My Barefoot Rank
By David Graham
—to the memory of Donald Sheehan
In college I took a course or two with the Poet in Residence on our campus, who happened to be Richard Eberhart. Though I was young and determinedly unimpressed by such matters, Eberhart came into my life trailing a rather impressive list of honors. He was a winner of most accolades the poetry establishment could bestow, including The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and a stint as national Poet Laureate and Consultant to the Librarian of Congress. He was a founding member of the renowned Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Scholarly books were written about his career. In his years as a professor he taught at many leading universities, including Columbia, Tufts, Brown, Swarthmore, Princeton, and finally Dartmouth. His poems appeared in every major anthology, where he was frequently featured as one of our chief poets of World War II. In fact, his poem “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment” was, even to my prematurely jaded undergraduate eyes, a pretty terrific accomplishment, along with “The Groundhog,” “The Cancer Cells,” “Cover me over, clover,” and others. In short, anyone who knew anything about the poetry scene knew and respected Eberhart.
Even better, to my way of thinking back then, Eberhart knew, or had met, everyone. I was not too cynical to enjoy sitting in his living room in one of his workshop sessions, where he would lean back in his chair, puff on his pipe, and recount firsthand anecdotes of everyone from Yeats and Dylan Thomas to Allen Ginsberg. We all knew, as well, that he had once been the teacher of the most famous poet of the era, Robert Lowell. Moreover, he was reputed to be the first academic, establishment poet to take the Beat poets seriously, which was a further feather in his cap from my perspective.
He lived out his extremely long life (finally dying in 2005 at age 101) about as richly honored and respected as a poet can be.
But well before his death I realized that my famous former professor was not so famous anymore. It seems increasingly obvious that, despite his accomplishments and high reputation, lasting for decades, the poet Richard Eberhart was one whose name really was writ in water. When my generation dies, I expect he’ll turn permanently into a footnote, one of those minor figures showing up occasionally in the biographies of others, only noted in the most exhaustive critical histories of his era. Looking back, I realize that his brand of highly wrought Romantic formalism was passing out of fashion even as far back as the 1960s. A young poet today who took Eberhart as a model would be a curiosity at best. His handful of best known poems have gradually but relentlessly been vanishing from the main anthologies. He rarely appears on course syllabi or in anything but the most specialized journal articles anymore, and I can’t recall the last time I heard his name mentioned at any gathering of poets. I seriously doubt there will be any more scholarly works about him to come. A mere half decade after his death, Eberhart essentially has no fame anymore.
So what happened? The short answer is that what happened to him is what will happen to every other poet now breathing, with so few and such unpredictable exceptions that it nearly doesn’t matter. For a few decades Eberhart enjoyed an uncommon degree of renown, it’s true, but quite rapidly the natural order of things re-established itself, so he has been, by and large, forgotten. The truth is that oblivion is not just commonplace for poets, but practically the rule. To harbor ambitions for any other fate is almost by definition to be deluded, and, as the example of Eberhart nicely illustrates, honors and attention during one’s life are no guarantee of posthumous reputation.
Of course, the ambition to write a great poem is not the same thing as a desire to win the Pulitzer Prize. We all know that, or say that we do. Yet many of us devote enormous amounts of time, energy, and precious hope seeking honors, reputation, prestigious publications, and all the rest of those things that we know, or should know, will evaporate rapidly even if we are lucky enough to achieve them in our lifetimes. Much more likely we won’t even reach a fraction of the renown of an Eberhart who, even at the peak of his career, was seldom spoken of in the same breath as a Yeats or Frost. And now isn’t spoken of at all.
In 1862, an unknown and unpublished young New England poet wrote to a prominent literary figure, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, inquiring of this learned gentleman whether, as she put it, her poems were “alive.” Higginson’s baffled condescension toward the unconventional poems of Emily Dickinson has made his name a footnote of a less admirable kind. But to his credit, he did know that she was a remarkable woman, even if he had no idea her fame as a poet would one day eclipse that of every other single American poet who was considered great in 1862. He became a friend and pen pal, someone she playfully referred to as her teacher. You and I might fancy that we would not be so obtuse as to miss the true genius of an Emily Dickinson, but we’d be wrong. Smarter people than us considered her a minor oddball writer for decades, until in the twentieth century her reputation slowly grew to be what it is today.
In one of their exchanges, Higginson suggested, no doubt kindly and diplomatically, that Dickinson’s work was not ready for publication. In her letter of reply she disavowed any ambition of that outward kind, focusing entirely on the inward ambition that any serious poet must cultivate:
I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish,” that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin.
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.
Some critics and biographers have assumed that Dickinson was being disingenuous, seeking advice from a leading literary light while pretending not to be interested in his help toward publication. I probably thought so, too, if I gave the matter any thought when starting out as a poet. But what if she meant what she wrote? What if, in fact, she really was inquiring of a well-known expert his opinion of the quality of her poems, without expectation of a “career” in the art or even publication? What if she just wanted an informed evaluation, or wished to reach out to a possibly kindred soul? We know from biographical research, reinforced by everything Dickinson wrote, that she was fully capable of fiercely held and against-the-grain opinions. Why must we suspect that she was necessarily, if secretly, eager for ordinary publication? As far as we know, she never made the slightest move in this direction, and the handful of poems that appeared in print during her lifetime were submitted by friends. There is a great deal of speculation among Dickinson scholars, but to my knowledge there is not much evidence that she was ever unhappy with her barefoot ranking.
More importantly, what if she not only meant what she wrote, but what if she was right? Is there a sense in which a “barefoot” ranking is, actually, better than fame and a public career in the art of poetry? Well, of course it depends on what one means by “better.” What I am groping toward here, tentatively and with many patches of self-doubt and personal bewilderment, is a stance toward poetic vocation different from the more or less conventional ambitions that guided me through college, graduate school, and my early “career” as a publishing writer. (I put the term “career” in quotation marks because I am well aware that I never have had, or will enjoy, anything close to Eberhart’s degree of reputation, despite publishing my work in a variety of places for decades now.) In a sense I suppose I am trying to convince myself that my utter obscurity as a poet—my “failure” to achieve the fame I once yearned for in my deep heart’s core—is a good thing, not just a realistic adjustment to the conditions that prevail, but ultimately a healthy way to be.
I have no advice to give or answers to the big questions. But I can offer some testimony from my own experience in this strange enterprise. In my writing life, as the years passed and it gradually became obvious that the prize committees were never going to give me a call, the major critics would not be gushing about my work, and my face would never appear on the cover of American Poetry Review, I reacted by gradually cutting back on my attempts to gain publication, win prizes, and generally push myself forward in the maelstrom of Po-Biz. To be honest this was as much a matter of temperament and sloth as principle, at least in the beginning. I have often felt like the world’s worst schmoozer and hustler, no doubt largely because it’s distasteful to me. If on a given day I had to choose between promoting my career and promoting poetry, I more often chose the latter. Most days I focused on the work itself, forming and sticking to a daily writing regimen—in fact, I haven’t missed a day in nineteen years and counting.
At the same time I also resolved to do more of what Dickinson had done, reaching out to like-minded souls in a variety of ways. Unlike Dickinson, I was fairly sociable about it, comfortable enough leaving my house to meet other poets. I went to writers’ conferences, became active in online discussion groups, and attended as many readings and open mics as I could. I participated in informal workshops both online and in person, wrote fan letters to poets I admired, did a bit of book reviewing and essay writing, connected with other writers on Facebook, and so forth. I met more than a few fellow poets online, and maintain a friendly correspondence with a fair number of them. Few of these were new activities for me, of course; what was different was that more and more I put the energy and time I used to devote to submitting work and promoting myself into more “barefoot” or grassroots action. I happily submitted my own work for publication when solicited, but not often otherwise. When I published something new it felt good, naturally, but it didn’t feel as though I had “won” anything. This seemed a fair price for not feeling like a loser when rejected or ignored.
Interestingly enough, this laissez-faire attitude toward the outward rewards of Po-Biz has had unexpected side benefits. For one thing, I found myself being solicited more frequently than ever before, probably because of all my online visibility. I haven’t published more than before, necessarily, but I certainly have been rejected less often. For another thing, I gradually widened my circle of poetry pals and acquaintances considerably, and thus found my taste and knowledge in poetry also evolving accordingly. But most of all, I grew happier and happier as both poet and person. I discovered the old demons of envy and unhealthy, unrealistic ambition becoming weaker and weaker in me year by year. I am more content with my barefoot rank than I ever was while running hard on ambition’s treadmill.
It’s not been a smooth road, I should add. Nor do I imagine I will ever achieve the perfect writerly bliss of non-ambition. As Donald Hall once noted in an essay, “nothing is learned once that does not need learning again”—nothing important, anyway, I believe. The old corrosive and envy-laden sense of ambition does appear in my soul on a regular basis, despite my best intentions. But I know what to do about it, at least. I send a poem I love to some friends. I attend an open mic and recite a poem by someone else. Every year I introduce my students to great poets of the past and cheer them in their own attempts to master the art. I swap new drafts with fellow poets. I write an essay like this one when asked, and hope in return to receive some comments, not from posterity but from you, Gentle Reader. I re-read Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as needed, and remind myself how delicious it can feel to walk barefoot through this world.