Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Third Turn

"I don't think you really think poorly of your own poetry at all, do you?" commented Jean. She's right, of course. I wouldn't inflict it on you all if I thought it was awful. I value you highly, and I try not to abuse the privilege of having your ear too often.

But I'm anxious that people should know that I have no aspiration to write great poetry, or to be a great poet.

A student reported that he once said to C.S. Lewis, "the amount of really great poetry is very small." At which Lewis snapped, in some irritation, "The amount that can be read with pleasure and profit is enormous."

I agree. I don't have much patience with the idea of "greatness" in the arts, which I think does more harm than good. It does some good: to approach anything -- art, poetry, another human being -- with reverence, open to learning, is the best way to see what is there. This has something to tell me of great importance and significance. If I don't like it, that's because I don't see it properly.

It's a fruitful attitude, and I wish I, and everybody, spent more time in it. If I thought reverence for great art instilled it more often, I'd approve of it highly. But it seems to me that many of the people who make the most extravagant claims for great art spend most of their time dismissing things that fall short. The chief value of greatness, for them, is that it allows them to luxuriate in contempt for things that are not. You know the sort of people, always talking about how bad this poetry is or how execrable that art is. I always want to say, "for heaven's sake, if it's that bad why are you piddling away your time on it? Go look at some Goya, read some Yeats! Do you think you're going to live forever?"

And then there's what the idea of "greatness" does to the artists. It makes every artistic endeavor a referendum on the quality of their souls. Are they among the saved or the damned? It brings self-consciousness and anxiety into a process that needs above all self-forgetfulness and (in the best sense) carelessness. The best art, I think, is not created by people who are trying to create a great work of art. Praxiteles, I'm guessing, didn't give a damn about art. He wanted to get Hermes, get him exactly right. The greatness, if there is such a thing, is not a special tincture of genius added to the art. It's simply what happens when a person of terrific skill and intense imagination gets it perfectly right. There's no way to just skip being good and go straight to being great. If I had one piece of advice to give to artists and poets, it would be, "just try to do the best work you can. Greatness will happen if it wants to. It's really not your concern. You can't know and it wouldn't matter if you could."

I think what we all need to do, to increase the pleasure and profit of art, is to approach it, and each other, with more reverence. There's no lack of wonderful art and poetry in the world. What's lacking is generosity and openness of appreciation. The greatness isn't in the poem, or in the poet. It's not in the reader either. It's in the communion between poet and reader, refracted through the poem. Which is why -- as we all know, in our bones -- a poem is not complete until it's been read. That's what's important. And that's why I don't care that my poetry's not as good as William Blake's. It can still be an occasion for that intensity of communion; sometimes the more intense and precious for being local, ephemeral, and flawed. I'm not looking for more than that. As T.S. Eliot would say, the rest is not our business.

No comments: