American Culture

Why we write…or don’t…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (Image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s a bitter day when one sees a talented artist give up his art. Sam Smith’s A Poet Says Goodbye to Poetry reveals a great deal about the state, not just of poetry, but about the state of art – especially literature.

The State of Things

The divisions between “high” and “low” art disappeared more decades ago than most people realize (for the hell of it we might say it happened in the year 1930 – not because of the economic collapse caused by Wall Street which precipitated the great depression, but because the Pulitzer committee gave the fiction prize that year to Oliver La Farge’s novel Laughing Boy for what were largely political reasons – the committee’s other options that year were William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel – any of which choices any educated person might think preferable). The rise of creative writing programs post World War II created, unintentionally, a self-contained world of writers writing for each other – as a result, educated audiences who might have read Hemingway and Hammett a generation before no longer exist in any appreciable numbers. Those who read Pynchon and Delillo (or even know who Pynchon or Delillo are) are separated from those who read Elmore Leonard or Patricia Cornwell in ways that reflect the economic politics of publishing.

What used to be seen as the “mid-list responsibility” of once family owned publishing houses like Scribners or Simon and Schuster – to publish or keep in print (I believe the term used once was “champion”) literary work, whether fiction or poetry – is, and has been for some time, over. Shareholders and corporate execs champion profits, not culture. Genre forms – mystery, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, western – are reliable sellers – and some talented writers who might pursue more personal, literary paths have chosen to adapt their artistic visions to genre fiction. Some of these have transcended their genres (Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are examples). But the disappearance of the “mid-list” gave other, possibly equally talented authors no way to access the marketing muscle of major publishing houses.

As a result talented writers who might have pursued their visions independent of the creative writing school system (which, more than anything else, is like an “old boy/girl” club where “mentors” help “mentees” and the majority of students get shuffled through for their tuition) now turn to small, independent publishers who often find that even getting their authors reviewed – a staple of arts pages in newspapers only two decades ago but one of the first casualties of the collapse of the newspaper as a medium – requires them to approach the plethora of “book bloggers” on the InterWebs whose chief aims seem to be promoting their favorite authors – and whose overwhelming interests (I looked at nearly 600 book blogs this fall as I helped my publisher pursue reviews for my latest book) are for whatever the current reading fad is (as most of you know, right now it’s something called “Young Adult Paranormal”). It is a system rife with all the pitfalls and problems of the chaos we know as the Web.

Think for a moment – what have been the most successful books of the last five years? You know them – The Twilight, Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey series. I’ve emphasized that last word for a reason: for the same reasons that movie studios (once taken over by corporate interests) began grinding out sequels for any film with a flicker (however dim) of originality and appeal, mainstream publishers now seek franchises – they want writers willing to grind out hundreds, even thousands, of pages telling long, convoluted stories (usually rather badly in the opinion of this “pedantic bastard” as a high school friend once termed me in signing my yearbook) that follow Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale the way that kid making your blackened salmon at Applebee’s follows their picture book prep manual to get the “food” on your plate. The sad part, for this pedantic bastard, is that if I were allowed to approach any of the authors of the above-named series and asked them about Propp, I fear what I’d get would be blank stares followed by calls for their security details to remove me. And what might be worse, to me, would be talking with them and discovering that they were well aware of their use of Propp but wrote for no motive but money.

There’s a term George Orwell coined to describe this kind of writing – prole entertainment. If you don’t know this term, you should – be forewarned: it is not complimentary.

A Few Words About Culture and Change

Despite the efforts of culture critics such as Neil Postman to warn us of the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced – either by a particular medium or by the power of technology itself to change our lives in unexpected ways, human culture continues to embrace the changes to our lives – and our art – wrought by new technologies and media as rapidly as they appear. (For the well informed, that word “wrought” has special meaning given its reference to Samuel F. B. Morse). We embraced the telegraph, the radio, film, then television, and most recently, the Internet: all brought with them not only new methods of communication but also necessarily changes in the way we think about and use (or think we can use) information.

This has clear implications for our appreciation of language – the medium (in a slightly different meaning of the word) for writers – especially poets – for whom a word, to invert a famous saw, might mean a thousand pictures. So for my friend Sam, and to those like him who have felt the need to abandon this medium we all love so dearly – language – I feel especially pained. He and I gave talks in the late 1980’s that warned teachers and professors all over the country that the medium we treasured – the written/printed word – would likely be subsumed by the power of other media delivered via newer technologies.

Never have I wished more that we’d been wrong than as I write this.

The Pragmatic Artist

As media and technology savvy as we’ve always been, both Sam and I have embraced new media wholeheartedly – fully aware that Merton’s Law dogged our every step. When Sam posted the link to his latest blog post on Facebook (natch), friends and colleagues – known in both the real and virtual worlds – weighed in with sympathy, encouragement and commiseration. In the comment thread on his post, I got into a dialogue (ah, Plato – show of hands as to those who’ve read him? Anyone? Bueller?) with the talented singer, composer and musician Wendie Colter concerning Sam’s decision to abandon poetry. I include below part of our discussion:

Wendie: Jim – artists make art for themselves first and foremost. But I maintain it can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs an energy exchange to live. Payment is one form of energy exchange, just like applause, reviews, acknowledgement from a community of peers, etc. If an artist doesn’t receive at least one of those things to her satisfaction, it is beyond discouraging. I haven’t met one artist (and I was raised by artists) that didn’t have the desire to make art for their living as a primary life goal.

Me: Wouldn’t argue any of that Wendie. But artists also make art for the future – it’s a strong motivation, to leave something behind, to be remembered – that’s the area I’ll be addressing in my response to Sam. As for that vacuum you mention, I understand what you mean, but I’m one who believes no artist has to live in a vacuum – and I believe there are options artists can take (Sam’s taken one, but he seems to think it must involve leaving one art form for another – I disagree with that decision qualifiedly) – and that those options, whether marketing, technological, or some mix of the two, offer artists the opportunity to promote – or present – their art in venues and in ways that might find them audiences.

Wendie’s argument – that artists have to find an audience and make a living – is both valid and powerful. And her career as a composer of music for television, film, and commercials bears out her commitment to finding a way to practice her art in a fashion that allows her to make a living practicing her art. Her response to my reply – that an artist’s leaving one medium to practice another is a bitter experience – is made clear below:

Wendie: Only thing I’d say to that is that to move away from one medium that you had your heart set on and your identity wrapped up in is sometimes necessary. Painful and heartbreaking, but necessary.

Sam, as his essay notes, has made that painful change from one medium to another, hoping that pictures will give him the artistic satisfaction he gets from words.

But at heart Sam is a writer – as his output for Scholars and Rogues shows. Whether he can ever equate what he achieves with his camera with what he has achieved with his pen as a poet (I’m speaking metaphorically) is something only Sam can decide.

Perhaps his artistic decision is acceptance of a reality that I haven’t been able to accept yet. Perhaps what Sam has done is make a pragmatic decision that, like Wendie’s, allows him to follow an artist’s path and find an audience who appreciates his talent in ways that he never felt he achieved through his career as a poet.

Perhaps the word will die – and with it the art of the word – literature – will die. So Sam’s poetry will have been a mistaken foray into a dead art form. This development is possible – though not probable.

So in case language survives, however, here are some ideas that might be worthy of his consideration.

Writers can embrace marketing and technology

As one privy to Sam’s decision before he announced it publicly, I suggested to him that he consider combining his photos with his poems. Such projects expand his potential audience to include both those who appreciate photography and those who appreciate poetry. This is called cross marketing – and is a proven way to reach multiple audiences.

Many writers use YouTube as a method of attracting new readers by offering interviews, readings, and talks about their work. Sam is one of the best readers I’ve ever seen – and he could introduce readers to his poetry – as well as give talks about his poetry – or poetry in general (his understanding of the genre is, as you’d expect, keen) that could help him build an audience. He could even create videos that combine his poetry with his photography – and attract readers to his work as well as combine his artistic interests.

Social networks allow writers and readers to find each other – there are the general networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but there are also specialized networks such as Goodreads that allow authors and readers to establish relationships – relationships that will help an author build audience.

Why we write…or don’t…

The story of literature, particularly poetry, is one of unpredictability. Poets have come into and gone out of fashion (John Donne), had their works bowdlerized in the name of “improvement” (William Shakespeare), and enjoyed great acclaim in their lifetimes only to become more famous for their lives than for their work (Lord Byron).

What I’m saying is, one never knows how one’s work will be received by future generations. That may seem pompous and idealistic, but as the poet said, “Who shoots at the midday sun….”

So I have encouraged Sam to work at finding publishers of his work – even if that means working with a small, independent publisher – who’ll care about his work – and him – and who’ll work with him to get his work out there so that it might be discovered – either in his lifetime or later. As I mentioned in my response to Wendie, and as I often remind my wife Lea, a gifted artist herself, artists create for the future as much as for now.

The hard part of being an artist is accepting that we won’t necessarily achieve the sort of acclaim we may think we deserve in our lifetimes.

Harder still, though, is to leave a body of work as fine as Sam’s poetry in a drawer without finding an outlet for it – especially in an age when finding such outlets is more possible than ever thanks to that very technology I spoke of earlier.

As much as I wish Sam well in his new artistic venture as a photographer, I hope he’ll consider finding publishing homes for his books of poetry. They are, to paraphrase a poet who labored in obscurity only to become after she was long dead a major American writer, his letters to the world.

They are fine letters – I hope he’ll offer them to be read.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

4 replies »

  1. This is far more in the way of insight than my little post deserves, but thanks for treating it seriously. And thanks, obviously, for the important role you played throughout the years in helping me to grow as a writer.

    There are stories of writers who were relative unknowns in their lives who were “discovered” after their deaths. I think Hopkins fits that description, right? I might think differently if I saw any hope of that happening to me at all. But how can I? For starters, there are a fucking zillion poets out there and the signal-to-noise ratio is nigh-on imperceptible. What are the odds that I would be discovered?

    Second, forget me for minute. Look at how little we care about poetry, period. Society is trending away from an concern with verse (unless it’s hip-hop or “spoken word,” most of which is utter garbage; most, I said, not all).

    I am intrigued by the idea of a poetry/photography project, though. I’ve been thinking about that for several months, in fact, although so far I don’t have the images to sustain it. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be there.

    • First, I’d admonish you to remember Donne and Herbert – purt nigh forgotten writers thanks to the taste biases of Dr. Johnson – but resurrected by the shift in tastes engineered by T.S. Eliot. There are many other examples involving far lesser lights in the lit world. All I’m saying is, consider putting the work out there. You never know….

      Put me on the subscription list for that poetry/photography book….

      • Also, I guess I forgot to mention this. But do you recall who it was that first pointed me to this famous quote?

        No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. – Samuel Johnson