Radical individualism is the only dignity there is.
There are only two types of people: the conformist and the non-conformist—the drudge and the peacock—the square and the hip—the cowardly prig and the brave sensualist—the dullard and the dandy—the meddler and the artist—the ones who don’t get it, or don’t quite get it, and the ones who do.
The true artist, the truly different, the truly sublime, the smartly beautiful, the enlightened ones—these are all radical individualists, or those who deeply accept and understand and support the radical individualist; all the rest are merely drudges who fret about ‘the good of society’ in a prying, jealous, overbearing sort of way, as they overcompensate for the fact that as individuals, they lack that spark which the first group has.
This is the Ur-division in Life and Society, the template and atmosphere, the body and thought of all social and political activity, as various obstacles present themselves to the journeying soul longing ‘to get it,’ ‘to be accepted,’ and ‘to be loved.’
Not love or be happy, for this straightforward activity betrays right from the start, an ignorance of the division—which is more important than anything else. This is the great instinctual ‘leap of faith’ that the potentially ‘cool’ person, the radical individualist, must choose as their life’s philosophy or their life’s religion.
It is why people socially do things. It is everything. It makes people vote in a certain way, pick certain friends and activities, and think the thoughts they think. The loss of pure love and pure happiness is merely the cost for obedience to this powerful division which is at the heart of social ‘understanding.’
The cool is defined against the not-cool; here is where individualism itself begins, because to choose otherwise (from the very start of the soul’s journey) is to sink hopelessly into the morass of dullness and jealousy and side with the shallow, meddling, superficial drags, who worry passively, or actively into existence, all sorts of jealous rules to make a dully, oppressively and lemming-like society acceptable and functioning as a society—which by definition has a duty to curb the charismatic and pleasure-seeking individual.
It does not matter if this division is factually true or not; psychologically and linguistically it is true; factually it has no real existence except as it is manifested socially—and this, as they say in the old country, suffices. We dress and shout and dance the way we do—for this division.
At one time the charismatic individual was an ideal ruler to lead society; but with the complex, advanced evolution of society, the charismatic individual instead rules in quite the other way now: against an orderly society, against society itself—as the radical individualist.
Philip Nikolayev is largely self-made and extremely talented: has advanced degrees, is multilingual, an influential editor (Fulcrum), read in other countries, has a family which includes a wife-poet! is a published poet himself— there is no way he cannot feel himself to belong to the elitism of the radical individual—he truly is one.
Why shouldn’t he advocate, then, for the poetry of personal religion?
A successful artist talks to us as his own priest, not in the language of priests—this is no surprise.
The individual qua individual is threatened by nothing—those who do not speak the language of the individual, but who participate in the language of the tribe, of society, and those rules which govern society and make society possible, cannot possibly harm the individualist, protected by that personal religion of his own making. The individual can enter an orthodox church and enjoy its sights and sounds, visit cities and countries and observe customs and manners, and he can write freely on anything which he finds to be significant; as long as rules do not censor him, he is free.
But who is interested in reading the individualist?
Other individualists, with a view for affirmation?
Or the anti-individualist, with a motive to find fault and censor?
The audience is one of two kinds, then: the friend or the bureaucratic foe, more indifferent, in most cases, especially in the United States, than foe.
The trouble here is that it is not enough to write and publish—criticism, audience reaction, being read, and truly responded to, are crucial for the writer.
Am I really being read, the poet wonders, or just flattered?
The other individualists don’t care what you write in the following very real sense: you are simply incapable of offending them— which may be good for friendship, but is fatal to literature, since it guarantees the absence of Criticism, which is necessary to literature.
Meanwhile, the other audience (society) is indifferent critically for a separate reason—they don’t speak the language of the individualist.
There is no friction or spark in either response—the poem slides easily down the throat of the individualist and falls indifferently at the feet of the drudge. This is not to say other individualists may not enjoy what you produce; they may acquiesce and fully comprehend and joy in recognizing what is communicated—but there is no criticism, no interesting response. As much as the individualist enjoys the uniqueness of what you produce, the drudge will be unable—as drudge—to recognize the value of the unique communication, trained as they are only to recognize good and bad recipes for society, so no helpful response comes from that quarter, either.
This is the pitfall of the poetry of personal religion—not because of what it is, but because of its failure to actually live outside its unique origins.
The non-conformist offends the conformist—but only on the conformist’s terms, only where the conformist lives. If non-conformity does not offend, it fails in its task; it is eaten alive by this failure—for this is what non-conformity implicitly lives to do: offend those drudges who are asleep, non-artistic, or cruel.
There is still hope, however, for the radical individualist: there is a third audience between the sympathetic friend and the indifferent other: the rival poet, who is neither friend nor foe, but a combination of both.
What directs all poets to profitable activity is the rival—here the poet knows what to do, how to excel, and is guided in very specific ways to be successful.
Every famous poet succeeded against a rival and only understood how to be interesting in the context of what the blessed rival was doing. Popularity, as literary historians concede, is mostly earned by writers who enjoy success for a brief time and then are forgotten. The literary canon is full of poets who were neither popular with wide audiences, nor lifted up by friends, but made their mark in ‘rival poet’ contexts.
With the rival, the (helpful, motivating) question can truly be asked as it cannot be asked elsewhere: am I cool? Am I one of the chosen?
One must ask this question to oneself as a poet: am I good? To oneself, as a matter of course, but it also needs to be asked by others. Friends in your clique won’t give you an answer; they will only flatter you. And the others, those uncool, non-artists, the conformists, who don’t care for poetry and would rather focus on society and its ills? They will most likely tell you, poetry isn’t good, or it’s silly; they are incapable, even if they cared, to tell you if you are a good poet, or not.
This is where the rival comes in. The rival knows poetry like you do, but won’t flatter you, will fight you, in fact, and this is where greatness and fame is made, in this nexus of rivals.
The greatest poet of them all—Shakespeare—wrote specifically about this in his Sonnets.
The greatest Romantic poets Shelley, Keats, and Byron all attacked the Alpha Romantic of the Day, Wordsworth: mocked him, called him disappointing, ridiculed him, said he was obscure, pulled his beard.
Poe, America’s Shakespeare, attacked Wordsworth a little later in the same spirit, and turned every well-know writer of his day into a rival: chiefly Longfellow and Emerson.
Our Canon today has been shaped by these battles: and we the living unconsciously and naively pick sides in what we think is a reasonable, peaceful spirit.
Had Pound not got his Imagism ass kicked by Amy Lowell, he would have remained mired in triviality.
T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather knew Emerson—attacked both the Romantics and Poe (for this latter, vicious attack, see “From Poe to Valery” 1949).
The most famous rivalry of all: Homer and Plato.
We don’t have the time to elucidate these rivalries here, but most readers will be familiar with them—though many readers, even those who consider themselves avant-garde, admittedly don’t read poetry or literature this way (they are blissfully naive and do not figure into this discussion—let them remain naive).
Who is Philip Nikolayev’s rival?
Has he any?
Poetically, no. Because Nikolayev is too good in a pure, self-deprecating, completely witty and skilled sort of way.
Also, Nikolayev has no avant-garde rivals because he writes “for the ages,” a quaint idea these days, no doubt.
There is a certain pure excellence in Nikolayev’s work which cannot be rivaled. Philip Nikolayev is that good.
This is not to say that any small example of a writer’s work will not show the division discussed above.
Take this wonderful poem of Nikolayev’s, which can be found on The Poetry Foundation site:
Time to recount the sparrows of the air
Seated alone on an elected stair,
I stare as they appear and disappear.
Tonight the deck supports tremendous quiet,
Although the twilight is itself a riot.
I’m glad I’m staying here, not at the Hyatt.
My pen, eye, notes, watch, whiskey glass and hell
All hang together comfortably well.
Pain is my favorite resort hotel.
The poet is an individualist, a non-conformist: therefore, he is not staying at “the Hyatt.” But Hyatt is a rhyme; the individualist, self-deprecating stance is seasoned by wit.
Nikolayev uses lyric wit to rise above the division. He is aware of it and playfully and wittily fights against it, which makes him a better poet for that reason alone.