As usual, I'm dealing with the unraveling of my own consciousness. Where does poetry fit into my life? What about academia? Activism? Religion? These questions led me to look back at Naked Heart, William Everson's book of interviews and essays edited by my father, Lee Bartlett. I am just going to quote a few passages. The first of which is an excerpt from Nathanial Tarn in an interview with Bartlett and Everson. This was conducted at Kingfisher Flat in 1986 (the year that I was 16).
Tarn: Of course, Erza Pound had this same kind of regard for the poet, and it seems to me that one of the primary reasons he was so tragically disappointed in life was that his vision really was beginning to encounter the wall of silence he had not wanted to perceive before. So, my question here would be rather brutal. Do you think that the coming generations are going to have all that elevated notion of the poet? My sense of what younger poets are doing today does not imply that prophetic idea of the poet at all.
Bartlett: I'd agree with that. Certainly I think Michael Palmer would deny a prophetic vocation, as would a poet coming out of Iowa's MFA Program.
Everson: Poetry goes through changes from primitivism to decadence: we happen to be in a decadent period right now. However, mythic possibilities will always be there.
I would like to invite poets to revisit this discussion. I realize that calling the poet (i.e. oneself) is problematic. It stinks of idealism. Still, I think it's an important question. I read somewhere a few days ago about poets being 'forced' to take jobs outside of academia, but when did poets become so tied into academia to begin with?
I would define the poet as prophet in, perhaps, more benign terms: one who writes out of pure desperation. Twenty years later after Tarn and Bartlett made this assessment, I have to say that I believe there is hope in the pure poet. If I had to name names, I might name Andrea Baker, Reb Livingston, Kate Greenstreet, Jill Essbaum, Lisa Jarnot, and Maryrose Larkin. Poets who have virtually nothing to gain (or lose by writing). I would also think back to Nathaniel himself, who, all these years later is purely dedicated to the venture. Also, Fanny Howe, who I think most closely approaches the tradition of our dear monk, Bill.
Turning at an academic for a moment, I'd like to quote Marjorie Perloff from Belladonna's new Elder series book 'Emma Bee Bernstein.'
In an interview with Emma and Nona Willis Aronowitz, Perloff questions,
'There are too many artists, too many poets. Sometimes, I think if I hear about another poet, I'll shoot myself, even though I'm the one who writes on poetry. What does this glut of so-called poets and artists do for society? I'd be much happier if the women in question became social workers or teachers or medical workers...... Seriously, whatever happened to improving society? If someone really has a vocation, she will make her art no matter what......At best, they're going to end up teaching at art schools, and the process just perpetuates itself. And there are a lot of things this society needs. We need good elementary school teachers....Nobody wants to do that now - it's considered declasse' - but that's what we need."
However harsh Perloff's words, I know she knows the issue is not without complexities. Some poets have been our country's best advocates: Ginsberg, Rukeyser, Levertov. The two vocations, advocacy and poetry are not at all mutually exclusive. And yet, is the poet hiding behind her academic job in order to build the fortress for her other vocation?
Everson states, 'Find the archetype of what you are, and then if you are a poet, you'd better not compromise what you can't be.'
I think academia and poetry have become so tied in the culture that these are questions every young - and not so young - poet has to face.