Monday, November 06, 2006

Does the Audience Matter? 2 (Further Notes)

My intention is to invite all of us to make a certain evaluation of why we artistically do what we artistically do. The results of such self-contemplation are bound to be surprising at times, but perhaps worthwhile.

It gets to hidden intentions, personal motivations, private agendas, things like that.

I found at a thrift store some weeks ago Abraham Maslow's book The Psychology of Science: A reconnaisance. This book is an examination of why, while some scientists are moved by the joys of adventure and discovery, many use science as a defense mechanism against uncertainty, error, and chaos, or as a means of controlling their surroundings. Maslow, in looking at a cross-section of the science world, finds the scientific method as it is ideally conceived to be less influential, in practice, than the nature of the human being who is doing the science. The way in which a scientist tackles a subject of inquiry—bit by bit, or grasping the whole; describing things as they are, or seeking to master and synethsize new knowslgde—these are the results of personality, and of personal values that have been largely unexamined and underestimated. Maslow specifically challenges the dominant mechanistic mindset that governs the definition of problems and methodologies concerned with human personality and behavior, and finds them inadequate to explain the whole person.

At that same thrift store, I also found a festschrift on Octavio Paz. Skimming, I come away with these quotations about how and why poets order the universe with words.

Octavio Paz: There are two silences: one, before speech, is an attempt at meaning; another, after speech, is the knowledge that the only thing worth saying cannot be said. Buddha said everything which it is possible to say with words: the errors and achievements of reason, the truth and lies of the senses, the illumination and void of the instant, the freedom and slavery of nihilism. Words filled with reasons that cancel themselves and of sensations that consume each other. But his silence says something different. . . .

Language is the kingdom of dialectics which ceaselessly destroys itself and is reborn only to die. If Buddha's silence were the expression of this relativism, it would not be silence, but word. This isn't so: with his silence, movement, operation, dialectics, word, all cease. At the same time, it is neither the negation of dialectics nor of movement: Buddha's silence is the resolution of language. We come out of silence and return to it; to the word that has stopped being word.

I suspect that poets get too enraptured with their own voices, the words, their tools, their language, and forget about, or deliberately ignore, this necessary silence. I am reminded of cocktail parties in which people keep chattering about nothing, because moments of silence are perceived as being awkward or painful. I'm very comfortable with silence; I recognize this is not a common attribute of citizens in most urban settings. I am drawn to writing nature poetry in part because of the silence: when I'm out there in the wilds, or driving along the seacoast, I can go for hours and days without saying anything to anyone. It's out of those silent times that poems arise, for me. I often think of Yeats' poem Long-Legged Fly in this context.

What's intriguing to me, as Maslow explicitly and Paz implicitly agree, is how scientific rationality is often used as a shield against fears of the unknown, the uncertain, the mysterious, the unconscious, and the personally chaotic. I have more than once challenged certain formalist poets of my acquaintance to address this issue about their own motivations, and rarely received an answer.

Personal ego can be transcended, in moments, in enlightenment, in satori—but not permanently and for all times thereafter. Ironically, it egoistic to think so. Spiritual materialism and spiritual arrogance lead us to believe that once we're enlightened, we're done: you've reached you goal, here's the brass ring, you're done. I've certainly made my mistakes on these fronts, and no doubt will again. The truth is: after you're done, you go on as before. Chop wood, carry water. After the ecstasy, the laundry.

I don't think ego is meant to be transcended. It is after all the necessary interface between presonality and world: rather like the computer's screen, a similar kind of interface between self and world. We need an ego, or we couldn't function. The problem is, personality-ego tends to get puffed up and overly-inflated. The goal is integrate it, keep it in balance, keep it small, reduce it: keep it in perspective. Much of the back-biting among poets is all about puffed-up egos colliding, and getting pricked. Not that poets are unique in this matter, not at all. Frankly, I see it mostly as insecurity and a lack of self-esteem, which everybody just needs to grow up and get over. (Do I exclude myself from any such formulation? Never.) Stupidity makes me impatient, and impatience is of course a terrible vice, an addiction I am working to overcome.

I am actually not antagonistic to ego. My position is more in that of the honorable tradition of loyal dissent, in which faults are examined in order that the overall system might be improved.

I don't believe that it's egotistical or bad to write with an audience in mind, to tailor an eesay or poem towards an intended audience: but I do believe it's beside the point, even irrelevant. I think about the audience when I'm editing or rewriting, but not when I'm writing. If I think too much about the the audience when I write, it can stifle the act of writing itself. The internal editor can be a block rather than an assist, if called upon too soon. This has all been said before, of course.

What I don't believe is that writing for an audience makes any difference to what I write. Otherwise, one can end up compartmentalizing one's writing into "public" and "private" bins. Lots of writers do do that, it's true. But after a writer is dead? It all tends to come out, anyway. Especially in the case of any writer who develops anything like a sizable public following; the biographers will dig, even into the zones of discomfort and shame.

I firmly believe, based on experience, that control is an illusion—especially in the long haul. Attempts to control the world, and especially attempts to control what the world thinks about oneself, are doomed to failure, simply because people can be contrary and stubborn, and as ample evidence will always show, are not likely to share one's own opinion. All one can really address is what is in the present moment: what I'm writing now; my craft; my subject matter; my artistic desire. the eros of creation. You can't control what other people think of you, or your writing. All you can control is your own response to their opinions. That's a basic fact of life, in relationship with other sentient beings.

Where is the line between making oneself into a better writer, and pandering to fashion in order to get published? I think it's preferable to pursue becoming a better writer, and not to pander. Does this then lead to becoming the stereotype of the starving artist, laboring in solitary obscurity? No, I think that's irrelevant, too: it's a romantic delusion, a cultural stereotype. It's an archetype I actively repudiate. (I ain't starvin'.)

The point is, I think the true balance-point lies in writing what you want to write, following your muse (speaking of literary stereotypes), and not dwelling on the outcome.

We also write to discover: I have heard it expressed by writers, "I write to know what it is I'm thinking about." We discover our own processes, through which we also discover the world.

We also write to experience, through the process of writing, some connection with the archetypes that transcend our oridnary selves.

If there were no numinous, liminal experience of discovery in writing, in music, in making art—then I wouldn't bother doing any of those things. The numinous is very real to me. It lies at the root of everything I do, and I can say with literal truth that I have written poems that were nothing more than records of visionary experiences.

Which is why I say that poetry is more than merely communication. Of course it is communication, but it is so much more than only that.

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