The “pugilist poet” August Kleinzahler is one of the prickliest loners in American letters. It’s no accident, then, that his new book, Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose 2000-2016, offers up a number of portraits of forgotten poets and critics—all, to a man, idiosyncratic cranks.
There’s Thom Gunn, who had a “strong dislike” for “literary gatherings.” There’s Kenneth Cox, who reveled in the death of his literary enemies, and “sought and achieved almost complete invisibility outside of his writings.” Roy Fisher carried on like an island of one: “A lifelong, rather cheerful agoraphobe and hermit, neglect suits him.” Lorine Niedecker quarantined herself on an actual island and accessed the world, when she needed to, by post. Christopher Middleton was “incapable of schmoozing, and his career suffered accordingly.” Basil Bunting “liked to live by his wits outside the prescriptions of any institution.” When this “obstinate, rambunctious, impulsive” poet stooped to teach creative writing, he took precisely zero interest in his students’ creations. Classes were held at his bungalow, and he mostly read at the course registrants until, one by one, they dropped out.
In recent decades, however, the idea of the writer as an individualistic outsider has acquired a layer of dust. We used to be okay with literary types asserting independent, fortified egos. Poets and novelists were almost expected to be aloof, even anti-social. But today, we’re too savvy to indulge such a romantic myth. The aloof rebel is nothing more than an affectation, we tell ourselves, a pair of Ray-Bans you slip on. When Bob Dylan was slow to acknowledge his Nobel Prize for Literature, many were scandalized. “It’s impolite and arrogant,” huffed a member of the Swedish Academy.
What, then, has displaced the idiosyncratic recluse? Literary community—that is, a supportive web of likeminded practitioners, braided together and ready to enfold you. In recent years, thoughtful poet-critics like Stewart Cole have made an eloquent case for the distinction between community and scene, and the desirability of the former over the latter. Jess Taylor has also reflected at great length on the subject. (Her ultimate conclusion: “We must keep building in order for our community to be sustained, and for it to grow and thrive.”) Tatiana Morand has critiqued her own shyness and pledged to make an effort to make CanLit “a more welcoming community.” The tagline for the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts organization is “Fostering Community for Canadian Women Working in the Literary Arts.” The fine print underlying such fine feelings is clear: community is an unalloyed good.
Writing is such grueling, lonely work, that it’s not hard to see the appeal of any thinking that encourages you to engage with other carbon-based lifeforms. Plus, didn’t graduate school insist that writers are socially constructed anyway, the products of power and privilege? You might as well accept that you’re a node in a network.
But you don’t have to buy into the myth of the Byronic bard to worry about the way our novelists and poets—valued for their independence of vision and language—now pine to be part of the crowd. What do we lose when writers are afraid to stand alone?
Let’s be clear: writers always occupy some sort of social context. The Dadaists had Cabaret Voltaire; Dorothy Parker, the Algonquin Hotel. Margaret Atwood cut her teeth in Toronto coffeehouses. Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, and Clive James honed their wit upon the whetstone of their Friday lunches—“the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend,” Hitchens half-joked. Even the hermetic Emily Dickinson, who asserted that “The Soul selects her own Society,” had the society of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Unitarian minister. Higginson occasionally corresponded with the recluse, and helped see Dickinson’s first collection to print after her death.
But while no one is truly isolated, writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another. Creative writing instructors urge their charges to get out there and network. Social media ensures we’re always connected. The contemporary acknowledgements page is a goblet that runneth over. (The fine poet Michael Prior thanks more than 60 people in his recent debut.) It’s now almost unthinkable not to run your manuscript by a long receiving line of applauding peers.
But be careful: those same peers might one day boo and jeer. Literary controversies are now less about aesthetic feuds and more about group outrage. (See Boydengate. See the Steven Galloway intrigue.) “The left is in shambles in North America,” writes Carmen Aguirre in a recent essay for this magazine. “It has become the new puritanical church, shaming, bullying, condemning, and expelling anyone in its ranks who is seen as taking a misstep.” Similarly, if you break with orthodoxy in the literary world, you will find yourself branded a heretic. Last spring, when I suggested that critics should reference themselves a little less in their reviews and essays—brilliant advice I’m clearly forgoing—I might as well have draped myself in “Make America Great Again” bunting or throttled a sloth on YouTube. Writers I was once friendly with disappeared. Writers I’d never met fumed on social media. The whiff of scorched bridge practically wafted through the WiFi.
The most consistent complaint directed at my essay? That it was, in effect, anti-community. One writer accused me of trying to push away the “routinely marginalized, whose points of view are less frequently given voice.” Another said that my thesis “overlooks that subjective approaches to criticism allow for a broader inclusion of vantage points.”
Canadian poets are especially energetic tribalists. They tend to swerve and feint en masse like a school of tuna. Perhaps they recognize artist-as-individual as a bad career move. Exiling oneself to the metaphorical basement, as novelists often do, won’t yield a tangible payoff like a bestseller. Instead, the material rewards for poets often come in the form of, well, more community! Teaching gigs, invitations to read, and the interest of grant and prize juries. The $150,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, in particular, has often seemed like one of the most blatant of literary cliques, with many apparent tendrils lashing together judges and winners.
At a more basic level, however, literary community can have a deadly impact. The most obvious fatality: your critical faculty. It becomes harder to file an honest review of a book if you’re always rubbing shoulders. Not long after I first started writing criticism, I ventured out to a reading on the invitation of an editor—and almost immediately encountered a poet whose debut I’d recently been assigned to review. His poetry was dull, but he seemed decent enough. It took me months to file my piece, and even then I pulled my final punch—and I’m one of the few jerks in Canada willing to bloody a book of poetry. How are younger, less jerky writers ever going to develop the independent spirit required to lob a rotten tomato if they’ve committed themselves to nurturing the community garden?
That’s the ultimate casualty here—an independent spirit. And while most Canadian poetry critics rarely sound a negative note, most Canadian poets sound indistinguishable. If you could shake the bylines free from a volume of The Best Canadian Poetry, you’d have a devil of a time restoring them to their rightful poems.
“‘What is the role of the writer to her society?’ was a question Wallace Stevens took up and his answer was: none,” says Souvankham Thammavongsa, a poet whose strange poetic miniatures underscore her belief that she represents a constituency of one. A writer’s real responsibility, she suggests, is “to build a voice and to keep building that voice.” This stands in stark contrast to the civic-minded suggestion that writers apply their bricks and mortar to some cloud-city of togetherness. The latter sounds lovely, the former, merely honest.
The American poet Kay Ryan, one of a few one-offs still around, has written eloquently about the need for writers—especially younger ones—to develop a carapace against what she calls “camaraderie.” For Ryan, this means avoiding the delivery systems by which literary community, like a virus, transmits itself: workshops and conferences. It means shrugging off the endless obligations that other writers will foist upon you. It means siloing yourself in silence. Ryan’s advice is calm, counterintuitive, and considerably cheaper than an MFA:
Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids. These are experiments you can perform down in that old kind of workshop, where Dad used to hide out from too many other people’s claims on him.
Find his “own direction” is certainly what Canadian poet Bruce Taylor did. Taylor has attracted a pair of A. M. Klein Awards, but has labored mostly in un-networked obscurity, issuing something like a collection a decade, to crickets, since the 1980s. His is an idiosyncratic vision. (He describes “17th-century rain” as “curled / like a great cascading periwig / over the cankered rooftiles of old Delft.”) Interviewed once by the CBC, he outlined his day job: “I renovate our big, confusing old house, prepare meals, and drive the kids around. Which is to say, I am a housewife.” If CanLit has become a community garden, Taylor’s work belongs squarely indoors, in the cellar, pickled in the brine of its own stubborn intelligence for future consumption.
Writers like Taylor know that they can extract very nearly all of the society they require from literature. They are adult enough to recognize that writing is a selfish, solitary activity, and that it’s the quality of their work, not their capacity for kibitzing, that ultimately secures a meaningful, long-term readership. They might have a few literary friends or a social media account; they might not. But if writing well is their aim, they will tend to resent claims on their time. And they will tend to prize a commodity more precious than community: privacy.
Asked recently which three writers she would invite to a “literary dinner party,” the prose stylist Fran Lebowitz offered the definitive desert island list: “None. I would never do it. My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book. That’s my idea of a literary dinner party.” If that’s too clever for you, try Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who offers up a handy model for being a writer:
I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—dialogue, community, and workshopping.
I’m kidding, of course. Actually, the weapons with which Stephen proposed to arm himself were “silence, exile, and cunning.” You probably wouldn’t have enjoyed his company.