Transitions & ambition

letter I
have maintained this blog pretty regularly, for years now, writing about books and poems and gardens and teaching, examining the concept of consciousness and trying to plumb–from a novice’s perspective–the brain’s wiring and functions. I suppose I am seeking a kind of “interdisciplinary” approach in these posts and in life: a philosophy of values that considers the arts, aesthetics, evolution, biology, social structures, neurology, consciousness, physics, etymology, pedagogy, ecology, and compassion (have I forgotten anything?) in a distinct but expansive method of living in which I can situate myself and which might guide my behavior as I make my life-long way through the world. If, by some chance, my words influence a reader–so much the better; this is, after all, a public space (WordPress.com).

Like many people who use social media platforms for their writing, though, I have a mixed view of its suitability as a medium and of its perceived necessity for contemporary writers. My purpose, originally, was to practice writing prose and to promote the arts and the natural environment as necessary complements to and instruction for the development of empathy (compassion) and metacognition in human beings.

The blog has been reasonably suitable for practice; it gets me writing what is basically a brief essay on a more-or-less weekly basis. It has several thousand “followers,” but only a handful of readers. [I can discern this through the statistics page on WordPress, though I don’t check often.] In general, I use this platform mostly as a way of “seeing what I think,” and it serves that purpose, too.

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I have come to some conclusions about the problem of consciousness (and about whether it actually is a problem) through the reading and experiences of the past ten years or so. Those conclusions are, however, private ones. While the process of discovery and inquisitiveness works in a public forum, the takeaway remains, for this blogger, a thing carried within.

But.

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But other blogger-writers have influenced my thinking about what a public forum such as blogging or Facebook can do for the writing process. Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, as well as Michael Czarnecki and Lou Faber–among others–promote by example the option, and value, of publishing new or unedited, unfinished, partially-revised work. Granted, not all of them have thousands of readers who weigh in on criticism or encouragement; but the very process of making public the work-in-progress seems to me to be courageous. This may be because I am a wimp, or it may be because the social aspects of the vaunted “po-biz” have dampened my willingness to show a kind of transparency in my writing methods.

I am not on the tenure track and will not be teaching in an MFA program, however, so why would it matter?

Therefore: be prepared, oh limited but blessĂ©d audience. I may begin to foist upon you the recent sad, sad poems I’ve been writing–in draft form. Or I may begin to reveal the poems from my seven-years’-unpublished manuscript online. Or I may, like Luisa and Michael, begin to blog “a poem a day” (unlikely, but…). It seems to me that a transition is in order here. And that stands as my writing ambition for the moment, as autumn makes its way toward the solstice and I face another stack of student essays to grade.

 

 

 

 

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Local vs. National

Election season is upon us, and this being a non-presidential voting year, US citizens tend to avoid the polls in droves. I’ve been talking with my students about herd mentality, informational cascades, and the pros and cons of non-conformity recently; local elections make a good example of the theory that people tend to do what they think others are doing (see this post for more on conformity and dissent). Which may include not doing what others are not doing, such as going to the polls.

This train of thought got me thinking about poetry, oddly enough. Years ago, when I was more ambitious for myself, I spent considerable time and effort trying to get my work published in national journals. There was, for me, a sense that the cachet of publication in certain “top tier” magazines would somehow confer legitimacy on my work (vocation or avocation, depending upon how one defines being a poet in the USA). But I am not strongly suited to the organization, persistence, and promotional oomph required to get my work into the limelight; also, I may have lacked the required talents as a poet. At any rate, during that time in my writing life, I was advised to avoid ‘local venues’ of publication because these were not top-tier and might devalue my work.

To which I now say: humbug!

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Humbug by Steve Barr, cartoonist

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Local voting is crucial to a democratic society. Local politicians and local legislative changes affect a voter’s life more immediately than national elections do.

By the same token, local arts potentially have more impact than nationally-known artists and art events; yet citizens are often rather clueless, and often woefully unsupportive, of regional arts and artists. (To visit Steve Barr’s website, click on the humbug.)

I am no longer a young, ambitious poet who aspires to national prominence. My ambition revolves more around becoming the best poet I can be given my abilities, education, and circumstances. Furthermore, I now firmly believe that local is a crucial step in global: the two can no longer be separated, as parts of the environment, the social and economic and cthonic ecosystems that are intricately dependent upon connections and relationships.

I am happy to report, therefore, that I am one of three regional, if virtual, “resident poets” for the autumn season of the online e-zine Lehigh Valley Vanguard–a local journal devoted to the “subversive arts.” Several of my poems will appear among its posts over the next three months. Please check occasionally for poetry postings! The first of these is “Post-Exodus,” although an earlier poem, “Regional Conflicts,” appears here.

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My ambitions for my own poetry center, these days, on what I want the words and the work to accomplish regardless of status or publication. My aesthetics have perhaps changed along with my assumptions…and my evaluations of the value of local and national and global recognition.

Local is where I live. Local’s good. Check out the Vanguard, and take a little time to find out what’s happening wherever it is you reside.

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Here’s another bug. 🙂

Still more on ambition

My experience with college students and their wildly varying achievements, coupled with my long-time interests in temperament and neurology, led me to rejoice in the extensive sources listed in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. Angela Lee Duckworth’s studies on grit, persistence, interest, diligence, and ambition are particularly relevant to my job–she’s at University of Pennsylvania, and the site for her research is here.

Ambition implies a goal; as used in the studies Tough cites, that goal is the desire or drive to be the best. Persistence is what gets us to the goal–sometimes–or at least keeps us plodding in the general direction. Diligence is what we feel we owe to the work or to whomever assigned the work; i.e., careful attention to the job and the completion of each task. Interest means we can focus without becoming distracted by other ideas, novelties, events, or tasks. And grit is composed of all of these traits but includes a crucial element: the ability to carry on after failure or loss–the determination to surmount obstacles, evade them, or compromise; or even to fail to do so, then dust off and carry on anyway.

I administered the long version of Duckworth’s questionnaire to myself and the sense I get is that the results seem fairly accurate. I’ve asked family members and colleagues to take the survey; the results jive with our intuitive “measures” of these traits among ourselves. It came as no surprise to me that I scored below the median in ambition; but when I mentioned that outcome to a colleague, she expressed surprise. She said I am “ambitious” about my poetry, noting the time I devote to reflection, revision, trying to get the poem “right.” But is that ambition or something else?

So the spectre of ambition in poetry appears again (see my previous posts here & here). Having just breezed through David Orr’s delightful if somewhat flawed book Beautiful and Pointless–a Guide to Modern Poetry, ambition in relation to poetry screams out “Do not ignore!” And the coincidence of having the “grit” research to mull over and connect with the idea of ambition and the arts. Language being flexible within context as it is, I will stay with the Duckworth definition of ambition (and my low-ish score) and state I am not an ambitious person. Nor am I an ambitious poet, but I am ambitious about my poems. I want the poems I write to be as beautifully stated as they can be; I want them to communicate as well as possible on as many levels as I can achieve; and I want them to be relevant or revelatory to as many potential readers as possible. I want the poems to exert upon their readers the desire, even the need, to pause and reflect upon necessary things. Those are ambitious aims, and I cannot claim I ever achieve them in my work. But I try.

The poets whose work is great do achieve these things–and more–in their ambitious poems.

An ambitious poet is something else again. Walt Whitman claimed himself a “loafer,” and he may not have been ambitious as a person–but he was certainly an ambitious poet. Orr positions Robert Lowell among the ambitious poets; I’d say Edna St. Vincent Millay qualifies. These writers, who composed ambitious poems, were also ambitious poets. My personality does not support this from of ambition; hence my lower score on the ambition scale reflects my personal trait, not my attitude toward my work. Duckworth’s scale isn’t meant to measure the latter.

It’s been an intriguing exercise to explore interpretations and to revisit poetry and ambition. Now,  I wonder where Emily Dickinson, or Federico Lorca or Muriel Rukeyser would score in terms of ambition. Meanwhile, I am ready to go back to my own work. Plodding away. (Yes, I score above the median in persistence…)

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Ambition & failure

Some of my non-writer friends are surprised to learn that I am in the process of trying to get a new book into print. After all, Water-Rites just came out! So shouldn’t I be concentrating on selling that book and resting on my laurels awhile? To be sure this collection is a “success” before continuing on?

Those who write poetry or literary fiction, however, recognize that by the time a book finally gets published, the work in it is “old.” We are already well into new projects, working on new ideas, using new styles to express ourselves, addressing different topics. If I were to wait to write new poetry until after my book got into print, I’d probably never write another collection. The economics of the poetry world are too close to what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy” to imagine we can stop writing, sell a book, live off of the income and then write another one. Even many best-selling authors cannot do that. Poets are lucky to sell 500 copies of a book. We write for other reasons. Need. Love. Ambitions of a non-monetary kind.

Like all artists, poets take risks. Sometimes the changes we make in our work are not well-received. Sometimes they aren’t any good. Failure, however, can be a most excellent instructor. Sometimes, to shake myself up when the writing seems stuck, I attempt a completely different activity. Gardening clears my mind, and gardening offers many chances to fail at what I do. I’ve also tried watercolor painting, sumi ink calligraphy, modeling clay, embroidery, dancing, piano, and many other endeavors. I cannot claim to be remotely good at any of them yet each of these pursuits has taught me much…often through my lousiness.

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Janis Ian, 2012. Photo by David Sloan.

Recently, Janis Ian–singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and philanthropist–offered the commencement address at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. In her speech, Ian talked about being self-taught; being a self-taught success. And she had important things to say about failing, as well. She said, “We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.” Then, she admitted that she herself had always avoided failure but that at a point in her life when she felt unhappy with everything she was producing, “I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again.”

Her approach was to take ballet lessons! At age 33. And she was awful at it, but she enjoyed doing it. Then she attempted other things at which she was terrible, and she learned to overcome some of her fear of failing.

An autodidact myself, even though I do have academic degrees, I found I could easily relate to Ian’s experiences. The part of her speech that spoke to me most was this section:

“You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent…well, it was killing me.”

Art requires us to do our best, to be ambitious and strong, to take risks and –occasionally– to fail. To fail spectacularly perhaps, or just to produce a bunch of small, humiliating, stupid failures…like dancing badly in your own room where no one can see you.

But dancing can feel so wonderful, so freeing, so different from writing! It’s worth doing badly. Sometimes when we have less at stake, we find new methods of expression and new ways to keep our fears, including the fear of failure, at bay.

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The full speech is available on Warren Wilson’s site here.

Ambitious poetry

Recent discussions with a few colleagues brought up the question of what poetry “should” do. This question is seldom considered philosophical–it generally occurs among inquiries more aesthetic or educational in nature. Any time we have a “should,” though, we may be more clearly looking at an “ought.” Which brings us to philosophy. Or to poetics.

A friend stated that poetry should have aims, aims that relate to society. She prefers the poem that speaks to “all” to the poem that speaks to (or of) the individual. This is a rather grand and ambitious “ought” for poetry, but it strikes me as valid.

Another colleague defends what she calls the “quiet” poem, the one that circles in on itself with some kind of reminder that interior reflection is occurring in the poem. This sort of poem also has, it seems to me, an ambitious project (I hate that term, but I’ll go with it for now): getting the unknown reader to feel he or she is authentically inside that poem’s quiet, particular, individual world. Have you ever tried to convince another person to understand your perspective on anything? It is never an easy project. It can be accomplished sometimes. To accomplish it through a poem is, frankly, marvelous. So this poem is as ambitious as the poem that endeavors to speak to all.

Donald Hall has a significant essay on this topic, ambition and poetry, and edited an anthology of essays on various views of what poetry’s ambitions might be. I turned to it again last night when mulling over the topic of what poetry “ought” to be, or to do, or to say.

Hall begins, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” And that is certainly ambitious.  I do feel that is my goal; I don’t expect to attain it. Heck, if I produce even one poem that is great, I will be happy. Hall also writes, “We develop the notion of art from our reading.” Those texts are our models of what great, ambitious, lasting art (poetry) is.

So we develop the idea or aesthetics of what great art is through our enjoyment, study, acculturation, through the models we choose–or reject–ourselves.

Hall wanders into the controversy over writing workshops (the essay is from 1983). I’m not interested in that discussion for this post. But I constantly remind myself of this section from his essay:

Of most help is to remember that it is possible for people take hold of themselves and become better by thinking. It is also necessary, alas, to continue to take hold of ourselves—if we are to pursue the true ambition of poetry. Our disinterest must discover that last week’s nobility was really covert rottenness, etcetera. One is never free and clear; one must work continually to sustain, to recover. . . .

I’m prepared, on my best days, anyway, to accept that I will never be free and clear, that as a poet and as an amateur philosophe (is there any other kind?) I will always be working, continually taking hold of myself, trying again and again to become better by thinking. For me, this is what poetry ought to do.