Friday, January 12, 2007

Poets as Introverts

I think two kinds of people become poets. Extroverts who go out and entertain the family friends, and introverts who hide in the bedroom and put what they write under the mattress. Allen Ginsberg, I imagine, was the first kind; I was the second. For me, words were not about pleasing or entertaining others but about creating a place of refuge, where I could find something out about what it means to have and be a self. —Jane Hirshfield, in a recent interview

Do introverts make the best poets? That's a theme that seems to keep coming up lately. I think a lot of poets would say, Yes. But I wonder. I think that might a skewed viewpoint, a biased opinion based on a subjective sampling. Writing is a solitary act, for the most part; which might skew the percentages of writers being introverts, as one might imagine that typical introverts might be drawn towards solitary occuaptions in general. But how genuinely introverted is it, after all, to publish one's thoughts and dreams, and poems, in print or online? I've been browsing through a lot of opinions about what makes a great poet, and so far I've found good poets of almost every personality type, in every occupation, style, era, and language. Good poets seem to turn up as a minority in virtually all other categories; I know of no statistical studies disproving this impression.

I think perhaps the ultimate qualities that make a great poet are persistence coupled with discipline and talent. If you're not persistent, all the talent in the world will remain unknown. If you're not disciplined, your talent will remain raw, undeveloped, and possibly useless; discipline is the training of talent to run in harness; the technical aspects of craft support talent by honing and polishing it. If you're not gifted with an innate talent, all the persistence and discipline and technical craft in the world won't make you a better poet.

It's perhaps a sign of the times, but a lot of well-known published poets fall into this latter category: very persistent, very disciplined, but with nothing really interesting to say, and no talent, no vision, to build on; thus, we get a lot of poems about nothing very much. Sound familiar? It's the oft-lamented state of contemporary poetry in print.

On the Meyers-Briggs psychology test, which is based on Jung's ideas of the psyche being a balanced mandala of typologies, I tested out as INF/TP. Introspective, Intuitive, Feeling/Thinking, Perceptive. Now, that's a little unusual, but it's true: I tested exactly 50/50 on the Feeling/Thinking part of the typology spectrum. Most folks in my category are INFPs, or INTPs; as I do in so many other areas of my life, I straddle a boundary, I stand on both sides of seemingly disparate categories. (It's a long list; maybe I'll share it someday.)

I'll tell you one thing. I've hung out with groups of INFPs, and several of my closest friends are INFPs. And I find it tedious when the vast majority of people in this typology spend a lot of time talking about what's going on inside their minds and hearts, but not acting on them. In yet another way that I tend to straddle boundaries, with one foot in each world, I tend to be contrarian at times: with people who talk too much, I want to act; with people who never think about their actions beforehand, I want to think first. (I do tend to think "outside the box," most of the time.) So, I don't feel entirely comfortable with my fellow INFPs; sometimes I just want them to stop throwing words around, and get out there, take a walk, and clear the mind through physical action. A little walking meditation goes a very long way, if you spend far too much in your head, on a daily basis.

I'm what Jung called a compensated introvert. In his typology schema, every person contains all the typologies, but one of each pair is usually more developed, or more dominant or prominent, or more "innate" to the person. But the goal of the opus, the work of self-development, is to bring all the undeveloped aspects of the self into awareness, and integrate them with their more-developed counterparts. An introvert who learns to develop and integrate his or her "inner extravert" is called a compensated introvert.

This means that I am naturally shy, but I have learned to be comfortable in public situations. For example: I was terribly stricken with stage-fright in my early life, and my first piano recital, circa age 7 or 8, was paralyzing; but in the years since then, I have performed music in public situations so many hundreds or thousands of times that I feel very comfortable onstage. I might be aware of nerves of shyness, when I pick up the mic to address the audience, but I'm able to speak anyway. Years of doing community radio also helped with that: speaking to the invisible but listening audience. I've also given papers at academic conferences, talked as an activist at speakers' bureaus, and other situations. I've worked hard at finding this balance; I can do it, but it remains a varying amount of effort, each time I do it. I can, for example, be a good salesman in retail—but it requires so much effort, that I rarely enjoy doing it; so, I tend not to want to, and don't.

By the way, that's not a bad way to locate your own undeveloped attributes: locate the things that it takes a huge effort for you to maintain, or even attempt, and chances are, they are typical of your undeveloped self.

Given the ability to indulge my personal preferences, I could easily be a hermit, a monk in the woods, only speaking to other people every few days. Some mornings it's an effort to be civil, or even articulate. I require large amounts of silence and solitude, in order to maintain my mental equilibrium; and hour or so a day is best. I usually take my solitary time in the morning, and again right before bed. These are also often my most creative times.

I think it is patently true that there are good introvert poets, and bad introvert poets; and there are good extravert poets, and bad extravert poets. And, as in every other category, the bad outnumber the good.

The thing is: I would require convincing that the greatest poets were all introverts. While Rilke certainly was, Rumi and Whitman and Ginsberg were all likely extraverts; or at least, compensated introverts. A great writer who was a compensated extravert was Hemingway. Dylan Thomas was most likely an extravert; i think it's likely that so are many other poets who spend a great deal of time reciting, performing, or declaiming their poetry. Thomas Merton was a compensated introvert, I am convinced; it's how he balanced his cloistered hermit's life with a writer's engagement with world affairs and the history of religions. I'm sure we can all think of many more examples, given some thought.

Maybe the truth is that all the great poets are integrated human beings, compensated and internally balanced. So that whichever direction they come from, they have found the center point, where all opposites merge. Thus, they can speak their private hearts; they can relate their wild, wild nights; they can have moments of calm introspection in which they enact the solitary act of writing, even though their daily life is quite open and leonine. The balance of opposites, the integration of those undeveloped parts of the self: these are more likely to create a well-rounded person, and a creatively-enabled person.

Update: Just to be clear, since I'm getting mail about it: I don't really agree with most categorizations. I think one must deal with the whole person. We can list things that we are and do, but the sum is synergistically greater than the sum of all the parts.

For example, I am a writer, a musician, an artist, a son, a gay man who has also had successful love relationships with women, a brother, a lover, a mystic and visionary, an introvert, a person who does his best thinking on long cross-country drives or lying naked on the couch first thing in the morning, a chef, an avid and voarcious reader who retains most of what he reads, a skilled and geeky graphic designer, a computer jockey, an experienced outdoorsman and primitive wilderness camper, etc. etc. None of these are who I am, though. They are aspects of the Self, and expressions of the self, but not determinative of the self. The whole person is more than just the categories. I contain multitudes, I am myself.

So, use such categorizing systems as the Meyers-Briggs to learn more about yourself, but don't imagine that they tell you all there is to know about yourself. That work of self-exploration, self-study, and self-development is the opus, the work that Jungians describe. It involves going into those parts of ourselves we may not at first like or appreciate, what Jung called the Shadow, the undiscovered self.

To read more about Jung's ideas that started this whole typology-analysis system, and upon which Meyers-Briggs is based, I recommend starting with his book Psychological Types.

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

I don't think you're an INTP- I think you're an INFP, because I tend not to get along with INTP's- they tend to be the phony-intellectual types who don't follow through and internalize a lot of resentment when someone like me (J) can get things done. (Sort of what you were saying). I also don't like ISTJ's generally- they tend to be very cold and clueless about the big picture. If I had to guess, Dan would be an ENFJ- but he makes fun of me because he doesn't believe in categorizing himself into a 'type', which I can understand. I've always taken this test with a grain of salt, so I hope no INTP's write in and complain. I probably don't have to worry about an ISTJ because they won't be reading poetry blogs.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All very likely to be true. Each of the classic typologies certainly have typical weaknesses and typical strengths, with a lot of individual variation.

I think that these sorts of categories are useful tools for self-understanding, and they can give one clues to how to learn to compensate for one's basic weaknesses, and balance them with one's strengths. But I do agree that they're not necessarily useful in any other way. Still, my viewpoint—a quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding—may be an innately INFP thing to do, so I could just be arguing in circles!

6:44 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

The classic typologies give a pretty decent outline. I took the test for kicks (I'm not much for personal categorization) and I'm an iNTj, apparently. I constantly shift between intro- and extroverted and perceiving and judging, so it's more "bipolar" (not manic depressive!) that being "slightly expressed". I'm pretty much always Intuitive, though (88%), so that's accurate. I would agree that the typologies are good for self-evaluation and an objective (but general) analysis of oneself.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've added an update.

11:56 AM  

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