Thursday, June 04, 2009

Flipping Sides

Conjuring what anything means, taking a long time to do it, conflicted from all sides, under the microscope.

That's what it can feel like, if you find yourself in the midst of some controversy or other: a discussion with teeth. A lot of people talk past each other without ever listening or thinking about what they've heard. You'd think that poets would be better at listening, since a great deal of great poetry is all about reporting what one has heard, experienced, envisioned, enacted; in fact, however, other than actors, few creatives like to hear themselves talk more than poets; and listening tends to be optional.

I find this unsatisfying. I prefer dialogue. I prefer to hear what others say, and to respond to that. Many times I've encountered an utter lack of reciprocity along these lines. So I might spend time to respond to someone's thoughts with care; only to be dismissed offhand merely because one has disagreed. One occasionally feels one has wasted one's time. On the other hand, something I learned doing years of volunteer programming and broadcasting on FM community radio: someone is always listening; although they might not ever let you know. So, one often feels one is shouting into a well, ignored, unforgiven, exiled, set over to the sidelines, compartmentalized, categorized as anathema, and silenced not by action but by inaction. I often feel that way. But it's not my job to do anything about it. So I'll tell the truth of my thinking-as-linking just as I see fit, and go on just as long as I essay to, and not care too deeply about the deep silences between the infinite stars.

Do most people realize how often those who shiver towards suicidal tendencies do so merely because they feel alienated, isolated, cut off, unable to get through that glass barrier of non-communication? Because they feel ignored rather than listened to? Probably no more often than most people realize that what motivates many suicides is exhaustion: they just want the suffering to cease. It's not about running away; it's about being unable to bear the pain any longer. A sense of relief. Those who have not such darker selves rarely comprehend such feelings.

I was once involved in a discussion asking: are the best poets introverts? I don't think so. I may have once toyed with the idea as a distinct possibility; but in truth quality of writing has almost no biographical linkages. If there were a magic formula to achieve greatness as an artist, it would have long since been quantified, marketed, and absolutely everyone would be an artistic genius whenever they exerted themselves. Since this is obviously not the case, since most art always has been bad art, there must not be any magic formula.

I think there have been great introverted poets—Rilke, Dickinson, Cavafy, Hopkins, Keats—but there have also been great extravert poets: Neruda. Ginsberg, Whitman, Frost, Sappho (probably), Lorca, Elytis, Ferlenghetti. Is it fair, to so categorize poets by temperament? Probably not; in thinking about poetry, what makes it work, what makes your own liminal experiences with poems happen, it's impossible to avoid some categorizing. As long as one doesn't reify proposed, tentative associations into reified taxonomies, there's no real harm.

I might personally be more drawn to introverted poets, since I am by nature introverted, but never exclusively. One looks to what remains undeveloped in oneself at least as often as one looks for a mirror for observers. I am always about finding the balance: the taoist intermix of light and dark, the shaman's work of having a foot planted firmly in both worlds, straddling the borders. I never forget that Jung spoke of the real work of developing the self, what he called the opus, is of necessity the work of developing one's undeveloped parts and integrating them with one's naturally-developed parts, into a dynamic whole, a synergistic self that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I am by nature a shy introvert. if I do nothing to break out of it, it's my default state. Following Jung's terminology again, since I don't have better language to describe any of this, I am a compensated introvert. That is, I am able to do public speaking, public performance; I am able to joke and mingle and socialize with no discernible wallflower awkwardness. I am able to communicate with people, and put them at their ease. I can be comfortable even in large crowds of strangers (as long as I hold my center, like a boulder in a stream). I can be tactful and diplomatic, whenever necessary. But where an extravert feeds off interaction and attention, and becomes energized by social engagement with others, I become tired, and must go off and be solitary for awhile, to clear my mind. I can work retail; I have in fact; but it takes a lot out of me, and must be balanced by large amounts of solitary downtime. My creative work suffers if all my downtime is used up to recover from situations that I find overstimulating. More than once, people who know no better have advised to keep a regular job, and do my creative work at night, after regular business hours—a common if ignorant formulation that for some creatives simply does not work, because we arrive home too exhausted to be capable of putting out creative work. One needs all evening just to recover from the overstimulating day job. If one tries to be creative at night, regardless, one soon encounters the limits of art-making: it comes out of one's sanity, or eventually one's cell tissue: crazy or sick might then become enforced downtimes, after you completely collapse into a quivering puddle of goo.

Flipping sides in the argument, however, one notes that there is something inward about all the arts involving writing: a work one does mostly in solitude and silence. Writers work alone; even most collaborators pass material back and forth, rather than riff simultaneously the way a jazz combo does. Writing is a solitary act. Even if you go to a local café to write, you rarely find café writers eagerly thirsting to engage socially with the next person who walks by their table.

So there may be some truth to the idea that such a solitary craft as writing might attract people who are comfortable working alone; might even prefer to work in solitude.

To flip sides in the argument yet again, however, one also notices that (I'm typing this with my eyes closed, after decades of learning where the keys are, and making almost no typos) a work of writing is never finished until the audience reads it. Even the most private of writers have always had one or two readers, other than themselves. Not all writing needs a large, popular audience—nor should it—but all writing does need at least one other reader. It is when the other reader breathes it in that a piece of writing comes alive.

Flipping again, to be authentic one must write for oneself as one's principal or only audience, first and foremost. One must write, that solitary act, as though no one else existed. After the work is done, other readers enter in. Both of these truths coexist; neither can stand in isolation.

So we come to the truth, having flipped sides numerous times: Both things are always true. A writer must be both an introvert and an extravert; one will be the more natural, dominant mode, depending on the person, but both are essential. A balance must ever be negotiated. To be whole, you have to be both introvert and extravert: the whole person is a blend of both, whichever comes more naturally.

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Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Poets good at listening? Whatever gave you that idea..?

7:16 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, it was just a theory. Perhaps a deluded expectation . . . . ah well.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

What would we be without our delusions..?

4:22 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I dunno.

Maybe it's like Jim Murdoch says, the truth about lies is that we need them, even the little ones. It's hard to argue with that on a practical level, because tact, diplomacy, and empathy are some of the social glue that holds society together. But even though that's practical, and makes people get along with each other—what could be worse than total honesty all the time about everything? there would be no civility left whatsoever—and even though civility itself can be a value based in compassion and empathy, there's a point where the practical and the ideal need to diverge. I've spent a great deal of time developing in myself the capacity to be as honest as I can be, all the time, and still be tactful: in other words, sometimes empathy keeps my mouth shut, where honesty might open it. I can be very blunt; but hopefully, thoughtfully blunt, not merely reactive. I usually take a moment to consider the consequences of honesty in action.

About listening: It seems to me that poets, like other artists, ought to be great listeners, because they need to be great observers in general, of life and its weave. Poets can be, and certainly some great poets have been, extremely good listeners: they take in everything without judgment, and weave it into their work. This is the observational/reporting aspect of being an artist receptive to experience. Receptivity is key to art. It's not all loud self-expression, except of course to an art's more egoistic practitioners. And where's the line to be drawn between extraverted self-assertion and egoistic confessionalist display? I think there is a line, although it can move a bit; it depends some on context, and some on execution, of course.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I asked my wife, Art, "Is there any aspect of my life in which you would regard me as an extrovert?" She thought about it and said, "Only on your blog when you're talking about your own poetry." I said to her that's only because I don't have to interact with a real person. "Okay," she admitted, "In that respect you're never an extrovert."

I wouldn't even say I'm a good listener. I listen out for things - that's different - but mostly stuff just washes over me until my interest is piqued. The same goes for my powers of observation, in fact we joke about it all the time. I lived in my first flat in Glasgow for about three years before Carrie pointed out I had giant butterflies on my curtains. "Curtains? I have curtains?"

4:46 PM  

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