A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
– Emily Dickinson
This is a problem all of us who write have to face: How long do I expect my words to last? Some of our words will, of course, go out of fashion—who, today, knows what a wittol or a stauroscope is or was?—but that’s not really what I’m thinking of. When I submit poems to magazine—when I can get my act together to send out poems is what I mean—I find I tend to work backwards starting with my most recent poems and the stuff I wrote even as recently as ten years ago I often don’t to get round to considering. Okay I have made progress as a poet and I’d like to think the poems I’m writing nowadays are an improvement on those I was writing ten or twenty years ago but while some of the poems I wrote even thirty years ago were quite decent, I act as if they’ve gone off; that no one would want to read that stuff anymore. It’s the same when it comes to book reviews. I’ve stopped asking people to consider reviewing my first two books and, to be honest, a lot of sites say they’re only interested in recently-published stuff; how recent is recent varies but it’s not years. The fact is when Living with the Truth was first published it was already about fifteen years old and my most recent book was written six years ago but if we think about that one, which is set in the Thirties, would it matter when it was published? A novel about the 2012 Olympics on the other hand obviously only has a limited shelf life.
Words don’t go off and yet we act as if they do. I’ve seen it with myself in a bookshop where I’ll buy an author’s most recent book rather than an older—and often cheaper—book. Why would I do that? Yeah, sure, one would hope that as an author he or she has upped their game, but I don’t actually think my reason is anywhere near as rational as that. I just want something new. New is good. New is best.
I know at school I couldn’t see the sense in them force-feeding us the Romantic poets—what on earth could they possibly have to say that would be relevant to a schoolboy in 20th century Scotland?—and I felt the same about music. It’s perhaps a bit too strong to say that I hated covering the history of music at school but the quicker we could get by the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers and onto modern composers the better and it’s really only in recent years that I’ve developed a true appreciation for anything written prior to Stravinsky. So shallow of me!
As far as literature goes I have read precious little of anything written before the 20th century apart from Kafka who was ahead of his time anyway. The only poetry I covered was what they made us read at Primary School, stuff like Robert Burns, although I’ll be honest I can’t actually find it in my heart to hate ‘Scots Wha Hae’. I can still remember a boy in our class called Neil declaiming it in front of our Primary 6 class and he had just the right angry tone to make it come to life; I’ve never heard it read better.
All ages have a very high percentage of art that doesn’t last. Even the great poets of our past find themselves remembered for a single poem or a few lines in a book of quotes. Everyone knows “I wandered lonely as a cloud” but what comes next? And can you name me any other poem by Wordsworth? And if, like me, you can manage the whole first verse (give yourself a pat on the back) what about the rest of the poem? And, no, I can’t think of any other poem by him, not a one, even though Wikipedia lists eight volumes by him. And we’re not talking chapbooks.
Now, here’s a question for regular readers: How many of you can remember a single poem by me? It’s not a trick question and I’m certainly not asking any of you to tell me but I bet most of you won’t be able to think of one, certainly not a whole one (hell, I’m lucky if I can remember a whole poem and I wrote the damn things) but I bet you’ll struggle even to remember a few lines. And that’s fine because I can’t remember any of your poems either. So there! Why is that? I have the perfect excuse, the world’s worst memory, but I don’t think that’s the only thing. I suspect none of us read, especially poetry, like it was meant to be read. We don’t live with a poem. When was the last time you meditated on a poem? That’s not what we want in the 21st century unless we’re geeks and have watched all three Lord of the Rings films (the extra special fandabydosy editions) eleventy-nine times and know the entire scripts off by heart. Most of the rest of us watched the vanilla prints that came out in the cinemas just so we could say that we had and if we never see them again well that’s just fine. (You can, of course, replace Lord of the Rings with Star Wars or Star Trek or Harry Potter or Twilight or any other franchise as you see fit.)
There is too much to read, to watch and to listen to these days. I have so much music on my shelves that I would be able to listen to something different every minute of every day for over two months solid. And I’m still hankering after new music. New: that’s the keyword here. New = good. Old = bad.
Now think about something (this is addressed to all of you poets out there): When you write a poem how long do you expect it to last? I have a friend called Vito who used to post poems, leave them up for a couple of days and then take them down. He didn’t even keep copies and it was only because Google Reader remembered all the deleted blogs I was able to salvage some when he decided he wanted to bring out a book.
I could never do that. That’s like binning photos. You just don’t do stuff like that. When my parents died my siblings and I made sure that every photo they owned found a home with one of us; not a single one was discarded and I would hate it—absolutely hate it—if, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, my daughter chucked out my big red binder full of poems. She won’t (she’d better not) but the thought of my words being lost forever is something I find really upsetting. And it’s not even happened. I know they say the Internet never forgets but that’s not true. It’s just not been going long enough for any of us to know how long it might hang onto stuff.
Does that mean that everything I’ve written is worth remembering? Absolutely not. Even in recent years I’ve written a few meh poems and the further back you go the less there is that’s really worth keeping; the less there is that I would keep, but it won’t be me that decides their ultimate fate.
The bottom line is that few of you reading this post will write anything that will be remembered by anyone for any length of time. And it’s not that what you’ve written isn’t worth remembering it’s simply the fact that none of us has the time to remember it and that is tragic. That is criminal. I’m thinking now about some of the poets I know and have followed for years online, people like the aforementioned Vito Pasquale, Marion McCready, Dick Jones and the prolific Dave King and I can hardly remember a thing they’ve written. And a part of me is ashamed to own up to that fact. I do have a lousy memory. I’ve mentioned this already but I don’t think any of you quite appreciate just how bad my memory is and that’s all I have to judge others by.
If we’re not going to be remembered then why are we writing? Clearly because being remembered isn’t the only or even the prime function of writing. It certainly isn’t for me. I write to work things out and once the thing has been worked out the poem has served its purpose; it could be tossed. I keep it as a record. It’s like when you sit a maths exam at school and they tell you to show your workings, well, these poems are my workings. That other people can get something out of them is lovely but that was never why they were produced apart from a handful that were specifically written for individuals.
Live for the moment. That’s what some people do, not dwelling on the past or gazing off into the distant future. They live one day at a time and it pleases me when someone reads one of my poems and it helps then through the day. It might not have been why the poem was written in the first place but it’s a welcome bonus because poems are a bi-product of my life and which of us wants to think that our lives are meaningless?
How long does a book last? Online figures differ. For a paperback it can be as short a life as three to six weeks. Apparently a mere six to eight weeks. That's right. After a couple of months tops the book is whipped off the shelf. It has to be. More than 120,000 books are published each year in the United States alone. With the amount of books being released all the time (329 a day), bookstores simply can't afford to keep the same books up week after week, unless they're really good sellers. That’s a horrible thought. Especially if, like me, you take three or four years to finish a book and then in a matter of a few weeks any interest you might have managed to drum up has gone; you’re old news. And that’s novels. One can only imagine how the poor poetry chapbook fares.
What started all this rolling was a quote I read months and months ago. The only reason I have it is because I saved it and my computer remembered it for me. It was by Ron Silliman:
. . . it was clear that giving it your all, writing exactly what you thought needed to be written, regardless of whether it looked comfortably familiar or not, was the only way to go. Anything less really was just too boring, too timid. Why even bother?
I read it in an article here under the title ‘Why Do You Write?’ In one of the comments, Justin Evans says, “Is it then our duty to wait a certain amount of time before assigning artistic merit to the work, until our personal feelings can be sorted and dealt with?” And that just shifted me up a gear. I’m taking the quotes in isolation and you would do well to read the whole discussion to see the context but it does make me wonder: Why bother?
Why bother? Because I don’t know how not to bother.
Why did I bother writing this? Because it bothers me that we are living at a time when probably more great writing will be forgotten than at any other time in history. More crap will be forgotten too but then it’s always been forgotten and good riddance. But we like to think that the cream rises to the top. That used to be the case and early morning tits would peck holes in the silver foil to get at it. Now who even gets their milk delivered?