Ambition Definition Essay

The idea is more classic than Christian, and the poet not only seeks it but confers it. But in the 1980s—after centuries of cheap printing, after the spread of mere literacy and the decline of qualified literacy, after the loss of history and the historical sense, after television has become mother of us all—we have seen the decline of fame until we use it now as Andy Warhol uses it, as the mere quantitative distribution of images. If even to entertain such ambition reveals monstrous egotism, let me argue that the common alternative is petty egotism that spends itself in small competitiveness, that measures its success by quantity of publication, by blurbs on jackets, by small achievement: to be the best poet in the workshop, to be published by Knopf, to win the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Alas, at twenty-four the same poet wants to be in the New Yorker. At this stage the frail ego of the author takes precedence over art. Nothing is learned once that does not need learning again.The poet must develop, past this silliness, to the stage where the poem is altered for its own sake, to make it better art, not for the sake of its maker's feelings but because decent art is the goal. The poet whose ambition is unlimited at sixteen and petty at twenty-four may turn unlimited at thirty-five and regress at fifty.Where Shakespeare used "ambitious" of Macbeth we would say "over-ambitious"; Milton used "ambition" for the unscrupulous overreaching of Satan; the word describes a deadly sin like "pride." Now when I call Milton "ambitious" I use the modern word, mellowed and washed of its darkness.

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"I would sooner fail," said Keats at twenty-two, "than not be among the greatest." When he died three years later he believed in his despair that he had done nothing, the poet of "Ode to a Nightingale" convinced that his name was "writ in water." But he was mistaken, he was mistaken. If I praise the ambition that drove Keats, I do not mean to suggest that it will ever be rewarded.

We never know the value of our own work, and everything reasonable leads us to doubt it: for we can be certain that few contemporaries will be read in a hundred years.

I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition—a modesty, alas, genuine ... Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre.

(Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure.

I want to pat this person on the shoulder and mutter comforting words: "Things will get better! Publication stands in for achievement—as everyone knows, universities and grant-givers take publication as achievement—but to accept such a substitution is modest indeed, for publication is cheap and easy.

In this country we publish more poems (in books and magazines) and more poets read more poems aloud at more poetry readings than ever before; the increase in thirty years has been tenfold. Many of these poems are often readable, charming, funny, touching, sometimes even intelligent.For us, fame tends to mean Johnny Carson and People magazine. We have a culture crowded with people who are famous for being famous.5. At twelve, say, the American poet-to-be is afflicted with generalized ambition. There is an early stage when the poem becomes more important than the poet; one can see it as a transition from the lesser egotism to the greater.For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung. True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever. (Robert Frost wanted to be a baseball pitcher and a United States senator: Oliver Wendell Holmes said that nothing was so commonplace as the desire to appear remarkable; the desire may be common but it is at least essential.) At sixteen the poet reads Whitman and Homer and wants to be immortal. At the stage of lesser egotism, the poet keeps a bad line or an inferior word or image because that's the way it was: that's what really happened.Therefore it is essential for poets, all the time, to read and reread the great ones. ("Keats studied the old poets every day / Instead of picking up his M. A.") Ben Jonson was learned and in his cups looked down at Shakespeare's relative ignorance of ancient languages—but Shakespeare learned more language and literature at his Stratford grammar school than we acquire in twenty years of schooling.Some lucky poets make their living by publicly reacquainting themselves in the classroom with the great poems of the language. Whitman read and educated himself with vigor; Eliot and Pound continued their studies after stints of graduate school.But they are usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things.Ambitious poems usually require a certain length for magnitude; one need not mention monuments like The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queen, Paradise Lost, or The Prelude.Yet, alas, when the poet tastes a little fame, a little praise. And this grandeur, by a familiar paradox, may turn itself an apparent 180 degrees to tell the truth.Only when the poem turns wholly away from the petty ego, only when its internal structure fully serves art's delicious purposes, may it serve to reveal and envision.But to struggle to read the great poems of another language—in the language—that is another thing.We are the first generation of poets not to study Latin; not to read Dante in Italian.


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