It's all academic


Few events better highlighted the artist in the real world vs. the ivory tower academic than the ludicrously entitled: "conversations on the life of the poet"

(We could have selected an equally ludicrous Conversations with U.S. Poet laureates reflect on their office, or more practical poet subjects on poetry and the history of time or conversations on craft)

Poet Health McHugh epitomized the ivory tower poet, dropping literary allusions as if playing jumping jacks. She could not make it through a single sentence without alluding to one great poet or another as an example, and clearly wowed the ever-hungry audience with her ability to memorize important passages or relate to other people's significant ideas. She maintained, naturally, that the Masters of Literary Arts had its place in creative literature.

Mark Doty -- who wowed me a few years earlier with his moving poems on the impact of AIDS -- took the middle ground, claiming that literature had a number of schools, each having its place in the creative process.

The always unpredictable Gerald Stern -- New Jersey's poet laureate preceding the extremely controversial Baraka  -- fell in on the side of practical experience.

Each poet, however, sounded unconvincing in his or her explanation on what it was like to live as a poet. This must have been that much more of a problem in the tent with the collected U.S. poet laureates as they tried to explain their everyday activities.

Let us try to imagine: I woke up. I wrote a poem about waking up. I had sex. I wrote a poem about having sex. I had breakfast. My poem fell into my soggy corn flakes. I took a walk. I wrote a poem. I stopped walking. I wrote a poem about how I stopped walking. I had lunch. I wrote a poem about how rare I liked my hamburger. I had a nap. I didn't write anything about the nap. I took a swim. The fish wrote the poem for me. I ate supper. I wrote a poem about the demise of classic dinnerware and the decay in manners. I went to sleep, etc.

Asking a poet what it is like to be a poet is like asking him or her what it is like to breathe. But the audience ate up their answers like foolish teenage girls do at the outrageous lies printed in music fan magazines. Many eyes around me in the dim tent glazed over with visions and desires of living the life of a real artist.

We could, of course, err the other way, and think of all artists as starving. This was the mistake many of my college compatriots made when they discovered I lived in a cold water flat in the Passaic ghetto. They made regular pilgrimages to my home and treated my empty cupboards at my vow of poverty -- when I was as bent o making money as any capitalist. I just wasn't very good at it.


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