Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Irritable Reaching

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952.

"A painter like Pollock," John Ashbery writes in his essay The Invisible Avant-Garde, "... was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn't, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must often have occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn't an artist at all, that he had spent his life 'toiling up the wrong road to art' as Flaubert said of Zola."

No one wants to spend life "toiling up the wrong road." So the question becomes, how do you overcome those doubts? How do you know if you're the real thing or a sham? What separates the amateur (in the least derogatory sense of the word) from the artist?

Lately, as has consistently been my bad habit in poetry as well as in life, I have been jumping ahead of myself and thinking about what will happen at the end of A Writing Year. I can't help but dwell on what's next. Does writing become just another hobby, something to do at night or whenever I can find a few quiet moments? Do I cease writing poems altogether, having had my year to make it work and failed to find that elusive, undefinable proof that I Am A Poet And The Struggle Is All Worthwhile?

Keats would say these are all symptoms of weakness in Negative Capability, "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." What is so insidious about these questions and that "irritable reaching" is the way they infect the mind. The question, "is this poem really any good?" spawns others: "Do I know what a good poem really is?" "Do I have the passion and strength to create good poems?" "Is a 'good' poem really enough?" "Why continue when so many others can do better?" Each one adds its small white ribbon until they form a kind of mental straitjacket.

I recognize that all art requires a kind of faith. As Ashbery continues about Pollock's work, "It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing." I agree with Ashberry that a degree of recklessness is necessary. But finding the confidence to be reckless (or again, call it faith) isn't easy. I worry I may not be reckless enough. I worry I may not be reckless at all.

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