“The first voice says, ‘Write!’ And the second voice says, ‘For whom?’ And the first voice answers: ‘For the dead whom thou didst love.’” Kierkegaard quoting Hamann
We write for all those writers who preceded us, all those writers whom we read, who influenced us. All art, including writing, can be seen as a dialogue between artists and writers, living and deceased. Alan Ginsberg was writing in dialogue with Walt Whitman. Others of us write in response to Emily Dickinson, or Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens. I love Stevens’ line: “The bird’s fire fangled feathers dangle down.” So I try my own poems about birds. I read Frost’s line: “Who we love we love for who they are,” and use a variation of it in a poem and title one of my books What We Love. This is in homage to Frost.
Hamann also meant we often write for those who are no longer among us. I have a number of poems I’ve written for kids I went to high school, with who died young: Mike Bernier, “a dead shot from the corner,” who died at fifteen of a mysterious kidney ailment; Nancy Huffam, my seventh grade girlfriend, who fell asleep in the back of a van that crashed and burned. “Maybe she never woke up, or maybe she woke up dead.” Dennis Martin who always had a silly smile on his face that drove authorities crazy--he died of a heroin overdose. “I’d like to think they couldn’t wipe the smile off his freckled face.”
Of course, we can’t just write for the dead, we have to write for the living too, for our contemporaries: other writers. But, as writers, we have to be careful whom we read. One of the editors of Poetry says we should read as much contemporary writing as we can. Well, it is editors who should read as much contemporary writing as they can. After all, in any given era, much of the work produced is not really all that good and will not last (of course I’m not talking about us, silly). Better advice for the writer is to search out what is good for his or her writing, and read only that. Of course, there is plenty of good writing around (Collins, Hoagland, Perullo, Gluck, Ashbury, etc.). But, when we read these writers, we will be influenced by them. That can be good or bad. John Ashbury is a very good writer, but when I read John Ashbury, I begin writing bad imitations of his poems.
If you go according to the editors of most magazines you should read what’s in their magazines before you submit. “Familiarize yourself with what’s in before submitting.” That way you will know what they like. They are apparently under the impression that they are our audience and we must write to them. But as Yeats said, as soon as the poet composes with an eye to audience, he is writing rhetoric, not poetry. Helen Vendler (in a book review of C.K. Williams Singing the Poet Electric, claims that “poets—great ones at least—write ultimately not for any audience but for themselves or an exacting ideal.” Magazine editors are asking us to do their job for them and pre-select material to fit their taste when that is their job. We do the writing; they must do the accepting and rejecting.
Since you will be doing a lot of writing for yourself (examining your own quarrels with yourself, to paraphrase Yeats again), you’d better like your own writing. You’re going to be reading and revising it for years. You’ll need to be perseverant. My experience with publishing may be unusual but I suspect it is not. I seldom publish poems or stories right away. Publishing material for me is very uneven; a few poems, a story and an article are published right around the same time and then, nothing for months. In the last twenty years, lots of publications have fallen through. NPR planned to use a piece about winter but by the time they got to it, it was spring, so they decided not to use it. Ploughshares was going to include a few poems in a double issue but had to cut pages for budgeting reasons. One magazine, Negative Capability, accepted poems and then folded. Editors move around, retire or leave to write. Just after Michael Benedikt published a few of my poems in The Paris Review, he left the magazine. Richard Hugo, my teacher at University of Montana, told me he’d help me get a book published with his publisher (Norton), then, unfortunately, he died.
The internet had added an interesting twist to publishing. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that people can share, post and read your writing. The bad news is: you don’t get paid for it. Writers are now in a similar position to musicians whose music can be downloaded for free. If you type in a poem entitled “At the End” (by yours truly) you’ll get a dozen or more hits. It’s posted under “short poems about death,” “the poet-photographer,” “43 things I like,” etc.; it’s even listed on a couple of high school English websites. So a lot of people apparently like my poem. The problem is: that doesn’t necessarily translate into their buying my book. Maybe, in the future, writers will make their money not from books but from live performances. Maybe this is already happening with some writers.
Anyway, if you want to be a writer you should, of course, enjoy writing. According to Stevens, that’s easy because “the purpose of poetry is to contribute to man’s happiness.” On the other hand, Robert Bly says poetry functions as a means of bringing you down, not in a bad way, but down in a meditative sense to where you can truly see. In this way, writing is both therapeutic and useful. Well, maybe we all just need an aesthetic outlet. For some it’s music, for others art or restoring cars. For us it’s writing.
So we write for the dead, whom we loved, and for the living, not least of which, ourselves. Our Platonic ideal of what good writing is, shaped by all those writers we’ve read and admired, an exacting ideal contextualized by our contemporaries and approved, if we’re lucky by readers and editors. We have to hope that some of those editors are not just looking for work that looks and sounds like everything else they publish. Otherwise they just might miss out on the next Emily Dickinson, or Franz Kafka, or me, or you.
When you're writing, who do you have in mind?
Connect with Ed:Ed Meek’s third book of poems, Spy Pond, was published in 2015 by Prolific Press. His collection of stories, Luck, is coming out in 2017 with Tailwinds Press. Ed has had poetry, fiction and articles in The Paris Review, The North American Review, The Boston Globe, etc.
Read his work: Cindy Silk, His Name is John and Why Millennials Bond With Their Boomer Parents.
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