Thursday, November 09, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 7: Some quotes

I enjoy reading poets' collected essays, reviews, and criticism. I enjoy hearing poets think aloud, as it were, about the work and art of poetry. Writers talking about writing: of course there's often a hint of the autoerotic in the practice. Some poets are no good at it, either: somewhat cagey, self-serving, or downright untrustworthy. But among the more thoughtful, there is much to be discovered. At its best, it can verge on genuine self-exploration, spelunking into the depths of one's own self, and it leads towards greater integration via greater self-knowledge.

Over and over again (although it could be a function of cognitive sorting, lately), I encounter poets writing about egolessness in poetry: about the receptivity to what comes, about getting the self out of the way, about the discipline of waiting and listening—all practices I've touched on before. And these poets come from many different traditions, cultures, religions, landscapes and languages. So, it tempting to say that there's something universal in all this. Something of a birthright, in the same sense that each world religion has at its core some very similar experiences of the Divine, to lay beside the rest.

So, somewhat at random, some relevant quotes:

The writing of poetry can easily be an egotistical maneuver; maybe it often is. Maybe it almost always is. But the competitive exercise of any skill can be, often is, and maybe almost always becomes so: we must be alert to preserve the helpful, proper attitudes toward whatever we learn to do with fluency and grace.

In its essence, poetry, like other sustained human endeavors, is done best in a condition of humility and welcoming of what comes. The exploration of what the materials of life can yield to us, and the discovery of what is implicit in human experience, will work best for one who is turned outward, with trust, with courage, and with a ready yielding to what time brings into view. This practice can be the opposite of egotistical.

—William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life

The short answer is that you write because you have to. If you rationalize it, it seems as if you've seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn't feel like self-expression, though it may look like it. As for whom you write, well, you write for everybody. Or anybody who will listen.

—Philip Larkin, the Paris Review interview

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that to write a poem was to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem. As a working definition, this satisfied me sufficiently to enable individual poems to be written. In so far as it suggested that all one had to do was pick an experience and preserve it, however, it was much oversimplified. Nowadays nobody believes in "poetic" subjects, any more than they believe in poetic diction. The longer one goes on, though, the more one feels that some subjects are more poetic than others, if only that poems about them get written whereas poems about other subjects don't. At first one tries to write poems about everything. Later on, one learns to distinguish somewhat, though one can still make enormously time-wasting mistakes. The fact is that my working definition defines very little: it makes no reference to this necessary element of distinction, and it leaves the precise nature of the verbal pickling unexplained.

This means that most of the time one is engagead in doing, or trying to do, something of which the value is doubtful and the mode of operation unclear. Can one feel entirely happy about this? The days when one could claim to be the priest of a mystery are gone: today mystery means either ignorance or hokum, neither fashionable qualities. Yet writing a poem is still not an act of will. The distinction between subjects is not an act of the will. Whatever makes a poem successful is not an act of the will. In consequence, the poems that actually get written may seem trivial or unedifying, compared with those that don't. But the poems that get written, even if they do not please the will, evidently please that mysterious something that has to be pleased.

—Philip Larkin, "Writing Poems," in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982

When you are a poet there is a residual fear that if you lose the self you will lose your art. Gradually, however (for me if took fifteen years!), you discover that what you thought was the self had little to do with your own true nature. Or your art, for that matter. . . .

The hardest thing for me to accept was that my life was what it was every day. This seemed to negate notions of grandeur necessary for an interest in survival. The turnaround came when an interviewer asked me about the discipline that I used to be productive. It occured to at that moment that discipline was what you are every day, how conscious you are willing to be. In the Tao-te Ching (in the splendid new Stephen Mitchell translation) it says, "Act without doing; work without effort." So you write to express your true nature, part of which is an aesthetic sense that reflects the intricacies of life, rather than the short circuits devised by the ego. Assuming the technique of the art has been learned, it can then arrive out of silence rather than by the self-administered cattle prod to the temples that is postmodernism.

—Jim Harrison, "Everyday Life," in Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in contemporary American Poetry

Stafford also says something interesting about why we write. It gets back to the principle of thinking is linking, of writing to discover what it is we're thinking about:

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

—William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl

People who have something to say are propagandists, advertisers, marketers, and zealots. What they have to say is the most important thing, to them.

Writers, on the other hand, very often don't know what they have to say, until they say it. And maybe not always then.

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