It’s OK to Be a Writer and a ____

September 27, 2018 | 4 5 min read

There are many essays on the “five habits of successful writers,” or “how to get your writing done when everything else is crowding in on you.” This isn’t one of those pieces. It is, however, an essay about continuous identity in a world which constantly asks us to align the self with its occupation.

I currently work as a college president. I also write poetry. If I had true courage, I used to tell myself, I would be “only a poet.” But I don’t say that anymore, since after much introspection I have accepted the fact that I love to build and make things, including institutions. Despite all of the criticisms (both deserved and undeserved) that have been leveled at liberal arts education these past few decades, it’s still one of the best gifts American culture has given to the world. I am daily inspired to lead a liberal arts college, with all the academic politics, long term resentments, and bureaucratic entanglements such work entails.

I frequently hear the question, “How can you do both things?” The question is usually friendly, uttered by a colleague or a student who is waiting for me to reveal a secret superpower. Sometimes it is skeptical, as in “You might want to make up your mind which you want to be.” Very rarely, it is subtly hostile. In these moments I am reminded that some poets did not meet the multiple identity challenge, and only worked in multiple careers sequentially. While he was a French diplomat, St. John Perse refused to write creatively, believing as he did that it might be inappropriate for a public service officer and perhaps even dangerous to the state. But others did not. T.S. Eliot rejected a fund that his Bloomsbury friends set up for him, preferring a routine bureaucratic income and life at Lloyds’ Bank, and later at Faber, as more conducive to poetic work. Wallace Stevens remained an insurance man his entire professional life. Pablo Neruda served in the Chilean Foreign Service for most of his career.

Even with such examples, it is hard not to succumb to the idea that there should be a bright line between the two activities. Once, when I was going through a writerly dry spell, a fellow poet suggested I write a book of poems with bureaucratic themes, such as “budget” and “reconciling the numbers.” She suggested later that even a budget could be seen as a poem, with its condensations and juxtapositions of meanings. I laughed and instinctively recoiled at both suggestions, because they seemed so impossible. But I later realized she was only asking me to put into practice the ideas suggested many years ago in Scott Buchanan’s Poetry and Mathematics, a book I reread frequently for its open embrace of the common properties of geometry and verse.

And such a book of poems about things bureaucratic could be a real opportunity for social commentary. Amy Lowell’s “A Ballad of Footmen” is one such early brave attempt—a poem composed in protest of war and its oppressive proceduralism: “It is folly to think that the will of a king/Can force men to make ducks and drakes of a thing.” Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “My Soviet Passport” depicts a deeply ambivalent relationship with the workings of the state: “I’d root out bureaucracy once and for ever. / I have no respect for formalities. / May every paper go to the devil/But for this… / This little thing, so dear to me, / I withdraw from my loose pantaloons, / Read it and envy me: I happen to be / A citizen of the Soviet Union.”

But for me, writing these poems about bureaucracy will have to wait. They will have to wait partly because to undertake the project would be acquiescing to the idea that there still must be a unified identity of the writer in order for any writing to be comprehensible.

Because these identities might be irreconcilable to the outside world, I think it is worth invoking the the Tanpura Principle in response. The tanpura is a long-necked, lute-like instrument in Indian music that sustains the other instruments by providing a drone. Tanpura players do not provide their own melody, but pluck the instrument’s four strings in a continuous loop of rich tones, to provide a base from which the soloist can draw in singing or playing the raga melody.

The Tanpura Principle in writing is the idea that much of writing occurs while doing something else, because the base of poetic inspiration, the supporting drone, is always there. It’s what my friend meant when she quipped that even a budget could be a poem. She did not mean that one had to ruthlessly integrate identities in order to make oneself intelligible to the outside world, but that in poetry there was a kind of harmonic listening that could occur anywhere, and in any way.

There are times when we don’t hear the drone, because we are too tired or too overwhelmed with other emotional, spiritual or even logistical challenges to know it. But the point is not then to “cultivate inspiration,” rather, it is to remember that the drone is always there, perhaps even especially there, in the fatigue and frustration of our “other” work.

Poet Maxine Kumin writes of such a moment as she describes finding the house that would eventually become her farm and home in New Hampshire:

The downhill side of the barn opened onto a barren patch that might have been at turnout area for livestock. Behind the tumbled-in back end of the barn the remains of a small stony pasture were visible. I suddenly realize there were no other houses on this nameless road. No sound of vehicles in the distance. No voices. The silence filled with bird calls.

She goes on:

I didn’t know it just then but this poem, “Country House,” was brewing. It opens:

After a long presence of people,

after the emptying out,

the laying bare,

the walls break into conversation.

their little hairlines ripple

and an old smile

crosses the chimney’s face.

Kumin had the experience of looking at the house in 1961, and the poem was published five years later, in 1966. In her brief description of discovery, she intimates a theory of creativity, in which small moments of pause, or perhaps even of frustration or panic, can also be forms of insight that come to fruition in a poem years later.

covercoverMy own recent book of poems, House Crossing, was also about homes—but losing them, not finding them. It was dedicated to the memory of Gaston Bachelard, whose work, The Poetics of Space, was deeply influential. My elemental experience of domestic architecture was like the drone of the tanpura. The geometry of a house became the basis of poetic insight that would sometimes only appear to me decades later.

For writers, there is continuity of perception across multiple forms of labor, multiple choices of career, multiple explorations of identity, and even the multiple identities that might be given at birth. That capacity for perception, for insight, enables the harmonic resonance that might come in the form of a piece of writing created years and careers later, across marriages and sexualities, moods and masks.

My answer, by the way, to how to write when we are overwhelmed by other work is simple: Write for an hour a day, no matter what. But the far more important thing is who we think we are during that hour. The most important thing we can do when we are asked to be One Thing is to continue on in our puzzling multiplicity.

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is president of Middlebury College, a scholar of religion, and a poet. Her third book of poems, House Crossing, was published by Station Hill Press in 2018. In April 2018 she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.