1) From last week’s New Yorker, from David Remnick’s lead Talk of the Town essay (“A Man, a Plan,” on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu):
Psychobiography in politics is ordinarily a mug’s game.
2) Which sent me to Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, which is where I remember first encountering the phrase; he mentions it in “Bourgeois in Bohemia,” an essay that I think started out as a review of the first volume of The Letters of T.S. Eliot:
The public Eliot who emerges at the end of these letters is a survivor—wise but disillusioned, socially astute but cold, stiffly middle-aged at thirty-four. He saw literary life as petty and sordid. ‘Poetry is a mug’s game,’ he once remarked in the British English he gradually adopted (a mug being a dupe). By 1922 Eliot had resolved to be a mug no longer. He negotiated lucrative deals for his books and plays. He grew modestly wealthy by giving readings and lectures. And he advised every youth who would listen to avoid poetry as a career. He knew too well its emotional cost. The Greek Nobel Prize laureate George Seferis recounted that when Eliot heard about a young man who wanted to dedicate himself to poetry, he remarked with unenviable authority, ‘He’s getting ready for a sad life.’
3) But where and when did Eliot write “Poetry is a mug’s game”? The answer is out there on the Web, but I tried to get to it the wrong way: I looked up The Letters of T.S. Eliot on Google Books—which is there, but its content, unless I’m missing something, is not searchable.
4) So I looked in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th edition, pre-Justin Kaplan), and got this (from p. 809, quote 19; the citation is from the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism):
As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.
5) So it’s British English idiom—but what meaning of “mug”? Emily wanted to know. So I looked in her compact OED. From page 1129, from the fifth meaning of the word mug:
1.a. A stupid or incompetent person, a ‘muff’, ‘duffer’; a fool, simpleton; a card-sharper’s dupe. slang.
b. mug’s game, a thankless task; a useless, foolish, or unprofitable activity. colloq.
6) From the next paragraph in the Gioia essay:
Much of the difficulty Eliot faced in early adulthood came from his inability to distance himself from his parents’ bourgeois Republican values. Although Eliot wanted to become a poet, he never expected to give up his comfortable standard of living. While Pound contently accepted an existence at subsistence level, hardly worrying about next month’s rent or this week’s groceries, Eliot could not bear even the possibility of economic uncertainty. What Pound saw as la vie bohème, Eliot viewed as squalid poverty. In his twenties he already worried over life insurance and retirement savings.
7) You should see Barney’s Version. Toby’s wonderful babysitter came over this past Saturday night; Emily and I went to see it at Upstate Films over in Rhinebeck. It’s really good.
8) I searched for the phrase “blogging is a mug’s game” on Google; yes, unsurprisingly, more than one person has written this on the searchable Web already.
9) From my phone interview with Edward Albee five years ago; this, understandably, didn’t make it into the article I wrote for Poets & Writers about the Albee Foundation. This wasn’t off the record, so I think it’s okay to reproduce it here:
Albee: February […] is the cruelest month in Montauk. Where all the suicides take place. All the fishermen kill themselves in February.
Me: That’s terrible.
Albee: It’s the cruelest month. What did Eliot know.
Me: He was over in London, he had no idea.
Albee: But he was from America. You’d think he’d remember about February.
Me: Maybe it was somewhat different out in the Midwest, where he was from.
Albee: I suppose, yes. Where was he from?
Me: He was originally from someplace like southern Illinois.
Albee: Oh was he? That’s pretty bad. Oh well, that’s practically in the South.
Me: So you can see why he ran away, I guess.
Albee: Yeah. Boy did Ozick try to damage his reputation.
Me: Who did?
Albee: Cynthia Ozick tried to really damage Eliot’s reputation by hitting hard on that specifically British anti-Semitism of his.
Me: He’s got a lot of detractors.
Albee: I know—but just read the poetry.
Me: You’d hope that it would stand separate from the person.
Albee: If we only liked the work of nice writers, we’d be nowhere.
10) Thinking about the conflict between bourgeois values and bohemian values makes me think of something Walter Mosley says at the end of the first chapter of This Year You Write Your Novel:
Straightforward procrastination is an author’s worst enemy, but there are others: the writer who suddenly has chores that have gone undone for months but that now seem urgent; the diarist who develops a keen wish to write about her experiences today instead of writing her book; the Good Samaritan who realizes that there’s a world out there that needs saving; the jack-of-all-trades who, when he begins one project, imagines ten others that are equally or even more important.
Forget all that. Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls.
But we own, Mr. Mosley! What will peeling paint do to the resale value?
11) As I’ve written elsewhere, today is the birthday of Matthew Broderick, Bridget Jones, and me.
12) I don’t quite know where I’m going with all this, but I do think I need to take a break from sending out short stories to literary journals and contests. Maybe a year off. Which is, I’m guessing, not an idea for an “I did X for a year!” book.
But it might buy me back quite a bit of time.
See also: “Something versus Nothing,” “Only Half an Hour.”