The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.

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water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.

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This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.

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So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…

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6 comments on “The poet & the Good

  1. KM Huber says:

    And I am thinking if she will just write a poem, it will “balance” the matter once again for her. For most of my life, I have considered not pursuing my writing life. When I taught, it was teaching. When I was an administrator for program that actually changed lives, it was life. Our circumstances are different but similar enough and obviously, a question that most writers consider.

    All I can offer you is that without a writing life (yours is as a poet; mine is as an essayist), I do not offer all of myself to the world, although that is never my intention. In my later years I strive for “the middle way,” knowing whatever good I am doing is a result of the whole of me, writer and all the rest.

    Wonderful post, Ann, and for me, quite timely. In truth, I am trying to balance my writing with an opportunity that has come my way. Your post convinces me that the writing will stay. Thanks for that!
    Karen

  2. […] Pennsylvania poet and teacher Ann E. Michael writes a consistently interesting blog, full of nature and philosophy. In her latest post, she reacts to Robert Archambeau’s […]

  3. […] again, as per my last post, establishing that middle way–though it is not easy, and it is not hard–doesn’t […]

  4. To add to what Karen writes above:

    Err, what about the greater Good that the act of writing can effect on YOU? That would be good enough for me.

    I will have to read Mr Archambeau’s essay(s) but I don’t think the act of writing poetry needs defending or balancing against Net Effect any more than breathing loving drinking water slowly or not answering the phone because you’re already talking to someone. Interesting thoughts in the ether above this comment, but somewhat frustrating. If you enjoy writing poetry, just write it. Poetry is not in a special class of behavior where one has to earn the right to read it or write it. It just is, along with saving lives and yawning and teaching swimming, one of the many things you can choose to do or not.

    Along those lines, I’d suggest teaching swimming has far more positive Net Effect than teaching writing, if you’re going just for the bottom line. My wife teaches swimming, something I did not learn to do until I was about to graduate from college, and while it don’t pay the rent it has had significant net effect in our community.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I think Archambeau “resigned” from poetry because he is so analytical…his essays and critiques and reviews perhaps express his writing purpose (whatever that may be) better than he feels he can do via poetry.

      I am reasonably analytical, but that is not a reason I might resign from poetry. And I haven’t necessarily decided to stop writing poems…but I do find myself facing that decision, mostly due to situations not addressed in this blog.

      My reasoning above comes about after mulling: If I find I have not energy or time for the work of poetry and for the work of teaching, which one should I devote myself to more fully, and what might lead me to make that decision? [The Socratic idea of the Good is actually not one I'd ordinarily use to make this decision, but it was on my mind because of my students.]

      Ideally, I could learn to be the kind of person who needs less isolation and quiet, and less time, in which to write. But I’m not that type of poet; I have to work pretty hard at the process. It’s not that I feel I have to earn the right to be creative but that at this time in my life there are other significant responsibilities I can accomplish with less effort, or simultaneously–and poetry doesn’t work that way for me.

      I can swim, by the way, but I’m not very good at it. Perhaps I could use some lessons! :)

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