Folly to Be Wise

The initiation into knowledge will infect the learner with the virus of self-consciousness.
–Tony Hoagland

The dog ate my homework, but I don’t have a dog, and all work is homework when you like what you do. Though I’m only finding the time to post right now because I couldn’t fall asleep, I have been reading more of Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun, and one short chapter seems worth talking about in particular.

You see, I’ve been going through a dry spell for awhile now — long enough that I’ve come to admit it too often, and I’m sure a few people around me are sick of hearing about it. I’ve had fits and starts, a few random pieces — usually prose — that I really like, but I haven’t been writing consistently for over a year now.

I don’t know what the cause. There are many candidates: I read too much poetry, I read too much bad poetry, I don’t read enough good poetry, I have too little free time, I’ve become fixated on a brand of mystery that can’t be resolved through poetry*, I’ve become filled with too much contentment, I’ve become too career-oriented, I’ve become too goal-oriented, my creative energies are being expressed in other ways, I used to not give a shit, I used to read more philosophy, I used to read more history, I used to be an insomniac. You name it.

In the middle of his book, Hoagland names one (presumably) of his own: self-consciousness. I’ve thought a lot about this in between desperate rain dances, and it was comforting to see it brought up here.

As a poet, ignorance really is bliss, in many cases. Poetry is mostly a private exercise, with few tangible, external rewards. If you’re not writing because you enjoy the process of writing, you should probably get another hobby. So as long as you feel good about what you’re producing, it feels good to be producing it.

Yet there’s more to it than that. The naive bring their own naivete to what often works best when seeming an artless art. The happy accident is a useful tools for a poet, and its easy to find serendipity as a bumbling novice following your own spontaneous impulses. What’s more, I’ve come to see poetry as a fundamentally arrogant pursuit — not necessarily the sin of vanity, but one that requires a certain level of confidence that what you have to say is worthwhile. A poet who isn’t self-conscious can crank out the poems, fill up pages every day of dreck — I see it all the time, I’ve done it myself. It’s easy to long for such freedom.

Like any good teacher, Hoagland finds a way to twist this problem into a gift — it’s only the self-conscious writer that takes advantage of the tools of rhetoric, and some of the best lines in poetry are written rhetorically, a sly wink and a nod to the fact that they’re poets, we’re readers, and the link between to two is just a poem. He cites Eliot’s “The roses/ Had the look of flowers that are looked at….” among several examples of what he means, and he has a point. Thomas Gray really said, of course, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Besides, I’d trade the nuanced reading of a good poem for the writing of a mediocre one any day. Maybe I have.


* Don’t ask.

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