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Yet, alas, when the poet tastes a little fame, a little praise. And this grandeur, by a familiar paradox, may turn itself an apparent 180 degrees to tell the truth.Only when the poem turns wholly away from the petty ego, only when its internal structure fully serves art's delicious purposes, may it serve to reveal and envision.
Alas, many poets now teach nothing but creative writing, read nothing but the words of children ... It is also true that many would-be poets lack respect for learning. On the other hand, we play records all night and write unambitious poems.
Even talented young poets—saturated in S'ung, suffused in Sufi—know nothing of Bishop King's "Exequy." The syntax and sounds of one's own tongue, and that tongue's four-hundred-year-old ancestors, give us more than all the classics of all the world in translation.
For us, fame tends to mean Johnny Carson and People magazine. We have a culture crowded with people who are famous for being famous.5. At twelve, say, the American poet-to-be is afflicted with generalized ambition. There is an early stage when the poem becomes more important than the poet; one can see it as a transition from the lesser egotism to the greater.
For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung. True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever. (Robert Frost wanted to be a baseball pitcher and a United States senator: Oliver Wendell Holmes said that nothing was so commonplace as the desire to appear remarkable; the desire may be common but it is at least essential.) At sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. At the stage of lesser egotism, the poet keeps a bad line or an inferior word or image because that's the way it was: that's what really happened.
To desire to write poems that endure—we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it. If our goal in life is to remain content, no ambition is sensible. If our goal is to write poetry, the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.3.
Every now and then I meet someone certain of personal greatness. But for some people it seems ambitious merely to set up as a poet, merely to write and to publish.
I want to pat this person on the shoulder and mutter comforting words: "Things will get better! Publication stands in for achievement—as everyone knows, universities and grant-givers take publication as achievement—but to accept such a substitution is modest indeed, for publication is cheap and easy.
In this country we publish more poems (in books and magazines) and more poets read more poems aloud at more poetry readings than ever before; the increase in thirty years has been tenfold. Many of these poems are often readable, charming, funny, touching, sometimes even intelligent.
It is useful, in the pursuit of models, to read the lives and letters of the poets whose work we love. In all societies there is a template to which its institutions conform, whether or not the institutions instigate products or activities that suit such a pattern.
In the Middle Ages the Church provided the model, and guilds and secret societies erected their colleges of cardinals.