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Why do anything?

Linda Holmes, in her recent essay “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything,” ponders that, no matter how many books or movies or television programs or songs we absorb in a lifetime, there is still an unnameable amount we will never know. Holmes describes the two methods we all use to deal with this baffling concept, culling and surrender. For example, I cull nearly all music released after 2003. Why 2003 specifically? It was the last year I spent as manager in a four-year stint at a CD store. After the decline of the CD medium and the rise of the digital download, I couldn’t keep up any longer with music. Also, much of it sounded the same—even the good stuff! Today, pop music on the radio is utter nonsense. And despite some of my friends attempting to introduce me to new, exciting, good music being made today by talented songwriters, vocalists, and musicians, I can’t muster any interest. I’ll stick with 70s disco and prog-rock, 80s New Wave, 90s Grunge, and the post-Nirvana pop of the late 90s to the early 2000s.

I do this partially for the second reason Holmes discusses, surrender. I know there is no possible way I can hear all of the good music being created today, not to mention catch up with all the good music I’ve missed in the last 50 or more years of popular music. So I have given up. Am I sad about it, as Holmes suggests I might be? Actually, I’m rather ambivalent. As I said, I’m sure I’m missing out on lots of good stuff, but I have such history with my favorite artists like Annie Lennox, the B-52s, Suzanne Vega, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Ben Folds, and P!nk. They make my brain happy when I listen to them, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

But there is another medium which, to me, makes surrender seem like murder. Any of you who knows me probably knows that this is poetry. I started writing poetry in high school (if not earlier) and have actually considered myself a poet for the better part of ten years. In the last decade, I have written hundreds of poems. I don’t claim that they’re all spectacular; by far, most of them were (optimistically) practice or (pessimistically) crap. But I have written what I suspect is some decent poetry. You should see my Curriculum Vitae!

But of the nearly seven billion people on the planet, how many have been exposed to my work? Say every person on my Facebook friends list has read at least one of my poems (though I highly doubt this). That’s 400. How many different people have heard me at open mic or feature readings since I actively began participating in the local community in 2004? Taking into account that I find myself often reciting to the same faces, I think it would be generous to say 250. For three years, I participated in an artist/poet collaborative called SightLines, which showed in three southern New Jersey galleries each year. How many folks might have been exposed to my work there? Another 300, perhaps? Let’s be generous and say 450—I’ll pat myself on the back with that one. Then there are folks who’ve stumbled across my published work, either online or in print: another 200, maybe?? (I’m not including any of the previously counted folks who have read such work due to my shameless self-promotion, since those folks would have heard or read my poetry already.) So the number of people who’ve ever read or heard even just one of my poems might be around 1150.

But maybe I’m underestimating. Maybe it’s a lot more! So, just for the heck of it, let me double that number to 2300. After all, I did read in Philadelphia that one time! But even taking into account that a couple thousand folks have read or heard my work at least once, only .00003329% of the people in the world know I have written a poem, any poem, at all. Holmes says this is sad, but also beautiful: “Imagine if you knew about everything you’re ‘supposed to…’ That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.” Pretty words.

Still, .00003329% is really tiny. And we’re faced with tiny everyday, aren’t we? Just take more than a fleeting glimpse at a clear night’s sky, and think about all that space. The amount of space, in fact, that our planet occupies in all of that emptiness is a whole freaking lot less than .00003329%. Thinking about all of this makes me immediately suppose, “Why do anything?” I’ve often wondered how meaningless anything I do in the name of poetry or artistry really is. Yeah, Shakespeare’s words have transcended history, but ask any teenager on the street these days to name a play or recite a line, and the response will most surely be, “Like, who?” And I’m no Shakespeare, I’ll be the first to admit. So why do I do it at all? What’s the point? In a hundred years, if our species manages to claw its way out of the deeper and deeper hole it’s currently digging itself into on so many levels, will there be a trace of my words left in a Facebook fan page or a LiveJournal? How long will it have been that my physical zine eloquent with rage ceased to exist in any form except matter returning to the soil, poisoning it with chemicals from the paper and ink far more than my naughty poetry ever could?

Of course, by that logic, why brush my teeth? Why eat healthy? Why be nice to my neighbors? In the long run—the whole Why Are We Here?, Monty Python and the Meaning of Life, The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything kit and caboodle—what does anything matter? We’re living a blink of a life now, and in a few billion years, when the universe collapses, we’ll live it in reverse, so anything done will be undone, anything written will be unwritten, anything lived will be… unlived? That’s stupid. And it got me thinking: “Why do anything?” is a single extreme. So what’s the opposite extreme? “Why not do everything?” Why not bungee jump? Why not eat eggs more than once a week? Why not have unsafe sex? Of course, there are some things we shouldn’t do, if we are doing “everything,” just as there are things we should still do, even if we’re not doing “anything.”

For me, the option of not doing anything is daunting and mind-boggling. because I know how my brain works. I’ll hear a random person say a random thing and immediately start writing verse in my head before I even get to a computer or a piece of paper. On occasion, words have almost magically formed in my head and begun poems that have affected audiences to deafening silence or rousing applause. I even dream in poetry and wake up to race to the PC to type the words and images before they disappear as dreams do through the course of a day. How can I not write poetry when my mind is already doing it before I even think about it? It’s simply not an option.

There's one more thing. I have many friends in the local poetry community who would say I have already done everything: I wrote a poem a day for a year; I’ve repeatedly used visual art as inspiration for my work; I’ve attempted more forms, many of which I can’t even pronounce, than I can remember; I’ve been published and have won contests. And I've inspired others to become better poets. My peers are jealous and complimentary and occasionally awestruck. “How do you do it??” they beg. I’m a poet, I say. It’s what I do.



( 6 comments — leave a comment )
Apr. 19th, 2011 10:40 pm (UTC)
My Two Cents
Weirdly, I read her piece and sort of wrote it off as simplistic. There has always been more to know than could be known. That's what makes life exciting.

The idea that we either give up or cut ourselves off from portions of the world as the only two methods of coping is depressing. She seems to overlook being engaged with what we encounter and open to what is beyond it. I'll never read every book but I might read the one you mention liking that interests me....I think you know what I mean.

Outside your actual post but related I guess.

We do what we do because that is who we are, especially when no one is looking.
Apr. 20th, 2011 02:23 am (UTC)
Re: My Two Cents
She seems to overlook being engaged with what we encounter and open to what is beyond it. I'll never read every book but I might read the one you mention liking that interests me.

No, I think she addresses that. Toward the end, she does say, "If 'well-read' means 'making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,' then yes, we can all be well-read." That's pretty much what you're talking about, I think.
Apr. 20th, 2011 07:37 pm (UTC)
Your argument loses me, I have to admit. There's no poet who's been read by all the humans alive (or even by all the ones who can read English). Are you saying you want to get your work out to a wider audience? (Even if they're mostly just skimming because there's too much else to read?) Or... something else I didn't get.

I feel like you're creating a straw-man version of her blog entry that says "Don't bother; there's too much else to read," and arguing with it. I'm pretty sure Linda meant nothing of the kind.
Apr. 20th, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
"Don't bother; there's too much else to read..." I felt I was taking the point of view of one of those authors whose work will never be read in that "sad, beautiful" world that Holmes painted in her essay. I wasn't criticizing her argument in any way, nor did I mistake what she was saying. I used her essay as a springboard for my own thoughts on what timehole refers to as Philosphy 101 concepts, and I wrote them into an essay. But I'm not a philosopher, so perhaps my thoughts are childish and simplistic.

Edited at 2011-04-20 09:30 pm (UTC)
Apr. 20th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
I was just going to quote the same line you quoted to goreyboy: 'making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully'... those 6.99+ billion people wouldn't really GET anything out of your poetry (even in translation), so they don't enter into it. Focus on making connections with your actual target audience; broaden it meaningfully.
Apr. 20th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
That's a good, strong point. But it doesn't negate my gut reaction to being forced to face, yet again, as a human being (let alone a poet) how pointless, how futile it all seems—seems! I don't necessarily believe it... all the time. :)
( 6 comments — leave a comment )