Tuesday, March 24, 2009

who's listening?

Undine is right in the comments box on that last post: 500 words a day is probably plenty, if they're the right words – & if one can manage to squeeze out that much, day in & day out. But then there's the inevitable question: who is one writing for?

Over at Say Something Wonderful, Eric has been musing on the issue of audience – who reads what we write, & for whom do we write it in the first place? And I've been casting a cold eye over both my CV & a table of contents I'm playing with for a "selected odds & sods" volume, & wondering much the same thing. Despite my whining in the last post, while I still lament how hard writing itself is, I suspect I've published way too much. Or at least that too much of what I've published has been published for the wrong – read career – reasons: it's been published, that is, with no clear idea of an audience save for the committees who read annual reports & measure progress towards tenure & promotion.

My CV includes a bunch of items – encyclopedia articles, reviews, etc. – that got written for no other reason than that someone asked me to write them & then offered to publish them. Does anyone actually read these gigantic literary reference guides? I wrote these pieces – not all of them, but too many of them – in a kind of vacuum, not knowing or questioning for whom they might be useful. They filled lines on the vita; there's some good writing there, and sometimes some decent thinking (some of it recycled from earlier work), but for the most part my heart was somewhere else.

The first Zukofsky book – LZ & the Poetry of Knowledge – was a revamped & expanded version of my dissertation, & it shows. Okay, so the thing gets cited once in a while in Zukofsky circles, but I honestly have trouble looking back over it, all of that stilt-walking prose & convoluted argumentation. It deserved its ambivalent reviews, even tho as I read them I could pick out the precisely the ideological & scholarly axes each reviewer was grinding. (Tho one of my most treasured possessions is a 4-page letter from Guy Davenport, reading his way thru the book with pencil in hand & saying such nice things that I blush to think about them.)

I've tended to flit around butterfly-like, writing tons of polished conference papers that went over well at the time, that had people saying "when are you going to publish that one?" – but then never getting around to doing anything with them. There, on my hard drive like the snows of yesteryear, are dandy embryonic essays on Alasdair Gray, on Robert Sheppard, on Stephen Jonas, on Sir Walter Scott for God's sake. I just never got around to doing anything with them – I was distracted by teaching, by parenthood, by the latest commissioned piece, by whatever. And perhaps I never imagined an audience for those papers beyond the 6 or 12 people who heard them the 1st & only time.

Oddly enough, the extended periodical pieces into which I've put the most blood sweat & tears – the big essay-reviews for Parnassus – are the ones I wrote with the clearest audience in mind (Herb Leibowitz & Ben Downing, the ruthless blue-pencilling editors – and beyond them, Eric himself, who righteously slapped down my pretentious academese early on in our friendship, for which relief much thanks), & simultaneously the ones that have gotten the least response. I've never written a Parnassus piece on a subject for which I didn't feel passionately: either passionate enthusiasm (Ron Johnson, John Matthias) or passionate ambivalence (Anne Carson, Theodore Enslin). And line for line, they're my best slices of writing. Nonetheless, aside from some gentle remonstrances from Ted and a nice remark or two from John, those essays seem to have fallen into a void.

I spent a lot of time thinking about audience in respect to the LZ biography; I wanted to write a book that would appeal to someone other than the 250 people who came to the Columbia LZ centenary celebration, or the 100 who'd read LZ & the Poetry of Knowledge. I wanted to write a book that would introduce & open up LZ to people who'd heard the name but kept confusing him with Bukowski. I wanted, I sometimes told myself, to target the New Yorker readers who thought they knew something about contemporary poetry but hadn't read past Robert Lowell. I was pretty disheartened when my editor decided that he should allow the book its "scholarly tone" – a tone I was precisely trying to avoid – & even more irritated when one blogger called the book "every bit as stiff as the author's portrait on the dust jacket" (ouch!). But the bio did provide me something I hadn't gotten before: for a while, a pretty steady stream of readerly feedback, most of it positive; for once, I felt like I wasn't writing into an empty room.

Once upon a time I wrote an essay on Ian Hamilton Finlay for the folks at FlashPoint; it was written out of nothing more than enthusiasm for his work. I didn't have a job at the time, & I didn't expect that piece to help me get one. John Tranter at Jacket picked it up & republished it. Heaven help me, it may turn out to be the most-cited piece I've ever written. I'm still rather proud of it, even tho I can see its shortcomings all too clearly. I just looked back it, in fact, & realize that when I finally get around to writing that Finlay book, the essay's ideas may be at its core – but every single sentence is going to have to be revised. I'm no longer interested in writing for an audience that will abide that sort of turgid, tangled prose.

The work that is closest to my heart – my poetry – may have evoked the least response at all. There may be 12 people out there who'll click on a link to read a poem by MS – and yes, I know them all by name, I think. (Anarchy dropped off a cliff into an abyss of indifference, so far as I know – tho I have copies, if anyone's interested.) But the poems are for me, or for an idealized reader whose sensibility is awfully similar to mine; and on some level, I suspect that's how many poets work, trying to create the poems that they themselves would want to read & be surprised by, & let everyone else listen in if they so desire.


Ed Baker said...

have read a cpl of yor poems...

here and there

some "good moves"

wld like to read your "thing" re: Ted Enslin...

where is it?


A. said...

I was the first one in line at NY Public to borrow The Poem of a Life and kept renewing it to finish. Best bio I've read in a long time. I'm slowly making my way through LZ's collected short poems and "A" now.

I didn't know you wrote poems. Where can I read some?

By the way, you're spot on with that New Yorker comment, though I'd read long beyond Lowell by the time I'd had a subscription (which I've since given up on), and only had that subscription because it was a gift.

Michael Peverett said...

I've got The Poem of a Life because I wanted to know something about LZ - I kind of forgot about who the author was. I guess that's the weird self-abnegation that a writer of useful writing has to get used to - to all appearance, the work just drops into a void - but it doesn't really. But I read kulturindustrie because I like to read kulturindustrie and then I don't have an agenda and don't care if it's useful...

Mark Scroggins said...

thanks for the good words, A. -- as for poems, I've got most of the ones online linked on the right of the blog. (Tho I seem to have missed a few--)