Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A gift outright--

I hope to never again write a post like this one. But every time a friend of mine has quit writing in drought and despair, I have written one.

Too long a sacrifice
Makes a stone of the heart.
   -Yeats

A light rain is blowing past the window, and I can hear the Grateful Dead, playing in Doubleday Field. I'm thinking about a friend of mine, far away, who is a poet. He has had a long journey, holding fast to the arranging of words, but now he has changed.

He has fallen into silence.

Why? He feels the lack of the strong support that readers give to the poet, the sense that there is someone out there and that the poem is not a tree falling in a dead forest. He feels an ebbing of the support that bookstores give--the knowledge that the poet is welcome to read in his home region. Even with all the wonders of the internet, he feels too solitary. (I should add that poets can use another kind of support; that is, their publishers need the encouragement of book purchases saying that others find the poet worthwhile. Without that encouragement, a poet may soon go unpublished no matter how much the publisher loves the work.)

Here's a piece of a letter from my friend. He has published many, many books and chapbooks of poems, but here is what he says:
If I were really rich I’d just buy thousands and give’m away [. . . .] I know it’s a rough business now, but I remember those glory early days of the independent bookstore and their championing of local authors, poetry, and the small press. Not any more. 
It really is one reason I haven’t been able to write since retirement. It seems so fruitless. Hardly any way to reach an audience – and though one would like to think the glory is in the doing (I can remember my youth when I wrote endlessly and didn’t care) but you do want to feel like someone is listening, can listen, has access to listen and ultimately after 50 years it has deadened me.
This poet has been published in book and CD and on the internet, and his words have been lauded and set to music; he has had the affection of many publishers. He is at an age when he ought to be honored and welcome in his home region, often invited to read. Yet he is discouraged, "deadened."

Surely there is still a place for face-to-face encounters with a mature poet who has achieved and published widely, particularly in his home region. Surely there is still a place on our shelves for the book. Part of making the world we want to see and cherishing the best of what already exists is supporting the work.

I'm going to order some books of poems. In the words of another poet, "I shan't be gone long.--You come too."

8 comments:

  1. If Mohammad won't come to the mountain...and he is so hungry for an audience and willing to give it away, why not contact a local school and offer to give a series of readings and Q&A or maybe master classes to students who are truly interested in literature and poetry (i hate saying/limiting to only "honors classes" or whatever, but i suppose that's where they would be found)...or a local college...and give it to the students in the form of a handsome PDF file/Ebook.

    It's taking all the risk on himself, the way actors and musicians must...and scary, i'm sure...but if the need/hunger to be heard is great enough...

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  2. Well, he has done a great deal of that sort of thing. He has done a terrific number of events and visits and so on. For many years, he did a well-known series for children and parents that was quite popular. Sad to say, these sorts of events don't seem to translate into the sort of continued interest in a writer's work that would be encouraging.

    He has done a very great deal in the way of free public events--far more than I have, since I live in a rather obscure place (not tonight, when we are awash in tourists, but most of the time.) I think it is possible to be extremely active but end up feeling that doors that used to be open to poets are closing, and that one is simply worn by continuous effort without having become established in a way that is satisfying and fruitful for one as a writer.

    I expect it is possible for that needful persistence to wear out... I have had several friends who have had some measure of success, yet quit. Perhaps it bothers me so much because, so far, I am still maniacal about writing.

    I probably haven't done him justice here, which I regret.

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  3. This makes me very sad - another story of lack of support for the arts everywhere. That's including here in Canada, the worst being BC where there are so very many writers and artists.

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  4. Yes, it is pretty sad. But we know that the world often rewards the wrong things.

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  5. I understand how he feels, and I cannot support other writers as I would like because I cannot get sufficient work to have extra money to do it.
    It is all as frustrating to me as it is to your friend and to everyone who writes.
    It would be nice to have some respect for a change, once a person has earned it. That seems to be too much to ask.

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  6. While I don't feel that the world owes me anything and that I must be both as yielding as grass when the wind blows and hard in my determination, I feel a lot of sympathy for good writers who are felled and quelled by the way the world is.

    On the other hand, poets in our time have to combat the most chaotic scene in the world's history. Has there ever been such a range of disagreement about what a poem is?

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  7. Stories like this do make me sad. Perfect choice of a quote, too, Marly.

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  8. Yes, I wish local communities and bookstores would be more responsive to good poets, but things are as they are. And we can't run about the world, fixing, fixing... Being a rather practical place, America has never been all that kind to her poets.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.