Renting the Poet’s Soul

At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, you can attend a concert just about every night of the year. At Oberlin College, where I spent four and a half years of my life, I preferred poetry readings.

The readings averaged about once each month, and they were a chance to believe poetry–a sensitive, solitary result of Serious Time spent in graveyards, coffee shops or in woods on a snowy evening–could be entertainment, or, at least, a diversion away from Oberlin’s most common evening activity: studying.

I don’t know who sponsored Bill Knott’s visit. That he taught at Emerson College in Boston did not impress me. I didn’t imagine myself teaching then, though, a little more than a decade later, I would take my position at the front of college classrooms at Rutgers, Temple and the University of Pennsylvania.

Bill Knott was a lanky, studious man I saw a with thick glasses and straight hair that drooped on either side of his face. He read stuff like this:

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.

That’s a poem called “Death.” Here’s one called “Advice from Experts.”

I lay down in the empty street and parked
My feet against the gutter’s curb while from
The building above a bunch of gawkers perched
Along its ledges urged me don’t, don’t jump.

Knott was funny and cynical. I didn’t know that he was an orphan who spent much of his childhood in a mid-western mental institution. If Knott, who died in 2014, could read that last sentence, he’d probably ask me how I could be sure if mental institutions in the mid-west were any worse than those in the northeast or in California or the Deep South? Was it possible that some of the residents did not regret living there, knowing how lucky they were that so many sincerely crazy people living on the outside had no desire to visit them or mess up their lives?

Knott had a reputation for anti-establishment put downs, stunts and practical jokes. While this was fashionable at the time, with Knott, you got the feeling it was more than a pose. He published his first book under a pseudonym of someone he announced had committed suicide. Did Knott assume that this hoax would get the book more attention? Or was he angry at how little poets are appreciated when they are alive?

He put himself down, too. You can get a hint of his self-effacing mood in “An Instructor’s Dream.”

Many decades after graduation
the students sneak back onto
the school-grounds at night
and within the pane-lit windows
catch me their teacher at the desk
or blackboard cradling a chalk:
someone has erased their youth,
and as they crouch closer to see
more it grows darker and quieter
than they have known in their lives,
the lesson never learned surrounds
them; why have they come? Is
there any more to memorize now
at the end than there was then”
What is it they peer at through shades
of time to hear, X times X repeated,
my vain efforts to corner a room’s
snickers? Do they mock me? Forever?
Out there my past has risen in
the eyes of all my former pupils but
I wonder if behind them others
younger and younger stretch away
to a world where dawn will never
ring its end, its commencement bell.

At a time when “selling out,” that is, taking the presumably easy path to wealth and fame by providing a fickle public with whatever it is willing to pay for, was considered a social evil, to be eradicated by those determined to “make a difference” in an American society that was unfair and unfeeling to so many, few things could remind you how inconsequential you were, than teaching and writing poetry.

Unforgettable things are supposed to happen to you in college, and, during his poetry reading, Knott said one that has stuck with me.

“The great thing about poetry,” he proclaimed, “is that you write what you want and nobody cares. You can’t sell-out. The Devil doesn’t want the poet’s soul.”

For most of my writing career, I didn’t sell out and despised those who did. I was also aware that those who published my work weren’t looking for sell-outs. They wanted stuff that fit in with what they were selling, which, in newspapers and magazines, was a demographic group of readers that advertisers wanted to reach. What book publishers wanted was a novel that would make enough of a splash so that others in the entertainment industry would pay big bucks for the subsidiary rights–paperback, foreign publishing, screenplay or film reproduction. At the bottom of the food chain, booksellers wanted to sell the kind of books that you would come into the store and buy more of the same.

I tried to find my art within the publishers’ aims. I thought I was being reasonable. While some artists exist in opposition to those who would bring their work to their audience, others (myself, I imagined) might work in partnership. “Pleasure shared is pleasure doubled,” says the I Ching.

Every once in a while, temptation beckoned. Because I wrote for well known publications,  I was offered free meals, free travel, free recordings, free tickets to shows. Some publications insisted that I bill them for these things. When I did, they refused to pay for them. Others wanted me to pay, even when the amount they were giving me for my work was a fraction of what the “freebie” would cost. Some purveyors of freebies got around this by saying that there was no cost, or price, for what they were giving, so I could either take it or leave it.

Alas, one night a public relations executive at a casino hotel discovered I had nothing to do. If he took me to dinner in the casino’s fancy restaurant, he could eat a better meal than he could have at home. He told me he would justify paying for the meal if he mentioned a brand of wine the casino was serving, because winemaker, had entered into some kind of promotional push with the casino company. His job was to take so many people out to dinner anyway, so why shouldn’t one of those people be me?

I figured, why not? I ate a good meal. I had some good wine. I liked the wine and mentioned the brand in one of my books.

The Devil didn’t buy my soul. He rented it. To this day, when I think about the name of the wine in my book, I am reminded of the mantra used by those who try to talk themselves our of eating dessert: once on the lips, forever on the hips.

Or on the pages, or on your conscience, or in that part of you that can’t help but look back and wish you’d done differently.

As a writer who considered himself an artist, I had goals. I had ideals. There were things I refused to write about because I thought they’d do more harm than good. I let publishers and publications exploit me, believing that so much worthy effort would lead me to the point at which I would write only that which mattered, or should be written, or was just such a great idea that it had to be shared.

To my surprise, I’ve reached that place, but not because of the publications I let exploit me, and not because the Devil momentarily rented my soul. I’m here merely because I survived a process that typically crushes anyone who wants his work to matter, in ways big or small.

As Knott wrote in another poem:

Don’t forget: you are important.
If you fail, there will be no-one left to say so.
If you succeed, there will also be a great silence. Your names,
an open
secret in all hearts, no-one will say. But everywhere
they will be finishing the poems you broke away from.
So I went for a long run and thought about the things I broke away from. That I could go for a run was important, having survived knee surgery and two heart attacks. My wife gave me a pair of new running shoes for my birthday. It was a cool, wildly beautiful spring day, so I took off.
But I couldn’t help but go back to that person I was when I was much younger, who wanted to see his work on best-seller lists, who wanted to make enough money from his art to PAY FOR all the great meals he ever desired. In so many years of stringing words together, I never had a best-seller and always had to be careful of how much I spent.
And now (as my feet gently pushed me down asphalt trails behind suburban palaces), I thought about Knott, and all the other poets out there who may have written or said something unforgettable, if I had read their work, or gone to their readings.
I looked at the stretch of asphalt ahead and saw something a child had written in pink chalk.
One word: YAY!