So the awards were just given out by another literary group, the National Book Critics Circle, and one of the winners was poet Claudia Rankine. Check the web today and you’ll find surprise in some corners …. why? Because award recognition and the work of a poet like Rankine don’t always come together.
Most writers will spend most of their careers without recognition like that. Does that make them lesser artists? Hardly. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Donald Justice (pictured, left), whose essay collection Oblivion (mentioned in the new book by Scott Timberg, interviewed here last week) partly reflects on the toll of living as a writer (the spiritual and philosophical dimensions, too, not just the economical one).
With Rankine’s selection in mind, I want to share something from Justice that is about all of the good work being done in the “underworld of art” — a place where creation is at its purest because the ususal cliche incentives (Justice calls them toys) just aren’t there:
I do not mean the culture represented by the Mailers and the Ginsbergs, the tip of the crazy, tilted iceberg, but rather the one represented by other artists, far less visible, but true artists nonetheless. The news magazines and the academic establishment on which we so heavily depend for our opinions simply have no organs for seeing this underworld or underclass of art. Do not mistake me. I do not have in mind the productions of societies of amateurs, literary clubs, workshops; I mean the real thing. There may well be analyzable causes behind the oblivion some good writers suffer, but the causes, whatever they are, remain elusive. There is a randomness in the operation of the laws of fame that approaches the chaotic, and I believe that the various degrees of oblivion to which these three poets [Justice looks at the work of three poets working in obscurity] have been consigned are no more proportionate to the real value of their work than the fame of some others is to the value of theirs…. It is too dismal to concede that success is measured only in terms of notoriety and riches and such toys.
Which is why Rankine’s selection is truly a reason to celebrate — the randomness and chaos Justice describes were actually overcome for once. YOu should feel good about that. But I also hope this little passage reminds you about something even more important: If you are a writer, then you should celebrate yourself … today and every day, my best beloveds.