Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hard Work Is Not a Guarantee of Quality

It's one of the biggest, dumbest lies out there. It's in the so-called Protestant work ethic, which just says, if you keep working hard, you'll get everything you want. (And if you don't get it, you didn't work hard enough, or there's something wrong with you.) It's a lie that perpetuates a culture of workaholics who have lost the ability to play like children: openly, and without a goal beyond the mere sustenance of play. And you can't enter the Kingdom, if you can't get into the mind of a little child. So, don't be so Hardcore Adult. It's an illusion.

So. With regards to making art, writing poems, doing music: where does that leave us? It leaves us as needing to restore ourselves to play, as Johan Huizinga reminds us in his masterpiece of philosophy, Homo Ludens.

And it also brings us to the brink of realizing that far too many poets take themselves, and their poetry, way too seriously.

While it might be true that many poets work very hard on the craft and effects in their poems—on what they bring to the poem, what they get out of it, how much they practice the craft of poetry—when you read the actual end result, sometimes you have to wonder: Was it all worth it? If you worked that hard on a poem, why does the poem still suck?

Hard work is not a guarantee of success, or of quality.

This is true in engineering as well as in poetry. Ask any engineer who works in failure analysis about the joys of forensic engineering. As Henry Petroski titles his classic book on failure analysis, To Engineer Is Human. Hard work can often lead to unintended consequences, failure, and destruction—even when you do everything right.

There is a point of elegance in design that experienced engineers (and designers) will sometimes tell you about, where things just seem to fall into place, effortlessly, and all the loose ends tie themselves together. It's remarkable when it happens, and it doesn't happen on every project. Some projects you fight with every nut and bolt, just trying to get it to work; others, all the rivets just snap in place as if they had been destined to be there since the beginning of the Universe. This is the point of synergy, and hard work won't always get you there, as there are numerous other factors involved.

Conversely, no amount of striving can fix a bad design. The "kludge factor" in engineering is the layering of adjustments and repairs over the framework of an unsound design, in order to get it to work. Unfortunately, this is the way a lot of software is also developed: layers of kludge added onto an clumsy existing framework.

For many years, Microsoft's Windows operating system was exactly this sort of kludge programming; in the last couple of versions, they've re-written the code from the ground up, as they should have done from the beginning, and now Windows is actually a halfway-decent operating system. The problem is, they let the kludge factor go on too long, before returning to sources and starting over; that is what led, in part, to the very iffy reputation Windows has had for reliability and security in computing circles, which they are still struggling to get past.

I could work for hours on a poem, but if I can't get it to synergize, it just lies there lifelessly. Then, someone coming along who reads it, who sees only the poem at hand, and not the effort I put it, might dismiss it as a bad poem, even a lazy poem. And they might be correct.

So, what do you do with a poem that you have sweated blood over, that just isn't coming together, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you keep working at it? Do you abandon it, and start over, with a new poem? Do you try again, re-writing it from the beginning, trying to nail the topic or experience once and for all? What do you do when you realize you've hit a wall of diminishing returns on a poem? Do you keep striving at it, keep rewriting, keep spending hours on it? If you can't get it by take 4, what makes you think you'll get it by take 47?

Continuing to spend a lot of effort on revision is indeed a very workmanlike, craftsman's way of operating; and it's an honorable approach to craft. But is the poem worth it?

Poems are not bridges, poems are very slight things: no lives depend upon their performance. The world will not end if you abandon your strenuous efforts, and try your hand at a different poem. As the saying goes, A poem is never finished, just abandoned. There is no shame in abandoning a poem.

What one has to look at, in oneself, is the level of obsession one is bringing to one's craft. The argument can be made, and has often been made, that an obsessive willingness to work hard until one gets it right, is the force that created our modern technical culture. There's some truth in that, as far as it goes—which is not very far. All hail the glorious work ethic, which teaches us to be obsessive, even in the face of diminishing returns! The problem with obsession is that it is so rarely directed at constructive projects, in constructive ways.

Again, poems are not bridges. Poems are intangible, if not quite as intangible as music. Abandoning a bridge's construction before it is completed is a real problem, that's going to affect a lot of peoples' lives. Abandoning a poem, especially if it's just not working, might affect the poet, but not too many others. A bridge, half-built, serves no-one. A poem, half-finished, harms no-one.

I often abandon poems that just aren't working. Sometimes I set them aside, and come back to them years later, and see exactly how to re-set the framework, and then it all works, and what I sweated over years ago is completed in mere minutes. (Sometimes things have to percolate a lot longer in the unconscious than the impatient ego would like them to.) Sometimes I immediately try writing a fresh poem, in a totally different style, with a totally different approach, to capture the same moment/experience from a different angle or perspective; and sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. My notebooks are littered with false starts before a completed poem emerges. Sometimes I simply recognize that I am not able to write about something, right now, just this moment, and set aside the attempt until it seems ready, later on. Sometimes, after percolating in the unconscious for awhile, it emerges fully-formed, in one draft.

What I don't do is obsess about a poem. I have more important things in life to obsess about, than poems. I even have bigger things in the rest of my creative life to obsess about, like music and photography, than about poems.

Of course, none of what I say here may apply to anyone but myself. But maybe it will.

The question to ask yourself is: are you working too hard to kludge a poem, when there's no hope it will ever work right? In other words: are you obsessing too much about the wrong things, instead of the things were obsessing about them is actually helpful, and useful?

Shift the frame, and sometimes the picture falls into place.

Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. —Rumi

The question may be asked: What do you do if everything works in a poem, except that one crucial part? If you can't get it right, if you can't omit it because of its importance, if you don't want to change what else is in the poem, if you're certain that it's the best approach towards that point, what do you do? And how do you know what new angle to see the poem from? Are there any rules?

No, no "rules." Rules aren't the way this poetry game works. The poem is its own world, its own law. You have to follow the poem's laws, not try to impose your own.

Ezra Pound's rewriting process for a famous short, haiku-like Imagist poem, In a Station at the Metro, serves a good example:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a 'metro' train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying, and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that—a 'pattern,' or hardly a pattern, if by 'pattern' you mean something with a 'repeat' in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colour, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were like a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I were a painter, or if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of 'non-representative' painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. . . . The 'one image poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we called work 'of second intensity.' Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokka-like sentence. I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward a subjective.

—Ezra Pound, quoted in A Guide to Ezra Pound's Personae (1926). K. K. Ruthven (1969).

Look how much Pound threw away, how many versions he abandoned, before the final version came to him, at its own time, in its right shape and form. For this poem, Pound followed where the poem wanted to go. He even waited for it.

Sometimes you just have to follow the image, and go where it wants to go, and don't try to force the pen to where you think it wants to go. I guess the point is: if you try to force the poem into a shape or meaning, it may resist you, if it isn't meant to take that shape or meaning. You can over-think it to death; in fact, for many poets, who get hung up some linguistic or craft aspect of poetry, that's fairly common. It's easy to get lost in the words themselves, like the trees instead of the forest, and forget that the words are the tools being used to describe an experience, an image, a revelation, a silly moment, or all of the above.

The "crucial" part may in fact not be that crucial. Or you may be forcing a didactic meaning, and the poem wants to be more ambiguous, which is why the crucial part isn't coming into order. Sometimes what happens is something that with think is crucial isn't. Sometimes in fact we're trying to force two poems together, and make them cohere when the don't. The thing to do at those times, is let the fragments separate, and look at them individually, and see if they want to be two separate poems.

There comes a point when you have to abandon your ideas, your needs, and your craft, and trust the poem to go where it wants to go. The trick is to back off from your own ideas of what to do with the poem, and let the poem whisper to you its own ideas of what it wants to do. You might be surprised, but if you trust the poem, you might be able to follow it to an even better conclusion than you imagined.

What I'm doing here (and it's going to piss off some people) is suggesting that we, as the poets, don't always have a lock on our intentions for a poem. If we don't listen to our intuitions as much as our rationales, and if we don't learn to trust the process, as Pound trusted his own process and intuitions about his Metro poem, we cannot get it right. It will elude us.

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