Pick of the Unknown
As 2011 comes to an end, writers the world over are taking stock of their rejection letters, acceptance letters and un-submitted final(?) drafts in hopes of a new year with their names in print or electronic media. Those un-submitted drafts happen mostly because finalizing a draft and sharing it are not as seamless as their chronological order suggests. Instead, there is a matter of writers going out into the publishing forest where strange creatures in editors’ clothing lurk, wait even, for the fresh stink of novice writing.
In one rejection letter that I received earlier this year, the editors wrote me saying one poem was easily not a fit for their magazine and yet another poem was quite well done and only graphemes from being published. Taking in the end of this writing year, I sit at my desk and play the “what if” game. What if I had already been published in The New Yorker; would I be anxiously pessimistic about a successful new year?
It’s 1940, and The New Yorker publishes W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen.” Months before its publication, the Second World War had begun, which connects the situation of the poem–the ambivalent life of man in the eyes of his bureaucratic nation state—to the sociopolitical climate of the day. Regardless of the war climate, Auden received notice of acceptance for a poem that has become widely anthologized for its critical acclaim. I wonder if Auden thought of his January publication as an immediate kick-start to his new year’s goals. Perhaps he smiled inwardly at his wise choice to become an American citizen.
It’s 1948 and Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is published in The New Yorker. The Arab-Israeli War begins and Mahatma Gandhi dies. Again, the climate of the historical day is consistent with literary concerns—Ms. Hutchinson, the story’s protagonist, is stoned and presumably dies, but not before mocking the unfair ritual. The hyper-controversial story garnered Jackson hate mail from perplexed readers. What was the point of this inhumane, simply violent story? I imagine them saying. And at the same time I know that Jackson must have imagined the power of words as infinitely possible even in her human hands.
For an Unknown Writer, the end of 2011 should not conjure mystical deaths of writing goals and opportunities. That would be inwardly and outwardly inhumane. Instead, Rita Dove describes a wonderfully sanguine evocation regarding the bounty of amateurs writing (poetry) in her interview with The Writer’s Chronicle. Dove says that criticism of MFA programs and of an abundance of writers is at best “premature” and at worst “hysterically adversarial.” Dove continues “And if much of it cannot overcome mediocrity, so what? Aren’t there hordes of amateur painters and pianists populating our civilization, bringing pleasure to themselves and those around them with no detrimental effect?”
Since writers write through a fulcrum of experience and since all those experiences aren’t good, it follows that some bad writing will happen. It also follows that some good writing will happen about bad things as Auden and Jackson exemplify. And while I chastise myself for being “just another voice,” each year there is much to write about and many editors to befriend in the forest.