We are all failures. Ye readers of poetry are all no-good vagrants. Poets themselves? Losers. The editors of this journal? Bums. Roommates? Coworkers? Friends? Deadbeats. Castaways. Derelicts. Each of us is more privy to the almost infinite ways in which we ourselves have degenerated into the charged depths of insolvent never-wasland. But what we may not realize is the brutal optimism lurking behind total disintegration. To have nothing left but ruin is a completely propitious point from which to start: our still being here despite catastrophe means there was nothing to lose in the first place, all our fears were unfounded. Most people pretend their life is good enough. But you are not most people. You know that despite everything you’ve been taught, embracing ruin is a necessary first move in the construction of a worthwhile writer and superabundant human.
Despite the dizzying array of downward spirals, there are really only two forms that failure takes. The first aggregates either from your own mistakes, your aggressive, passive, incompetent manner or from acts of god, society & nature. It renders miserable outcomes disappointing & shameful to everyone involved. At some point each of us has been rendered a schlemiel of simple private defeat or the schlamozzle behind some monstrous public crisis. But from that duress emerges new ways of going forward, impossible to discover through any other means. This kind of failure is ultimately generative & evolutionary.
The other, entirely unsalvageable form of failure is what’s generally referred to as success. The ultimate goal for most logical, sane people is the very thing that will destroy them. The seductive lure of success, its sweet stink, will lure its victim away from a truly expansive life &, once far enough away, will trap them there forever. Every mode of success in a corrupt society points to corruption in the successful person himself. It’s simple math: an investor will make more money with shares of military contractors and private prison corporations than she will with less reprehensible investments. The handful of scientists who insist cigarettes are healthy & the climate is fine make more than all the others combined. At best, success corrupts passively: A famous artist diverts energy away from his work in order to promote himself. At worst, it corrupts actively: A writer chooses to gain traction by advocating on behalf of already powerful people.
Success is grounds for suspicion but also for compassion, the compassion you’d have for a mouse in a trap. If you achieve your goal — be it money or cheese — you’ve lost the impetus to continue adapting. This would spell trouble for anyone especially artists & writers who claim the provenance of intellectual curiosity and conceptual exploration as their own. Once your sense of self & the world around it is absolutely snug, you’d have to be a little touched to want to challenge it further.
The erstwhile living source material of experience atrophies into inanimate scrapbook fetish objects for comfortable people who no longer need to question contexts & relationships. Your newfound assets need protection & demand you stop sticking your neck out. The need to protect a position, be it financial or cultural makes you less alive even as you come to represent the fullest expression of life in the eyes of others. With more to lose than to gain, you settle into a plush, opulent stagnation.
When enough people internalize established notions of success as their own, entire communities collapse in a whirlpool of frantic scrounging. In a healthy community, artistic or otherwise, a full life is measured by how well a person synthesizes occourances into movement beyond initial limits. Those limits may be the normative traditions imposed by broader society or by individuals’ own desire for love & affirmation. It becomes next to impossible to achieve once enough members of a group tie off any expansive development for a cheap fix. How can poetry be expected to do much when the overarching goal of a poet is to get readings & publishing credits or, increasingly in the past few decades, a nice respectable job.
Success brings with it a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which you believe your captors to be good & serve their interests above your own. Your opulent prison, sometimes lined with cash or decked out in power has your own ego standing guard. Once locked up it’s hard to escape, especially having put so much effort into getting inside. How many people do you know whose lives are outwardly marvelous – they have a nice house, a spouse, a kid, a good job – but who are inexplicably miserable? I recently traveled to a city where everyone was radically unhappy despite the high “standard of living” they all enjoyed. Houses with lawns, good shopping. Everyone I met there was a success by any criteria. And if I went back ten years from now I wouldn’t be surprised to find everyone there exactly as I left them. Perhaps a little more successful and a little more resigned. That weary, troubled, ashen face that bespeaks triumph!
Actual failure on the other hand is libratory, allowing you to shed identities & explore new directions. The scientists at Bell Labs used what they called “creative failure methodology” to arrive at their greatest breakthroughs. Setting out to create new technologies they would inadvertently discover other things. Occasionally they would invent new categories, solutions to problems nobody had yet articulated. A team assembled to develop a new kind of transistor completely missed the mark on their first attempt. But their botched circuitry unexpectedly opened the field of semiconductor physics & became the fundamental architecture of the modern computer. Had they been successful on their first try, the team would have gotten their paycheck & been sent away. & I’d be writing this essay on a typewriter.
Everyone trips up somewhere. You may be a visionary whose time has simply not yet arrived. Or you may be a complete fuckup. You may be a person who has made the indecorous decision to live outside the boundaries of what’s proper, or you may simply be an example to others of what never ever to do. In any case, the ways in which you have fallen short, be they intentional or otherwise, reveals more about yourself, the environment in which you operate & the techniques to advance from there than any measly victory. No-win situations are the most efficient way to see what you are really made of, be it the rejection from a magazine, failing calculus, oversleeping or more adverse afflictions. You may not change much during the decades you spend on the planet, but if you hope to, reaching your all time low is a prerequisite for hitting the jackpot.
Among his Thirty Essentials, Jack Kerouac lists “accept loss forever” as a foundational element. It’s crucial if you are going to use failure to your advantage. After all, you need lead in your alchemical retort to end up with gold.
George Patton said success is how high you bounce once you hit bottom. Unready for anything on a three-day trek in the mountains of northern Thailand I didn’t bounce at all. A herd of cows & calves was blocking our path so we walked one at a time through the pack, gently nudging each cow out of our way as we went. I jostled halfway through before the herd abruptly parted to reveal an irate bull with a slowly lowering head. I turned to the rugged manly instincts I hoped provide me the agility, cleverness & strength to triumph over the bull or, short of that, would allow me to accept my doom with noble grace. The enormous animal lined me up in it’s horns & charged over rocky earth. I freaked out, ran, lost my footing and screamed in whiney falsetto “It’s going to kill me!” The bull caught my leg & lifted me twisting into the air. I landed ten feet off the path with a bloodied leg & my weak tremble of a voice ringing in my ears. My much more brave friends closed ranks, beating the rocks with their walking sticks & yelling until the bull backed off & the entire herd vanished into the jungle. We continued walking another five hours that day while I reflected on what had been revealed about my own cowardice & the courage of my friends in a moment when everything went wrong.
Even the writers
of Star Trek recognize impossible adversity as an opportunity for analysis and
growth. In the cadet training exercise Kobayashi Maru, the commander of a simulated
Enterprise is faced with an insurmountable situation. No matter what the captain-in-training
attempts, the Klingons will destroy the ship. After Lt. Saavak fails she has
a conversation with Admiral Kirk:
Saavik: I don’t think this was a fair test of my command abilities.
Kirk: And why not?
Saavik: Because there was no way to win.
Kirk: A no-win situation is a possibility every commander may face. Has that ever occurred to you?
Saavik: No sir, it has not.
Kirk: How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life wouldn’t you say?
Saavik: As I indicated, Admiral, that thought had not occurred to me.
Kirk: Well now you have something new to think about. Carry on.
When he himself was a cadet, Kirk reporgrammed the computer in order to beat the simulation, which might explain his lack of development as a character. You and I, faced with the contingencies of life, don’t have that luxury & so we have to consider how we will respond to conditions that thwart the attainment of our needs & desires.
As the editor of a journal that gets over 1,000 submissions for roughly 30 slots, I’m directly responsible for the creation of 970 such conditions every year. People’s responses to being told no depend on many factors and run an insanely wide range. Ultimately, we all want to be loved, though having a poem accepted is perhaps less a fulfilling embodiment of that love than, say, going out to dinner with someone who you like very much. Where the simple desire to have people read our work becomes a need that dements our relationships with the very people reading it, it may be time to reexamine what we think publishing really means.
Response to failure is the truest manifestation of our nature. Were it not for my run in with the Red Bull logo, I could have ignored the great mass of fear I carry around with me. But now, accosted head on, I can change it. The many times I’ve had work rejected has led me to reexamine my writing & the importance I place on publishing. If the world is unable to fulfill your desire, either the world is flawed, you are flawed or your desire is flawed. There’s nothing stopping you from recasting your entanglements to each until the unhappiness of frustrated plans can’t touch you.
While some noble souls gauge their success in terms of square footage, Google hits, EBITDA or anatomical girth, a more compelling measure of prosperity could be how many of those very people are “worried” about you. A nouveau concern, as heartfelt as our president’s feigned love of poor children, expressed as “I’m worried about you.” When people read things I write & start saying they are worried about me, I know I’m onto something that jeopardizes the framework they use to make the lambs silent. How dare I suggest our emphasis on creating names for ourselves should be less important than creating selves worthy of a name.
Inverting the selfless language of Buddhism, egotistical practitioners of community infighting have learned to couch their attacks in hollow tipped bullets of false concern. Rather than honestly expressing anger at having been challenged, they invoke drala, the concept of moving above the fray. They claim their involvement in the argument extends no further than a humanistic concern for an adversary who is clearly insane. Were their code not so easily hacked it might work, but their earlier behavior usually belies their newfound altruism. It’s not me they’re worried about.
But people who cannot admit their own foibles are more than just irritating, they are doomed. Doomed to live increasingly myopic lives as they cloister themselves from all evidence that they are less than perfect. Doomed also to be unprepared for moments when destruction overtops whatever defenses they’ve built.
Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction & creation makes new growth possible through savage obliteration of what had been there. Often portrayed with blood dripping from her teeth, this goddess of floods was certainly no friend, say, to the people of New Orleans & their fundamental desire to go on living in their homes. But for the people who have struggled to make it back, new acutely perceptive lives have replaced the ones that existed before. Gone is the insulation, stripped away are all illusions. Through adversity into life.
When the universe won’t provide the necessary collapse, you have to take matters into your own hands. Because I want to arrive at someplace better than where these tracks’ll take me I derail my progress on purpose. Because it’s unbearable to prosper in a community where prosperity is kind of creepy & altogether unreal I’ve impolitely excused myself from it.
The only kind of failure from which there is no escape is misunderstanding who you really are. There are few poets who actually understand their cultural position – the material limitations of a poem to do anything and its infinite ability to operate beyond those limitations in crazy, invisible ways. A poet is not a celebrity. A poet may have an acute critical eye but is not a critic. Nor is she a teacher. Those who have gathered together to amplify their voices to cultural consumers within the system — as though they were corporations under the aegis of the Carlye Group or some political action committee – such people are missing the point. America does not want poets to reform it. There is no place in this system for poets, but there can be no complete realization of the human psyche without them.
To the extent poets mistake their creations for products to be gathered into books & sold, they are wasting time that could be spent making new poems. To the extent they desire the glorious trappings that accompany bestsellerdom, they are forgetting why they ought to be writing. Poets are born as the embodiment of Kali but most would like to be somewhere among Warren Buffet, John Grisham & Adam Sandler. You know, only angry. The token dribbling of external affirmation received from a blog or seepage of praise for a chapbook could have been so much more substantial if instead of writing poems they would pick up some oil stock, write a pro-torture screenplay about evil terrorists & star in a heart-warming holiday movie twinkling with the redemptive qualities of laughter & love.
To be a poet is to be a failure forever & through that channel to arrive at greater & greater liberation. That channel is paved with impassible boulders, lined with detractors or nobody at all. Precipitous drops & ludicrous inclines in bad shoes. It’s raining. You have a slight cold. This sweet magnificent failure, promontory of enduring failure from which there can be no greater clarity. Care to join me?
—Brendan Lorber, Brooklyn 2007.
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