Thoughts on Literary Fame

ZACK ROGOW, Catamaran Poetry Editor

 

Fame. It’s as irrelevant to good writing as sunny weather. Or is it the gold ring we’re all reaching for?

 

I was moved to write about fame because I’ve been listening during my commute to a collection of poetry on CDs called The Spoken Arts Treasury. This compendium of the writings and voices of 100 leading poets in the United States was released only 45 years ago, but I was shocked by how many of the poets who were considered necessary writers in 1969 are unknown today. I don’t mean that I’ve only read a couple of their poems. I mean that I had never even heard the names of a good portion of the poets in that collection.

 

 

The Greek goddess Pheme, source of the word "fame"

Maybe even more surprising is the fact that a collection released in 1969 did not include many of the poets of the U.S.A. whom we now consider to be some of the leading voices of the mid-twentieth century, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg (too radical for that time), June Jordan, Adrienne Rich (who had already published her first Selected Poems in 1967), Anne Sexton, or May Swenson. In just 45 years, we have dramatically changed our sense of who the important U.S. poets of that time were. Many writers included in The Spoken Arts Treasury do continue to find readers: Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, etc. But it seems almost arbitrary which poets were included in this anthology.

 

The word “fame” comes from the name of the Roman goddess Fama, which in turn comes from a Greek word that just means “talk.” That in turn, is related to Old Church Slavonic bajati, but you already knew that. Hey, Zack, what is your point? The point is that fame is just talk, it’s not hard evidence of truth or quality.

 

Just because a writer is known today, or unknown today, does not mean that her or his reputation will remain that way. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that tastes and readers will change, and that writers whose work speaks to a particular time and/or readership will vary in popularity, or maybe find new readers in a different time or place. We should not be intimidated by a writer’s reputation and feel we have to like that person’s work. On the other hand, we should appreciate writers who are not well known, but whose work we genuinely enjoy. In other words, trust your taste and your reaction to a work of literature, not the writer’s reputation.

 

Zack Rogow is a poet, playwright, editor, and translator.  He has written seven collections of poetry, and his most recent book, published in 2012, is My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers. He currently teaches at two graduate writing programs:  the low-residency MFA at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and the MFA at California College of the Arts.  He has an MA in English from City College, City University of New York, and a BA in English from Yale University.