Friday, February 01, 2008

Baby Remember My Name: Poets and Posterity

About mid-way through reading fellow Canadian expat Todd Swift's essay "Canons to the Right," I caught myself humming the theme song to that classic of slightly-embarasing 1980s television, Fame (based on a movie of the same name, with a Broadway musical tie-in). For those of you wise or fortunate enough to have been doing something better with your lives in the mid-eighties, here's the 411 on the show: a bunch of kids attend a New York high school for the performing arts and aspire to fame, singing and dancing their way across the screen as maudlin melodrama and broad comedy ensue. The lyrics to the theme song go something like this:

I'm gonna live forever.
I'm gonna learn how to fly,
I feel it coming together,
People will see me and cry
I'm going to make it to heaven,
Light up the sky like a flame,
I'm gonna live forever,
Baby remember my name,
Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember, Remember...(slow fade out)

I inflict this on you only because I think the theme from Fame actually gets at the unspoken motivation behind Todd's generally very incisive essay on literary reputation and the deeply suspect process of canon formation. Bear with me, and try to keep the theme song from getting stuck too deeply in your head. It's a real earworm, and hard to shake without massive doses of Funkadelic or perhaps the Carmina Burana on the iPod.

Todd begins by casting a cold eye on what most poets want, and on what it is they tend to end up with:

Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, as a thought experiment, what the poet might wish for, might dream of... Well, a poet might want, in this order: to write a good poem; to get the poem published in a good magazine; to have that poem, and others like it, collected and published by a good press; to receive some good reviews; to maybe be listed for, or win, a prize; and, either before, or after death, to be respected, or at least enjoyed, by either their peers, or poetry readers, or both. Now, all but the most hardened Dadaist would at least grant that this trajectory might accurately model the desires of most poets (I have yet to meet any who do not want to be published, or read).

These poets, who want these things, then enter into situations with other poets, and persons, to achieve these ends. However, here is where something very significant happens, which most poets do not accept. At the point where they enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion.

After acknowledging that there are, at this late date, several kinds of poetic canon, he claims that only being enshrined in the mainstream canon offers poets any realistic hope of being remembered after death. Sadly, though, such enshrinement doesn't seem to have as much to do with the quality of the poetry as it does with the relative heft of the poet's publisher (Todd ran away from Canada to England, not America, so his points of reference are mostly UK-ish):

Now, the general, naturalist position (which is basically a capitalist one) suggests that the forgotten are bad poets, the remembered are good poets. This in turn plays into the idea of the market deciding value. The problem with this position, is that it almost entirely positions evaluation into the hands of the editors for large publishers, and larger poetry imprints.

The mistake that most poets make, is that they think that, even if they publish with a small, well-meaning press, they have a chance, at perhaps winning a prize, or being reviewed in the TLS or The New York Times, say, of being "discovered". Far from it. The "tap on the shoulder" system of quiet approval and promotion, among the ranks of most contemporary-canonical poets in the US, and UK, occurs prior to publication - during, and before, the editorial process. That is, the business of criticism is mainly now the business of editorial approval, or rejection.

It is not quite true, but almost true, that to have a collection published by a small, marginal press, in the UK (or Canada, for example) is the same as having no book out at all.... The sad truth is, almost all the ground for canonization is laid during the lifetime of the poet - as in the church, with future Saints. We do not know who the "major" poets of our time will be, exactly, but we can rest assured they are currently being published, somewhere in the Anglo-American world, by larger presses... There will always be small, pleasing surprises... but the for the main part, if you find yourself out while alive, your work is mainly out forever. That's a long time.

It comes down to marketing budgets, says Todd: while we may cling to the polite fiction that there's no glass ceiling, there really is: you either hook up with a big publisher, and get marketed and networked into the big prizes, or there's little hope for your posterity. He's got a point. I mean, I think about how I recently cast my votes for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) awards, and was unsurprised to see that none of my picks made it to the final list of prizewinners. The prizes all fell to people who published with bigger, more visible houses than my (admittedly idiosyncratic) nominees. I can't help but think that most of the critics who voted for poetry books went with the books they'd heard the most about, and I wondered how far beyond the bigger publishers lists they'd really read. Or I think about how a prominent young poet-critic I know once told me that an older poet we both know should really stop complaining about his merely moderate degree of fame. "He's as famous as he can be, without a New York publisher, or elite grad students," said the young poet-critic, and I couldn't really disagree.

Todd suggests that an alternative series of awards and prizes may help remedy the situation, but not by much. Again, I've got to agree, and I'm semi-happy about how the NBCC is going to supplement its prizes with seasonal lists of recommended books. I'm even trying to do my bit, and am working with some colleagues from the &NOW Festival to set up a series of anthologies as a kind of anti-Pushcart Prize. But I don't suffer under the illusion that any of this is going to bust the doors of the Norton Anthology open to any of my poetic heroes.

There are a lot of directions one could go in responding to Todd's points. One could talk about the long game of canonicity, and invoke all the big ideas about how some reputations rise from near-oblivion (William Blake, say), while others fall (W.D. Snodgrass, anyone?) and still others go up and down (Felicia Hemans, for example). There's the idea that over time the best will out (thank you, David Hume), and the idea that each generation will find a past to suit its own needs (Gertrude Stein believed this as did a boatload of others). Or one could talk about the value of fame in one's own lifetime — how some of its rewards are intrinsic (recognition feels good, like a deep-tissue backrub for the ego) and others are extrinsic (fame — even in the junior-varsity form of poetic fame — can get you money, sex, illicit pharmaceuticals, and an appearance on The Daily Show). But I'm most interested in the question of posthumous posterity, which seems core to Todd's thinking. It really seems to bother him that posthumous fame goes to the well-marketed and well-hooked-up rather than to the well-deserving.

And this brings me to the Big Questions Todd's essay raises: why should we care about how people view us after we die? What benefit do we hope to derive from posthumous acclaim? I mean, there's a staggeringly obvious fact to deal with here: we won't be around to see if we're remembered or not. So why should we — why do so many of us — care? In addressing this issue, I thought I'd take the radical step of checking in with some people who actually know what they're talking about vis-a-vis the psychology of fame. Here's what I found out.

1. The notion of fame has been with us for a good long while, but not as consistently as we might think.

David Giles, a pyschologist who used to have a gig interviewing rock stars, is perhaps uniquely qualified to talk about the psychology of fame. He's got a good historical sense, too, and takes his investigations back beyond the invention of modern pop celebrity. Here's a big picture zoom-out on fame, from his book Illusions of Immortality:

The history of fame is about nothing less than the history of Western civilization. It is also about the history of the individual, and therefore it is about the history of human psychology too. I make these grandiose claims not simply to sensationalize the material … but also in an attempt to step backwards and rearrange one’s perspective from a time when individual humans did not even have names.

Giles then gives a nod to Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:

Jaynes’ basic premise is that what we today call individual consciousness emerged as an experiential phenomenon only in modern times – previously, phenomena such as forward planning were attributed to divine intervention....The birth of individual consciousness, according to Jaynes, can be traced back to the advent of names. He estimates it as being during the Mesolithic era, some time between 10,000 and 8,000 BC. At this point the ice sheet that covered most of the planet retreated … leading to the development of more static communities. Giving individuals names intensified relationships, leading to the practices of burial and mourning of the dead. The first tomb, that of a king, has been dated at around 9000 BC, at Eynam, just north of the Sea of Galilee. The dead king appears to have been worshipped as a god, and Jaynes argues that this point marks the beginning of civilization.

So posthumous fame of a sort has been with us for a while, but as it turns out the idea of individual fame takes quite a while to get off the ground. According to Giles and others, Alexander the Great is in some meaningful sense the first famous individual. According to Leo Braudy (in his book The Frenzy of Renown, which is the great go-to text on the history of fame) it's not that others weren't famous before Alexander, but they were famous in different ways. Alexander was different because he sought to be famous not as a part of a dynasty but as an individual. Check out visual representations of him as compared to his great rival the Persian Darius – only the representations of Alexander attempt to show a portrait of an individual, rather than an image of a social role:

Alexander's presented as someone in particular; Darius is really just a stylized leader, an embodiment of the Persian dynasty.

After Alexander, you get a huge emphasis on individual fame in classical civilization. As Giles points out, it's Rome, after all, that gives us the words fama and celebritas. But the emphasis on individual fame waxes and wanes historically. The middle ages, for example (with numerous exceptions) tends to place less emphasis on fame than the classical civilization that preceded it. Think of all the aesthetic anonymity of the Middle Ages, for example: all the unsigned poems, all the catherdral sculpture from unknown hands. So the need for fame in posterity is a deep-seated phenomenon, but by no means a constant in history.

2. The idea of posthumous fame is generally experienced as an imagined extention of life

Giles is really good on the particulars of this:

There are historical cases of childless individuals who have craved fame as compensation for not being able to reproduce, such as Elizabeth I, who took great pains to ensure that her official portrait followed strict guidelines … or even John Lord Lumley, an early art collector of no note until all three of his children died, and he set about creating his legend accordingly.

Braudy takes things further, and argues that there’s an inverse relationship between how strong a culture’s interest in fame is and how strong its religious idea of the afterlife is. Giles picks up on this, citing Braudy when he points out that, while Classical Rome had a fairly weak interest in the afterlife (and a vigorous culture of fame and celebrity) the ideal of celebrity “was certainly less popular in Medieval times when the Church had such a strong influence on Western society.”

What’s astonishing to me is how powerful this notion of posterity as an extention of life remains. It seems terribly primitive — "me get fame, me make others sing praises of me after me dead, me not all dead, me live!" There's a ghost of this kind of thinking in Todd Swift's essay: we can see it glimmer into view in, say, sentences like these: "What is oblivion, and why does it matter? Oblivion is a concept ... that suggests that most poets, after death, become basically extinct." Of course Todd knows we're literally extinct at death, but still, the language is telling.

I get Todd's point that it's sad for future readers to lose out on the opportunity of getting to know most poets of the past, and to know only those few poets who've been enshrined by the very suspect test of time. But I don't really get the urge for posthumous fame I've seen in so many people (I grew up as an art-school brat, and believe me, there were times when you could just about taste the ambition in the air, even in the provinces).

Uh, wait. No. Who am I kidding? I do get it. I get the hunger for posterity the way I get the hunger for cheesecake or salty snacks. None of those hungers is going to do much good for me, and at a fundamental level they are futile and superfluous. But it isn't like the urges go away (although as my man Josh Corey points out, other priorities can act as trump cards). The reason the notion of posterity as a life-beyond-life has endured so long seems to be that the will to extend life, even in irrational ways, endures, hard-wired into us. It may be modified by cultural context (the Augustans tried to throw cold water on the flames, the Romantics dumped gasoline on them instead), but it's still there. How else to explain how happy I was when the tiniest of unexpected recognition-crumbs recently fell onto my plate?

Right, then. Off to rehearse my dance routine and see if I can't audition for a local theatrical revival of Fame.

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