I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, hot off the presses kind of stuff, from well published, lauded, awarded, fellowshipped, granted authors. And I have NO IDEA what is going on in these poems. NO IDEA. And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected left and right; I’m clearly COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH with the contemporary poetry world. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.
Then I encounter a poem coming through my email here, shared over Facebook there, a book handed on, and I find poems that make me think wow. That is good stuff. I am loving this work. Wow, how did that poet do that? And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected; there is NO WAY I can write work as good as this. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.
My Inner Voice kindly says nothing in the wake of these outcries. I do catch, however, an eye roll. What. WHAT? She turns on the vacuum cleaner, mimes an inability to hear what I’m saying. I know she’s thinking this too shall pass. Oh, shut up, I say to Inner Voice, into the din of the vacuum. You missed a spot.
In her provocative essay “American Originality,” Louise Gluck writes, “As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces…The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man’s anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don’t even know how to read.”
I certainly have felt this with these books. That I am at fault, and ashamedly so. If I only learned to read better… But the other part of the equation Gluck presents is that the writers themselves are deliberately resisting connection with the reader. Is that true?
In what is so far a lively telling of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke, Rachel Corbett in You Must Change Your Life, in an aside, briefly outlines shifts happening in their era in thinking about the brain, art, aesthetics, psychology. She describes the new premise this way: “The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” She discusses the idea of an empathy between the artist and the observer: “When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body.”
So I must believe that I am lacking in the requisite empathy as I encounter these poems. I am insufficiently open to and sensitive to what is being expressed.
But does the creator also have a role in the empathic relationship? If the sentence above about the effectiveness of art is true, doesn’t it suggest that the maker must take some responsibility for the observer’s/reader’s/listener’s response?
As a maker, I resist that. On the other hand I do believe that I must fully feel my own response to the world in order to create work that will engage you the reader in that response.
On yet another hand (octopusishly, now, as I believe I’ve run out of hands) as I said, many of the authors I’m reading have been published/awarded. So SOMEONE is “getting” their work, someone (and important, fellowship-judgish someones at that) are responding empathically.
So again I must conclude that I might be able to respond to this work if I tried harder. But I also conclude that I am creating my own work, in my own response to the anxieties of my world. So if I must have empathy with someone, let’s start with me.