A Small Meditation on the Commerce, Relevance and Permanence of Writing in General and Poetry in Particular

I've just finished reading John Scalzi's Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary, and Personal Observations on Writing 2008-2017. He's an Ohio writer, always a plus for me, and I am a sucker for books on the writing life and I enjoyed most of the  465 pages, which read pretty fast, maybe because he writes pretty fast. ("Fifteen books in nine years"! the book flap notes.) And he makes a lot of money at it! An average of $100,000 a year for ten years, and, in the most recent year, $164,000, he reports in the first paragraph of the book.

There isn't a Table of Contents nor an Index here, and I don't remember much of the 465 pages, except that money seemed to come up a lot. But one blog post really stuck with me: "A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce, and Impermanence" from January 30, 2012. He begins with the list of best-selling books from 1912, a hundred years previously, to make the point that these books and their authors do not remain influential or even recognizable to readers today. And as far as I am concerned, he's right about that. I never heard of these 10 books, nor any of their authors either. And he goes on to say that writers shouldn't worry about permanence, but be concerned with being relevant here and now and maybe "make a living at it"  so they can remember in the end what fun they had.

In the 100-some comments that follow, many readers rise to the lack of bait (even though he suggest they not do this) and contend they love the work of Gene Stratton Porter, the top of this list, or one of the other forgotten best-selling authors of 1912. And in the loony way of blog commenters, several digress into the topic of how racist Moby Dick is. These are no doubt the same people who are horrified that Jonathon Swift wants to cook and serve Irish babies.

But I digress.

I am not a novelist. I am a poet. And while I am sure there must be some poets who earned $164,000 on their writing in 2012-- actually, I am not really all that sure of that, but there is always the "Comments" section here, if you'd like to weigh in, all you wealthy poets-- I am sure that it has been a long long time, maybe never, since books of poetry were on the list of best-selling books. There were none there in 2017, and of the top 20, only four were not novels. So it's not my wont to be very in tune with the best-selling novels. To be honest, I'm pretty oblivious to the top-selling anything. But I do read novels and nonfiction and poetry and lots of different gradations-- YA, children's, not so much genre, but my husband has that category covered for me and reports regularly.

And what Scalzi's list made me wonder was whether anyone kept track of memorable books of 1912. And what do you know, Wikipedia, among other sources did, and here are a few authors from their  list of literature first published in 1912. Among the fiction are books by: Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Anatole France, Zane Grey, James Weldon Johnson, Franz Kafka (you've heard of him?), D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann, Katherine Mansfield, Saki, Tolstoy (though he died two years earlier), H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P.G. Wodehouse. In poetry, there is Amy Lowell and Tagore, and in nonfiction John Muir and Carl Jung.

None of them made the bestseller list. Some made a living at it.  I'm not sure they remembered all the writing as "fun," though most, if not all, wrote because, like Joan Didion, their "most absorbed and passionate hours [...were] spent arranging words on pieces of paper."

My point, really, is related to Scalzi's: that writers shouldn't worry about permanence. They should worry about relevance. I personally like how Czesław Miłosz defined relevance, that the writer's work "could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with him[her]self and the world." That's the audience poets tend to be going for, that one person who needs us. As Mary Oliver so wisely put it, "It isn't easy to make a living as a poet, but it's the best way to live in order to have a life.

Talking About Poems and Plagiarism: I Confess to Looting

My poem "Confessions of a Looter" came out today. It appears in my new poetry collection, Prison
(Cover art Phil Sugden)
. You can read it here.

It's in the latest issue of the online issue of Riddled with Arrows, a journal of metapoems and metafiction, or poems about writing poems and fiction about writing fiction. If you are as interested in this kind of literature as I am, read the editor's discussion of it-- with examples from Neruda and Heaney-- here.

It is a kind of literature banned and disparaged in many journal's submission guidelines, and while it isn't my main theme, I do love to read and write metapoems. Some of my friends may recall that I was actually the poetry editor for a very large academic journal that published poems about writing-- much to the chagrin of the high-powered academic theorists who also published in its pages. (The editor also deemed to publish essays by faculty at community colleges, which irked those same chagrined theorists no end.)

But I digress. I mean to write about this poem about writing. About sources and lifting and stealing. I wrote it around 1984, long before The Poetry Foundation asked why 2013 had become above an article by Ruth Graham about the outbreak of plagiarism in poetry ("Word Theft"), which is horrifying if you are a poet and probably meh if you're not. Since then, I did a lot of teaching about how to use sources without abusing them, the whole giving credit where credit is due idea. I do a lot of using sources in my poems. I write responses to poems, recently one titled "The Skirts" in response to Robert Pinsky's "Shirt" and one titled "Another Cut" after Plath's "Cut." And I quote other's phrases in my poems-- which is easier to attribute in a book of poems than on a singular poem, though italics help and quote marks.

And then this week, I read a wonderful chapter on "The Fallibility of Memory" in Oliver Sacks' last, posthumous book, The River of Consciousness. Sacks begins outside the realm of literature with his own faulty memory of a bombing in WWII that he was sure he experienced until his brother convinced him he did not. He also mentioned others' faulty memories, like Reagan's "distortion of memory," movingly recounting a story of a WWII bomber pilot as though a reality when in fact, it was the scene of a famous movie. My father, who suffers from dementia, started doing the same thing at about the same age as Reagan, telling stories out of WWII movies as thought they were his own. Unlike Reagan, who never saw battle, Dad in fact was a B-17 tailgunner, and he did see some awful battles in the 100th Bomb Group. His pilot used to say, "Dammit, his own stories are better than these. I wish he'd tell them."

Sacks goes on to talk about two types of "literary theft": cryptomnesia and plagiarism. The first in unintentional, and he gives two famous examples of those. One was committed by Helen Keller and one by Mark Twain. Both of them were aghast when they found out and apologized to their public for the offense and explained how it might have happened. The second type is intentional, and most people who commit it today tend to line up their lawyers and PR people to shout down the complaints, and if that doesn't work, they line up a lot of friends to sign a letter making excuses. They insist it isn't a big deal and never apologize. (Maybe because they have lawyers lined up behind them who won't let them.)

And in fact, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between cryptomnesia and plagiarism, so as I used to tell my students, keep notes.

In 1984 when I wrote the poem, I wanted to imagine a serious plagiarist who really really thought of himself as a thief, and I wanted to use the language of theft-- this was still before I had walked into prison and taught there for 18 years and heard the lively language of thievery, and still I found some authentic stuff, I found. The poem actually began with what is now its last line. The editor of Riddled with Arrows emailed me about the poem, "That's a killer last line."

So here is my real confession: I lifted that one line from an anthologized short story with a narrator who had to move a lot. I kept notes back then, but I have moved at least 10 times since then, and my notes got lost in the shuffle. I have no idea who the author was, nor the title of his story. I am telling you now. If you find it, let me know. I'd love to give credit where credit is due.