- The Poetry Business
In Memoir and an Essay (2010), a memoir of his early days on the New York poetry scene, Michael Gottlieb revealed how an avant-garde movement comes into its own; the young poets attend as many readings as possible, coordinate readings and edit or submit to journals, and do all the menial work associated with these tasks, including putting labels on folded flyers and preparing them for bulk mail. The poetry business can be very time consuming, and that is without even considering the time it takes to write the work in the first place. One wonders how poets manage to pay the rent, since all of these activities offer no financial reward to speak of. The essay "Jobs of the Poets," which is included in his new book, What We Do: Essays for Poets, is structured as a list of thirty numbered questions, followed by one or more paragraphs that explore the ramifications of these questions, for example, "So what is the difference between working in a copy shop and an English Dept?"
When I arrived in New York (1980), most of the young poets I knew viewed poetry as a calling, a voluntary vow of poverty. We bartended, waited tables, made copies or cleaned people's apartments for money. Some of us still do. Some of us got corporate jobs, some of us took the academic path. Gottlieb questions the values that go along with those jobs. More to the point, he challenges the assumptions we make about ourselves and our paying work, and how that work relates to our "real" work—that is, poetry. What is the poets' role in society? Why are the readers of poetry mostly poets? What exactly do we think we are doing? "Are we too good for all of that or do we really think that we aren't good enough?"
However each of us might answer these kinds of questions, those answers will lead to many more questions. With brutal honesty, Gottlieb digs deeper into the self-deceptions that plague poets. To the devoted downtown denizen, people in the business world were sell-outs. To the academics, the derelict poets living on Avenue C were naïve at best. The poetry pie had only so many slices, certainly not enough to go around. "Is obscurity good for poets?" Perhaps the self-righteous are motivated by self-pity and hidden jealousy. Perhaps poets and artists are not, in fact, better than anybody else.
In the second essay, "Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet," he opens with the question, "So what did you expect?" This essay picks up where the last one left off, only now the poet considers illness and death. Now the poet watches as the newly arrived poets carry on the poetry business without including their elders in their efforts. How to react? Is bitterness appropriate? Does one celebrate the newcomers? As Dylan says, "How does it feel?" Do we repeat ourselves? "Is there anything we should feel entitled to feel good about?"
Gottlieb considers the very real experience of attending a reading and noticing that one is the oldest person in the room. This experience is unnerving, and as time goes by, it happens more and more. At some point the avant-garde of twenty years ago is not avant-garde anymore. There will always be a new avant-garde, and the old is faded away, or forgotten. The heroic subversion seems less and less subversive over the years. Does the middle-aged poet try to hop on the new train as it enters the station, in the hopes of staving off their own irrelevance? Alternately, the older poets attend readings by the younger poets, and dismissively reject the new works they hear. "It's all just a faint echo of what we did years ago." "It's a pose. They're all poseurs."
What is the best way to process these feelings? Do we think that the middle-aged poets of twenty-five or...