“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. …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.”
In the recent interview conducted by Robert Arnold - (editor of the on-line journal Memorious) - with Bill Knott, I’ve come across one of the most caustic diatribes denouncing the world of poetry that I’ve read recently. It is based on (if we are to believe the rhetoric) certain accomplishments he has failed to realize. But after considering his invective it appeared that there was in fact a flaw in his logic.
Knott comes to the conclusion that he is a failure due to what he states are irrefutable facts. i.e:
1-The Guggenheim Award is valueless since it has been given to “no-names”.
2 - It took him 35 years to receive award whereas other recipients achieve this in less time.
3 - Not selected for BAP (Best American poetry) or any other anthology.
4 - Books of poetry have not won any award of any type.
5 - Never invited to judge book contest.
6 - Received tenure at 55 years old, fifteen or twenty years after the successful poets of my generation
7 - The successful contemporary USA poet must have a publisher who stands behind and supports them:
8- Poets work must be in print and remain in print:
9 - Daniel Halpern will ask the successful poet to judge a book in his National Poetry Series:
Conclusion: These criteria are not matters of opinion, points of critical debate; they are factual data. Add them up and they measure failure.
I do not intend to argue here whether or not Bill Knott is a failure at poetry. That is a moot point. Most aspiring poets would gladly trade poetic places with him. The point is that poetic success is measurable in gradations and not in either absolute poetic triumph and/or defeat. The more interesting upshot of the above quote & the Memorious interview is that Knott appears to imply by his responses that success at poetry is determined by socio-economic status. His statement implies that an upper-class poetic voice is acceptable & viable whereas a lower-class poetic voice falls on deaf ears when it comes to the literary establishment.
Does in fact “Noblesse Oblige” give the poetic dilettante entitlements that it denies a lower-class counterpart? Are poets with poor & untraditional backgrounds really denied access to the higher rungs on the ladder up the poetic hierarchy? Are an MFA and proper breeding sufficient variables leading to an equation ensuring poetic success?
Of course to statistically determine if this assertion were true, it would entail conducting an in-depth study of the socio-economic backgrounds of published poets in various poetic journals; poets who received poetic awards; received tenure; have books published (& remain in print) by mainline publishing houses & be selected for renowned anthologies. To my knowledge such a study has not been engineered by any social scientist. It might be interesting though to see if any of Knott’s allegations hold water!