Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ramblings - 5

Written in response to a poet who argued that poets should write about their own experience, because it's difficult to write "authentically about an "imaginary existence -- and elaborated since:

In another sense, it's impossible to make poetry about anything OTHER than an imagined existence, and, when writing about one's own experience, it is all too easy to slip into NOT imagining it and, therefore, not producing poetry. Writing about something a bit outside one's immediate experience (something many poets have done successfully, I think) is a good way to become aware of what is , in fact, authentic in art.

This happens in art, in love, in all our experience: We think because we have something that we can stop creating it. A man works hard to woo a woman, creates (or co-creates) an atmosphere, a game with complex roles, a shared reality. They marry. Now he "has" the woman and "has" the marriage, so he stops creating them. He stops creating the woman as being someone special, for example. He has the idea that once he "has" the things he so successfully created, he can stop creating them.

This is a lie. Creation is a continual process. If you stop creating who you are, you'll cease to be that person. If you stop creating a relationship, beneath the surface inertia, it will crumble away, leaving only a veneer, until that, too, flakes apart.

Similarly, one's "own experience" is something one "has". So one feels it doesn't have to be created (that is, imagined). Hence much confessional poetry is a bore. What it means or meant to the poet (for example, prolonged agonies of despair in much adolescent poetry), to the reader is hectic mush.

A poet writes the word "I" (meaning him/herself) and assumes thereby that the reader has received all that "I" means to the poet.

I first became aware of the trap of familiarity in college, when I wrote a short story based on something that happened to me and members of my family. When I wrote it, I used the real names of the people. The story seemed fully realized to me, all the characters vivid and alive. Then I decided to change all the names. When I reread it with the names changed, much of the life seemed to have gone out of it, and I realized I had work to do.

(No wonder artists who read their work to family and friends, but not to strangers, are so easily persuaded they are geniuses: They read their work only to people who already know the people and experiences presented.)

Just the trick of changing the names gave me a sense of how my skimpily imagined events (like undercooked cake) might seem to a reader who didn't know the "real people" in the story. Because I knew them all too well, I couldn't imagine imagining them.

Writing about "imaginary" situations makes us more aware of what it means to make something live for others, since it usually takes more work just to make it live for ourselves.

Apart from the above arguments, I suspect that we have all experienced a great deal more than we know, and that much we call imaginary is simply from lifetimes we've forgotten -- but that's a more controversial point.

On a still more esoteric note, I question the notion that one can't be another person and know that other person's intimate thoughts and perceptions. Seems to me that if empathy has limits, they aren't known. I'm not saying that I can do this any time I want to. But I think it's possible and is a skill or art worth developing, and one way to develop it is to take on viewpoints other than "one's own". After all, every time you write a poem, you try to take the viewpoint of some reader you may never even have met! And if you're writing for the ages, you try to assume viewpoints of those not yet born. At least I think that's part of the process.

For one famous poet's views on the subject of BECOMING someone or something else, look up John Keats' famous letter in which he argued that this is the heart of poetry. He called this ability "negative capability" -- negative, because one is able to cease to be oneself in order to become (in his own example) the sparrow out the window pecking at gravel.

Personally, I am less inclined to look at this ability as a means to produce poetry, than to consider poetry one way to practice and develop this ability. What distinguishes poetry I like and poetry I don't care for is not so much the skill or the beauty or the intensity, but a quality I call "stickiness" or lack thereof. When I read a poem that uses great skill to stick me to a viewpoint, passion or attitude like a fly to fly paper, I may admire it for the skill with which it entraps -- as I admire a well-done TV commercial. But I far prefer a poem that frees me from traps, renders them less sticky, allows passions and attitudes and ideas to become roles in games governed by a spirit of play. In my own work, I like to make attitudes slippery, leave the reader with no traction, let him slip about until he discovers it's up to him/her to create his feelings and attitudes, that they are not created for us. Or rather, only parodies of our own creations can be created for us.

Here, put on this gooey tragic mask -- isn't it noble! Oh, it won't come off, what a shame. Sorry, I must have dripped some aesthetic super-glue on it. But how noble!

If it sticks when I don't want it to, it contains a lie. That's my touchstone.

So if it's difficult to write authentically about something outside one's immediate experience, it may be, none the less, important to try. Because nothing is stickier than one's own experience -- especially the painful experience. And nothing art can do is more useful than it's ability (rarely) to dissolve that stickiness and rehabilitate our ability to adopt viewpoints at will, for example, to choose to be angry because it's appropriate and will communicate to someone, without becoming mired down in anger or to choose to be enthusiastic and truly be so.

I'm not saying a poet should fake anything -- pretend to feelings he doesn't feel, for example. I'm saying he should be able to choose to feel them and then really feel them, and then choose not to feel them and be free of them. That seems to me ideal. And he should be able to be himself writing about his life or be able to be another and capture that other's life with comparable immediacy. And so should we all, whether or not we are poets.

The first time I loved a girl, I thought I was falling in love -- that is, falling into something that I hadn't put there myself. Later, after several intense and sometimes miserable experiences, I became aware of the extent to which I was creating what I fell into -- much as I create you, perfect reader, in order to address you (and re-create myself as letters on a computer screen). I think the moment this became completely real to me was when I touched the steering wheel of my car tenderly and suddenly felt love for that steering wheel.

So the next time someone was interested in me, and I wasn't terribly interested myself, but wanted to be (wanted to have someone, saw no good "reason" not to be in love with her), I thought, "I can do this. I can put the love there." And I did it. It really happened. I found, in myself, something (admiration is part of it) that I could create and flow toward this person, and soon I found myself as much in love as I've ever been.

But the relationship didn't last. We didn't share the same goals, the same tastes, etc. And her love for me was apparently aimed at someone quite different from me, someone she mistook me for. So after a few years, it fell apart. But I was still creating the love. Despite knowing I was doing it, I found it hard to stop, hard not to think of things I needed to say to her (when she was no longer there), for example.

But it took only a couple months to unstick myself from what I'd created. With my first love, it had taken more than a year. Meanwhile, I'd learned two lessons:

1. It's not enough just to be able to create love at will. One must also be able to uncreate it, at least as an attachment to a particular person or thing.

2. Since that can be difficult, it's best to direct one's love toward someone likely to return it and to participate in a life that is likely to expand it -- shared activities, shared goals, etc.

What does this have to do with poetry and choice of subject? Hmmm -- Oh, yeah -- it has to do with stickiness and non-stickiness -- by which I mean, not teflon, but freedom. Teflon suggests imperviousness, whereas, to play any game worth playing, one must be willing to experience and let others create effects on one. But that needn't make one give up the ability to move on to other games and start them as fresh-spirited as a child faces a fine spring day.

It has to do with becoming aware of our own abilities to create -- and to uncreate.

It has to do with the extent to which what we create is not only real, but is all that IS real to us.

It has to do with the extent that our own experience is something we create, so that the act of experiencing includes the act of creating something (imagining something) that does not exist (until we imagine it). Therefore, any poem is the creation of something one has not experienced and deals with created experience. So that when someone says it is best to deal with one's own experience as opposed to something imaginary, he is also saying that it is not necessary to imagine one's own experience. And that's a kind of irresponsibility. It leads one towards solidity and deadness, a being simultaneously stuck in our own experience and having nothing to do with it.

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