Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Pure Oxygen

I recently unearthed an old collection of Jim Harrison essays that includes, "Poetry as Survival" (not to be confused with Gregory Orr's book of the same name). In this rambling, moving testimony to poetry (of Native American poet Simon Ortiz, he writes, "It is the kind of poetry that reaffirms your decision to stay alive"), Harrison admits that he sometimes "regretted the problems I've  caused my family and myself for refusing to be a poet-teacher: the shuddering economic elevator of the self-employed to whom the words boom and bust are euphemisms; the writer as farm laborer, block layer, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, but still thinking of himself as poet...At the very least the life I have chosen, although it always lacked a safety net, made up for the lack with pure oxygen." 

Harrison is, of course, describing the poet's perpetual problem, which is how best to make a living? And, to teach or not to teach?

I think I agree with photographer Robert Adams when he writes that, "Part of the cruelty in George Bernard Shaw's famous aphorism--'Those who can do, and those who can't teach'--is that it fails to distinguish between those without a gift to do something else, and those without the money."

Ultimately, I suspect the decision to find a day job or a teaching job--to join the academy or the market--is often based less on innate artistic talent than simple personal preference. Some people thrive as day laborers while making great art at night. Others who find satisfaction in teaching produce great artworks, too. These are questions that seem to have few universal answers, only specificities.

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