You think today’s poet’s hardship, suffering and publishing ordeal is any different from 100 years ago? Maarten Maarten’s short story (from The Women’s Victory and Other Stories–1906, London Archibald Constable & Co Ltd) about “A Drop of Blood” proves it was just the same. This is how the story starts:
He was very poor. Shade of the man, with the ass’s ears, how poor he was! Yet everything he touched, with that wonderful touch of his, turned to gold. Only it was not the kind of gold you buy bread for.
It was of the kind in which the sun pays his tribute to the Almighty. We all pay our tribute: the sun pays in gold and the nightingale in notes. And the potentates of the earth pay in blood–their brothers’; and the poets pay in blood–their own.
He had married Celestine Michelet because he worshipped the very ground she trod on. So he came to the conclusion that they might as well tread it together. He was too poor himself to notice how poor she was.
His name is Anastase; an impossible name, Maarten Maartens writes. Anastase and Celestine, a beautiful girl he married at the age of 19, live in Paris, in a cheaply rented
“dingy barrack, close to the Grand’rue de Passy. Their street still stands; it is broad, banal, a cul-de sac. Children Play and shriek in it. Thank God for that…From the little stucco balcony you could catch a glimpse, by craning, of a dozen trees of the Bois de Boulogne, at La Muette, and on your other side the glittering needles of the Trocadero soared, gaunt, into the sky. Said Anastase, “Nature to the left of me, Paris to the right of me, God overhead.”
(A left click on the pictures will enlarge most except those taken from internet sources, then click the back space at the top left and you are back in the blog).
Anastase works in a bookshop, selling paper and pens, and for the rest reads books from its library section, and buys copybooks to scribble his verses in the evening. His wages are a hundred francs a month which was not much one hundred years ago. The bookstore owner says:
“You should compose songs such as I sang in my youthful days, about springtide, and kisses, and pretty women…Or Mon premier Crime, it’s torn to tatters. Write a book like that and you will have to sweep out shops no more…It’s twenty-seven years since I began this library. If you look down the lists and find that poetry hasn’t been asked for twice during all that period, will you sit down, like a good boy, to-night and try to write a story?”
“I am not a novelist,” replied Anastase.
“Bonheur qui passe!
Amour qui lasse!
Rien ne nous reste que notre douleur.
Mais dan la vie,
Qui pleure prie
Tout ce qui prie a des larmes au Coeur.”
The couple gets a daughter, named Lina, and she is underfed because of the couple’s poverty. But Anastase shall write poetry because he is not a novelist; he insists.
“I am a poet, a poet only, a poet by the grace of God. It is not arrogance to say that, for the gift is God’s, not mine. Celestine, do not desert me. Let us have a little patience! Let us wait for the answer from Pinard. This time perhaps, he will take the ‘Chants de Bataille.’ He ought to take them; they are beautiful.”
And a little bit later when they are arguing about the scarce money, how to feed the baby and make ends meet, and Celestine tries to make him write prose, he exclaims: “I am a poet. I cannot help it. I speak in verse.”
Anastase writing and Celestine looking on
Anastase has sent his new manuscript of poetry entitled “Estrelle” to a renowned publisher, the Revue, and waits day by day for the postman to bring a favorable response, but nothing comes. Celestine spurs him to write romances; are those writers not millionaires? Anastase considers them rascals, but the delay in hearing something positive gnaws at his nerves day and night. Then finally the answer comes: the publisher writes he accepts ‘Estrelle’ but on a condition:
“Up to the last few pages you run on without a flaw, but there, at the end, comes your fatal mistake. Virtue triumphs, and your heroine is good, and prude, as a charity-schoolgirl. That for our public, is a little too–how shall I say?–unfresh. Consider–you whose literary taste is manifest–how much more ‘seizing’ would be the finale, if you sent down Estrelle to her husband, guilty and smiling, as he! Besides, a woman, to repent in literature, must first have actually sinned…Will you have the story back to alter it, or will you leave the matter to me?…
The publisher has his limits: “the popular taste.” He offers Anastase 250 francs, which is more than twice his monthly salary, earned in one evening writing, if he rewrites the end. But Anastase does not want to prostitute his “child.”
Then their daughter Lina falls ill of undernourishment and might well die if she does not get better food. Anastase sits in front of his manuscript, which the publisher has returned. He can’t change it and hands it to Celestine.
“Take it,” he said, in a whisper. “Send it. But to-night. And tell him to do it. One life for another. It is just.”
She took the papers in her hand, without a word, and, holding them tightly clenched against her breast, she went away into the inner room. To the child.
She had carried the lamp in yonder. They had only one. And he remained sitting by the table, with his face sunk forward upon both hands. In the dark.
So Anastase felt forced to heed the popular taste, but did not have the courage nor the spirit to do it himself, and sent Celestine on her mission to the mailbox. It reminds me of a Writers Digest Conference where we were discussing whether writers should write for the market. I had asked Jeff Klein, a well-known literary agent in New York, who presided over the work group, and he said “No! You write what you must write and write the best book (or poetry, I presume) you can.” It was not really a true answer. I am afraid, nothing has changed since Anastase saw the light in the dark. Literary agents must live from your royalty and find a publisher who wants to buy your book or poems, publishers must recoup the cost of printing in the hope to make some money, and “the audience” – well they, whoever they are, have nothing to lose and only buy what they want to read and when–at a discount. If it’s you, lucky you!!!