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Heroes & Mud

By Bill Dorris

      Heroes & Mud

        Billy Collins' story about Philip Levine growing up in LA as the son of a wealthy orthodontist has never made any sense to me (cf., (My Grandfather's Tackle Box:,*) 2001, p90). If it was true, then presumably John Ashbery or Frank O'Hara or maybe Emily Dickinson could have written What Work Is (Levine, 2001). Despite Stephen Spender's claim that "there are very few situations in life which a poet should not be able to imagine" (The Making of a Poem, 1952, p122), there are limits to what any poet can write. I'm not talking passable poetry, written as exercise or for someone's else's purpose. I'm talking poetry that is you, has your vision and identity, your, to borrow from BC again, "memory and imagination", and 20 rewrites written all over it. That poetry is limited – marvelously and uniquely – for each of us by the genes & jeans we grew up in, by the worlds in which each of us grew and lived in and through, and those in which we continue to. That's why we know an Emily D. or John A. or P. Levine poem when we see one.

        Of course, Billy Collins' account of Philip Levine's wealthy orthodontist father wasn't about this aspect of poetry, i.e., the genetic and developmental limits to writing. It was about something much more problematic for each of us as poets, not to mention, I suspect, for society itself.

        It was about the powerful, almost compelling, tendency for his students – and by implication, all of us – to identify personally with our favorite poets, to identify with them as vital living evidence of the truth and justice of our own core values and beliefs (not to mention those of our close network of friends and acquaintance, that little invisible college of peers and poetic allies we all have).

        It's a tendency to identify with this or that poet, this or that John A. or Emily D. or P. Levine who produced those essential epic works of art, to identify personally with this person, this person's life, as a statement about how things really are (or should be), about truth and justice (and hence, injustice) – and thus in our own discussions and reading, critical arguments and gossip, to perpetuate our own version (shared with friends and allies) of how it is that such special, talented, creative persons eventually – through determination, struggle and courage – rise to the top and create such works of poetic genius.

        All this, despite the massive obstacles and hindrances placed in the way of our heroic poets – a bit like what each of us would eventually achieve if there was any justice in this world.

        Like I said, a dangerous game, this identifying with poets as heroes, icons, idols . . . with particular poets, the Emily or John or Phil . . . who are really . . . well
. . . let's face it . . . give or take . . . you and me.

        A dangerous game setting ourselves up for making it, like our idols did, then facing day after day, year after year, the reality of it never happening.

        Is there a way out? One that leaves us with the poems, if not the poets, or at least not our mythical birdcage images of them.

        I think so.

        First off, let's take a look at the odds of any writer, no matter how talented or potentially talented, making it to the top. Psychologists who study these things (greatness, eminence, genius etc) – from Terman and Catherine Cox on – figure you've got to be in the top 2-5% in intelligence to have a shot at greatness, i.e., somewhere between 1/50 and 1/20 of us has a shot at it, which, come to think of it, ain't bad odds. Well 'cept when you figure in a few historical details. Take Irish writers, for example, out of a potential of about 240,000 (2% of Irish population) to 600,000 (5%) great Irish writers over the last 100 years, what have we produced? Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney and maybe 1 or 2 others.

        And how did this tiny handful make it to the top? More to the point, what's your best bet re becoming a ‘great' writer?

        You probably know already. First off, get yourself born into the right kind of family, not just one that gives you that top 2-5% genetic boost for starters – there's millions of those around – but equally and much tougher to come by, one that has right history, connections, values/expectations. What Robert Albert termed "eminence producing families" (1983). You know, the ones that are already well sorted into the proper social/cultural economic milieu, and then go full hog for it, for making the contacts, the links; the ones who know where to look and know what it takes to get there, that organize themselves round putting in the hours, cash, sweat it takes to get junior geared up for say, Harvard, or Oxford, or maybe the Dallas Cowboys; the ones that'll give you a fair shot of getting matched up with the right kind of challenges for years, at least as far as intellectual development goes. ‘Course that doesn't guarantee a whole lot, not when you consider where, e.g., Elvis, Hitchcock, Newton, Haydn, Renoir, or for that matter, Thomas Hardy and Ray Carver came from. Still, we're talking odds, upping the odds.

        Unfortunately, that still leaves you with those other developmental concerns which are equally essential, the ones related to personality and self. You remember Balzac's depressions, Ibsen's obsessions, Hemingway's little trips to the Mayo Clinic. Dean Keith Simonton in his classic work, Greatness, concludes that writers are "liable to emotional problems", and that "among eminent poets . . . pathological symptoms" show up in "almost half" of them. One such listing of historic greats suspected of mental illnesses includes Baudelaire, Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Cowper, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Garcia Lorca, Ginsberg, Lowell, Plath, Poe, Pound, Rimbaud, Roethke, Sexton, Shelley, and Tennyson. (1994, pp287-90).

        How you gonna pull that off? Not only do you need a bit of genetic bias to get you leaning in the right direction, you also need one of those specially dedicated families, one that will keep you focused, on target, fully geared up for your particular affliction. A family that will provide the child, as Jay Haley puts it, "like any artist, several hours a day of practice over many years." (The Power Tactics,† 1971, p151) And what type of family might this be? Haley, one of the early giants of family systems therapy, gives us a thumbnail of one such constellation:

                "The type of family one must come from to become schizophrenic has
                been extensively described in the professional journals. One can
                summarize these scientific reports by saying that as individuals the family
                members are unrecognizable on the street, but bring them together and
                the outstanding feature is immediately apparent – a kind of formless,
                bizarre despair overlaid with a veneer of glossy hope and good intentions
                concealing a power-struggle-to-the-death coated with a quality of
                continual confusion." (p148-9)

        And the child's role in this formless veneer of a glossy power struggle to despair?

                "to hold the family together" through a "lifetime balancing conflicting family
                triangles" by learning to "communicate in a way that satisfies everyone by
                saying one thing and disqualifying it with a conflicting statement and then
                indicating that he didn't mean any of it anyhow." (p152)

        How 'bout: "My parents and I are involved in the eternal triangle" (p152), or perhaps arriving with mother and stepfather at the psychiatrist's office and opening with, "Mother had to get married and now I'm here." (p156)

        Ok, not exactly Ashbery but still not bad for 16.

        Countless other variations of family constellation are of course possible, each providing its own developmental opportunities for the future creator; e.g., for a Collins, Smart, Cowper or Blake, the four great English poets of the eighteenth century, who, as Housman put it, shared but one thing in common: "They were mad;" (1952, p86)‡ or as Simonton would phrase it more circumspectly, great creators "are always hovering at the brink of madness" with "just the right amount of weirdness," (Greatness, p294) i.e., they're just mad enough.

        Still, like I said, what's the odds of getting just the right combo of genes & jeans to pull that off? Not to mention getting it all matched up with one of Albert's eminence-producing families, you remember, the ones pushing piano lessons, math crams, sports camps . . .

        And beyond this you've still got 20+ years of luck to deal with. Yes, luck. Those handy little chance events happening in your personal and interpersonal worlds, or maybe in the larger institutional and informal community worlds around them, or maybe even in the distant, almost invisible-but-ever-present societal, economic, and cultural worlds surrounding all of them – those chance events which may or may not show up just when you need them to get/keep you on course, to give you access to those essential challenges and resources, to that wee jump on the competition.

        You know— those lottery jackpots like six-year-old Einstein picked up when uncle Jacob moved in with his "merry little science" of algebra; like Norma Jeane/Marilyn picked up when she was "dropped off" at the Bolenders for the first 7+ years of her life; like Woody Guthrie got when that oil boom hit Okemah just as his "intellectual curiosity," his desire "to know," to "take part in parental roles" were all skyrocketing. Like Hitchcock got when World War I handed him free access to a university education; like Elvis and Dali and Van Gogh got with the death of a brother; like, eg, Ariosto, Basho, Baudelaire, Byron, Cowper, Dante, Frost, Keats, Neruda, Poe, and Wordsworth got with the early death of a parent. Like 23-year-old Allen Ginsberg got when he ended up in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric for that handy little 8-month workshop with Kirilov in the summer of '49 (cf., Dorris4, 2007, Simonton5, 1994, p154).

        And beyond this, what's the odds the culture, the nation, or even your field is gonna be hungry, roaring, barking just as you happen along, all honed up for action
. . . like they were when, say, Beethoven, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and Elvis – or for that matter, Eliot , Ginsberg, and Plath – did?

        Think about it, what's the odds of you getting the right kind of family on all counts, followed by all those match-ups with the right kind of challenges / resources over and over and over those 20+ years of development, then ending up in the right time and place to have a shot at a key problem of your generation?

        Well, take something simpler, much simpler. Take billiards. What's the odds of shooting a 9 ball break, say, six times in a row? In tournaments in the States, the 9 goes in ‘bout once every 35 breaks. So let's say we're talking the likes of the US Open, the World 9-Ball . . . just the very best players, and drop those odds to 1 in 30 for getting a single 9 ball break. And 6 in a row? 30x30x30x . . . that comes in at about 1 in 730,000,000. The likes of Willie Mosconi and Frank Ives never even came close. And it wasn't as though they weren't trying. So given you've got the genetic goods to start with, I'd say the odds of getting that 20+ years of the right kind of developmental challenges repeatedly, then ending up in just the right time and place to have a shot at the big one . . . well, they're definitely better than 1 in 730 million. I mean, Elvis and Einstein and Eliot pulled it off. So it's definitely possible. Only hitch is, of course, that doesn't leave a whole lotta room for the likes of genius, struggle, and courage.

        You know, the stuff heroes are made of.

        So I say forget it – forget idols, heroes, genius, struggle, courage. Don't yoke yourself with that nonsense. Whatever our individual talents, potentials, struggles, determination and courage, the vast vast vast majority of those of us who, in Spender's words, "need to write" aren't gonna end up as English professors at Wellesley or Berkeley, or for that matter, delivering babies in Paterson all week then heading up to the City for weekends with Duchamp, Stevens, and Moore. Most of us, as writers, are going to spend much of our time in Spender's "mud" (1952, p125), and not just those few years slumming it as long haul tuckers and UPS sorters between university and that first post- MFA position in the dean's office at Georgia Tech.

        And that's ok. These days, especially with the internet, even for Starbucks poets, there's plenty of "variable feet" to be had and published. The trick is just finding and keeping a room of your own in the mud. A bit of space to read, listen, watch, jot down a few lines as you roam and ramble and follow your footsteps round Paterson or London or whatever kind of mud may become your sparkling sands, your diamond deserts. Ok, that won't set you up to write Howl or The Waste Land or For The Union Dead, but it'll sure as hell give you a fair shot at topping the likes of Ode to Sunset, or A Dedication to my Wife, or Father's Bedroom.

        And who knows, keep at it, and you may even happen into one or two of Woody's Bonneville rushes:

                "I pulled on my shoes and walked out of every one of those Pacific
                Northwest mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to
                poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I
                could ever get them wrote down." (Yurchenco, 1970, p108)

        The kind of rushes where the mud throws up just the sort of sand your own particular ways of seeing and hearing and feeling, your years of fiddling the ink and keys, have been waiting for, where the mud throws up just the perfect sand for you to turn to pearls.

        And who knows, somewhere along the line maybe you or I or some other poet will happen into one of those little 8-month workshops at Columbia Presbyterian, say, in "existential politics and literature" (or whatever happens to match up perfectly with your particular developmental needs at the time) – the kind that'll turn your mind around and provide the ‘metaphor' for your own "great poem," not to mention a fair whack of the content, as well (see, e.g., Gornick, 2006, p5; also Miles, 1990, p116+, re the origins of Howl).

        Or maybe if you get your timing just right, you might end up in London, "ever marginal" and "uncertain as to who or what you wish to become" (Gardner, 1993, p238), toting a Harvard philosophy Ph.D., with all the "expectations of your Puritan ancestors", and the literary ambitions of your failed poet mother (p229) – and in the course of 7, 8 years, compile your own fair stack of poetic "fragments"(p241), speaking in a "welter of voices reflecting the consciousness of actors and objects drawn from the broadest sweep of time and space." (p242)

        Like I said, given proper timing, and an editorial team or two - say Ezra and Viv - to turn your "bloated" manuscript – with "too much indecisiveness, repetitiveness, and monotony: too many voices and too little sense of overall direction, control and locale" (p242) – into a powerful poem half that length. Who knows, you might even find that your own personal "depressed, impotent, marginal" (p246) wasteland happens to "fit exactly (with) the feelings of (an entire) population at the end of long and largely fruitless war" (p247) – the sort of happenstance that could stitch you up in Stockholm some frosty night in December, buried in yet another heroic struggle for the mythology of individualism.

        How'd Eliot put it?

                "The Nobel is a ticket to one's own funeral. No one has ever done
                anything after he got it." (cf, Simonton pp57-8)

        Still, I suppose it could be worse. I mean, imagine ending up on your death bed with English Girl Guides reciting your legacy up and down the country, from Hartlepool to Penzance:

                "This Be The Verse
                They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . ."

        So if you "need to write," write; but don't let any mythical nonsense about heroic genius, struggle, and courage "fuck you up." Just find a bit of a room of your own in whatever mud you're stuck in – whatever bit you can get a hold of long and well enough to suit your own particular flux of language, music, passion, self. Who knows – some Sunday morning, Billy C. himself might just come cruising by, flipping through online journals, and ffaoooooop, outta nowhere, get "lifted off the ground" by one of your very own "Sensational Nightingales."6 (Collins, 1995, p18)

        And as for becoming the next Yeats or Heaney or Emily D. or Sylvia P. or William Carlos Williams or Eliot or Ginsberg or Ashbery or Phil Levine . . . hey, figure it this way:

What if elvis

had gotten that bicycle
or ali
hadn't lost his
or little billy gates
had ended up
over those dinner plates
more often

or billie's pop
hadn't popped the question just
as she turned three

or wolferl
hadn't found that little clavier
and nannerl
and master andres dancing
tweedlee dee
slicing up that butter fiddle

or uncle jacob
hadn't shown up carting
his merry little science
and marcel grossmann's old man
hadn't been friends with
who'd never let a few
technicalities stand in
i mean a friend
of a friend
especially one
with his little dollie
up the cooker7

and what if bullet bob
had been available say
on a free transfer
or charles
hadn't gone and lost his head
in london
or fidel hadn't glanced up
or the hurricanes had just taken
that job in hamburg

i mean what if you and me
had never heard of
or charlie parker
or johann sebastian
or even marilyn

not to mention
tiny tina

                                                                                        —By Bill Dorris

This essay is related to years of Bill Dorris' research and writing on the topic of "How the Great Become Great." If you'd like to pursue any of the ideas/issues raised here in further detail, visit his current website which contains a third of his 2004 manuscript, The Arrival of the Fittest: How The Great Become Great, plus other materials.

Read more about Bill Dorris on his Poems page in this issue of The Centrifugal Eye.

* * *


Albert, R.S. (1983). Family Positions and the Attainment of Eminence. pp141-154
        in R.S. Albert (ed) Genius and Eminence: The social psychology of creativity and
        exceptional achievement,
Pergamon Press.
Collins, B. (1995) The Art of Drowning. University of Pittsburgh Press.
*Collins, B. (2001) My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry,
        pp81-91, in K. Sontag & D. Graham (eds), After Confession: Poetry as
Graywolf Press.
4Dorris, B (2007) The Arrival of the Fittest: How The Great Become Great. 1/3 of 2004 ms.
        online at:
Gardner, H. (1993) Creating Minds. Basic Books.
Gornick, V. (2006) Wild at Heart, pp4-6, The American Poetry Review, March/April, 2006.
†Haley, J. (1971) The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and other Essays. Avon.
‡Housman, A. E. (1952) The Name and Nature of Poetry, pp86-91, in B. Ghiselin's (ed),
        The Creative Process. Mentor.
Miles, B. (1990) Ginsberg: A Biography. HarperPerennial.
5Simonton, D. K. (1994) Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. Guilford Press.
Spender, S. (1952) The Making of a Poem, pp112-125, in B. Ghiselin's (ed),
        The Creative Process. Mentor.
Yurchenco, H. (1970) A Mighty Hard Road: The Woody Guthrie Story. McGraw Hill.

6From Sunday morning with the Sensational Nightingales by Billy Collins
"Sensational Nightingales" refers to a southern gospel singing group.

7Dollie was one of Einstein's nicknames for Mileva, his fiancée, who was pregnant – "up the cooker" – at the time.

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