. Thus, a young Wallace Stevens writes to his future wife Elsie Moll: "There is something absurd about all this writing of verses, but the truth is, it elates me and satisfies me to do it . . . so you see my habits are positively lady-like."
What does it mean to create something with no exchange value -- to work for free? Among other things, a sense of unreality and invisibility. One poet to another after a reading: "I love hearing you. It makes me feel as if poetry really does exist."
"It's ridiculous to be a poet. It's one of the silliest imaginable things you can be; it's also one of the most important in the universe, that somebody be."
-- Ted Berrigan
"Anyone who gives himself up to writing believes -- without realizing the fact -- that his work will survive the years, the ages, time itself . . . If he felt, while he was at work on it, that it was perishable, he would leave off where he was, he could never finish."
-- E.M. Cioran
These days no one would say he or she writes to be immortal. It would sound absurdly grandiose. Yet for poets the tangible rewards are so negligible, what else is left?
One reason why poets are reluctant to acknowledge their ambition is that no one wants to be a poet whose ambition far exceeds his or her talent. No one wants to be Don Quixote.
It's not just that there are so few prizes, grants and other benefits that makes poetry so frustrating. It's also that there's no real logic to how they're awarded.
"There are so many labyrinths in the poetry world, if you wanted you could use them to turn rats into feathered-nothings."
-- David Shapiro
"Even that phrase poetry world ... I know what we mean by it, but isn't it strange to describe ourselves that way? Separately."
-- Barbara Henning
Is it because the world first, with so many other forms of entertainment to choose from, turned its back on poetry, that poetry now turns its back on the world?
Why must poetry pretend to be so other worldly? The world needs poetry. I know I wouldn't want to live without it. And to be honest, poetry needs the world -- all of it: the art world, the fashion world, even the business world. Otherwise poetry becomes too rarefied and anemic.
-- the Roderick Usher story
Personal narratives too can be a retreat from the world. Particularly when they're positioned as coming from a place that's truer and more noble than the everyday push and shove we normally deal with.
"Eden is a commodity."
-- Bruce Andrews
There is no such thing as "pure" language, and even birdsong can be territorial. One cardinal pushes another away from the feeder with his wing. Crows and hawks face-off like members of rival teenage gangs.
At what point does the sweetness of flowers begin to stink?
Many people claim that because poetry isn't big business, poets are more free to pursue their own interests rather than pander to public taste. But I've generally found that freedom to be a myth. Poets, if they wish to be read, must pander to the taste of other poets which can be as restrictive and rigid as any commercial formula for success.
It takes as much ambition to be a poet as it does to be a CEO. Maybe more.
"Poetry is property."
-- Harold Bloom
Yes, but whose?