Monday, May 28, 2007


Between two moments, bliss is ripe. —William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.  —May Sarton

Some writers are best appreciated when you have had some life-experience under your belt. Some writers may speak to you when you're young, and speak to you even more in later years. I scoffed at this idea, when I was young, as most young people do, I suppose; but now, moving towards that point in life where one realizes that the end of life is nearer then the beginning, I feel more of the truth of it. I simply was not able to appreciate some things, then, that I do now.

May Sarton is a writer who, I believe, the reader needs to be mature enough to appreciate and understand; I first read her journals and poems in my 20s, and didn’t get that much out of the reading; but after I passed the age of 40, I re-read her and received a tremendous range of insights out of her combined writings. Everything clicked, and I became completely absorbed. I think that Sarton may be one of those writers who you can't really appreciate till you're 40 or so. I mean, of course you can appreciate her at any age; but much more so, once you have some more years on you. Like a fine wine, she gets better as a writer, as you age.

Perhaps the same is true for writing poetry. This is not to say that younger poets shouldn't write. But they shouldn't be astonished to learn that what they have written as young poets is shallow, lacks depth and resonance, and may in fact be very much like what a lot of other young poets have written. Ignorance is a commonplace problem, and leads to a lot of repetition; I can't tell you how many times I've seen teenage poets write exactly the same angst-written poems, as though they were the very first to do so, all unaware that so many others had already written the exact same poem. Truly, most young poets don't read enough. One tries to be gentle, when pointing out this crushing sameness. But ignorance is cured by experience. Ignorance in the young is forgiveable, because time will remedy it. Willful ignorance at any age is, on the other hand, inexcusable. You can grow into your best work, if you give yourself time, and don't expect your best work to happen when you're still in your 20s or 30s. One wonders if poets are capable of producing a truly great poem before they're 40. Certainly there are exceptions, but perhaps this is one of those few times where the exceptions do prove the rule. So, younger poets should write, and write a lot, and read a lot more than they write, and write some more—and not expect the world to come worship at their feet as though they were geniuses.

Poets who become too successful too young often become lazy, and rest on their laurels, and never finish fully developing their talent; and that's a shame, and a loss. Poets who peak too young often end up repeating themselves, rather than continuing to grow, broadening their range of interests and styles: and broadening the scope of their talent. The Yale Younger Poets series is a long list of names of published poets who produced one or two fine and original books, early on, then endlessly repeated themselves therafter. Most of those names never produced a late work of genius. What happened to these poets? Perhaps they got praised too much, too young, and came to believe what people were saying about them, and got stuck in trying to reproduce their early successes. Nothing is more dangerous to creativity than the desire to repeat success. It means you start caring too much about the outcome, and neglecting the process. Maintaining a healthy process, and ignoring the outcome, serves the creative writer much better, in the long run.

You grow into your potential, not overnight, but gradually. It takes time to grow an artist. Some plants flower early, many others flower late. Some wait a long time to flower, and when they do, their fruits astound and magnify.

At the same time, the older poet needs to maintain a younger, questing attitude towards life, and not ossify into solidified habits. Beginner's mind is far more flexible than expert's mind, and far more open to possibility. I look at Sarton again, and her youthful spirit, even in old age, kept her looking at the world with fresh eyes, rather than getting stuck in a mindset that thought it had all the answers. Perhaps that's the other thing that went wrong with so many of the Yale Younger Poets: they came to believe, possibly because critics told them so, that they already done their best work, and could afford to coast thereafter; or, perhaps, that they were already brilliant, and didn't need to keep exploring the edges of their talents and crafts. They stopped growing because they thought they didn't have to anymore. But Sarton, dedicated and observant gardener that she was, noticed what all gardeners noticed: plants never stop growing; neither should poets.

You grow into your potential, not overnight, but gradually. But you never stop growing, until you're dead.

Of course, this is a synchronicity of experience, or emotional maturity, rather than of calendrical time. It isn't necessarily a product of middle age. We think of those exceptional poets who wrote mature work at a young age. It's what comes after, though, that matters: what you do next. The paradox of experience, or its synchronicity, is that many of the older, more enlightened souls you will meet in your travels, maintain spirits that are very young-at-heart. Similarly, younger souls even in older bodies can be quite stuck on themselves, and humourless.

The convergence of beginner's mind and elder's experience may indeed be that cusp in which art happens.

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Blogger Joseph Duemer said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, trying to figure out how to move out of the sort of work I began learning in my teens & "perfected" in my 40s. I'll be 56 this week & can't quite get over the bridge yet. Enjoyed reading this meditation.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments.

It's interesting to think about, indeed. When you talk about the sort of work you learned in your teens, that makes me curious as to its nature. That's me, naturallly curious to a dangerous degree.

Thanks again, and best wishes.

12:44 AM  
Blogger gregra&gar said...

As a father was admonishing his son with the old, "When I was your age …," speech, the lad interrupted him with, "You were never my age!"

This seems to be a switch on your theme of at which end of life wisdom lies. At 68 I am still amused and amazed at my naiveté and delight at discovering those things others have known from childhood. The identical poems written by your young poets speaks as more to the undifferentiated contact they have with their common humanity, which age can only make more unique as experience diverges, than it does about any ignorance or lack of wisdom you attribute to them.

I could not agree more about the willfully ignorant, but then I have never really called any other kind of not knowing ignorance. Even the dictionary seems to get it confused by defining, ignore, as a purposeful act while, ignorance, seems more as something acquired as a passive victim of life's vicissitudes. Mysterious concepts, ignorance and wisdom. Age is just as guilty of producing the closed minded monolith committed to conclusions made when young, hardened in defense against a life time of contrary experience, and a bitter end as bringing wisdom.

I enjoy your blog and have linked to it if I may.

1:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the link, and for the comments.

But think about it this way: what teenager has a real understanding of mortality? Those who do are few and far between in a culture that is generally affluent. And kids who do have a real understanding of mortality came about their knowledge in ways that would probably make any good parent cringe. Children of war and famine and abuse, when you mix them in with "normal" kids, universally act older and more mature. I am neither praising nor condemning innocence by pointing this out; what I am doing is saying that experience does change you as a person and as a writer.

So from most younger poets who write about death you get a lot of angsty, Goth, gorey stuff. It's Hollywood faux-reality. It's theoretical. The teenagers I know who have met death up front at an early age don't talk about it much: it's often beyond whatever words their experience has as yet given them. You can see it in their eyes, but they might not ever write a poem about it.

Or you could look at it this way: I just got home from the hospital, where my Dad is very ill, possibly dying. This is his third major illness in four years, and for the last year I have been his principle caregiver. I've dealt with his mortality every single day, and that's also made me think about my own. The poems I've written in the past year, that reflect on mortality, are more visceral, more grounded in truth, and better writing than the poems I wrote about death 25 years ago, which were much more abstract.

No matter what calendar age you are, there are some experiences you can't really write about convincingly until you've been through them yourself, or seen someone you care about go through them. Such writing requires empathy and selflessness, and while those attributes are not bound to calendar age, they ARE bound to personal experience, and imagination. And the imagination can be one tool of empathy, for people who are emotionally mature: they really do understand, by imagining themselves in your shoes.

2:20 PM  

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