You will be forgotten

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If you’re doing all this (whatever your “all this” is) in order to be remembered (I would add be famous/rich/desired for the poets), you are wasting your time. Virtually none of us will be remembered, much less read, in 200 years. This is what I should send to my students who champ at the bit get published (like I did when I was starting out). Took me quite a while to come to that realization, but ever since I did, everything, from my quality of life to the quality of my art, has gotten better. The fact is that we matter, but only now. We matter to what’s around us and how we interact with that sphere. I wish I could go back and convince 26-year-old-me of that. Stop trying to hard to please others who aren’t right across the room from you. Build your life around you, take joy in the moment and the tangible, and leave the world a slightly better and prettier place than you found it. We’re all increments on a ruler called Time…. you can’t get to 30cm without the first millimeter (and micrometer and nanometer, etc.) Makes you wonder how things would have been if we hadn’t developed a species-wide fetish for individual accomplishment. That said, I am still trying to make that level of accomplishment. I strive, I build, I learn. If I get there, I will die happy. If I don’t, I’ll still die, but more like most everyone else. And either way, 200 years from now, it’s very unlikely I’ll be remembered, no matter how I go. And if not 200, then 500, 5000, or at the heat death of the universe. So my goal is to remember myself well to myself while I’m here.

It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience.

But that we even have Horace’s poetry to read is as much a caprice of fate as a function of his poetic virtue. Some manuscripts survive the collapse of civilization, others do not; it seems unlikely that these survivals and disappearances precisely track merit. We have Horace and we are missing most of Sappho. We have Horace and we are missing wide swathes of Aeschylus. We have Horace but we do not have the complete works of Aristotle. Why some texts survive and not others can be a matter of historical record, but it is not necessarily a measure of their virtue. Survival is ultimately a matter of greatness, yes, but just as much, it’s about luck.

At some point in life, we come to realize that we exist in a context. If you are a scientist, you might make a small but useful contribution in your subfield, a subfield that is impossible to explain to anybody else. If you write short stories for literary magazines and exist in that ecosystem, you may not really exist to people outside of it. And — for most of us — our lives form part of the circumference of that context. We live a little while and then we go into the ground. Our children, if we have them, remember us, their children remember us a little less, their children even less, and so on until we are part of a school genealogy project.

News catch up

I haven’t felt much like posting since my friend died last week, but here’s a few links to keep you relatively up to date.

RIP: Steven Heighton

I’ve been having a hard time coming to terms with the death of an old friend, though one I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. The loss of poet Steven Heighton has made our country, and the field of poetry, a poorer place.

I had written to him recently (we exchanged emails probably twice a year) and had no reply, which was unusual, though not unheard of in crazy busy times. I assumed a reply would come when a reply was ready. Sometimes that’s not the case.

There are very few writers that reach a certain level, at least that I can think of, who are nothing but kind and generous with their time and attention. He was one. And he was in that interstitial generation between my own GenX slackers and the self-assured Boomers who ruled the roost when I arrived on the scene in the late 90s. It meant much to have someone to look up to who was also someone I could have a beer with and shoot the shit now and then.

My favourite story about Steven was the first time we properly met. We were reading at Eden Mills, the two of us on the bill with Anne-Marie MacDonald. They were flogging novels, I was poetry — only my second book and people didn’t really know who I was. But he treated me like an equal.

We had some fun exchanges ribbing each other from the stage, but it was afterward at the signing table, when they sat on either side of me with a lineup for 30 or more people each, while I had a whopping ZERO people coming to get a book signed, that I realized what a nice guy he was. They were scribbling away trying to get through the demand while I sat between them looking down a long corridor of nothing. I’m serious, it was like being in a hotel hallway. But even as I stared into the abyss of apathy that dogs poetry as a pursuit, Steven would pause between signatures and talk to me in a chit-chatty way as though it were nothing out of the ordinary, and even though both of us were acutely aware of how miserable the uptake on my book was. He was just trying to distract me until some friends could come stand in front of me and pretend they needed their books signed. He was just that sort of guy. You could rely on him.

He was also friendly and good at talking, able to ask questions and tells stories that always took the conversation in new and interesting directions. Generous, was the best word to describe him. (Plus, he always referred to me as “Lord George”, because of the famous English soldier of the same name. And I kind of loved it.)

A few years back we were in Kingston and had dinner with him, and we got deep into some tough stuff. We talked of many things, private and public, and the complexity of lives and choices and careers and various hands we’ve been dealt.

This latest card he received from the Great Dealer Above was a shitty one, but this is a guy who’d played a long series of royal flushes at the table we call poetry, so I’m going to concentrate on that.

I started as a fan, became a friend, and ended as both. His book The Address Book was the inspiration for a poem of the same title one of my books — with my version questioning when it’s time to remove the dead from your contact lists.

Steven, I think you’ve just shown me that the answer is most likely “never”.

(The Quill had me review his recent selected, which was brilliant, like much of his work. I hope he has left us some more, because the world is a worse place without him in it, thinking.)


Happy 150th, Publishers Weekly

It’s not every day you turn a century and a half. Enjoy yourself, PW, but be sure to follow medical advice on how to protect those hips.

Over the course of 150 years—an inarguably impressive lifetime—Publishers Weekly has grown from a weekly trade circular edited single-handedly by Frederick Leypoldt from his offices at 712 Broadway in Manhattan into a publication that has recorded the history of the American book publishing business for a century and a half, with a staff roughly 50 times that of its original. (Geographically speaking, on the other hand, we haven’t gone too far: PW’s new offices on West 23rd Street are only a bit further than a mile from its original home.) This magazine has, at one time or another, taken on all of the efforts described above. Sometimes, it even did so all at once.

Neglected gems

There are plenty of books that should have done better than they did, not only in terms of sales, but interest and longevity. Writers love trading recommendations on these sorts of things. The Irish Times looks at a bunch here, but I wonder what your recommendations would be. Books that should really still be getting attention, or should have on release, but are relegated to the remainder bin of history. I think Beautiful Losers by Cohen is one of these. Too profane for its time, but I’m surprised more young people aren’t reading it now. In general, there’s no way to really tell which books will stand the test of time (how many reviews for super popular authors have called their subjects “timeless” or “masterpieces” only to have the author disappear into relative obscurity two decades later. Hell, there are writers who were THE SHIT when I was first starting to write who aren’t, by appearances, around anymore. Neglect happens in real time, but it’s only from a distance that you can see exactly how much damage has been done. So, support the books you love and put them in the hands of others!