I am currently enjoying the pleasures of the essay and the short ‘occasional piece’, browsing through Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses.What delights await you, gentle reader, between the covers of this excellent collection, if you are unfamiliar with the prose style of this fine writer. But be warned: here you will find speculation of the most dubious kind:
If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America, I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful. (Bolaño, ‘The best gang’).
If I were to rob a bank the last people on earth I would recruit would be poets. They are generally indecisive, opinionated, and almost universally passive aggressive in relation to other poets, and they would therefore certainly take issue with some aspect of poetic discourse (meter, rhyme, assonance, metaphor, what have you) that took precedence over the planning and execution of the job in hand: indeed, once these theoretical differences gained a foothold, there would be no stopping some of them. They would move from poetics to defamatory statements of the most brutal kind, and from there to physical violence. I can assure you, dear reader, that the fiercest disputes occur between individuals when the stakes are really low: academics and poets are prone to the most vitriolic and bloodthirsty of vendettas precisely because the outcome is of practically no interest to anyone else.
This is true, I have hung around with poets and academics for years now, and I’m not sure which group is more inflated in their sense of self-importance, but it’s a close-run thing.
I’m not talking about all poets, of course, or even all academics, and I do hate generalising; but generalisations, like stereotypes, would not exist if there were not a ‘kernel of truth’ to the person, creature or object being generalised or stereotyped. Even if you disagree with the kernel of truth hypothesis on an intellectual level, you almost certainly – if unwittingly – subscribe to it in some aspect of your opinion-forming and decision-making.
But the type of poet or academic I am excusing from this general rule is actually a very small minority. Most of us, whatever we do, and however much we resist the idea, are a part of the herd. And although no one willingly considers himself or herself as part of the herd, the fact is that seen in retrospect, seen from the perspective of a hundred years hence, great swathes of poets (and other writers and artists) will be banded together indiscriminately and one or two exceptions, probably people who are lesser known now, will be isolated as exceptions and therefore bestowed with genius. The typical thinking goes like this: no one wants to think of him or herself as just one of the herd, and everyone thinks that is how it is going to be for everyone else.
We are certain of our uniqueness and individuality, and this would be the first and insuperable problem for Bolaño’s gang of poet-bank robbers, or bank-robber poets: lack of organisational discipline. I may be wrong, but don’t suppose there are many poets in the ranks of the SAS, nor, for that matter have I read any poems by any bank-robber poets. In fact, with all due respect to Roberto, I feel that poets are better suited to working a bank job solo, and probably not planning the job at all, but leaving it all down to fluke and happenstance. In other words, the only way a poet might successfully rob a bank would be alone, and by mistake.