The first quote, below, is from Homage to the Runner: Bloody Brain Work by Marvin Bell in The Pushcart Book of Essays edited by Anthony Brandt (originally in American Poetry Review). I disagree with some of what he says, and I think he contradicts himself within the quote (can a person be both practical and yet “take a direct approach to the mysterious”?). Nevertheless, I like his main point. See what you think.
Poetry is a way of life, not a career. A career means you solicit the powerful and the famous. A way of life means you live where you are with the people around you. A career means you become an authority. A way of life means you stay a student, even if you teach for a living. A career means your life increasingly comes from your art. A way of life means you art continues to arise from your life. Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought: all forms of psychological cowardice. A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex, and a direct approach to the mysterious. Obscurity is a celebrated path to nowhere, an affliction. For poetry to be a way of life in a referential world, it requires of us the courage of clarity — linear, syntactical and referential — which in no way compromises the great wildness of experience and imagination …
First, I strongly disagree with the sentence, “Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought: all forms of psychological cowardice.” It’s a bizarre statement, and I’m not even sure why any part of it necessarily has to do with careerism. In fact, those who shy away from careerism could just as easily be accused of psychological cowardice.
Next, setting aside the question of possible sour grapes on Bell’s part, I think the demands of a career can provide a useful correction to excesses of personal indulgence. The demand side of a career is not some nasty monster — it’s an audience of real people.
Also, can the desire for a career be separated out of a person or is it simply part of who they are? Some people may find pleasure in making art that is a response to the desires and preferences of the mass audience. That may be who they are, not a choice made that is in opposition to “a way of life” that they might otherwise have followed. In other words, the career artist is not that way because of his career. He’s that way because that’s who he is. He’s more about mirroring the public than expressing what he finds in his private world.
Here is a bit more from the Bell piece. This is from earlier in the essay and sets up the quote already given:
“Literature is for beginners.” I was thinking about thinking. Because, for the poet, after all, poetry is the result, not the intention. Poetry is the residue of bloody brain work, the signal that a process has taken place that creates an emotional approach to thinking. All technique is subsumed in what we later call the “poetic” quality of the text. All the fame in the world is secondary to the epiphanic moment when the poem began to cohere. For the poet, the true consequence is the next poem: hence, a way of life, not a career.
Again, I’m not sure why he chooses to imply a conflict between the epiphanic moment and a career. Yes, the a career can be a distraction, but so can being unable to pay your bills. And yet, and yet … I like what he’s saying.
Not related to questions of careerism, here is a quote that I like from an interview with Bell. He’s talking about his Dead Man poems:
I’ve noticed that they engage a kind of reader who has extra mental energy—maybe, I should say, one who wants to boogie and think at the same time. A reader who has one eye on the individual and the other on the human condition.