Poetry and Humility

A former colleague (who will go unnamed) once said in a departmental meeting that as writers we should feel ourselves capable of kicking Eliot’s or Hemingway’s or whomever’s ass on the printed page. Some of the attendees smiled and nodded. I threw up in my mouth a little. Now, granted, this individual’s own work was and I imagine still is very good, but that notion of attaining bad-assedness seemed so contrary to what I wanted to do with my own writing that it made me question what I was doing there.

I think it’s incumbent on the writer to gain a sense of humility towards one’s art and forebears in the tradition around the world (by which I mean: no canon). Arrogance might be flavor-of-the-month but that flame burns fast. I used to want—now it’s hard even to name what it was: something like success, though as John Ashbery implied with that wonderful line, “Being a famous poet is not the same thing as being famous,” it won’t get you on Letterman. Personally, I feel as successful as I need to be. Hopefully, you do too.

Maybe it all has something to do with the American notion of competitiveness, the football-as-war mentality, all or nothing, second place is the first loser. The thing is, that’s entirely unhealthy. Of course, one problem with this biz that we call po-: it rewards that very competitive spirit. Sure, I have it too; it causes more problems than it’s worth.

Toronto certainly has its own vibrant writing scene and there is absolutely no difference between the two countries where that sense of competitiveness is concerned, I promise you, in a country where everything, and I mean everything, can be successfully reduced to a hockey metaphor (I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I get that). Sometimes, you have to get away, turn around and see it fresh, to see it clearly. Now, friends of mine are serious players; in this way, I know things will be in good hands. It seems their positivist, inclusive ideologies are winning against that other impulse, even as they themselves continue playing the game, because of course in the universities you have to play. Opting out is not usually possible.

Still, knowing these people as I’ve come to, their own sense of humility toward art, their own and that of their forebears, it’s clear they’re having a positive impact on writing. Even as they play the game, they’re playing in all good faith and that’s the take-away lesson, I think. Try to play like they do.

Should you play? Should you participate? Of course you should. How else to have your work seen? Remember: it’s all a game anyway. Play. But set aside any notions of arrogance, that your work is necessarily better than anyone else’s. This biz means business, folks. It has humbled everyone who’s ever been engaged in the practice of writing. If it hasn’t had that effect yet on you, trust me when I say it will. You will lose competitions you were certain you’d win; you’ll read the occasional snide, snarky note from an editor; and the rejections, on paper or digitally, will pile up around your desk like a castle wall. It will happen. There’s no getting around it. This is called “paying your dues.”

Look: we all have egos. Rejections don’t feel good. But they’re necessities. At the same time, not sending is no option, either. Now, taking the occasional break isn’t a bad thing; sometimes you just need to recharge, take care of life matters, etc., but to say you’ll never send out more work is petulant, and self-negating. If you’re lucky, that never encompasses a long time; wouldn’t it be better to send out work, even only a little, like test balloons?

I honestly believe the business of writing in general gets around to humbling the most arrogant of us. I am not putting this colleague down, because I have an enormous ego myself—always have had, likely always will. It’s incorrigible. So please understand, I’m not deriding that person but empathizing. Uncontrolled, ego can harm the writer like no drug or drink. Bear in mind the old story about John Berryman (him again) and Robert Lowell—after Yeats died, they looked at each other and asked “Now, who’s the King of Cats?” meaning it was going to be between them. Now, consider what loosed ego/id contributed to their downfalls. Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell examines this in some detail, and of course no Berryman biography can fail to deal with it.

Even though it was a fact and they knew it, just imagine what it must’ve been like for them. That’s pressure. Who’s the greatest poet (meaning in the Western world, meaning just whites and males for the most part)? At a certain point, that pressure must have been a gigantic impediment. Who could want that?

Is it possible to be both “successful” and humble toward one’s art? Certainly. But the people who achieve it are indeed rare. I’ve been lucky in knowing a few, and working with a few, who’ve achieved both. Their students love and respect them not mainly for what they’ve done in their careers thus far but for who they are as people. So, if the news of the world is getting you down, bear this in mind: good things are happening in literature because of a new generation of writers who come to their art without so much of that baggage. Let’s hope that attitude spreads.


About johnwylam1957

I'm a poet and teacher now living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This entry was posted in Poetry/Fiction, Writing in General. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Poetry and Humility

  1. carvingoutavoice says:

    John, you raise some excellent points here. I’ve made friends who are wildly successful and I feel humbled and sometimes can’t help but think when they’re celebrating another great success, “Gee, why isn’t that happening for me?” But I can’t help but have a little more confidence simply knowing these people continue to show interest in me and what I’m doing as an artist, especially during those times when I’m accumulating rejection letters like rainwater. I think these are the kind of people you mention.

    I have also met people who are half the writers as the first set and are so absorbed with the idea that people are below them, or are so convinced that all other writers are out to take advantage that they won’t even consider building relationships with other writers and I think they all have to have mega egos to think this way. I’ve learned to steer clear of these types and really have come to feel sorry for them. I find writerly support to be intrinsic to balancing my ego and aiding in my growth.

    Denying yourself that opportunity is a pretty shitty way to treat yourself and others. Anyway, that’s my philosophy on the subject, naive as it may seem to some. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • johnwylam1957 says:

      Agreed, Michelle — there are still people in whom you can confidently place your trust, but there remain others who see everyone else as “the competition,” and they’re the ones most often in the way of writers actually improving their craft. And yeah, withholding in the end is just wrong unless you have a very good excuse. If one’s dead, that might be an excuse, but I’m not sure. Much Cheer, Folks!

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