Saturday, April 04, 2009

How Can You Call Yourself A Poet?

When mired in the conflict between what is poetry and what isn't, when feeling attacked from many directions because of critical expectations rather than astute observation, when dismissed because no one understands your work or process, what are you to do? Are you to bow to the pressure that demands you explain and justify yourself? Are you to ignore everyone and just quietly keep doing your art, no matter what? Are you to try to find a middle-ground in which talking about your art doesn't keep you from actually making it? Or are there yet other ways to safely pass through these tides of distraction?

It is valid response is to ignore everyone, and keep doing what you do, regardless of notice, acclaim, rejection, or puzzlement. It has risks, and a price you might be willing to pay. Just stay your course and follow your inner voices, no matter what. Poet-painter Kenneth Patchen went his own way, never changing the center of his ideals or vision, struggling with it to make his art/poetry—and it is as difficult to separate his words from the images they appear with, as it is to regard WIlliam Blake's poetry without his printed illuminations. There are times when I feel as if Patchen repeats his message and style as though he were a one-trick magician; at other times he startles by overcoming even his own habitual tricks, and transcends his own limits. That's the risk of going off on your own, of course, or working in splendid isolation: your work might need a little more revision than you sometimes give it, so that it can more often rise above its own limits.

And there are those among the critical elite who would ask both Patchen and Blake, "How can you call yourself a poet? How can you call yourself an artist?" As is often the case, though, the poet doesn't call himself a poet, only other people do. A mistake both poets and critics regularly make is to believe that dialogue between their factions means anything, or has any substance. If the artist is often too inarticulate, the critics are too often egotistical.

As an artist, you never signed a contract demanding that you Explain Your Work—although many will demand that of you, without even knowing why the demand arises—and it's not your job to give lectures on your art, it's your job to keep making it. If you can lecture articulately about the concerns and instincts that arise, that your work sometimes encompasses, all the better—plain self-awareness is never misspent, unless it tries to cage one's own mysteries—but feeding the curiosity of the audience isn't in your job description. You're supposed to feed them your art, not your biography.

As a critic, your job is to help us understand, to explore, to respond, to discover, and to report back. This is best done when there's no personal agenda, no theoretical axes to grind, no fame of your own to engage. Critics get paid to write about creatives, not about themselves. In literary criticism, the quality most often lacking is humility. Grand pronouncements are given instead, sweeping overviews that might explain, but cannot contain. Who can contain Patchen or Blake within a simple critical assessment or single theoretical overview? No one; it cannot be done. Critics need to preserve their own first responses of high emotion to a work, be it awe or disgust, and not forget those first responses even if, in the end, they are not trustworthy. Critics are not bodiless intellects hovering above the created landscape, completely objective and emotionless—although I appreciate Salvador Dali's performance-art-like response to this assumption by always taking interviews yet rarely explaining a painting the same way twice. It doesn't hurt a critic to be reminded that they're also human, just as the artist is, and to admit that they've been wrong. A fixed opinion is a brick in the foundations of hell.

Creative ego can make you a target. If you wear "Poet" on your name-badge at a cocktail party at some hotel conference, don't be surprised when you're challenged. It may not even be your fault; but inevitably, some lout will dare you to prove it. If you demure, you're mocked, even though you haven't lost your centre. If you give in, you will risk always being kept onstage forever after, as some performing monkey, a creative light-switch to be turned on at whim. You will forever be expected to perform at some level of wit and danger as exemplified by Edmond Rostand's hero Cyrano de Bergerac, who tosses off exquisite verse as he duels a knave. Well, louts and knaves will oft surround you, Poet; it's a fact of life. You don't need to respond in kind; there are higher roads. And satire is often the best revenge, for the artist.

Is it better to keep silent, keep private, and do your creative soul-work in isolation, silence, and in secret? To avoid being a target of criticism? I don't know. I have mixed feelings. It's a balancing act, a dangerous one: If you fall too far of your centre of balance, you can tip into self-aggrandizing secret-keeping that makes you smug and proud in hiding, looking down on everyone else because you know something they don't. If you tip off-balance in another direction, you can end up being hungry for acclaim, hungry for recognition, hungry for attention of any kind in fact, and get lost among the cycles of fame and the forgotten.

Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. Few things kill the muse like celebrity or intoxicated celebrity. Writing remains a solitary act, not a public performance. (With rare exceptions, such as Harlan Ellison occasionally writing a story in a bookstore window.) Painting can be a public act, but imagining what one sees on the finished canvas before applying one drop of paint remains a private act. (Again, there are rare exceptions of painters who could actually improvise, such as Keith Haring.) Music performance is a public act, but music composition and improvisation are not required to be; it's optional. What matters is the moment: losing oneself in the music, whether or not an audience is there.

Artists do need to feed their art, by getting away from it, from time to time. Obsessive self-absorption is almost guaranteed to lead to social retardation. Although you may, as an artist, need to be completely absorbed in your art in order to do it—rightly so—if you sacrifice all human contact for the sake of your art, it's all too easy to fall off a cliff. Artists are people, and people need to sit and have a beer with friends, even if they're other artists. At least periodically, you need to go off and do something completely unrelated to your art, or have a deep and fulfilling conversation of an evening in which no one, including you, talks about your art, not even once. Come up for air, everyone. Take a deep breath, and realize the world goes on, and will continue to go on, no matter what we do.

Critics, if similarly obsessed, lose perspective. One on level, art is the most important thing in the Universe—it echoes the action of Creation. Simultaneously, art-making is ephemeral and momentary and culturally-bound. A wise critic is always conscious of history, of context, and skeptical of the fashion-driven cycles of marketing hype. It's hard to take seriously any critic or reviewer who parrots the opinions of others, even those he or she agrees with. If you don't arrive at your conclusions via your own roads of independent assessment, don't expect me to be impressed. Critics are even better than artists at bullshitting the rubes: rhetoric is their valid tool, even if it is not always wisely used. Again, humility can save the day.

And art-making does have temporal and cultural limits and contexts, even as great art transcends time and space to become universal and timeless. I don't make art the same way Leonardo da Vinci did, because we have different tools, and live in different times. (Though what he could have done with Photoshop!) I have recently begun making photos of male nudes in my photography studio; after a hiatus in which I had no access to studio settings and tools, now I've made my own. In that, Leonardo and I share common ground, in both subject matter and the making of tools. La plus ça change, la pllus meme chose. I have in my pool of options everything Leonardo did, but also what the Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists did. Leonardo's genius was in part that he was an inventor, a maker, one who was able to create a tool or technique that was needed even if it didn't exist. I make no such claim for my own abilities, although I have learned a great deal from studying Leonardo.

Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. That may be where the balance stands on point. To make no public proclamations of your own genius and originality—since most claims by artists are hubris, again with rare exceptions—but to just keep making your art, and let the verdict of history decide. Note, I say, to let history decide, and not the judgments of critics alive today who respond to your work, pro or con. Ignore that, if you ignore nothing else. Let your self-esteem be bound up only with how you feel a given work of art to be successful, on its own merit—not on what anyone else says about its merit. Measure your own work with ruthless honesty, though, and a skeptical, detached eye. You'll rarely experience loving your own favorite children as much as you do, for the same reasons.

Perhaps it's simple self-protection. Don't make a target of yourself, by calling yourself a Poet. Be circumspect. Be stealthy. Publish anonymously! Well, that's probably too radical for most poets: there are few who can detach so well from their ego-driven hunger for acclamation. (Note that I do not exclude myself from this pernicious tendency; although I do consciously strive to minimize it.) Your name may be your marketing, but don't let it be your branding, lest you begin to take yourself too seriously.

If your name is to be attached to your work, let it be done as the mark of a craftsman, a signature of quality workmanship, the mark of an artisan who seeks to be hired by other clients in future, to build their cathedrals as you have built the one you just keystoned and signed. Your mark is your your copyright, to be sure, and warranty against imitations of lesser quality.

Be an artisan rather than an Artist, be a poet rather than a Poet, be the stoneworker who can enter the cathedral, cock a gimlet eye, and say "I bloody did that!" with quiet pride, yet leave his mark hidden or entirely absent. We think of Leonardo now as a genius Artist; but he thought of himself as an artisan, a craftsman, an inventor; his impatience with the world was because the world was too slow, not because he believed himself to be too fast: he did everything he could, after all, to bring the world up to his own level, which is a sharing borne from loving the world as his home, not despising the world as its superior master.

Write your poetry, even if no one notices. But don't call yourself a Poet. You'll only be asked to prove it.

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Blogger Christopher Brandon said...

This has been most fruitful, as I'm well learned of most points you've limned, but have yet to wholly accept them.

The most refulgent is that of tending to your art without neglecting/sacrificing reality and the world. Simply for, such has been the chiefmost claw incessant in its attacks upon me. You see I've yet to reconcile that others exist beyond the dress of their flesh. I realize the myopia of it and thus I am crippled, lettered of this, I accept and rarely regret it hoping to endeavor one day a mending.

Thank you, for aiding my inching toward reality. I suppose in this case truth is rendered once an echo is learned.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I know I'm not saying much here that hasn't been said before—or ranted before, in some cases. As time goes by, though, come to realize just how true it really is, on a fundamental level.

At least you recognize the possibility of making art beyond solipsism, which puts you ahead of the pack. The truth of an echo is important, I agree.

Thanks very much for the comments.

10:19 PM  
Blogger mand said...

If i ever get a press release it will call me 'Wiltshire poet mmSeason', but i don't call myself one and i don't say i write poetry. I write poems. 'Poetry' can be words, or it can be dance, song, a smile, a cloud, a hound's leap - and very rarely anything i've written!

8:09 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's a nice distinction, and a nice way of describing the differences.

One criticism of the loud-mouthed "post-avant" poetry crowd is that they write Poetry, while the rest of us apparently just write poems. At least that's the view in their minds, and no matter that some of us write just as "out there" experimentally as they do, in terms of style. Well, I'm content to write a poem, and let it stand on its own.

With the Poetry crowd, they seem to demand that you read everything they've ever written, as a Single Body Of Work, before you dare critique them about it—in fact, a lot of their poetic ideology, appearing as criticism or manifestos, explicitly requires this of the reader.

My reply to that silliness is simple: If the sectional pieces won't stand on their own as viable artworks, how can you possibly expect the overall artwork to do so, too? Some of the sectional pieces do hold up—but not all of them, and some of those are very much one trick ponies. It's a lot to ask of readers to demand they read Everything, when at least in some cases, the sectional pieces don't entice one's interest deeply enough to want to do so.

So, the demand becomes at times a rather churlish way to deflect or reject criticism. It's a smug way of saying, "You still don't understand me!" when in fact, in the cases of certain one-trick ponies, they're quite transparent.

12:03 PM  
Blogger mand said...

I deal with the 'establishment' by not reading about them... ;0)

(Damn. Thought i'd rid myself of the ellipsis, but i just can't give it up.)

12:52 PM  
Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

Provacative post, on many levels. Self-analysis (its harm or benefits for artists) can be a very entertaining subject. Take David Lynch, who gave up psychoanalysis before he started, because of the possibility it might affect his creativity. 'I'd rather be sick!' Or check out the amusing interviews with John Ashbery available online. He would rather look befuddled or even feeble-minded than respond to the simplest questions about his poems. At one point he said (my paraphrase): 'Are my poems all anyone is interested in? I am a person of some interest beyond my poems.'

1:24 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

mand, yes, that is probably best. It's easy to get roped into the drama, until you step back and realize. Wait a minute, what's all this drama? This isn't radiology, it's poetry!


Thanks for the comments. David Lynch is a good example, The poet Rilke is another good example. He was once offered the chance to undergo psychotherapy for free, because he was a famous introspective poet; he thought about for awhile, then declined, saying, "Perhaps it would cure my devils, but I'm afraid it would offend my angels."

11:08 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The thing about most people who want us to prove that we’re poets is that they wouldn’t recognise a poet if he jumped out of a window and fell on top of them. I remember one girl wanted to see one of my poems and I showed her one which having read it her response was, “But you can’t drink a crutch,” and that was it. The metaphor went totally over her head and let’s face it, the most basic tool in most poet’s arsenal is the metaphor. Now, if the thing had rhymed I might just have got away with it.

I can sympathise with your suggestion that poets publish anonymously and indeed via the web many do. I can think of a couple of ladies who I know nothing about bar their user names which may or may not be their real names. Much as I maintain that knowing the life history of the person you’re reading I’ve found it hard to stay in that back room I keep going on about. And so I give in to peer pressure up to a point.

The thing about the badge is that some poet’s would wear that as a challenge as if being a poet means they’re better than everyone else and it’s a snotty-nosed attitude like that that gets us a bad name. I have a facility with words but I couldn’t change the spark plugs in a car to save my life. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses so I have no problem telling people I’m a poet. Not any more.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, those are all valid points.

I think your experience of how folks miss the metaphors underlines how literal-minded many readers are. I think you're right: if you present something bland and dull and obvious but put it in rhymed meter, they're likely to label it a "poem." I have to shake my head at the stupidity of the instance you relate here; then again, it's possibly that the schools just don't teach people to recognize poems anymore.

Unfortunately, lots of poets are also literal-minded, don't use metaphor much, and write little narratives or philosophical lyrics that might as well be prose. That's the flip side of the victory of prose over all other styles in our culture: people can't tell it's prose, or not, anymore.

Wearing the badge of Poet, yes, sometimes one does run into one of those folks who put it out as a challenge, often out of low self-esteem or other kinds of insecurity. I think poets who get to the point of knowing what they're good at, and having some self-confidence about, don't worry about any of this very much. I certainly don't mind it if people call me a poet. I may or not think of myself as a poet, and certainly not as A Poet, but what the reader thinks also matters more than what I call myself, in the long run.

2:50 PM  
Blogger mand said...

School certainly didn't teach me to, Art.

'Sometimes one does run into one of those folks who put it out as a challenge' - but that applies to many things, not only being a poet. Even being a mum, or happening to mention that i am one, has been known to trigger some people into defensive diatribe mode.

And Jim, if someone jumped out of a window and fell on top of ME i'm pretty sure i wouldn’t recognise them as either poet, as man or woman, or possibly even as human... depending which bit of me they fell on. ;0)

3:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It occurs to me to add that of course poetry is more than metaphor. But metaphor is central to its actions. Poetry can be indirect, and make an argument by analogy, the analogy functioning by parataxis or other forms of connected juxtapositions.

What poetry is not, it literal. It's almost always sideways, or oblique. That's in poetry's nature, I think, and one of the things that separates it from prose. Essay-style prose is often thought to be linear argument using direct examples; things become poetic when metaphor (which is NOT the same thing as simile, an all-too-common error made by beginner poets) comes in.

In poetry, the argument from analogy is not the same as in legal argument, where arguing by analogy is often central to present a legal case. In poetry, it's more common to say things like, "as grows the grass, so grows the heart." It's an analogy more properly than a metaphor, which might be "grass-growing heart" or some such.

One of the things that poetry does is invent new ways of describing things, or seeing them and relating them, and also about thinking about them. A lot of new ways of seeing the world, and thinking about it, have their origins in poetry. Law and philosophy are meant to be clear and precise and logical and linear; poetry is not.

4:01 PM  

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