The Importance of Being Important

Recently, Tony said

“One error often committed by novice poets and readers as well as experienced poets and readers is one of self-perception. If you think you are doing Very Important Work you probably are not.”

I thought this was an interesting stance to take, and initially, I thought I completely disagreed with Tony’s opinion. After all, I thought, if we don’t consider our work important, why do we bother writing it?

But after giving it more and more thought over the weekend, I think I understand that Tony’s point isn’t about considering the work we do important, but considering it to be Important, with a capital I. (Tony, please correct me if I’ve misunderstood.)

Initially, I was thinking, “Well, what about poets like Adrienne Rich?” I’m pretty sure Adrienne thinks the work she does is important—she is a poet with clear intentions. She writes to change things; she writes out of anger and frustration and disappointment and hope. I admire that when it’s done well, and I think she is the model of how to write good, politically-aware and engaged poems.

But I would hesitate to say that Rich considers her work Important. In fact, I think it is her goal to avoid that kind of capital-I Importance when she writes.

Capital-I Important work to me implies that the work either alleges its own Importance or requires the reader to stay disengaged from it—to quote MC Hammer, “Can’t touch this”—or, that is to say, there is a clear division between the poet and the reader.

Or maybe in Important poems the message trumps the work of the piece. Didactic poetry, then, would probably fall into the category of work that falls victim to the trappings of Importance. And I can see that, how the focus of the poem should be not the message but the medium by which it is conveyed: and that reveals something about the way I approach a poem. I do want my poem to be meaningful, but I also want it to use image, sound, rhythm, white space to capitalize on the message.

I take my poetry seriously—I mean, I hope we all do—in that I am attracted to writing poetry that addresses issues more than poetry that avoids them. I don’t know what that makes me or what it means to other poets. I guess I sort of don’t care to some degree. But I’m interested in finding the line that one crosses between work that is important and work that is Very Important….because wouldn’t the strongest work toe that line with its risk?

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