Jul/Aug 2002 Miscellaneous

Tempted to Television

by C.E. Chaffin

I've been on the web about five years now, roughly, and a recent protracted illness has given me pause about its importance, never mind the high-tech tumble of the NASDAQ.

I am a disabled physician who thought he might make a mark as a writer in this new medium. Despite hundreds of publications, mainly poetry, but including critical essays re-published up to six times and slated for print, as well as near forty columns and over twenty pieces of fiction, I am a veritable nobody, and the most I've been paid for any piece of writing since the '70s is $25.

My one book of poems yields no royalties; I have three more books I haven't even had the heart to send to publishers; instead I intend to enter them in manuscript contests where cash prizes amount to more than I should likely ever receive from royalties. But though I have placed many times, I have never won a poetry contest, so even that ambition is a long shot.

I remember when I joined the American Academy of Poets and received two hardbacks for my trouble; these books must have gone for over twenty dollars each, but the Academy ended up giving them away. One I remember, Donkey Gospel by Tony Hoagland. I gave it away to someone at a poetry reading as a prize for never having attempted to write a poem, my usual practice at readings. I try to reward that precious minority of an audience who actually likes to read poetry but is not tempted to write it, who must be outnumbered one hundred to one by those who pretend to read it but are much more interested in writing it. All this confirms that poetry is a dead art, akin to fencing and lawn bowling, a cultural vestigial organ preserved by a few aficionados. To make a living as a poet you must either take up teaching or transform yourself into a celebrity ala Maya Angelou so you can charge incredible speaking fees. Else, become a singer songwriter like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, two lyricists I might classify as poets, though Bob can be terribly uneven; still, his "Desolation Row" and "Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" have to be considered masterpieces.

Poetry ruled literature, if not by sales, then by influence, until about 1850, when the great age of the novel was firmly ensconced. The age of the novel was even shorter, abrogated by the appearance of film. Once you understand that for primates, as we humans are classified, vision is the primary sense, it is clear that nothing shall compete with movies and television as an artistic medium until such time as brain implants perhaps make 3-D experiences possible, but that, in my medical judgment, is at least fifty years away, since they've already succeeded having a monkey move a computer cursor by thinking with a wire attached. Virtual reality through helmet devices is already here, of course, but not yet marketable.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so in the past people read because their minds were hungry, else attended theater or opera for a more complete experience. And curling up with Tolstoy or Dickens on a cold night by a fire is a pleasure still hard to beat; yet by our own evolutionary biology, it is the exception that prefers reading to visually presented stories, where one no longer need imagine anything the writer attempts, since the director and the producer and the entire collaborative venture which goes into even a 22-minute sitcom is far more complex than the linear recording of symbols on a page, which, when decoded, give you a private movie in the performance hall of the mind.

Nature is lazy. Why do bears raid trash cans? Because it's easier than hunting and gathering. Why do most people watch TV and movies much more than they read? It's easier. And reading poetry is hardest of all; you can't just tramp through it like a Danielle Steele romance. You must re-read it, come back to it after years to understand a nuance you missed, even reverse an entire interpretation sometimes—as one approaches the age at which the poet understood something formerly beyond you.

There has been nothing really new in poetry since the Moderns, with whom I include Neruda, among other international poets. The Beats tried to democratize poetry, bring it down to a street level meaning, but Eliot already had included the most sordid conversations about false teeth among lower class women (think Monte Python's annoyingly high-pitched female characters) in "The Waste Land" back in 1919.

Performance poetry is the natural outgrowth of this democratization; the common belief at performance venues, with the Karaokepoetry mike, is that everyone can write poetry. Well, I got news: everyone can't. In fact, only a few people really do it well. To assert this in public, as I did in my last L.A. reading (I have never been invited to read in LA again), is a sin against the tyranny of mediocritizing democracy.

All men are created equal in natural rights, as the philosophy of the Enlightenment graces our Declaration of Independence; but Jefferson never meant to assert that all men are equal in ability or station. And despite this great experiment in freedom called America, justice can still be bought by a William Kennedy or an O. J. Simpson, so even the ideal of "equal before the law" and "a nation of law" is severely compromised on a regular basis by the haves vs. the have-nots. And quality, especially in an art as unpopular as poetry, can be hard to judge, but as that Judge Blackwell remarked, "I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it."

The tyranny of false state-supported equality renders many things forbidden today for fear of rendering someone else less equal, especially in the arts. The Richard Simmons/Norman Vincent Peale gospel of "You're all winners, you all have unlimited potential," blah, blah, blah, has been transmuted into an unspoken social rule that all animals are equal and none should be more equal than others. Thus Bush was probably more attacked in the last election for his misfortune of being the son of a President and the grandson of a Senator than anything else—the dumb rich kid with the silver spoon in his mouth and the yellow brick road before him. This is nonsense, but this is America. Besides, famous parents are sometimes more of a burden than a help in advancing one's own destiny; just ask Carrie Fisher or Marlon Brando's son.

To return to my thread, if one can be deduced from my meanderings, poets and novelists can make one of two choices: to persist in their art for its own sake with little hope of either remuneration or recognition, or to try and adapt to the dominant medium. How do we know Stephen Bochco won't be the Shakespeare of 2102? How do we know that anything of quality written today will ever be recognized or preserved? And who shall wade through the pile, as electronic media like the internet have caused an exponential proliferation of self-styled writers, each with their own precious website?

Two books from two long time editor/publishers in New York recently surfaced, one by Jason Epstein and the other by Alfred Schiffrin. The former takes an optimistic view of the future, in that books still deliver a distinct pleasure separate from a visual medium, whereas Schiffrin is a doomsayer who opines that the corporate profit line has made it impossible to promote well-crafted, fresh literature to add to our cultural heritage. I like Epstein's book better (The Business of Books), but I think his brief memoir admits the tacit assumption that the book industry shall never compete with the visual medium in any commercial way, much less in worldwide influence. When the last episode of "Survivor" has fifty million pairs of eyes glued to it, well, do the math.

I crave entry to the visual medium, although I know Hollywood can be much crueler than the somewhat insular literary world. I want to write scripts for television episodes and see if at least good, if not great art, can please the masses and the critics, and in the immortal words of Sir Philip Sydney, "teach and delight." And despite my lingering '60s ethos, I've begun to believe that money matters. I'd like to buy a new hearing aid for my wife; I'd like to buy my daughters cars; this is my life. Poverty is no shame but wealth can do more good. Am I selling out? No. I'm just bored—not with literature or poetry, but with the lack of concrete benefit to the practitioner.

Yet because my love for poetry resembles an addiction, I have little doubt I shall go on writing it. I know myself that well.

Sometimes in reading the stats for our magazine, The Melic Review, I am partially comforted that about four-hundred people a month turn to my essays. I don't know how much they read, but I know how many pages they scan. I like to think what I've written about literature, my via media / Logopoetry approach, is having, perhaps, a larger influence than I know. Once in a while I get a letter that says, "Wow, C.E., you said it better than I could but you said it for me." And that feels real good, and you can't put a price tag on it. But in a culture dominated by money, celebrity, and the visual medium, it's not enough reward to go on; I go on because I have lost the power of choice over poetry, like any addict.

I've never been paid for fiction, even over 5,000 words of it. I've tried to get an agent more than once but I've been told my work is "hard to classify" from a marketing angle. The writing business, a neglected stepchild of the entertainment business, is tough to make a living in.

The other path a poet/writer can follow is self-promotion ad nauseum: read everywhere, publish everywhere, sell books and CDs online, have a personal website, claw for every shred of publicity, call up the local and national papers with articles about yourself you ghost write under a pseudonym; but I'm too old and tired for that, quite simply, it requires the energy of a Madonna or some other young "talent" with oodles of energy. Quite simply, I'm not a rock star anymore, Dorothy, although I have led rock bands when I was younger (I think we sold about 100 CDs). Besides, I come from an upbringing where excellence is considered its own reward, recognized or not. I know this ideal is silly, given the world, but I fear I am too old to change.

"Old writers never die, they just fade into television." —McArthur, altered

"How can you not love television? It asks so little and give so much." —Homer Simpson

How can the written word possibly compete? Perhaps in the future there will be only adult picture books.


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