The rewards of writing...what?! there are rewards?

A friend from the poetry scene who is now a comic book writer asked what I find rewarding but different in various sorts of writing I have done. Sophia had perhaps been thinking about my early blog days with Memo from the Fringes (2005–2010) and was struck by the variety. Blog entries then as now ran from social and political commentary to essays on literary and intellectual topics, film reviews, reminiscence, and miscellaneous other stuff, including fiction, which I have steered clear of at Portable Bohemia. Our poetry connection goes back a few years more to the Writer's Right open mic at Mojo's Coffee Den, hosted by Emily Riley, of whom I cannot say too many good things so will not attempt what would inevitably be a less than adequate tribute, but I will plug her wine shop in Walla Walla: The Thief Fine Wine & Beer.


Ah, but I digress. What do I find rewarding about different kinds of writing? It is not a trick question, but the response does not come as readily as might be supposed. I may be overthinking this, something I am known to do. In a way it is like trying to capture the essence of a poem, or poetry itself, or meditation. The instant you try to pin it down as this or that, you've missed it. Yet there must be something to be said about it.


Samuel Johnson said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. We know where that leaves me. The rewards have hardly ever been pecuniary and in the rare instances when they have been, it was truly hardly ever for writing that matters most to me.


And that would be? Do I have in mind some sort of hierarchy, thereby raising the specter of elitism? I am not trying to dodge the charge when I say that is not what I am getting at here. Poetry is where my genius lies (genius in the sense of a strong leaning or inclination, a penchant, a peculiar, distinctive, or identifying character or spirit, per Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Ed.). Evaluation and assessment of merit are another matter; there expertise and judgment come into play, and with them conclusions that some will deride as elitist.


I seem to recall a time at Mojo's when Emily Riley introduced me as Portland's only Romantic poet, a compliment I may not deserve. Be that as it may, she picked up on something. An affinity with the English Romantics has endured and grown stronger with the years, while youthful kinship with the Surrealists and certain of the Beat Generation writers has diminished somewhat. The three lie in a single tradition that came down to me through poets I read in hit or miss fashion when I first began to read poems with enthusiasm. Traces of surrealism are found throughout the works of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others associated with the Beats, even though for the most part the poets are not strictly speaking surrealist, with the notable exception of Philip Lamantia. Ginsberg had his vision where he heard the voice of William Blake, who himself had visions and conversed with angels. Corso looked to Shelley as hero and muse. From Shelley come these expressions of Romantic sensibility that ring true for me:

  • Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

  • A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.

Poetry, says Shelley's contemporary William Hazlitt,


is the language of the imagination and the passions. It relates to whatever gives immediate pleasure or pain to the human mind…there is no thought or feeling that can have entered into the mind of man, which he would be eager to communicate to others, or which they would listen to with delight, that is not a fit subject for poetry…. Fear is poetry, hope is poetry, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, are all poetry.… Man is a poetical animal: and those of us who do not study the principles of poetry, act upon them all our lives, like Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who had always spoken prose without knowing it. (On Poetry in General)


The reward, the satisfaction, gotten from writing a poem comes with feeling that I have lifted the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, if only partially, imperfectly, for a voyeuristic peep through the keyhole, that I have conveyed or expressed or captured to some degree a sense of fear, hope, admiration, wonder, pity, despair, or madness, of beauty, longing, melancholy, the passing of all things, and with that the inevitable passing of ourselves, to have caught something of how life is, how things are, and done so with honesty and with integrity, and somehow in a manner that cheers my own solitude and maybe the solitude of a few others with sweet sounds.


Compliments and encouragement are also rewarding, it almost goes without saying, whether by way of comments from family and friends, response at a poetry reading, or an editor's notification that a poem has been accepted for publication. I imagine few of us disdain this kind of feedback, but I am wary of placing too much stock in it. Popularity is no measure of quality. The specter of elitism rears up once more. So be it. Nevertheless it is satisfying to believe that there is a small audience for my poems, and there might even be a somewhat larger one out there in the aether if only I knew how to reach it. Alas, there is not an entrepreneurial bone in my body. All I can do is keep at it, cleave to the vision, follow the muse where she leads.


Gregory Corso as he grew older fretted that he had lost his fame. I never knew fame so have none to lose. It was nothing I ever hungered after, perhaps because never conceivable as a possibility. Commercial success, which for poets often amounts to wrangling a niche in the writing-workshop racket, was at most an abstract idea, as in, well, it would be nice if it happened and freed me from the wage work, but how to make it happen was always beyond me. Having found a few readers who are touched by a few poems is success. As for fame, I leave the word on that to Emily Dickinson:


Fame is a fickle food (1859)


Fame is a fickle food

Upon a shifting plate

Whose table once a

Guest but not

The second time is set.


Whose crumbs the crows inspect

And with ironic caw

Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn—

Men eat of it and die.


The blog is a different beast. It was never my intention to devote as much of it to current affairs as happens. Events of the day impose themselves on us. Social and political commentary becomes a matter of conscience and integrity. There is an obligation to speak up and take a stand in whatever small ways are open to me.


The reward comes when I feel I have gotten it down with honesty and integrity, those words again, without compromising principle or respect for honorable difference of opinion. I try to bear in mind that it is always possible that I could be wrong about everything. The maxim is more theoretical than practical; it would scarcely be possible to function if one held steadfastly to it. Nonetheless, it seems a good principle to keep in mind.


The pieces where I indulge freely in insult and invective, references to the impeached president, his personal attorney general, Secretary of State Mike Pompous, blockheads, running dogs, lackeys, scoundrels, &c., can be fun to write but hardly ever are among the essays I find satisfying. That approach can make for entertaining, and sometimes effective, polemics, but at the price of the gravity the issues merit.


Much the same holds for other nonfiction, essays on literary and intellectual topics, film reviews, reminiscence, &c. I see the best of them as drafts that could do with a lot more thought and revision.


Something similar goes for periodic forays into the realm of fiction. Here though my experience is less of reward and satisfaction than of frustration. From time to time I come up with characters and circumstances I find interesting. I go where they take me until the tale dead-ends in the midst of things with never a satisfactory denouement in sight, neither by way of a definitive conclusion nor by leaving things hanging in some fashion or other. Invariably there comes a point where the attempt to go on brings only drivel. This may come down to a failure of discipline and imagination.


Against all that has been said up to here must be weighed an inescapable counterpoint. The sense of reward and satisfaction is always elusive and fleeting. I never know if it is good, only that it is never as good as I want it to be. Some irrational and desperate faith in myself keeps me at it, while doubt gnaws relentlessly: If I possessed genuine talent and requisite discipline and something to say surely I would have more to show for it.


As I consider these things, more and more it seems to me that much of reward and satisfaction comes with the work itself, when I yoke myself to the desk and go at it with diligence, those concrete moments when I am putting the words to the page, working out the thoughts behind and within the words, whatever the genre. At those moments I am alive.

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