“Love of the Thing Sung and Not of the Singing:” On Ambition

“Love of the Thing Sung and Not of the Singing:” On Ambition

March 05, 2019

I’m certainly not one to spend my hours contemplating the chaotic lives of celebrities, but when the Academy Awards come around each year, I often find myself tuning in, if even for just a part of it. I watch, always hoping the more underdog arthouse films pull off the upset, and of course, I’m often disappointed. But it’s always the unscripted moments that give this ceremony and others like it its magic, the moments where the faces that flash across the screen gaze into the lights and declare gratitude. Even the most famous actors are artists in the trenches just like the rest of us, trying to put to words what it is that we offer the world.

I still remember a particular acceptance speech a few years ago from Matthew McConaughey, who had just won best actor for Dallas Buyers Club. In the mix of the many people he thanks, McConaughey says something very interesting: that every artist needs someone to chase, someone to whom you can compare yourself. A person who makes you better because the standard they set is unattainable. For McConaughey, that person is an idea of who he will be in ten years, some elusive imaginative standard he holds for himself that spurs him to work on his art with more gusto and drive every day. I realized quickly that the actor wasn’t being self-absorbed with what he was saying. Rather, it was an act of humble acknowledgment that often the standards we set for ourselves as artists are the harshest and most challenging.

Since watching that speech, I’ve slowly churned this thought in the back of my mind and realized its truth. For everything I’ve accomplished in life, for every small victory, I find myself continually pushing myself to do better. That insatiable, ambitious ego within me—something so many writers have at their core—demands results, and quickly.

A professor of mine in graduate school, Michael Collier, told me it is the drive, and not necessarily the talent, that determines the success of the poet. On the days I content myself with thinking that I have that drive, I forget that it comes with a cost. Rarely have I told myself in the past that something I have done is “good enough.” Rarely have I reminded myself that rest as a writer must be a necessary practice. Rarely have I stopped to think that in a sea of rejection emails or when a new draft of a poem falls flat that I am only a breath away from burnout.

I take comfort that I’m not alone. I am grateful for the community of past and present writers who view ambition and ego as vices that must be tempered into healthy virtues. Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal is full of such struggles, for example. A young writer at the time, O’Connor asks God to “help me push myself aside” and to “give me some place, no matter how small, but let me know it and keep it.” Even if the work is “to wash the second step everyday... let my heart overflow with love.” Given how successful O’Connor became, these words are full of irony. But nevertheless, the truth is there: we must be content with the work for what it is. We must, as writers, bend down beneath the larger framework that is art, satisfied with our small offerings, submitting ourselves to beauty and truth and celebrating all the while.

I read Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet last summer and was enthralled by his wisdom, too:

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music... And all work is empty save when there is love...Work is love made visible.

And this line from Robert Bringhurst’s poem “These Poems, She Said” which always strikes me to the core: “Self-love is an ending, she said, / and not a beginning. Love means love / of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.” And Robert Hass has a poem, “Faint Music,” in which he tells the reader “Maybe you need to write a poem about grace” that can only be accomplished by the pilgrimage of all writers: “First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.” How often we are distracted by ego, how little we do to grow beyond it.

These writers whisper to me when the demands of the self on my writing seem insurmountable. They remind me to not mistake the elusive glory of the page with the greater glories of life.

I have recently become a father, and I feel at times the drive, that internal voice, beckoning for me to return to the page, to dive back into the neverending work of being a poet and professor at the expense of everything else. But this voice stands in opposition to the little life I hold in my hands, this promise of love, who is content to let his breath rise and fall against my chest.

Maybe the best poems we write can’t be found on any page.





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Photo by Nikoline Arns on Unsplash

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