I would like a simple life
yet all night I am laying
poems away in a long box.
– from The Ambition Bird, Anne Sexton
Ambition is normal. It’s the fuse we light when we begin. We want our poems to succeed, whatever that means. When we start out, it’s a good thing we don’t know how to file all the burrs down. Our early work, with its deep flaws and inconsistencies, is all we have. Self belief. Ambition. Faith. Trying to second-guess ourselves in the early stages kills the pilot light. Self-consciousness is the last thing we need, when we’re beginning. The only time being fully self-conscious is valuable is when we’re editing, staring down a poem’s failings late in the drafting stages, taking a cane-knife to sentimentality and lazy line-breaks. As we develop as poets, as our work comes under public scrutiny, being self-aware is inevitable. It’s when we start to believe the spin we invent for ourselves and start to act out our own mythologies…. this is the end: ambition has claimed another one. And so we carry on, doing the best we can, and we need solitude. We need isolation. It seems especially so with poetry, or at least it is with me. I’ve written a novel, and while I loved the process of inventing characters and hearing them speak, of watching them move and recording it all in the best prose I could bring to the table, I was rarely in a state of complete immersion. Writing poetry, in the early stages of a draft, I enter what I suppose is a form of self-hypnosis, and I can be missing in action for hours. It’s always been that way. The most important thing is to attend to what’s at hand, not some idea of ourselves further down the road. Ambition feeds projection. To find time for deep involvement in our writing is hard won, and for some of us we’re lucky to find a few hours a week when we’re able to give ourselves over to our imagination without fear of interruption. But it’s what we need if we’re going to turn common ground into amazement. The poet Wallace Stevens had the right idea. Many of his poems, or their foundations, were composed as he walked to and from his work as Vice President of Hartford Accident & Insurance company. The rhythm of his footsteps, of his body, informed the rhythms of many of his poems. Isolation is essential if we’re going to make magic happen, and it doesn’t matter if it involves a room, desk and chair, or a walk to consider a flawed line inside a sestina. Stevens was an ambitious man, but when it came to his poetry, he let it do the talking.
Ambition becomes a problem when impatience sets its hooks under the skin. Poems can take a long time to write or they can emerge, fully-formed, in one sitting. That’s unlikely. Once they’re finished, they take on a different form, they are distant now, set in objectivity. We can leave them in a drawer (which should be part of the later editing process anyway, as almost-finished poems need extended time in the dark) or we can give them wings and send them out, to print and online journals, to newspapers, small and major magazines. But it’s a slow process – not as slow as before email, but we need to remember this: it should always be about the poetry, not the poet.
In the late 1980’s, early 90’s, with the internet and email in their infancy, poets had the opportunity to network widely. Now there was no need to slip poems or letters with stamps or international reply coupons into an envelope, dispatch it to a journal, then get on with writing more poems while checking the letterbox, weeks or months later, for the good or bad news. But sending out poems was not always the major agenda. Some understood the power and allure of networking, of instant gratification, and they used the internet to great effect. But, some will say, why not utilise technology, put yourself out there, get connected, get ahead. Yes, but the person or the poem? The persona or the sestina?
‘What seems to be generosity is often no more than disguised ambition, which overlooks a small interest in order to secure a great one.’
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Ambition, when it outmaneuvers or overshadows the work at hand, can lead to a number of tricky outcomes. Poets can become careerists, seeing themselves in terms of a literary corporatism. They make certain they are frequently photographed. They work hard to fashion the idea that they are, indeed, a major talent. They outstay their welcome during poetry readings, believing, very unfortunately, that going overtime will be welcomed by their adoring fans. One common characteristic of the Career Poet is a sensitivity to criticism akin to an anaphylactic reaction. Another might be a tendency to utilise (appropriate?) the work or works of others into their own cultural and geographical contexts. Some try to conceal the flagrantly porous nature of their work, others don’t seem to care. One will try to make the sestet their own, even though it trails the dust, drips the water, and reeks of the sky under which it was first hammered out, in isolation, in a southern state of another country. It’s as though they are trying to reestablish the voice of a major literary influence in their own work, and hope no-one will notice. Ambition is cultivated, shaped, and then becomes second skin. Ambition, when off the leash, can be ugly.
Recently, on Facebook, someone tried to discredit me, calling me (among other things) an ‘academic poet’. Ouch. Being an academic has nothing to do with being a poet – composing, editing, wide reading, publishing poems – this is what poets do. Being an academic provides a great opportunity to pass on some of the tricks of our dark trade and to turn students (and other academics) on to poems and poets. Ambition can ambush the writer who works in this field. The pressure to publish, and being competitive with peers can strip our trust in intuition and ability to be still, and quiet. We need to be mindful of the pitfalls of expectation, or perceived expectation. I love teaching, and the research takes care of itself – the idea of writing an essay on poetry is a delight, not a burden. I’m aware that many academics who also write and publish poetry see the work and the writing through the same lens. That’s great, as long as they’re able to pull the blind down on conference alerts, and try to ignore, when it matters, what their peers are doing, to return to their own poems as often as possible. Competitiveness is common, and being too self-aware can put out the fire of our need to compose. The temptation to keep up, to get ahead, becomes too great.
‘The thing is to write better and better poems. Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.’
Most of us begin writing poetry before taking on any theory or critical discussion that pertains to it. During this time, we have a natural, open-ended belief in our ability to describe and define our feelings and observations. To offer up our work for critical analysis too early would surely diminish our confidence and force us to second-guess ourselves, as we write. This summons that old debate of whether it’s best to write strictly for ourselves or with an audience/reader in mind. I’ve always had faith in the former, as to get that ahead of myself seems ridiculous when there’s so much hard work at hand, and ahead, and so many unknown elements to negotiate.
‘Ambition is not a quality of the poem but of the poet.’