Inside the basement apartment, the poet tries to put together a manuscript of poems. He has an MFA, which is a certificate that certifies him to do this. He thinks of how, just six months ago, he was ignorant of water hammer. Six months ago, he had a generous graduate stipend and he slept in a comfortable aboveground bed bought and paid for by the university bursar. He had never seen a circular saw; he had health care; he spent his days testing the syllabic weight of lines that floated through his head. He remembers how, in those far-off MFA years, he once took a walk in October and everything was so beautifully illuminated that he wrote a terrible poem called “October Pond.” If he were to write a swept-up-by-the-moment poem now, it would feature the fast-moving basement centipedes that seem to be breeding in the walls.
He begins to write his poetry. He is aware that his not earning money is technically, mathematically speaking, a problem, but he does not want to work for money ever again because he has been converted (in ways that are embarrassing and difficult to try to explain to working people but that, he suspects, his socialist/anarchist landlord would understand) to the belief that it is a waste of one’s life energy to serve empty convention (academia) or profit (the rest of the world).
He knows that this belief may well ruin his life. It has already done permanent damage to his resumé. He is a slow writer, and must pass through a fledgling six-week stage of steady tinkering, amphetamine usage, crying, reading, nervous pacing, free-drafting and revision to come up with even the skeleton of one poem. As a result, he has not been regularly employed for several years. He figures he has, at best, a 5 percent chance of producing a decent book of poems within a decade (and a 95 percent chance of being swallowed up by some other amorphously dismal fate).
Twenty or forty years ago, he might have sought shelter in the academy. But the university is in its death throes, tenure-track jobs are a laughable fantasy and even if he did land gig-work as an adjunct writing instructor it would amount to 65 hours a week (grading, reading, prepping, commuting and teaching ninety freshmen and sophomores in three sections) at about $10 per hour. Ergo, he would neither emerge from the basement, nor could he spend the pacing/crying/free-drafting time necessary to produce more than one skeleton of a poem per annum.
For better or worse, poetry is now the only thing he likes to do. Even with the crying and the hopeless odds. Even as the world around him evolves into a STEM-driven klepto-technocracy. Even as his friends breed and buy houses. He prefers the idea of living alone and being free to read and scribble lines of verse (even horrible verse) to everything else. He would be happy to do this for several more decades. It feels like honest work.
Five days into this plan he is broke.
A friend of his, a fiction writer, calls. The fiction writer is now working as a tutor and is not just making money, but making oodles of money, and so living in an apartment a whole two stories aboveground and feeling very inspired and getting a lot of fiction writing done. In fact, the fiction writer has been working on three novels, simultaneously, all of which are going well. The fiction writer/tutor informs the poet that he now has enough extra money to join a gym and so is waking early, doing an entire day’s writing in the morning, and spending what would be his lunch hour in very fulfilling sessions on the gym’s treadmills, catching up on audiobook versions of the great Russian novels.
The poet decides that he, too, must become a tutor. Immediately. This turns out not to be a difficult task because the poet, to his lifelong embarrassment but also his present good fortune, was once very good at grade grubbing. Out of a high-school class of 354 athletes, potheads, goths, gamers and hicks (plus—because this particular high school was in Florida in the Nineties—surfers, surfer girls and kids whose identity was in some elusive way tied to recreational boating), there was no one quite as driven and obnoxious at grade grubbing as the young poet. By graduation, the young poet beat out his best friend by one one-thousandth of a GPA point and was crowned valedictorian.
The young poet and the young poet’s best friend (aka the salutatorian, aka the future gastroenterologist) had been voted “tied at the hip” by their senior class, and had spent (as best as the poet can recall) the entire four years of their high-school career doing homework together. To the extent that they had a social life, it involved weekly outings to Applebee’s, where they both had a crush on the same waitress, and nightlong sessions of GoldenEye 007, which they played with a no- cheating, no-peeking blanket taped halfway across the TV. (The young poet would hunch under the blanket while the young gastroenterologist sat on a stool above.)
This is all to say that when it finally comes time to make money, the poet finds that he has one marketable skill: he knows how to get As.
Using a dangerously overexposed credit card, the poet goes on Amazon and buys every four-star-review-or-higher guide to the ACT, SAT, GRE and GMAT. He takes every practice LSAT ever published. For a month straight, he reviews logic games, quantitative comparisons and sentence completions. He dreams of his future life aboveground, running on the treadmill next to the fiction writer, catching up on audiobook renditions of the selected poems of Byron and Keats.
The poet needs his freedom, but the poet (much more acutely) needs money.
The poet sits for the LSAT and does well enough to induce a flood of fully funded offers to law schools (which raises the pitch of his parents’ why-not-consider-law-school pleas to an incessant cicada-like shrieking which the poet can hear even when he is alone, sitting down in the basement with the centipedes). This LSAT score, plus the fourteen APs the poet took in high school, plus the fact that he was once valedictorian, instantly earns him a full slate of tutoring clients.
When he emerges from his underground apartment, he emerges not as the poet, but as a new creature: the poet/tutor. He breaks his verbal lease with the socialist/anarchist landlord on the bohemian apartment/centipede den and gets a new apartment, this one aboveground with light-admitting windows and attractively wooden (as opposed to fissured-cement) floors. The poet has a new life.
Suddenly the poet/tutor has discretionary income, and—which is not so nice—is working constantly. Traffic in Chicago, it turns out, is a horrific and unrelenting thing, which at no time actually flows. What the poet/tutor does is orient himself in the general direction of the northern suburbs, where the wealthy tutoring clients live, and allow his car to be sucked into the irritable slow-moving tide. He rolls along the freeway at a rate of one mile per hour while Midwestern people in their SUVs sporadically go berserk and overtake everyone in the emergency lane.
So the poet now has money, but the poet is now a tutor. In fact, his identity as a tutor is in some sense more real than his identity as a poet—because the rent-paying, breadwinning tutor part of him now seems to determine whether the freeloading poet part of him gets to exist. He wonders if he can even call himself a poet under these conditions. Maybe his poet-self never emerged from the basement apartment, but was left behind (forgotten! abandoned! silenced!) and actually it is only this new, false tutor-self who is living and moving aboveground, meeting clients and handing them its business card.
He calls up the fiction writer, who admits to experiencing none of these problems, and is currently enjoying parallel readings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.
He spends hours asking himself whether he is a poet or a tutor. He is suddenly able to pay for his utilities and his food, but he is tutoring from 5 p.m. (when the first student athletes get back from practice) to midnight (when the last Adderall-tweaked would-be lawyers like to meet in paid-for-by-their-parents condos). He writes during the day. Poems about tutoring.
He meets all sorts of families. Families with drifty, vacant-faced sons and stubbornly optimistic mothers. Families with mothers who tell the poet/tutor, right there in front of the child, that their child is a lazy shit, and families whose children are in fact lazy shits.
He gets good at the tutoring move known as “banter at the threshold” (lots of self-deprecating joshing about being an English major). He shakes hands with about fifty highly remunerated Chicagoan father figures. He sees the insides of lots and lots of nice Calvinist-style homes with spacious countertops and evidence of twice-a-week maids.
He thinks to himself that, all things considered, he’s landed a decent gig—yes, he feels like a shill and no, he’s no longer thinking of anything but tutoring, but if he can endure for just a few more months, he’s sure to find the permanent solution (an empty cabin with a pre-seeded vegetable bed, a housesit with a suitcase of lotto tickets, an art kibbutz) that will enable him to return to writing poems full-time.
And then, one day, there is Brian.
Brian who is eleven. Brian who is a deeply curious sixth-grader. Brian who is the son of two astoundingly kind professionals who live in an actual, picture-perfect house with a yellow porch swing and a tidy yard and spaceships scrawled in chalk along the front sidewalk. Brian’s parents have hired a tutor not because Brian is doing poorly in school (he’s already at the top of his class), but simply because they think it might be good for him to have someone to explore ideas with.
In other words, the poet/tutor has free rein to teach this kid whatever he wants. The weekly protocol is straightforward: he and Brian will each take an ice-cold can of pamplemousse-flavored LaCroix from the hand of Brian’s perennially friendly mother, and then they will climb the three flights of carpeted stairs to a furnished attic where they will sit in comfy chairs and discuss the great questions. Naturally, the poet/tutor plans to subtly guide Brian toward his own views.
But Brian is no blank slate. Rather, Brian reveals himself to be a 55-inch-tall utilitarian, with deeply embedded social-Darwinist leanings. Over and over, Brian argues that the people most useful to society will be naturally rewarded with the most money (and therefore empowered to continue doing the most good). Over and over, the poet/tutor fails to convince Brian otherwise. Their conversations hover on the outer perimeter of amicability. The poet/tutor grows increasingly concerned that it must sound to Brian’s parents, eating dinner downstairs, like the hour-long attic sessions are turning into hour-long arguments, which they are.
One of the reasons the arguments go nowhere is that the poet/tutor cannot bring himself to confess to Brian (who knows him only as a tutor) that he is also a poet. Why? Because he knows that Brian would disapprove. And indeed, just as they are tentatively embarking on their first discussion of the Republic, Brian announces that Socrates was right to banish the poets, because it opens up more room for people like Mark Zuckerberg (having recently pledged 99 percent of his Facebook shares to charity, Zuckerberg is the go-to linchpin of most of Brian’s arguments).
The poet/tutor starts to make little preemptive mouth movements, as if to protest, when something in the poet/tutor snaps, floods open and is never the same again. A cascade of mental events is released, in roughly this order:
The poet/tutor glimpses the appeal, the logic, even the potential economic necessity of Brian’s view.
The poet/tutor considers the fact that, after all, people across the planet are waking up existentially naked, putting on their practical, breadwinning clothes and contributing to society. Delivery guys delivering beer. Firefighters fighting fire. Rabbis teaching Torah. Everyone busy. Everyone pitching in. Every person, in his or her own way, being productive.
Meanwhile, what does he, the poet/ tutor, produce? On the one hand, assuming he’s able to eventually hone the qualities still inchoate in even his best drafts, he produces poems. On the other hand, in his work as a tutor, he helps produce a generation of future young lawyers, doctors and businesspeople like Brian, who, if they are able to remain clear-eyed and hard- working as they mature, will smother his genetic line.
The poet/tutor sees, in backlit cosmic-battleground relief, how his own romantic puritanism regarding the poetry/money dilemma is the exact Manichean complement to Brian’s puritanical pragmatism, and how, even though neither conviction is fundamentally good or bad, both are developmentally appropriate to an eleven-year-old mind.
The poet/tutor knows, decisively and for the first time, that he will never find the art kibbutz. There are no poetry burrows. No pre-seeded vegetable beds. There is only this one world of the firefighters, the rabbis, the beer delivery guys, the tutors, the Brians, the Mark Zuckerbergs—and the poets. He will live out the rest of his days here as a hyphenated beast, as a poet-something.
The poet/tutor finishes his soda water, thanks Brian’s mom, engages in a bit of post-lesson repartee with Brian’s dad and drives back to his apartment. He sits down at his kitchen table to write. It’s warm. It’s quiet. He has the whole evening in front of him.
What are poems worth to such a creature? Everything, nothing—he has, at this moment, no idea.
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This essay appears in issue 12 of The Point.
To read the rest of the issue (which features a
symposium on the question “What is poetry for?”)
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