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The uses of freedom, part 2: the amateur

July 24, 2012

[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

Of Virgin.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 1:34 am

    Weighing reading a friend’s poem versus reading Shakespeare as though it’s a matter of opportunity cost will a.) always see Shakespeare win, and b.) ignores that maybe whoever is sharing the poem needs help fixing it, or needs another critical eye. Perhaps asking a friend to read one’s own poem is not a gesture saying, “Look what I’ve accomplished,” so much as it’s asking, “Does this make sense?”

    Justifying why anyone should write is difficult. Becoming a professional doesn’t mean one becomes good. And being good doesn’t mean one is great. As for the greats, even they have some crappy poems in their books. And yet, reaching “the bar” is something dreamt after. Why? And could the answer for why be sufficient enough to encourage amateur writing? I think not, not when approached this way. If the purpose of writing is to answer the masters in a way that is comparable with their talent, then only a handful of people should ever write. And yet, what the great poets and storytellers are able to say and struggle with are, as you’ve said, universal problems, and so are important to us. So, if it’s not appropriate for an amateur poet to try to answer Tradition because his Individual Talent is unworthy of even attempting, but the masters either reach down to or call up an audience with important questions, what becomes of amateur writers? I want to find a way to justify the reason for writing without reverting to the logic behind why anyone pursues a hobby enthusiastically or seriously. That’s so say, I’d like a stronger argument for why writing should be encouraged other than the reasoning behind statements like “I won’t be a professional soccer player, but I want to be as good as I can be.” There must be something greater at stake, something greater than merely finding writing interesting, or else it’d be easy to convince oneself never to do it.

    Maybe we can compare this worry with a discipline there’s less worry over. We don’t question the role of being critics like we question the purpose of writing creatively, or so it seems to me. We seem to be more welcoming and sometimes express interest in others’ critical efforts yet experience discomfort in others’ creative efforts. Why this discrepancy, if both endeavors say something? Perhaps it’s because we share opinions all day and can share opinions in less formal ways than we can share poems we labor over. This makes it easier to inquire about people’s opinions. Perhaps the intimacy of a poem or story to an author puts pressure on a potential critic, making reading an amateur’s poem off-putting. However, if the awkwardness of dealing with people’s poems comes from the poems, as you say, “[pointing] toward themselves [the authors]” then I’d have to wonder if critical efforts don’t do the same thing. Does it feel more comfortable to say something about a created work than it is to create the work others will talk about? Sometimes, writing critically can be just as creative as writing poems or fiction. The task of writing about Shakespeare in new ways can require more creativity than writing a poem about a subject that has received little attention.

    The question remains, what is an amateur poet trying to accomplish? As you say, poetry can improve the soul. This answer ought to be satisfactory and we might ask more questions geared toward learning more about how poetry does this. But then, there’s the issue of needing to share the poetry, and bringing one’s original poetry into a social schema of friends complicates matters. To me, this worry is secondary to the writing itself. Poetry must be more than, but needn’t preclude, showing off one’s intelligence and wit. To borrow from your title, writing a poem is not only a use of freedom, but is an exploration of one’s freedom — to interpret, to pressure one’s own imagination, to bewilder oneself with surprising leaps of logic, to (pardon the triteness) see anew. This must be done on a personal level first. And when a poet feels comfortable enough, he works up the nerve to share it, I imagine.

  2. July 25, 2012 2:26 am

    Thanks for the response, John; some interesting stuff here. It’s way too late at night for me to give a full response, but for now:

    I think the reason we’re comfortable sharing criticism but not poetry has something to do with the difference between contemplation and creation (which I talked about in part 1 (see link at top of the post)). You’re right that when we show other people criticism we’ve written we’re exposing ourselves somewhat; we’re saying “Hey, do you think I’m on the right track here? And isn’t this an interesting idea to think about (even if I’m not expressing it perfectly)?” But that doesn’t seem nearly as dangerous as saying “Hey, here’s a poem I’ve written; is it any good (am I any good)?”

    Maybe this is a better way to characterize the difference: When we show someone a work of criticism we’ve written, or at least when I do, it always feels like a work in progress, even if it’s marked “final draft”; or, better, it doesn’t feel like a work at all–the paper is just a byproduct of the process of thinking through something. But when I show someone a poem, even if it’s marked “work in progress,” it feels like a thing that I’m putting out there to stand on its own, and I’m always afraid that it can’t–and the fact that it’s a WIP doesn’t really matter. I’ve somewhat exaggerated this distinction, I suspect (insert Wittgenstein’s remark about examining something up close not being a substitute for describing what it’s like to see it from far away); but is this roughly akin to your experience?

  3. July 25, 2012 2:52 pm

    More response: I completely agree about the inanity of reducing the decision to read Shakespeare or a friend’s work to a cost-benefit analysis. We’re not utilitarians here. I’d want to say something like reading a friend’s work is an act of friendship.

    I like the idea that poetry is an exploration of one’s freedom. There remains the task of describing how exactly poetry is such a thing, but it’s not an absurd idea on the face of it, anyway.

    In a way, isn’t this just a rehash of the conflict between high modernism and the avant-garde? I have vague memories of avant garde writers saying things like “after the Revolution, everyone is going to make art, and there won’t be any ‘artist’ class anymore, and we’ll all be free.” Problem is, that initial “after the Revolution”… also Marxists have wrong ideas about leisure.

    Without taking back anything I said before, here’s a restatement of my question, or maybe a new but related one. We’ve all recently graduated from college, and for us saying “yes it’s good to write, even if you’re an amateur!” is easy. But say you’re an amateur writer and you’re thirty years old and need to support a family. What place does writing have in your life? Is it good for you to continue to cultivate your creative writing talents, or is it self-indulgent? Sometimes one, sometimes the other? What marks the difference? Does it have to do with how good you are; or with how seriously you take it; or something else?

    Put this way, it can sound like a question of “vocation,” if it’s OK to use that language here–what do you do when you love writing, but writing isn’t what you’ve supposed to spend your life doing? (I’ve been thinking about this recently for personal reasons, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting philosophical question.)

  4. July 26, 2012 4:14 pm

    I agree that it’s more nerve-wracking to share a poem than it is to share a work of criticism. But, I think the worry over whether one is any good is equally present in both. If I understand you correctly, the concern behind sharing a poem is that it can’t stand alone, i.e. has the potential to fail more grievously at saying what it aims to than can a critical work. This seems right: a poem’s being unclear means it fails not only on the level of communicating the literal, but also fails aesthetically. Depending on what kind of poem one writes, failing aesthetically means failing altogether. On the other hand, a critical work’s being unclear means it hasn’t explicated well enough, and only fails on the level of communicating clearly. This isn’t to say that aesthetic elements aren’t necessary to writing a great argument. This was an unnecessary rehash of things you’ve already said.

    But perhaps failing to write a decent poem really is worse than failing in criticism. In criticism, it’s the author’s job to adequately guide his reader toward understanding an argument, whereas, it seems there are far fewer opportunities for a poet to guide a reader. This means that a reader of a poem either agrees or disagrees with the poet’s vision and not much else. To be charged of seeing incorrectly or poorly can be soul-crushing. I’ve oversimplified this distinction, however.

    So, should the prospect of having one’s soul crushed deter one from sharing poems? Maybe. It depends how much you can stomach. Is it dangerous for one’s reputation and self-esteem? Yup. What’s the pay-off? There might not be one.

    The question of vocation is really interesting. I like the restatement you issue and agree that our recent graduation from college has created a euphoric and Romantic artist-hero sensibility toward writing, which is dangerous. Self-indulgence is frightening also. But, I suspect we all have interests that can’t be what our jobs are. It’s easier to see how some interests can be good for you: playing soccer keeps one active, building a bookshelf tests one’s ability to make something sturdy and aesthetically pleasing, etc. It seems that interests other than one’s vocation continue to cultivate character and virtue (when did I turn 50?).

    For example, I met an optometrist this week who called himself an astronomer. Is he really both? No. He admitted that astronomy was a “serious hobby.” But, I imagine he characterized himself thus because of how much he enjoys astronomy. So, what’s *he* trying to accomplish when he practices astronomy? Why spend great sums of money on equipment to take pictures of stars when the likelihood of them being published is slim (though, to be fair he was published recently)? We wouldn’t say he’s wasting his time. In fact, to borrow from one of your previous posts, I have no doubt in his interactional expertise. Nevertheless, maybe cultivating his interest in astronomy really is self-indulgent. But, if I were to defend him, I’d argue that his pursuit of being a better astronomer is motivated by love. This might seem like a too-romantic, cop-out sort of an answer. Interests aren’t people, and neither are vocations, so addressing how to love a discipline requires more clarification than I have energy for at the moment. Regardless, expressing love, which is an act that requires risking rejection, seems to spring from complete fascination. Maybe amateur poets, young and old, ought to view writing as a dedication of time to a fascination before trying to get published.

  5. July 31, 2012 4:26 pm

    Incidentally, I just saw that Eliot has something to say about this (in the introduction to his The Sacred Wood), where he criticizes the English temptation to tell everyone but the very best to stop writing at all:
    “It is part of [the critic’s] business to help the poetaster understand his own limitations. The poetaster who understands his own limitations will be one of our useful second-order minds; a good minor poet (something which is very rare) or another good critic.”


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