Friday, February 5, 2010


A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

- from "Church Going" by Phillip Larkin

Is it just me or are others subjected to the same caution: Whatever you do don’t take what you do too seriously – or don’t take your self too seriously, which I gather is the very worst thing a person can do. Whenever I’m accused of this (not every day, but just enough to wince slightly when it does happen) I become a little confused about what it might really mean to be too serious about something and about the possible consequences. I suppose if you get too serious about one thing, like the family dog, for instance, you neglect other things – like the family. Or sacrifice so much time with your partner that he or she performs the inevitable and leaves – all because you spent months, perhaps years, getting your award winning manuscript on love out the door.

There are other possibilities, of course. It could be this injunction against taking things too seriously is mostly centred around fear – like the fear of assuming a great challenge, this in turn horribly mixed up with a fear of success, or worse, the fear of offending others; that last one seems to fit in with the urban myth Canadians are supposed to have about themselves. Hiding our light under a bushel for fear of bringing shame or derision down upon us from the neighbours – forgetting that light is a way of helping us pierce the darkness, to find our way.

Phillip Larkin is said to have been so serious about pursuing a life in poetry that he spurned most of the other things that constitute a normal life: Marriage, Children, Social Connections - all out the window as he focussed his entire energies on crafting not just the very best poem he could write, but the very best poem anyone could write. Among the results, “Church Going”, in which he described his subject as “A serious house on serious earth”, which might just as easily describe Larkin’s attitude towards poetry. Poetry, like religion, is serious business. Or at least that’s the way Larkin seems to have understood it.

But so did Robert Lowell apparently. Not content with understanding his significant New England literary roots, Lowell assumed nothing less than a study of the entire tradition of Classical-Anglo-American literature. To this he added a thorough re-thinking and re-working of his most well regarded poems. W.H. Auden was so serious about stemming any lessening of his poetic powers he routinely moved once a decade to a new country: first America, then Italy, finally Austria. Arguably, he gave new life to his poetry and his career.

Is it possible to be too serious? No one likes a bore after all. And being really serious suggests a capacity to deliver the goods; heaven forbid you’re serious, but also second rate. In which case you really are too serious - for your own good, or anyone else’s.

So serious, not solemn. Devoted to your calling, but not to the exclusion of the world or other ways of living or thinking. Disciplined in your work habits, but making time for Irish tenors, kids and small dogs. Unflinching in your opinions, but rigorous in how you go about developing them and equally determined to hear and understand others. Allowing yourself the luxury to get mad, to get really pissed about the world and what you think should be done to fix it, then allowing yourself a chuckle at the whole absurd mess.
At bottom, truly serious people are curious people. In their hearts they simply want to see where things lead and how they turn out. Typically, curiosity begins when you’re young and if it isn’t squished out of you by age six you go on being curious; it’s now part of your nature. That’s the curious thing about curiosity: you aren’t simply anxious to know why something is the way it is one day and then upon discovering the answer the following day find you are no longer curious. Quite the opposite: discovering why Canadian geese flying in formation routinely change positions over long flights invariably uncovers other questions beyond the aerodynamic principles that underpin the draft of a bird’s wing. Now you want to know the structure of the bird’s wing or the nature of the movements of wind or the innate homing capabilities of Canadian geese over great distances. Suddenly you’re impressed not by your capacity to answer a question, but by the sheer inexhaustibility of the universe to place more questions at your feet.

If you’re lucky and are conscious enough this last discovery presents you with another gem to put you in good stead for the future: you discover humility. Which brings us back, I suppose, to where we began, but now with a potential answer and antidote to our original dilemma. Perhaps, it really is possible to be too serious, measured not against what others may say or the limits they place on our human ingenuity and industry, but against that enormous backdrop of a cosmos that is largely indifferent to our small efforts at shaping a destiny for ourselves, but which simultaneously compels us to take it seriously, if only by virtue of its sheer magnitude, enormous beauty and infinite variety.
Christian Bok doesn’t think Canadian poets are very serious. In fact, he says, they’re downright lazy. I don’t imagine they’re lazy so much as overworked and distracted by the infinite number of things that poets are expected to do in a day, besides writing a really good poem - from manuscript prep to query letters to magazine and book publishers to the endless stream of poetry readings, competitions, and grant applications. Poets like everyone else also must earn a living, which usually means a low paying job as a teacher, librarian or baggage handler. In the midst of this is the enormous pressure to be everything we expect them to be as poets: meticulous technicians, profoundly sensitive barometers for our deepest feelings, diviners of history and culture who are, by turns, enthused, enigmatic, entertaining – and yes, deeply serious. How, you might ask, is one to keep up?

Perhaps Emily Dickinson had the right idea after all. You don’t have to read much of her work to recognize that Dickinson was deadly serious. No Canada Council or NEA grants for her. No poetry contests or quietly hysterical letters to publishers about the dearth of public readings. Dickinson published virtually nothing during her lifetime. Instead she wrote poems, a lot of poems, sharing them occasionally with a special friend, but seldom venturing beyond the door of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

If you’re serious about anything, poetry or the DNA structure of the fruit fly, it seems you have to focus in on the thing that matters most to you, culling the extraneous. Above all else, caring counts.


Gary Glazner said...

Hi David, The Lower East Side Girls Club, one of the groups we work with at the Bowery Poetry Club was awarded an NEA "Big Read," grant. Their proposal was for the poetry of Emily Dickinson. They did a lot of research into her life and teamed up with an artist to create a presentation of their findings that dispel many of the myths around her life. If you are interested you may watch the video here:
Its a much more interesting story than the old, "seldom venturing beyond the door of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts." Best, Gary Glazner

Conrad DiDiodato said...


my favourite passage is "Perhaps Emily Dickinson had the right idea after all. You don’t have to read much of her work to recognize that Dickinson was deadly serious. No Canada Council or NEA grants for her. No poetry contests or quietly hysterical letters to publishers about the dearth of public readings. Dickinson published virtually nothing during her lifetime. Instead she wrote poems, a lot of poems, sharing them occasionally with a special friend, but seldom venturing beyond the door of her home in Amherst, Massachusetts."

I've actually been thinking about the issue of the 'seriousness' of poetic art or whether even the word 'seriousness' applies to it at all. A kind of self-defeating 'seriousness' is/has been given to poetry as a result of the predominant Canada Council (or state-sponsored) milieu in which writers must work, as well as the 'academicization' of art in general.

Emily managed to escape both, writing a passional poetry inspired by the simple pleasures of everyday life. And for that she's been immortalized.

How I wish I had her heart!

David Kosub said...

Thanks Gary, a wonderful film, though I don't think it does much to dispel the myth about Dickinson's relative seclusion. Rather it talks about her broad intercourse with the world through news, letters, gifts and most importantly through her imagination. It reminds me very much of what Thoreau said when he was challenged to get out into the world more: "I have travelled far in Concord". The film also seems to support a view of Dickinson's singular preoccupation with writing poems. Would that all poets had such perseverance.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Conrad. "Academized" seriousness has its place in the university, though it's seldom a tone that working poets adopt when talking about the making of poems, I've found. I suppose what I really mean by seriousness is that quiet determination practising poets assume when trying to write the very best poems they can and the enormous labour that goes into pulling that off.

Something I didn't talk about much is the practice of serious reading. I believe it's incumbent upon readers to fulfill their obligations to the poem by learning as much as they can about the history and practice of poetry, then applying their full attention to the poem itself.

Again, thanks. I always enjoy reading your responses.

David Kosub said...

Yes, it takes a particularly agile mind to move among the various options available to us, whether we're working in particulars (e.g. language in art, lab work in science) or universals (the broad truths about what it means to be human hinted at by poetry viz the natural laws that science attempts to discover).

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Alice, I like that "challenge of keeping a sense of options open when you can go through only one of the doors before you at a time."I think we all know how that feels.

But instead of lightness I'd say "anxiety" is the result. Unless by Calvino's term you meant a sort of artistic versatility or open-endedness, a sort of perpetual readiness for more than one skill in case one fails: if not verses, for example, then perhaps criticism.

It's sort of what theoretical physicists today refer to as a "contrast space", any perceived difficulties in the area of artist-and-world relations seen as simply,problematic rather than ultimately answerable.

Dickinson probably resolved the tension between art and her place in the artistic world but not by denying it, escaping into her Massachusetts home: as you say, she chose to open one door only, with dignity & courage.

John Pass said...

Agility, lightfootedness, light-heartedness, balance, wiliness . . .
I can't think of a poet I admire who has not declared some aspect of these qualities as essential to his work. From Keats's "negative capability" to W.C. Williams's "deceptive simplicity" seriousness seems always to imply complexity, paradox and, most of all, humility.
A critic once accused me of "uncutting my best effects". He didn't mean it kindly and I'd differ with his idea that "effects" were what were undercut but I've always taken it as a kind of compliment, an acknowledgement that I know better than to condemn myself to certainty, or to doubt. Seriousness is not leaving your options open but recognizing that the options are never entirely yours and require respect, even homage, in the urgent, self-important tumble of words.

Alice Major said...

Conrad, I meant what Calvino covers in his essay on "Lightness" in "Six Memos for a New Millennium" -- one of my favourite books about writing. He means something that is the opposite of anxiety, I think.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I agree with you: the great Italian author meant "lightness". I've just discovered (by reading Giorgio Agamben's "The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics") that Calvino had been "ordering images and themes along the coordinates of speed/lightness"( in Preface), and with Agamben and Claudio Rugafiori had conceived of the idea of organizing all the "Italian categores", presumably along the lines of Northrop Frye's "Anatomy of Criticism".

But I was just applying Calvino's idea of "lightness" to my own poetry practice,and suggesting that the experience of going through one door only, with all its attendant risks & dangers, comes with a great deal of personal anxiety. "Lightness" is perhaps a property of the poetry of those who've met with more success, acceptance in their own day. I wonder how "light" Paul Celan felt when he walked into the Seine river.

I think Kierkegaard best describes it: "What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant's ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd about the poet and say to him, "Sing for us soon again"—which is as much as to say, "May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful."


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