- Vanity books can’t be classified as publications.
- And one of the chief dangers. Vanity publishing is costly not just in terms of money. Its profligate habits can lead to the loss of judgment and value. It can mislead: it can cause me to be satisfied with work which is less than my best. I become self-indulgent, lazy; my standards are lowered. An outside editor would not accept what I’ve let pass.
- I intend to vanity-publish all my work on my blog, eventually, and to offer there my self-pub books in PDF files free to anyone who wants them. The “print” alternative has become impossible for me. In short, it’s my failure as a print poet that has led me to the Web. I wouldn’t be blog-publishing (vanity-publishing, PDF-publishing) if I had been successful as a print poet.
- I once dreamed of writing a line that I could put into every poem. A line that would fit into every poem I wrote, that would not be out of place no matter what the poem was.
The occasion of a poem? It makes me think of that quote from Henry James: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Doubt seems to be my normal state which the poem or its origin suddenly and briefly overcomes. I know I can’t write a poem. I have no right to write a poem. Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book. Lower-class scum, menials like me have no right to write poetry. The occasion of a poem? You wanna know the fucking occasion? There is none for me. Strand and Williams and Pinsky et al. have “occasion.” I have no occasion.
- Poetry is so disesteemed and undervalued in this country that lots of poets compensate by assuming self-defensive repressive stances that internalize the hatred and scorn directed towards them. Poetry is disdained as trivial and sordid by society at large, by Puritanical political traditions. And poets respond often by considering these criticisms as valid, and try desperately to answer them and refute them by the high seriousness of their work. Their answer to being scoffed at by those above is to create a similar hierarchy in the sub-realm of poetry, in which its lower elements (the proletarian comic modes) are rejected and despised.
(“American” poetry is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. It never existed. “American” poets who write in English are Colonials, Diasporics, Offshoots, Sub-branches.)
Role as Poet
- But don’t you understand that that inability to commit to an esthetic is the root of my failure as a poet? It’s my lack of courage, really. I’ve been such a coward. Look at [Charles] Simic and Tate and compare them to me. Their courage and persistence, as opposed to my fear and wavering. Their lifelong devotion to a style. My cowardly abandonment, my desertion of every possibility. Jack of all modes, master of none, that’s me.
- “The same kind of poem from a particular poet” is what defines a strong poet, the opposite of a dilettante like me. Philip Levine is a great poet because he has had the courage and the strength to maintain his voice and his stylistic convictions through a lifetime of effort. Ditto Simic, Tate, [Sharon] Olds and others.
- One must create an established coherent poetic personality to be successful. And one must stick to that chosen persona or edifice. I don’t see Larkin ever deviating from his. As you read his Collected [Poems] you never suddenly find him trying to write something like [Ted] Hughes’ “Crow.” But turn my pages and you’ll find me trying to be [Karl] Krolow on one and Parra on the next. That’s why I’m a failure, and why I have come to the elephants’ graveyard of failure, the Web, to publish my poems. I’m posting all my poetry to my blog because ipso facto I have failed as a print poet. Facts are facts. I can’t console myself with spurious theories that will “demonstrate” anything I want them to.
Socialization, Self-Identification & Poetry
- Robert Arnold: "You use class as a metaphor a lot, it seems, and much has been made of your background—from the orphanage to your time in the army and then afterward as a poor hospital orderly. That time in your life seems almost mythological at this point, with Charles Simic and James Wright both writing anecdotes about it. How much does class, and your background specifically, figure into your identity as a poet?"
- My identity as a poet doesn’t exist, due to the class background you speak of. Every child at the orphanage knew they were on an assembly line that would shoot them out into the bondage of lower-class robot-slots; army, factory, the meniality of a desperate dead-end life….
Extra added attraction: When I was 15 years old , the orphanage sent me to the state insane asylum at Elgin, Illinois, where I was incarcerated for a year. ...How I survived that hell I’ll never know, and in fact most of my time there I have blanked out of my mind. (Need I mention there was no schooling facility, no educational activities provided to me and the other teenagers there. Nor were we segregated or separated or safeguarded in any way from the general adult population, some of whom were psychotically harmful both to themselves and others. Yes, I can recall being beaten and pushed around and abused in the usual manner of such places.)
So what fucking “identity as a poet”? I don’t have an identity as a human being, much less a poet.
But what the hell, on the other hand, maybe the state insane asylum ...maybe that shit-hole wasn’t any worse really than Exeter or whatever prep-school in which Pinsky and Strand and Bidart and Charles Wright and C.K. Williams and William fucking Matthews were also suffering the traumas of their teen-angst years at the same time as me, back there in 1955….
- When I met Philip Levine in 1969, after my first book had been published, he was a tenured professor at Fresno State; I had spent the previous ten years earning a living as a menial hospital orderly/ bedpan jockey. Levine’s written 9,000 poems about the what, the one or two summers he worked as a manual laborer or factory hand, but I’ve never written a single line about my orderly decade. Nothing, no poem, no fragment of a poem about when I was fifteen years old incarcerated in the Elgin, Illinois, state insane asylum... Out of my “experiences,” barely nothing has emerged. Why? The answer is very simple: Levine is a great poet, and I’m not. He’s had the strength and the courage to remain open to and to retain his humanity, which I was not able to do. I’ve failed in every way to live up to that task.
- I wonder if my internment as a poet has been much different from those earlier incarcerations,... I don’t think so—it seems to me that the authorities of poetry, the overseers, the supervisors of poetry, have treated me with the same disdain and contempt and indifference as did the authorities of those other institutions. Maybe that’s why I became a poet, to ensure that I would continue to receive the brutality and neglect I had become accustomed to in my youth.
The Effect of Poetry
- I regret everything I had to do with poetry in my life. My involvement with it has brought nothing but unhappiness and bitterness.
- Maybe I could be thankful to have survived the unhappiness of the past if the unhappiness of the present wasn’t overwhelming me.
- I’d be happy to pay the price of the experience if the resulting poems were worth it, but they aren’t.
From: Robert Arnold - An Interview with Bill Knott - Memorious 6 - June 2006