I went with Dr. D. this weekend to a reunion of the prestigious graduating class of a prestigious university. There was good-natured catching-up and reminiscence. There was also one astounding bit of credentialia. I made up that word, but the credential in question was real. It’s called a Hirsch number, something I have lived these many years in total ignorance of. It’s mainly for scientists, an index that quantifies one’s “impact” based on how many journal articles you’ve published and how many of those have been cited by other articles. That’s an over-simplification, but you get the idea.
And just as I was thinking “thank heavens there’s nothing like that in poetry,” what should I see yesterday on Facebook but a mention of a web site that judges whether a poem is “professional” or “amateur” and awards a numerical score to back up the pronouncement. The site references an article --presumably cited by other articles--submitted to the journal “Literary and Linguistic Computing.” The idea is that professional poets have “grasped the basic skills associated with writing poetry and have therefore been able to produce poems of lasting quality.” There’s an app for that? Who knew? If only. The instructions for submitting your poem to be scored indicates that Sylvia Plath’s, “Crossing the Water” scores 2.53, while an “amateur” poem was -2.50, “closer to the amateur end of the spectrum.” I am happy to report that my poem, “Birthday for Jim,” scored 2.52432967033.
But the two experiences made me wonder where does our satisfaction in our work come from?
The objective judgments have a definite appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be recognized for outstanding work by gaining public recognition--winning an award or, yes, having a high Hirsch number? But for most of us that isn’t going to happen, or it isn’t going to happen all the time. Even performers who end each day’s work with applause must have moments of needing to figure it out on their own.
This is something I’ve thought about. I have had minor successes in poetry to measure my “impact” by. But I have also had the major pleasure of having people tell me that my work was important to them, that they were touched by it, that they turned to my poems at times of deep need. I am not saying that the larger recognition feels unimportant beside that. I’m greedy--I’d like both. But maybe we each have to find for ourselves the part of our work that makes us feel that we’ve accomplished something, that makes us feel proud. And maybe the process of doing the work has to count, too. Our “impact” may well be judged by what goes on in the world after the work leaves our hands. But maybe it is also how the work, including doing it, affects us and changes us and helps us grow toward what we aspire to. And maybe only we can judge that.