I read a fine quote from John Steinbeck today about how it is, or should be, if you consider yourself a writer.
A writer, out of loneliness, is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling, or teaching, or ordering. Rather, he seeks to establish a relationship with meaning, of feeling, of observing.
We are lonesome animals. We spend all our lives trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story…
To finish is sadness to a writer, a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
This resonated with me. Particularly the piece about not telling, teaching, ordering, but establishing a relationship with meaning, feeling, observing. It’s close to my way of thinking, of working.
It also hit home because reading it came only an hour or so after I came across an advert for a job in poetry. I won’t go into too many details. These things are all over the internet. They are more or less invitations to join the club, The Poetry Club, which is the exact opposite of what Steinbeck was talking about when he referred to loneliness, sadness. I prefer solitude, grumpiness, but it’s close.
This particular advert, however, seemed seriously weird. It wanted an exceptional poet and tutor to be a part of a happy and successful team. Happy kept cropping up. The school, it said, is a happy place. It provides a happy environment.
The candidate it said would be an established member of the literary world (so one of the boys and girls, then) with an excellent academic background, a PhD in English or Creative Writing (naturally, what else would you expect?), and experience of teaching at graduate level. Blah-de-blah. Highly skilled. Blah-de-blah. Supportive, Understanding. Blah-de-Blah.
Ok, fair enough, I wouldn’t get in. I’m not qualified. I don’t mean academically, though that’s true. My ancient BA Hons is nowhere near good enough, even if I knew where the proof of it was. No, it’s the happy bit I couldn’t do. I doubt I could even do it at the interview (not that I’d get one).
I grew up in journalism, grew middle-aged and grew old in journalism. We knew what happy was, especially when we’d had a drink or four. We knew what angry, passionate, bad-tempered and noisy was too. When we wrote, we wrote alone. We wrote in doubt, asking ourselves questions, trying to get what we wanted to say down as best we could and as truthfully as we could. We were alive. Are these people in that supportive, understanding, positive, constructive, happy world really alive?
I’ve no idea but if that’s what the poetry world demands of a person, I’d rather stick to the Steinbeck code.
Oh, and the job paid the princely sum of £15k-£20k and was based in London.
Interested? Then you have my greatest sympathy but good luck anyway.
8 thoughts on “THE POETRY ACADEMICS vs JOHN STEINBECK”
I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it yesterday – I was going to reply with something about Ad Astra per Alas Porci and Pigasus but actually all I want to say is yes, from one not-very- club-able poet to another, yes!
as best we could and as truthfully as we could – yeah, I could just live by that and it would be enough.
Thanks Hilary, I appreciate this very much. For those reading this who don’t know, Ad Astra per Alas Porci – to the stars on the wings of a pig – was a phrase Steinbeck often used on his books or when signing stuff. It is alleged he was once told by a teacher he had as much chance of being a writer as a pig had of flying, or something like that. He would also stamp letters with his drawing of a pig – Pigasus.
Steinbeck regarded Pegasus as a symbol of himself, to show that he was “earthbound but aspiring … not enough wingspread but plenty of intention”. Which feels familiar.
PS Where did you find the Steinbeck quote? I might have to chase it down and see what else he says …
Thanks Rajani. I think it’s all we can do – and, when the mood takes, have some fun with it too, of course.
Thanks again Hilary. It’s widely quoted on the net (I now discover). I’d read it years ago somewhere and came across it again and it seemed more relevant than ever. I think he said it in an essay or interview in the 30s.