• Ambition

    Carl Phillips

    Spring 2022

    “That’s all that happens, I think, we stop moving forever.” So I said once, in a poem, to describe death. By that logic, life equals motion, we are as human beings by definition restless, dissatisfaction becomes a form of survival, to be dissatisfied with an empty stomach triggers an instinct to fill that emptiness with what in turn enables us to live a while longer. We resist dissatisfaction as we resist shapelessness; the impulse to know a thing—another form of survival—is an impulse toward recognizability, we give shape to shapelessness, and we call it meaning. And it feels like arrival. We forget for a moment that meaning itself is unfixed, ever changing. And the forgetting—isn’t this, too, survival?

    I’ve often been asked if art is necessary. And for years my standard answer was that art isn’t required for survival, but it gives an added dimension to life, without which life would be—less appealing? Boring? But, for reasons I’ll never know, making art is how some of us make sense of the world for ourselves; it’s absolutely, then, a means of survival, which makes it necessary. A poem may not be how I stave off physical hunger, but if it’s how I temporarily arrive at something like clarity and stability—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually—then yes, I need it. Art is one of many ways to get there but for the artist it’s a chief way, and sometimes the only way. To this extent, there’s truth to the idea of art-making as vocation, a natural calling. It’s easy, though, for elitism to creep into this way of thinking: the idea that some are called, and others are not, or, as Alfred Corn puts it, speaking of making a career in poetry, in The Poem’s Heartbeat, his highly regarded manual on prosody:

    [A]ll you have to do then is go on to produce complete and unified poems in which every line contains its depth charge of technical/intuitive insight. A tall order? Yes, as tall as Mount Parnassus, to whose slopes many are called but few are chosen.

    To be clear from the start, I believe anyone who chooses to make art has the right to do so, and has the right to define art for themselves. Some make that choice, others don’t. Neither choice is wrong or better. (For further clarification, I’m speaking here of what traditionally gets called the arts—literature, music, dance, painting, sculpting, et cetera. For there’s an art to pretty much everything, from digging a trench to changing a diaper to tree climbing.)

    Carl Phillips’s new book, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, will be out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2020. Sibling Rivalry Press will publish his chapbook, Star Map with Action Figures, this fall.

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