Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Poetry, Ambition, and being 80

Milton at an early age decided he wanted to be a poet, one who would establish Britain in poetry the same way Homer had established Greece and Virgil Rome. Poetry has never been a self-supporting enterprise, neither in Milton’s time nor in ours. Milton fortunately had a wealthy father who supported him through his MA and then six years after that at home while Milton studied. His father thought all this time (according to John Rogers of Yale) that Milton would become an Anglican priest (the only reason for getting an MA in those days), but Milton instead wanted to write a great epic poem. Writing about warfare as Homer and Virgil did would be awkward because Spenser had done that before him with the Faerie Queen. Not only that but Spenser had taken up religious themes. Spenser is out of fashion at the present time. The Faerie Queen was “hidden from the investigation of much Spenserian scholarship, with its empiricist presuppositions.” The Faerie Queen was allegory and if one assumes all allegory is bad or simplistic well then one needn’t pursue the matter further. It is true one must have annotations to get through The Faerie Queen, but one most have them to read Chaucer, Blake, or Milton himself – unless one is steeped in Christian theology and then one is likely to find Milton heretical as often as not.

The idea of a new English epic hasn’t faded; although the long poem or poetic sequence has satisfied the ambitions of most, but Hart Crane did write The Bridge. Steven Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body. [Neither Benet nor his poem are considered first rate today but he won a Pulitzer for it in 1929 and a stage production of it was directed by Charles Laughton.] Ezra Pound wrote Hugh Selwyn Mauberley before he wrote the Cantos. And yet T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is rated above these by modern critics, but then the critics are “Modern Critics” and not totally out of fashion.  They would naturally prefer a Modern Critical poem to any of the previous.

It is still not possible to become a poet unless one is subsidized, and “selling oneself” goes a long way toward becoming subsidized. Another accepted path is to become a University professor. Robert Lowell and John Berryman did that – not full time but once they had become famous they seemed able to teach as little as they liked. In my case I was subsidized in a manner of speaking by becoming an engineer in aerospace. I did pursue the writing of poetry throughout my 39 years in Douglas-through-Boeing but one was expected to come up through the ranks, pay ones dues by going to poetry conferences, learning who was who, making important contacts, or having friends who were poets or publishers or who taught poetry – not something I ever did. Still, a few poems now and again seemed pretty good. Is it really “success in the eyes of the poetic Mandarins” of one’s age that’s important, or is the writing of top quality poems? One can seek the latter, in my opinion while ignoring the former. My 39 years in Aerospace was tantamount to ignoring them anyway.

Harold Bloom once wrote that all the top-quality poets had been identified. There weren’t any unknown poets out there because a poet needed to publish or he wasn’t a poet. I’m paraphrasing but I took him to be saying something like that, and I don’t think he has a very good argument. Surely one is a poet if he is writing decent poetry whether Bloom knows him or not.

As to how well I’m writing, I count my current ambitions as beginning in November 2014. I have quite a lot of poetry from earlier years but I’m not going to go back and look at it. No poet thinks that every poem he writes is great. I certainly don’t, but one needs to keep on writing anyway, because if one is truly capable of writing the occasional fine poem, he will need the skills to do it and the only way to have those skills available is to use them continuously. Showing all the stuff I’m writing is questionable, perhaps not advisable, but perhaps because I’m 80 it serves a sort of purpose. We read that people are living longer as a result of the benefits of medical science. Perhaps the undiminished minds of intellectuals will be able to reach into greater age as well.

Earlier I wrote that I would be satisfied if I could produce 77 fine poems from here on in. I was chided a bit. Surely I could write more than that. I’m not so sure. I’ll list the poems I think might be in (or near) that category at present. One can look them up on www.lawrencehelm.com in the months of November and December 2014 if one wants to.

Poems for consideration

“Handle of Osage Orange” 11-2-14

“Tracks” 11-23-14

“Stuff of dreams” 11-25-14

“Portents,” 11-30-14

“Waiting,” 12-3-14

“Her Smile,” 12-9-14

“Checking my back-trail,” 12-13-14

“Wives,” 12-13-14

“The Coming of Summer,” 12-16-14

Final list thus far

“The Coming of Summer,” 12-16-14

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