Thursday, June 30, 2005

Is Originality Passé?

It seems fair to say that all poetry combines theme and variations, repetition and originality. We all have a love-hate relationship with the poetry of the past, don’t we? If we didn’t love at least some of it, we wouldn’t have been inspired to write in the first place. We’d have gotten a real estate license or started a restaurant. And if we didn’t hate it at the same time, there’d be no reason to write our own poems. We’d be content to be a teacher and pass on to others the poetry of the past.

It also seems fair to say that some people put a higher value on repetition and others on variation. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I wonder about what effect the explosion of literary magazines, MFA programs, and just the sheer number of poets has on this equation. I suspect it skews literary fashion in the direction of originality. I’m sure if I were an editor reading a thousand submissions a month, or a teacher reading a thousand student poems, I’d run screaming at the thought of one more poem about autumn leaves, a walk on the beach, or a father’s death from cancer.

I might perk up, though, if I saw a poem about a father’s death from differential equations or Krazy Kat’s death from cancer. On the other hand, the world would be missing a lot of great poems if everyone who wrote about plum blossoms had thrown their poems in the fire when they remembered “it’s been done before.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing if Emily Dickinson woke up 500 mornings in a row thinking “I’ve got an idea … I think I’ll write a poem about death today!” I love originality but I fear that the literary world may have become too obsessed with it: “Oh God, not another poem made out of words. Been there, done that.”

On another topic, I sent the final corrections of my book galleys back to Carnegie Mellon this week. They’ve really done a beautiful job designing the book. The poems may leave something to be desired, but I love that typeface. It’s funny how obsessed I can become, though. What if they print cat instead of car and my whole book is ridiculed by the universe because of one typo? I don’t want my poems to be that original!

8 comments:

Beverly said...

You make a good point, Robert, about originality-- over-valued in poetry as in all things. A lot of mediocre work in all genres is at least different. Of course mediocrity comes from the other, repetitive, end too.

BUT I think we're (a lot of us at least) wired that way. The brain just does a little two-step when something new comes along. Only afterwards do we consider the emptiness/richness quotient.

We write for the same reasons, at least sometimes. I'm not writing because I dislike poems of the past, though maybe because I love them. The ones I dislike just don't get read again and the ones I love yield at least a bit of something new each time.

It's an inherent need to create (or why DO so many people run off to MFA programs). Those who write do so because words are what's immediate, we connect to ourselves, others, the world through language.

Art-for-arts-sake originality leaves out a lot (e.g., meaning, values, communication, etc.) but coming up with something new is what keeps us feeling alive. Too long without a new poem makes Jill a dull girl. So says the rubber duckie.

Robert said...

Hi, Bevelry (and Happy Fourth!) I know what you mean about the "little two-step." I don't mean people necessarily dislike the poetry of the past, but that it's missing something for them. Even if you love Walt Whitman, doesn't part of you feel that he left something out and you can provide it? That you have a unique vision that no poem written before you ever captured?

I've been (re-)reading Crime and Punishment. I stayed up all night reading it when I was 15, and it's one of those books that got me to love books. And it's just as good now! That's the sort of thing I'm thinking of. A lot of people might dismiss the book because it's "old-fashioned": it tells a story, and it uses straightforward language ("On a very hot evening at the beginning of July a young man left his room ...") and, almost "worst," most passé, of all, it's so psychological. Has any book ever captured so well the instant-by-instant working of a mind? OK, I'm getting carried away, I want to write Dostoevskian poems ...

Peter said...

Interesting post, Robert. It reminds me of a line I read the other day, about being "startled, but not satisfied" by something that was merely "new."

Beverly said...

Yes, the way other writers or books inspire or incite us, a thing in itself, and yes, I agree. Any writing that is really engaging leaves me wanting to write--not that I do--in response, either a "but, but..." or a "yes, and this too..." Sometimes it's just the form.

David Koehn said...

Seems to me to be a pretty narrow definition of originality...

Writing a successful poem in Alexandrians that sound like contemporary American English would be very original.

Writing a slant rhyme sonnet that on the first 20 or so reads does not appear to be a sonnet...but once seen is clearly a sonnet...would be startlingly original. Originality I would reward.

Innovation is tricky...I think of Dylan Thomas...some of his language was so original in its force and rhythm that it deserved to be rewarded. That kind of originality I will never tire of.

The basic argument of post-modernism suggests originality is a function of the lie created by context and subjective perception of a group. I particularly like one quote, I can't remember where this came from...something like: "Only virginity (or the loss of it) succeeds in being truly postmodern."

The point being that once done, its been done. The challenge of the creative act in the modern era is to create, experience, invent, assemble, a previously unknown, unfelt, undone, aesthetic experience. An experience that despite its newness is rich with context: history, tradition, taboo, cultural weight, etc...

A poem about my pet monkey may or may not be innovative...I'm struck at the ability such poems have for "advertising" themselves. That might not be a bad thing...they advertise for my attention...but even a good advertisement better provide a decent product/offering or I will lose interest. In a poem the content or topic might be unusual or strange but the poem might be boringly unoriginal. I see lots of topical flourish that lacks innovation from all realms of poetry.

So I'd offer that originality is not passe but rather the only thing poetry aspires to IN THE LONG RUN...even the most formal, conventional, or "standard" poem lives beyond its age almost solely for its value as an successful, innovative experiment in its context.

Shakespeare's sonnets, Marianne Moore's syllabics, etc...

Uggh, I annoy myself when I go on and on.

Robert said...

Hey, David, are you just back from Alaska or someplace like that? Welcome back! Maybe you and I are using "originality" differently. If originality is, as you say, "to create, experience, invent, assemble, a previously unknown, unfelt, undone, aesthetic experience," to me that sounds a lot more like, say, John Ashbery than Donald Justice. I think that's probably exactly why a lot of people think Ashbery's poetry is likely to last longer than Justice's. But I suspect that you and I might not agree with that. We might both think Justice is just as good a poet as Ashbery (me because I think "originality" is overrated, and you because of your Koehnian definition of "originality"!)

Diane K. Martin said...

I'm not sure if I'm adding to this discussion or not--or maybe just picking up at the end with what is obvious, but because I believe the what of a poem is inseparable from the how--or, in any case, the mode changes the meaning--I don't think we have to worry much about the idea that something has been done or, contrarily, worry that it is only different. If the difference works to enhance, then it is not just another poem about autumn, it's the first poem that is written about autumn in that way.

Maybe I'd better stop here. My new life as job seeker is getting to me today.

Robert said...

Yeah, I agree, but let's take as a more or less random example the poem featured today on Poetry Daily, Dana Levin's "It Was Yoked to a Black Hunger," and its image of a raven pecking at a dying rabbit. Some people are going to read that and respond, "Wow! That's so original! I've never seen that subject handled before in that way!" And other people are going to respond, "Oh God, not another poem like that again! I've already read it a million times!" I'm not saying one's right and the other is wrong. I am encouraging people to be as open-minded toward things that at first glance appear familiar as toward things that at first glance appear strange.