Rachel Danielle Peterson
I know art as imitation is no longer a cool thing, just as art as something really really real can be quite unnerving. This is the old tug between Plato and Aristotle and those Greek all decked out in their laurels and their spears. Even if you don’t admire those wine-dark seas or warships they sailed, you have to admire the way they thought about thought. In the West, this is the first culure to write that even their myths might be exaggerations. Still, no matter how well we hold to truth there is always something that shows that truth is rarely around for long. The gods might be well on Olympus; they are constantly in danger of tumbling down to earth, maybe falling beneath, well beyond Tartarus. God give ideas and excuses for human behavior, the mind too, the way to separate, distill, and intoxicate our cerebral cortex (i.e., our bodies).
No matter what we do or think we do, thought is always there, hovering above, beside, below, existence. Art is there too, in that someplace between.
When I say imitation, I mean something that directly copies something else. This isn't about utilizing form or an authority. This is about using art as a fax machine to copy someone else’s work word for word and sending it into the world. That might involve taking Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” by copying it out and claiming ownership. A word or two may change, but it remains Poetic Plagiarism. There is something fake about the whole procedure, which shouldn't be confused with real encounters with a text. Good erasures, for example, allow for a new train of thought in response to a work, but it is hard to know, at times, just what is authentic.
While we all stand on the shoulders of geniuses, what makes our music sound unique? That is a hard thing to know unless you annotate everything. Still, it seems important to own up to one's poetic debts free from fear of falling into triteness or all-consuming ambition. What remains is the empty space that only you can fill. You make the attempt because you’ve already absorbed worlds left by other writers. Now words tumble forth in a cacophony and you don`t know whose are yours or theirs. Not everything will sing. It takes humility to learn from failure, to let the words, phrases, sentences, pages be written when they just don’t quite capture compelling music. Letting go is usually the hardest, most necessary part of all.
We cling to things we know, what is safe because we all like the comfort of the familiar, the comfort of home, yet one’s music is always some new discovery. It is strange, demanding: the contradiction all artists know. Trying not to be cliché, we err on the side of odd, off-putting. Sense, then, can only be reached through our own interior symbology. But it is the recognization of sameness that allows us to climb from the deep wells of the unconscious and be recognized as a fully-human being, filled with the good, the bad, and and every shade of every in-between. We are so afraid to be cliché, but life is cliché. English is cliché. We use this language to convey what we all know on some level. Those who fail to realize this, to act from empathy, just strut around dressed up in their ego. All they see is what they want. Thus, they are unable to make the song reach the listeners. Nothing matters but their own, often distorted, reflection. That doesn’t mean poetry shouldn’t aspire to challenge. It is surprising in its very essence, and it must be understood at some basic level. That’s why any of us uses language in the first place, why we use poetic form, why we read anything like a poem.
Too often today, innovation is the name given to things that are just imitative, or off-putting in their sheer oddness. For example, poets are taught how to make a poem a line-by-line construction. This simplicity of form to be found by focusing solely on one line at a time is considered the most authentic way to work for today’s poets. Form and craft are our first priorities. We use space to create tension, we bring in the big guns of a wide vocabulary. Cut out anything passive, anything that does not scream for action. (Poor T.S. Eliot would have flunked out pretty soon with all his “might haves” and coffee spoons.)
Unfortunately, all the time, we not only discuss dead poets, but compare living poets to our favorite dead ones. We get crowns and laurels for imitating the dead, so no wonder so many promising poets get stuck so easily wrestling with the ghosts of poets who came before. They are quite formidable, so it is quite easy to waste a lifetime trying to be the next Sylvia Plath, or H.D. Fortunately, none of us has to. That is a freeing notion.
I have no desire to undermine what we all learn by reading, imitating, re-reading, erasing, etc. All this, all that, is necessary to find the core of what makes any individual poet important to each of us. No one can do that for us. It’s like trying to act without ever seeing a play or watching a movie. The art we build is built upon the foundations of the relationships that we have with the past and the present. How else do we find a place at the table of The Greats?
Can we force our way in, elbows bristling with heavy-handed lines that no one will read fifty minutes from now, let alone fifty years?
Line construction, in the end, like making bricks, is a learned skill. But lines are not everthing. Lines are, quite simply, not that hard to produce if you have the training, energy, time, or discipline to make them work. What is just as important is the vision at work. Are you paving your yard, or making a pyramid to lead the dead on their way to the stars?
The line should help you achieve what you want to make, what you need to write. So ask, always: Does the line do everything I want it to do? Does it fit the stanza, the poem, section, collection, indeed, everything I am? If not, then maybe it should be put aside until you know why you need to sing, rattle this song, and who are you taking in hand, dancing with to eternity.