True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever. . . . Only when the poem turns wholly away from the petty ego, only when its internal structure fully serves art’s delicious purposes, may it serve to reveal and envision. . . . Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. Sensible advice, I think— but difficult to follow. When Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. Henry Adams said something about acceleration, mounting his complaint in 1912; some would say that acceleration has accelerated in the seventy years since. By this time, I would be grateful—and published poetry would be better—if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.
Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix. One of our eminent critics compared Lowell’s last book to the work of Horace, although some of its poems were dated the year of publication. Anyone editing a magazine receives poems dated the day of the postmark. When a poet types and submits a poem just composed (or even shows it to spouse or friend) the poet cuts off from the poem the possibility of growth and change; I suspect that the poet wishes to forestall the possibilities of growth and change, though of course without acknowledging the wish.
"The study, which asserted that every six seconds an individual from an alcoholic household comes up with the idea to open his one-man show by lighting a cigarette, found that if the urge to incorporate a collage of baby photos into the performance isn't addressed immediately, a young adult may begin experimenting with dangerously melodramatic lines of dialogue, such as, "You don't really know rock bottom until you hit it," or, "People are funny, aren't they?"
Soon, the report said, these performers become addicted to the thought of directly quoting a Shel Silverstein poem at the conclusion of their show, and are heavily predisposed toward wearing a baseball cap for the sequence in which they portray their father showing up drunk to little-league practice."
What weighed most heavily on me were the other writers around the world who are challenged for their expression. I thought about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the conversations I had in Chengdu with delegates from Kampala and Baghdad, where the cost of expression can be far greater than being hounded by angry bloggers. If Seattle is to stand as a peer among other cities of literature, we cannot set the precedent that a writer's opinions—however unpopular or provocative—can lead to the loss of that writer's livelihood. I want Seattle to stand as a place where expression that provokes—and even offends—is protected.
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