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Do Poets Write for Fame, Recognition Or Something More Elusive?

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What is poetry for?

What if Mabel Loomis Todd had not rescued the poems of Emily Dickinson from obscurity, therefore securing everlasting gratitude for herself and everlasting fame for Dickinson?

I've been contemplating the question much of my life, enthralled as I am by Dickinson, and it has reshaped my life and encouraged me to write when I've flagged and despaired, but not because I count on a Loomis to champion me, but rather because I believe that thoughts are things. I believe we are all alchemist's apprentices. Some of us seek to turn base metal into gold, but others seek the ennoblement of the human spirit.

For me, the universe takes note of each poem, each word, each ion. They change the universe, just as we are said to change what we observe. In this sense, the work of my poems is done. I have made poems as a gift, and like a child blowing dandelion seeds into the air, I have taken delight in their flight.

Others may praise the poems or disparage them. The universe will take note of what they say, and then their comments, like the poems, will become elements in a vast alembic. The alchemist's apprentices will have done their work.

As I cast the occasional glance toward the high and low piles of poems I must cull to prepare manuscripts my regret is that I probably won't have time to edit and revise each poem. Once I thought there was a decision to make: spend time improving and discarding or write yet another poem. The latter choice has prevailed. Others may regret this decision, but I'm busy bearing gifts and singing to the universe.

I will never know exactly why I write, but I know I must, and I've come to regard the asking of this question as a journalistic cliché. Who can say? Everything I might say, even what I'm saying here, is somehow self-serving. But I know I must, I know I am most alive when I do, and I know a good poem, one I regard as good, is an algorithm by which I come to understand something important to me. Another way to look at this is that the poems are kerosene for my lantern, batteries for my flashlight.

But if there is a nihilistic imperative, what can any of this mean? I affirm, as before, that each impulse to set down a word, each word, each line, each poem changes the universal equation and becomes part of an eternal expansion into time and space. I don't know, nor do you, what the cithara sounded like to the Greeks, but I know that sound is influencing us today. I know that when an Algerian student posts pictures of Ouled Nail costumes on my Facebook page my life isn't quite the same as the moment before.

And when I contemplate my oeuvre, the smaller part published, the greater part unpublished, in this light I see that my concerns about publishing, criticism, legacy and recognition are so much smoke and mirrors, ephemera-because so much of the work is done, so much of the song sung, so much heard, and the rest is vanity, towering, treacherous vanity that stands at every point in the way of doing my utmost, my best work. I know too, because Gustave Flaubert has so memorably alerted me, that I am swarmed by received ideas that seem urgent but are in fact pretentious.

The alchemist's apprentice, to be worthy, must have the focus of a diamond cutter, and that means that his or her sidelong concerns for acknowledgement are the very distractions that will cause the experiment at hand to fail.

Who then is the alchemist? I have no idea, except that I have spoken to him/her all my life and been answered, and if I had told a therapist, say one treating me for my post-traumatic stress, I might well have been declared a schizophrenic. I am certainly hypervigilant to the edge of schizophrenia, but I probably wouldn't write a line of poetry if I were less vigilant. The sickness of the oyster is the pearl.

Perhaps Mabel Loomis Todd's literary heroism is much more about her than it's about Dickinson. Perhaps this was the act to which her life inevitably navigated. No matter how her action is viewed, we're deeply indebted to her. But I believe it's all too facile to say that obscurity threatened Dickinson's poems. They were hard at work even as Todd labored to rescue them.

Is this mysticism? Sure, so what?

Djelloul Marbrook

Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, was published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia's Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller's Room, in 1999.

Del's book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal Latté's fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother's art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt's art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

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