"Here's the thing. I am basically willing to do anything. I'm basically willing to do anything to come up with a really good poem. I want to do that. That's may goal in life. And it hasn't happened. I've waited patiently. Sometimes I've waited impatiently. Sometimes I've 'striven'. I've made some acceptable poems - poems that have been accepted in a literal sense. But not one single really good poem.
When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what's wrong with me. They were willing to make sacrifices that I'm not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.
I'm only a little messed up. I'm tortured to the point where I don't sleep very well sometimes, and I don't answer mail as I should. Sometimes I feel a languor of spirit when I get an email asking me to do something. Also, I've run up a significant credit-card debt. But that's not real self-torture. I mean, if you stand back from my life just a little - maybe thirty-five yards - I am a completely conventional person. I drive mostly within the fog lines. My life is seldom in crisis...I'm in considerable pain but this little crisis of mine does not resemble the crises that Ted Roethke or Louise Bogan went through, or James Wright, or Tennyson, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with her laudanum. Or Poe."
- Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
One of the chief delights of The Anthologist (and it's a book chock full of little delights - not a particularly good novel as a whole, but brimming with nice little touches - how can you not be charmed by a book that contains the sentence "Swinburne was like the application of too much fertilizer to a very green lawn"?) is its marvelous portrayal of the inherently quixotic nature of the poetic enterprise. The way the decision to write poetry is both ridiculous and heroic, with the former being the cause of the latter. We believe our poems are not good enough, can never be good enough, but we go on writing them anyway, and insist on comparing ourselves to precisely those we can never equal. Self-doubt and self-importance being the lift and drag that hold the viewless wings of poesy in balance.
Suffering does not make for great poetry. If it did, Gitmo would have the world's finest MFA program, the asylums would overflow with the murmur of lyric stanzas, and great bards would run riot through the streets of Haiti. If anything suffering, real suffering, makes poetry both impossible and irrelevant.
Where does that leave our familiar specter, the tortured poet? It is not suffering that makes poets great, but great poets who make suffering real. Make it convincing. Even to themselves.
P.S. Post title taken from Shelley.