Thursday, August 20, 2009

Do I risk being lost in another poet's art?

I recently read Victoria Chang's blog, which essentially asked the question "What if reading lots of poetry is detrimental to your own voice?"

"And everywhere you go, you hear people say, “Read, Read, Read,” as their one piece of advice to aspiring writers. What if, just what if, all this advice is BS? What if, in fact, the best writers do what they feel, what comes naturally to them and erase all the outside noise? What if they do the exactly opposite of what’s popular or accepted or the norm?"

I am all for pushing art as far as it will go, or with ignoring convention. Or at least in trying to, in order to see where that gets us. Because let's face it. There is quite a bit of horrible abstract poetry out there. Enough to make an eskimo sell his green protractor.

But to me, a writer who doesn't read is like a dancer who doesn't listen to music. Is it possible to be passionate about what you do if a part of you isn't compelled to involve yourself on levels of your medium other than just creation?

Well. Yeah.

But I'm convinced that your art will suffer for it. That intangible suffering, like trying to imagine what your life would be like without your kid. You wouldn't miss them, because they wouldn't have existed. But you know, now, having had them, that there would be something missing afterall.

I also don't fully believe that someone, even trying their best to emulate another artist, can fully capture the other's spirit. There will be chinks in the writing. And these gaps, exposed by the inability to 'become' that first artist, expose a distinctly individual voice.

There are many books on the market that are written in the 'voice' of Jane Austen, for instance. But would she have written these books? (Sometimes I doubt the people writing these books want to have written them.) At some point, the word choice, the rhythm and even the direction of the book reveal themselves as something of the other artist. Because as viewers of art, we only see the very outermost layer of an anything; the final artistic product. We can never know why the artist made those decisions.

It is the reason that artists wishing to paint the human form study muscle and bone mass, and not merely the flatness presented in photographs. We can't emulate a writer. We can only distill some of the style of the works that they've chosen to give us.

And so, it becomes impossible, especially given the results, that any level of effort can knowingly result in the complete loss of your voice. I can't imagine being able to loose yourself in another writer's skin accidentally, by merely reading other poets' works. Influence is not the same as voice. My parents taught me to speak, but I only some like them in the loosest ways. And think of how much of my early life was actively spent trying to be exactly like them.

The article which Victoria Change cited for her blog says we must become the purple cow, some sort of anomaly, to make our mark in the world. But I think some of the problems with poetry today is that so many poets purposefully handle poetry as if it were some kind of ad campaign. We don't need a million poets being different. We need for a poet to push their words as far as they will go. Read some of Shakespeare's contemporaries. He didn't stand out because he was writing so differently from the others of his time. He stands out because he was writing so much better than those other writers.

For some of us, that means writing at the forefront of what is considered unique and novel. But for so many others, it's just writing things the way they were meant to be written, even if that style has been done to death. If that's the way you write, do it better.


  1. Good post, Kieth. Part of the problem is that there are "so many poets" out there, period. What Victoria Chang is expressing is a certain variety of anxiety of influence -- the kind of thing I felt on contemplating graduate school in English, that I would spend so much time looking at the world through the eyes of others, I would be in danger of losing my own. (That's one reason I never went.) My feeling is that writing and reading have to play off against each other in an active and engaged life, and that while wide and varied reading is necessary, there are definite advantages to having only a few great exemplars to respond to, for the kind of work you want to do.

  2. This is very thought-provoking.

    I completely agree with you that much new poetry that receives praise rings gimmicky (as you said, like an "ad campaign").

    More common (and maybe worse) than this problem of losing one's voice is the problem of never finding it. Reading other authors allows us to see possibilities, and to also figure out where our voices fit in the spectrum of literature.

    There is a great quote from Nietzsche--about being inspired by one of his mentors (I can't remember who, exactly). He says that everytime he reads the work of this mentor, he sprouts an arm or a wing. I just love that idea, and think that is exactly what reading does for writers.

    I also like Brian's comment above that reading and writing must fit into an "active and engaged life"--so true.

  3. Brian, it is a little frightening, isn't it? I think we're experiencing what many journalists feared at the advent of the blog; being washed away with not only the profound, but the mundane as well.

    And to The Storialist, I have never considered finding a voice in someone else's work. That a profound idea. One that I know I will be thinking about, now, when I read something that moves me.

  4. I agree with you. In my opinion, poets who don't read stand out as poets who don't know what they're doing. Instead of being unique, they are the same old thing. Their experimental work is not challenging. It's immature. Then they stamp their feet and throw tantrums, because the world doesn't "understand" them.

    To learn the art of building a table, a carpenter watches and learns from others. Then he/she takes that knowledge and crafts it into a piece of work that stands out as unique. That is our challenge as poets. Yes, there are many of us (and many wannabes). But those who stand out are the ones who keep up a lifetime of learning.

    In my opinion, not reading is an excuse for being lazy. And not reading different styles is lazy. There are many great poets whose styles I don't particularly "like," but I'm not reading for pleasure only. If that were the case, then I'd be like my sister-in-law who sits on the beach with the next best selling romance novel. I love it when I read something I enjoy, but it's not my sole purpose. I'm studying the mechanics, too.

    Copying a voice is also lazy. We might find hints of other styles in our own work. But if we apply the sweat that should come with writing, we won't lose our voices. We'll find them.

    Another interesting thought to ponder is that our voices naturally change somewhat as the years go by. My voice is different than it was when I was twenty.

    I have a long-winded way of agreeing, don't I? Ha! Ha! This topic hit a nerve with me. One last thought (I promise). Poets should also read all cultures and countries, not just their own. I meet too many poets who refuse to read anything other than one style or culture, and they are missing out on a world of wisdom.

  5. No, I love long comments. Those are the kind I tend to leave. haha.

    You're right. I was trying to explain something like this to my brother, about challenging yourself. What I said was something like this.

    How many hours a day do you spend walking? In motion? After 20 years of solid, every day experience, are you able to walk a tight rope? Are you able to tango? It's because while these things involve many of the skills you use to walk, they are only gained by challenging yourself with something more difficult than merely staying up, from not falling.

    It's the same way with reading and writing, as you've pointed out. There's nothing wrong with reading for fun, but if you're honest with yourself about getting better, I think you have to read things that are challenging, even if they're not enjoyable. Although hopefully, after much reading, you're able to find books that do both for you.