There is a common presumption that there is some secret behind the creation of a work of art that, once explained by an academic or curatorial expert, or by the artist in an interview, will be a compelling revelation of the work’s originality.
A new exhibition at a museum directs us to read about its historical context before we can look at a painting and then each major work is preceded by a technical and symbolic analysis.
At a literary festival, a poet is seen being interviewed in front of an audience greater than which attends his reading. Indeed, the interview has become a vital form of communication; it appeals to the human fascination with gossip. Even television news cannot present a story it considers important without interviewing a presumed expert to answer questions concerning its origins and consequences.
Poets being interviewed in magazines — and in university classrooms when they were invited to appear before aspiring generations of creative writers — became a common phenomenon in the 20th century, and anthologies with collections of those interviews were used as textbooks.
Some superior poets, such as Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden, make do with polite generalisations, but the lesser ones, such as Allen Ginsberg and Erica Jong, are so self-obsessed and eager to be known as among the great that, for them, an interview is an opportunity to show off their familiarity with the formal subtleties practised by poets during composition, by expressing their ideas in phrases that sound profound to the general reader, but which to the knowledgeable is plain jargon.
The technological revolution at the end of the 20th century eliminated the audience for interviews with poets.
What Ginsberg says in an interview about “Trapping the archangel of my soul” might suggest that, when writing, he reaches for a language that has a mystical depth. However, all he’s saying is that he puts down whatever pops up in his brain without any deliberation and rarely revises the statement which, for him, is already an accomplished poem.
For Ginsberg, any formal constraint, or attempt to “make it new” in the revolutionary Poundian sense, is to inhibit the poet’s freedom to say whatever comes to his mind. Ignorance is thus deemed a virtue.
It takes a poet of Auden’s proven quality to get to the point in an interview instead of using it as an occasion to talk about his own presumed genius. When asked what advice he would give younger poets, Auden says that he has none, except that they should read widely.
And when asked if he thinks a poet ought to be engaged in socio-political issues, there is no denying the truth of his answer, that “poetry can do nothing about it.” He adds, “I do not think that writing poems will change anything.”
Stanley Kunitz, another fine poet, would agree with that, for he says: “By its nature poetry is hostile to opinions.” For him, writing a poem is like playing a game with language. The creative urge is awakened within the unconscious mind when the poet has been reading widely and quite accidentally chances upon an especially evocative poem — which has been written long ago or recently by a contemporary, is in his own or in a foreign language, or a translation — and then, stimulated and directed by this poem’s permeating his imagination, to make him discover his own new poem blossoming in his mind. The absolute importance of reading cannot be stressed enough.
For too many American poets, reading widely amounts to little more than knowing some frequently anthologised poems by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Forgotten is the lesson of history that, for English poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to T.S. Eliot — indeed, all the way to the present — the best poets have discovered the source of their originality on reading the poets of other European languages as well as deeply their own.
The emergence of creative writing courses at universities has turned art that engaged a dedicated few to a product turned out by an assembly line guided by robotic professors.
One of the few American poets who learned his art from reading widely among European poets was John Ashbery who, when residing in Paris and working as an art critic, immersed himself into all that was currently new.
Reading him while knowing the European, and particularly the French, context in which he wrote his earlier work gives one a deeper understanding of his poems — as incidentally it does when one reads him after hearing him talking about his interest in the music of his contemporaries.
Ashbery was one of the central figures in New York in the 1960s onward who enriched the arts, and it should be noted that among the most notable among them were the poets Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop (who had spent 10 years in Brazil), and such revolutionaries in their own arts as the composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham, who all discovered the sources of their work unconstrained by national boundaries.
The coming of the technological revolution at the end of the 20th century eliminated the audience for interviews with poets. The smartphone became the dominant communication device on which anyone could, every morning, send pictures of their children and grandchildren to their extended family scattered all over the world. They could send their poems, or recordings of musical compositions, or pictures of their paintings to any number of friends.
Soon came cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) which — with belief systems that subscribed to fictions — welcomed anyone as an artist. Rejections from publishers or galleries or concert halls became an irrelevance. You could put your poem on social media a moment after you’d written it, and perhaps it would be the one to go viral next and you’d become famous like the 12-year old girl whose cute little poem about a kitten had gone viral.
The columnist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, a literary critic and fiction author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 3rd, 2022