The uses of freedom, part 2: the amateur
[In part 1 of this series I stated as my null hypothesis the idea that “one should think and read, but never write.” Each post in this series will look at an activity engagement in which is incompatible with the null hypothesis, and at the various ways in which that activity can be justified.]
One should never write–that is, of course, overly dramatic. No one actually thinks that. Well, maybe some people, but not me; I love writing, even knowing I’m not particularly good.
Yet we smirk when an otherwise boring person writes short stories and daydreams of being published, as does Skylar White on Breaking Bad. What can she of all people have to say that has not been said before? Her soul is so small. Her stories, one feels certain, are terrible. And when I hear that someone I know writes poetry; or when I reflect on the fact that I do? I do not despise him (or myself), but I still find myself wondering, what, exactly, do we think we’re trying to accomplish?
Yes, we’re all amateurs, and being an amateur poet means, roughly, not seeming to stake much on the quality of your poems. Even if you stake nothing external on your poems, however, you stake a great deal on them internally. We’re all Romantics today, after all; we write to Express ourselves. And we’re all Modernists, too; we write to create an Artifact. But this means that we also write to prove the caliber of our Soul, and to submit our Individual Talent to the court of Tradition; both of which require that we undergo the test of the public, and both of which set the bar so high that we are guaranteed to fail; we will not be the next Wordsworth, the next Eliot, and what else is even worthwhile? The amateur poet is, by definition almost, not a genius.
Someone once said, roughly, “Everyone should write poems. Not everyone should publish them.” Who was this? Auden? Whoever it is, he’s drowned out by the myriad of persons who repeat only the first half of maxim, and so a Google search cannot unearth his identity. It’s a nice thought; writing poetry is good exercise for the soul, and if people could just get over their desire to have their poetry point to themselves, be a part of themselves, precious and fragile, then we could have everyone better themselves through poetry but not have to deal with all the bad poetry that would result. There seems to me something solipsistic, though, about not showing your poems to anyone, and something prideful, not humble. Hence my appending a poem I wrote to the bottom of this post.
I can believe that Auden said this, but not Wordsworth or Eliot, because Auden often talked about poetry as a craft, and this logic works so well for other crafts: everyone should cook, but not everyone should be paid to do so. Everyone should know how to use a saw, but not everyone should be a carpenter. Of course, even amateur cooks give their food to their friends, and amateur carpenters have others sit on the furniture they repair. So, everyone should write poems, but only poets should show them to everyone else. Amateur poets are like amateur cooks: they write for their family and friends.
This line of thought suggests a nostalgia for Renaissance and Early Modern society: writing poetry was something educated people did to prove their intelligence, a kind of social game. Good poetry gains social cred, and as something enjoyable to read it is passed from friend to friend-of-a-friend and acquires a larger audience. This still happens today, to a certain extent; consider how poetry and short story writing is shared socially, especially around universities and online, and how people participate in other creative activities, e.g. being in a band with one’s friends.
But today we don’t see it as a social game, for that would be inauthentic. Inauthenticity is bad, in the Romantic and Modernist paradigms we inhabit even as we limit ourselves to a narrow social circle. I cannot see how, given those paradigms, the limitation is not itself inauthentic. Writing makes a universal claim, does it not? (And painting, and music…)
Whether we want to reject Romanticism and Modernism or not, writing isn’t at all like cooking or carpentry. When you cook at home, you’re not being compared to every cook who ever lived; you’re being compared to other meals the guests have had cooked for them, whether at home or in the restaurants that are in their price range. The guests aren’t thinking “well this isn’t terrible but I could be having filet mignon right now.” With poetry, though, I really could be reading Shakespeare right now, not this friend’s poem. So why would I read his poem? Friendship, perhaps; perhaps a desire to compare myself to him. But will the comparison of us as poets reveal anything other than the equation between amateur and failure?
On the Ship of Theseus and the Parthenon in Athens
Plutarch writes, in his life of Theseus,
That the hero set out from the port of Athens
With seven young men and seven maidens
On board. He returned safe and ambitious
And, for forgetting to lower the sable,
Was made king. Then, refusing to be shamed
By his patricidal sails, he proclaimed
That the city would preserve this vessel.
They did try their hands at preservation,
Though as time slowly did its work, each
Old timber was replaced in turn, which
Raises certain questions. Then it fell on
One Demetrius Phalereus
To dispose of it, how, was left unsaid.
So Plutarch says. I hope that what I read
Has not been altered past haecceitas.
Another time, two thousand years later,
A preservation effort was required
In the city of Athens, perhaps inspired
By its former king. There was a crater
Where the Parthenon once stood. Gunpowder
Was the culprit: the Turks had stored it there,
And the Venetians bombed it, unaware
That later archaeologists would glower.
It took some time before they did the work,
But when I went to the Acropolis
It stood there as if nothing were amiss;
I only later learned, and gave a smirk,
To think that, though its pieces were the same,
save for certain small interpolations,
It is not original, and Athens
Lied to me, to call it by the name