Monday, September 4, 2017



What We Do: Essays for Poets by Michael Gottlieb
(Chax Press, 2016)

To Poeticize Is To Learn How To Die

“To philosophize is to learn how to die” is a saying attributed to Cicero which in the 16th century became the title of one of Montaigne’s most famous essays.
Michael (Michel de) Gottlieb’s What We Do: Essays for Poets comprises three essays and an afterword.  It is a book of questions and a profound meditation on the psychic, ethical and existential challenges confronting poets over the course of a lifetime. 
The first essay, “Jobs of the Poets,” addresses in 32 numbered sections the bargain which must be struck between making a living and making  art.  As anyone who has gone the distance in the practice of poetry knows, the tradeoffs can be complicated.

       What is the myth that causes us to fear the real world so?  The
        myth that has us assume that we can’t cope?  That the best of
        all possible worlds is the one in which we can write all day… and
        not cope?  To not have to deal with the ‘real world’ …at all, or
        hardly at all.  That it is okay to have a crappy job… so that, for
        decades, we will be sure to have ‘enough’ time to write…
        Are we so much better than the world around us, this corrupt
        grubby world?  This world where we try to avoid getting run over
        by black SUVs ferrying around morons wearing suits that cost
       more than we make in a month.  Must we avoid inveigling our-
       selves in that kind of corruption?  That world of compromise?
       Are we afraid?  Afraid that we might not have the skills, or ability
       to compete with those we feel are not our equals?  Is it
       competition itself?
                                                    (WWD, 31)

The next essay, “Letters to a Middle-Aged Poet,” also in numbered sections, digs into issues of mortality— both in terms of being a human and being an artist.  For example:

        What does it mean when you, who putatively were thinking
        life-and-death thoughts all along, you are a poet after all, aren’t
        you, get faced with some life-and-death-related realities, or
        rather, some specifically death-related realities, of your own?
        You too.  And it is you lying there waiting for the surgeon.  But
        the anesthesiologist, as in the proper order of things, comes to
        you and gives his talk, practiced with all the due diligence and nods
        to your involvement, your intellectual engagement, however
        specious, as part of the so-called process; his weary and not al-
        together tolerant acceptance of your small-talk, his grudging
        acknowledgment of your pallidly irreverent jokes.
                                                       (WWD, 54)

           What are you to do when you see others, those inevitably
            younger,  so much younger than you, effortlessly executing,
            working, exploring, gamboling in areas, in regions that you
            know – as soon you come across their latest – that you can
            never, will never, in fact, should never yourself even try to
            venture to?  What do you do now?

           Do you stop?  Is it now time to accept that your day is done
           and whatever you had to contribute, you’ve already gone
           ahead and given at the office?  On the other hand, can the
           example of those others, those young ‘uns, perhaps prompt
           us, prod us, push us into new areas, into new ways of thinking
           about our own work, our selves, our joint and several, our  
          shared, and our – alternatively – our severed worlds?  New
          thinking which will oblige us, impel us to do something diff-
                                                      (WWD, 60)

Essay three, “A Spectre is Haunting the Poetry World,” situates the poet within the larger economic structures at play in the world.

             And, has there ever come a time when you’re waiting on a
             table, it’s a four-top but there are only three people there,
             and you realize sitting there, looking up at you, twisting the
             paper napkin in her hands, what do you know, here’s one of
             your students.  You are waiting on her.  And not just her.  But
             her parents too.

             “Mom, Dad, this is my creative writing instructor.”
                                                          (WWD, 95)

The “Author’s Afterword” is a case study in the sometimes slippery relationship between avant writing and social privilege.

              Could it be, perhaps, that one cannot, on one’s own,
              develop sufficient consciousness to, for example,
              correctly apperceive how much privilege – privilege that
              we may not have ever been aware of, but were born with –
              informs one’s own viewpoints?  Is that not why it is im-
              portant (to) keep a hand in when it comes to that skill, the
             one which poets are supposed to be really good at:  seeing,
             and listening?

             Listening is not everything that we need to be good at in
             order to be a poet but we can say that poets do need to
             listen good and hard.  And then they need take what they
             have heard and seen, whatever is sensational or inconceiv-
             able and then try and make sense of it, even or especially if
             that ‘sense’ is a sense that the rest of us have never comtem-
             plated before.  Making sense of it may mean just figuring out
             how to put it all into words.  Turning it all into words, the actual
             writing, is the last part.  That’s the writing.  And before the
             writing comes the sense-making, and before that comes the
             listening, or the seeing.  That is what comes first.
                                                         (WWD, 118)


There’s a lot going on in What We Do.  The through line for me is the acceptance of one’s mortality as a supremely important aspect of one’s intellectual practice.  This, as Montaigne insists, frees one to live one’s life more fully.  To Poeticize is to learn how to die!


Tom Beckett lives, writes, and will likely die in Kent, Ohio.

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