Memoire of a Mid-Careerist

Poetry Ireland News May/June 2012

Recently I was the grateful recipient of a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship, which is specifically aimed at ‘poets in mid-career’. This gave me some [Michael O'Loughlin] pause. Do poets actually have careers, and what’s it like to be in the middle of one? I never though of poetry as a career. In fact I never thought of a career, period. But looking back from what is supposed to be the slight elevation of mid-career, one question presents itself.

Which career are we talking about here? The vaguely chronological and linear one, which is marked by stages in education, publications, prizes, and so on? Or the real, inner career which is like a secret map through the poems, one which only becomes visible when the work is completed, that is, when the flesh of the poet’s life has been sheared from the bones of the poems?

The outer career often follows a predictable pattern. The poet in his youth begins in gladness, and may well find him- or herself the favourable object of media interest. People like young poets, as long as he or she is reasonably photogenic, and potty-trained, that is to say, has learned the lessons of the poets immediately preceding him or her. But then the day dawns, post third or fourth collection, when you are no longer a promising younger poet. This is usually about the age of forty. At that age, the poet starts to fade away into mid- career. Having traversed that barren plateau, dutifully popping out a book every four or five years, he becomes an older poet, having acquired in the meantime some elder statesman gravitas. Then he dies and his funeral will be attended by unblushing encomia, and some sighs of relief. He will then disappear to a greater or lesser extent, for another thirty or so years, until that magical day dawns when some young Helen Vendler, as yet unborn, mooching round theMichael Longley Library in Trinity’s Beijing campus, finds an old and as yet unopened book on the shelf...

The problem with this career model is that it is predicated on fairly suspect notions of development and education, prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries, not to mention the complex construct of ‘reputation’. And it contains one huge fallacy, pinpointed by the essential Tim Parks in his New York Review of Books blog on this subject: ‘The fact that creativity may not be co-extensive with one’s whole working life is not admitted.’ Rimbaud peaked at seventeen, Yeats at seventy. Yeats himself seemed aware of this. His advice to young poets was to work hard at a style, and hope that interesting things happen to you. But what if they don’t? Or as Randall Jarrell put it more poetically, a poet spends his life standing out in the rain, hoping to get hit by lightning. There is no way of telling whether you will get hit in your first, fifth, or tenth collection. This goes against prevailing ideas of education, particularly in recent times when it has become almost de rigeur for aspiring writers to study writing at creative writing courses. But it is the randomness which is interesting, placing poetry outside of the normal domain of linear time. One might imagine that this model works better for novelists, if it were not for the evidence to the contrary. Think of how many prose writers write a brilliant first (or near- first) novel (Tropic of Cancer, Catch-22, Trainspotting, Midnight’s Children), become ‘career novelists’, and spend the rest of their long, long lives churning out tedious slabs of prose...but I digress.

Another, more fruitful way of looking at the poetic career might be in terms of Schrödinger's Cat. This paradox, insofar as I understand it, works as follows. A cat is placed in a sealed box. Inside the box there is a geiger counter which will detect radiation: when it reaches a certain level it will cause a vial of poison to open, thus killing the cat. So, until the box is opened you do not know if the cat is dead or not. Theoretically, until you open the box, the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. That is, it is the intervention of the observer which determines whether the cat is alive or dead. And so with the true value of a poet’s work. It is, perhaps, impossible to judge the true worth of our contemporaries, because the box is closed. But that does not stop us from suspecting, with regard to some contemporaries of towering reputation, that when their cat is finally let out of the box, we will be looking at one dead moggy.

There is reason to believe that in recent times, the construct of career is undergoing a radical sea change. Tim Parks again: ‘The ultimate achievement of the career writer, after a lifetime of literary festivals, shortlists and prizes, readings, seminars, honorary degrees, lectures, and, of course, writing is, or would be, to place himself inside “the canon.” But in the publishing culture we have today any idea that a process of slow sifting might produce a credible canon such as those we inherited from the distant past is nonsense. Whatever in the future masquerades as a canon for our own time will largely be the result of good marketing, self- promotion, and of course pure chance.’

The fact is, the interaction of career 1 with career 2 is, and always has been, an arcane business, and one which each poet has to work out for himself. There are precious few maps or guidebooks for that particular terrain.

The best you can hope for by mid- career is that you have learned to house-train miracles.

Michael O’Loughlin’s latest collection of poetry, In This Life, was published by New Island in 2011.

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