Some friends from the office recently convened at Noble Rot for drinks and conversation in celebration of my sixtieth birthday. One of them asked if I plan to retire at sixty-two, to which I replied that I would love to do that, but it is not financially feasible. I will likely have to put in time at whatever workplace will have me until I keel over from a work-related heart attack or stroke, that or take up residence under a bridge somewhere, options born of failure to find a suitable mode of existence whereby I might devote myself to a life of study and creative pursuits, thinking here of existence as E.R. Curtius put it in a short chapter on the mode of existence of the medieval poet, “not in the sense of contemporary ‘existentialism’ but in the old-fashioned (but always up-to-date) one of ‘living conditions and making ends meet.’” (Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages).
How the poet fits into society, the poet’s function, and how to earn a living, were dilemmas for medieval poets no less than for those who take up the pen today. “One could become a teacher, a clergyman, a doctor, an artisan…There was a road to every occupation in the world…a school…Only for the poet there was none! It was permissible, even considered an honor, to be a poet. But to become a poet was impossible; to want to become one was absurd and shameful.” (Hermann Hesse, quoted by Curtius).
In the Middle Ages there was a school for poets—or rather, poetry itself was a school subject. To that extent the poet’s “vocational problem” was simpler. But finding economic security could be a tormenting preoccupation to the poet in those days too. He was thrown back on gifts from his patrons, and he often begs in moving tones for the necessities of life. (Curtius)
Walter of Châtillon (twelfth-century French writer and theologian) wrote a poem asking the pope for a benefice, reminding him that Virgil and Lucan were wealthy. Walter refuses to write for money in a passage paraphrased in Curtius: “Many fools want to play the Juvenal; shall I, who have Pallas for my patroness, be silent? They make begging poems, which can be likened to the lowing of cattle, while I command the delicate tones of a various art.” In another poem Walter writes that “To strive after wisdom and virtue is a very fine thing, but the man who does it ends up in the gutter…What help is all learning if, having it, one goes hungry?”
Writes Curtius, “Study, learning and poetry bring nothing in. Then is it not better to renounce academic education and throw oneself into practical life? This is a favorite theme for discussion among the school poets.” He adds, “A standing complaint is that mimes and buffoons are better rewarded and cared for by the powerful than are poets.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The poet’s place in society and relationship with gainful employment have long been problematic and more or less accepted as such. Yet we all must earn, beg, borrow, or steal a living, unless we choose our parents wisely enough to inherit. One need not be a philistine or Republican to note that poets are no different from anyone else in this regard. A counterargument might have it that the poet’s mode of existence is an issue because it goes beyond paying the rent or mortgage, the grocery bill, the booze bill, and on to the need to find a way of life wherein the poet can flourish qua poet. To which might be offered by way of rejoinder, that is all well and good, but life is what it is. The bills come due. We pay them, or we pay the price exacted for defying them.
There is a long and after its fashion honored tradition of the poète maudit, the poet as outcast existing on the fringes of society, denizen of the demimonde, defiant of bourgeois values and work ethic, devotion to the muse accompanied by devotion to alcohol, drugs, and sexual relationships unconstrained by convention. François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, and Alfred Jarry come to mind. Bob Kaufman (1925–1986) and Gregory Corso (1930–2001) are more contemporary examples. Exactly how Kaufman and Corso survived is not altogether clear to me, yet they made it, Kaufman his three score years, Corso three score and ten, carving out niches for themselves as minor though highly original poets.
Corso’s résumé is sketchy by any standard:
Writer. Manual laborer in New York, NY, 1950-51; employee of Los Angeles Examiner, Los Angeles, CA, 1951-52; merchant seaman on Norwegian vessels, 1952-53. English department, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1965-70. (Gregory Corso Biography, The Poetry Foundation)
His youth was spent in foster homes, on the streets of New York, and in prison, not a background where job skills are apt to be cultivated. As a young fellow, good looking and no doubt possessed of a certain bohemian charm, Corso had a knack for connecting with women from well-to-do families. William Burroughs offered this account on Corso’s mode of existence in Paris some fifty years ago:
Gregory had no visible means of support and managed to live in Paris [circa 1958-63] on his wits, able to cadge a drink here, a meal there, to sell something or be given gifts, usually by women. My dear, he always had girls. Always had girls. He had one there called April, or was she November or September or something?… He always came up with something. He was always writing big manuscripts and annotating them and selling them as first drafts. Somebody else would find they had one too. He wrote a great deal when he was there… Of course Gregory was always in and out. I remember someone saying, “Gregory is difficult.” Well he’s a poor Italian thief. He went to reform school. He was brought up in that whole atmosphere of being a thief. He had sense enough to get out…. Gregory decided he was a poet and he just stuck with it. (Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel)
It is not just for bohemians that employment and means of survival present challenges. Dana Gioia offers an amusing anecdote about Allen Tate, who fared no better than Corso might have in his stab at a career in business.
Allen Tate’s brother, Benjamin Nathan Tate, was a self-made tycoon who had formed two coal companies in Cincinnati and sat on the board of directors of several large corporations including Western Union. When Allen left Vanderbilt in 1922, Benjamin decided to start his brother on a business career by securing him a job in one of his coal offices. “In one day I lost the company $700 [a considerably more substantial sum at that time than at present] by shipping some coal to Duluth that should have gone to Cleveland,” Tate later explained. Benjamin soon agreed that Allen should seek a literary career.
Gioia’s theme in the essay Business and Poetry is American poetry’s silence on the topic of business:
American poetry has defined business mainly by excluding it. Business does not exist in the world of poetry, and therefore by implication it has become everything that poetry is not—a world without imagination, enlightenment, or perception. It is the universe from which poetry is trying to escape.
T.S. Eliot’s decade in the international department of Lloyd’s Bank of London merits only scant reference in his poetry. Wallace Stevens coupled a career as a corporate lawyer and insurance company executive with a rigorously compartmentalized literary career for which he is recognized as a major American poet of the twentieth century.
Gioia notes that A.R. Ammons was a salesman for a scientific glass manufacturer when his first book appeared and spent ten years in business before leaving to teach at Cornell, James Dickey made a career in advertising before a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to devote his major energies to writing, and Richard Hugo worked at Boeing for thirteen years before nailing an academic position. Ammons, Dickey, and Hugo appear to have functioned capably in the business world, yet they all left jumped ship when opportunity presented itself, Ammons and Hugo straightaway, Dickey with a slight detour that included a stint at Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.
William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara, two poets not taken up by Gioia, enjoyed successful careers outside the univesity. Williams was a physician in Rutherford, New Jersey, for more than forty years. O’Hara landed a job at the front desk at the Museum of Modern Art after he obtained an M.A. at the University of Michigan, where he studied comparative literature, and went on to be a curator at the museum.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919) and Gary Snyder (b. 1930) are poets of undeniable accomplishment and character who also flourished outside the literary-university establishment before being recognized by it. They were prominent members of a loose network of poets associated with the bohemian, countercultural scene of the 1950s and 1960s whose lives and careers took a different trajectory than did those of Corso and Kaufman. They staked out their ground as dissenting voices, progressive in their social and political views, sharp critics of corporate capitalism and multiple establishments, while serving as exemplary models for what it is to be an engaged citizen, serious writer, and generally decent human being in a troubled time.
Ferlinghetti earned an M.A. from Columbia University (1948) and a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne (1951). After discovering that he was not cut out for teaching, he became a bookseller and publisher as cofounder of City Lights Books in 1953. In addition to poems Ferlinghetti has written, fiction, plays, art criticism, and essays. He is also a painter whose whose has appeared in galleries throughout the world.
Snyder is sui generis, a remarkable figure who found a way to balance and affirm physical labor, intellectual pursuits, community responsibility, environmental stewardship, and a spiritual sensibility rooted in Buddhist practice. A graduate school dropout (if memory serves, he attended grad school for one semester at University of Indiana, where he set out to study anthropology), he worked as a seaman, lumberjack, firewatcher, on trail crews, lived in Japan, studied in a Zen monastery, translated Japanese and Chinese poetry, while producing a distinctive body of his own work, poems and essays, for which he is rightly recognized as one of the most distinguished literary figures of his generation. Snyder is an American poet for whom work is a recurring theme, but it is generally physical labor, not business, that is his topic. He served as a lecturer at numerous universities and writing workshops and is an emeritus professor of English at the University of California, Davis, where he became a faculty member in 1985.
So what are we to make of this cursory and somewhat haphazard examination of the poet’s mode of existence? The first thing that jumps out is the ease with which we can find examples of poets who make ends meet by way of some accommodation with the necessity of gainful employment. Teaching in the university, or better, a university position with as light a teaching load as can be gotten away with, is probably preferable. Poets often land faculty appointments only after gaining some recognition for their work rather than via the conventional route whereby accumulation of graduate degrees segues directly into a teaching career. The poète maudit can cut a romantic and in some sense inspiring figure as one who lives for art, but those who take this path tend not to leave behind the strongest body of work.
Competition for university positions has always been fierce. I would imagine it has not diminished in today’s university where the business model and its bottomline calculations reign, with emphasis on technical education, job skills, and business study, to the neglect of the traditional liberal arts and humanistic values. The writer-workshop racket seems to be going great guns, but I doubt we can all support ourselves teaching each other about writing.
Cleaving to the vision while doing what one must to make end’s meet is no less nor more a challenge and struggle for American poets than for poets in other times and places. We do not have to look too far to find models who meet this challenge with integrity and honor. How we meet it today comes down, as does much else, to the individual, a person’s makeup, existential choices whose wisdom or folly is apparent only in hindsight, and to some extent fortune or fate, not in the sense of something preordained but how things play out that hinges in part on talent and character and in part on chance and luck, for good or ill.
The Whole of the Poet’s Existence, Part I
David :: Sep.16.2012 ::
House Red: Literary and Intellectual ::
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