In an early entry in Thoreau’s journal, he writes this about writing. He was 23 at the time:
Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma (solid earth). This may be a calendar of the ebbs and flows of the soul; and on these sheets as a beach, the waves may cast up pearls and seaweed.
The same applies to any type of writing. For a poetry manuscript or the first draft of a novel, writing for a long-term project requires resilience against one’s own whim to do something else. Even reading cannot encroach into one’s writing time. Bit by bit, the circumference of words begins to increase, and if you keep up with the habit religiously, soon enough you’ll be sitting on fifty, hundred, hundred-and-fifty pages of raw material.
Good art is partially about resisting one’s own initial interpretations of the subject. According to the masterful poet, Stephen Dunn, it is more about saying the difficult ‘no’ than giving in to the accessible ‘yes.’ In a way, such commitment to a mode of seeing that is beyond one’s complacent intuition, requires commitment to ‘seeing’ differently and the patience required to put that new way of seeing into words such that they expand the collective consciousness.
Not only must poets turn away from tried or dead language, they must be wary of their best ideas and all the language that was available to them before the poem began. That is, all language that hasn’t been found by the language in the poem. And then even that new language should be doubted and resisted. Resistance leads to discovery. No, no, no, no, and then yes. The good poem offers us a compelling and vibrant replacement for what, in our complacency, we allowed ourselves to believe we knew and felt.
A good artist must doubt the ideas and language that come naturally to her. This will become possible when she begins to resist the easy publicity handed to her by our time’s click-bait addiction, and also when she actively fights the impatience generated by the need to receive quick praise and amass more ‘likes.’ She must commit herself to seeing and interpreting deeply, which cannot happen until she becomes suspicious of satisfaction and adulation that are achieved easily. Her passion must take root in the flip side of obviousness, she must strive to turn things on their head and try to word them from different, and often difficult, angles.
The not so good poem sometimes too easily reflects or accommodates what is available prior to the poem’s inception. Its author says yes too soon.
Billy Collins, ars poetica:
Collins has described himself as “reader conscious”: “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” Collins further related: “I think my work has to do with a sense that we are attempting, all the time, to create a logical, rational path through the day. To the left and right there are an amazing set of distractions that we usually can’t afford to follow. But the poet is willing to stop anywhere.”
from Poetry Foundation
Thinking independently can be a surprisingly scary thing to do sometimes. We have been throughly corrected in our childhood and young adult life. Someone who knows more, a mentor, a book, a wiseass friend, has always come along and refined our theory of life. This can alter the experience of independent thought, we might begin to say to ourselves, maybe I just shouldn’t explore this new project further because someone is bound prove me wrong.
At this juncture, the love of discovery plays an important role. If we make discovery our main goal, then we can begin to welcome external feedback as an opportunity for further refinement of our ideas. However, if the intention is to be right, or not be wrong (a different mindset than the desire to be right), or if one is more concerned with where the discovery will take one socially instead of how it will expand her intellectually, then independent thought will remain stifled.
The joy of discovery must exceed the concerns of self-image. For our thought to be truly independent and revolutionary, for it to create art, spot patterns, challenge the norm, we must overcome the fear of disapproval and indulge the unknown. Instead of fearing it, we must look forward to the mystery that shrouds discovery. We must muster courage to celebrate our own weirdness, make friends with it.
A space where race is not suspect. It is also not an object. It is also not interrogated from the exterior. It’s a site of profound pleasure. It’s also a place where every expression is engaged critically and seriously.
Robin Coste Lewis
(Poetry Off the Shelf podcast)