The premise of the book is that the old industrial model of working and living (you go to school, get qualifications, then do a job like millions of others) is over. In its place is the ‘connection economy’ where, thanks to advances in technology, individuals now have an unrivalled opportunity to connect with each other across the globe. The shorthand he uses for this is ‘being an artist’ and ‘making art’.
The book is called The Icarus Deception because the part of the Icarus myth we forget is that he was also warned by his father not to fly too low.
I have just got to the bit where he talks about the mindset necessary to make art that connects with people: resilience, detachment, passion, commitment and vulnerability. And somehow this got me thinking about one of my first poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I studied Hopkins at A level and then at university, in a kind of rapt but puzzled delight.
We learned on day one that his poems were radically different from what others were publishing at the time; most were not accepted for publication during his lifetime. We learned that he was a Jesuit priest and loved to find God in nature. We also learned that he had one friend, Robert Bridges, famous in his lifetime but whose chief claim to fame now rests on his promotion of Hopkins’s poetry after his death.
His religious faith seemed to cause him anxiety as much as it did delight. Were he alive now we would probably say he was bipolar.
It seems inconceivable to me that any poet starting out now in contemporary Britain would opt for the conditions Hopkins lived under, namely: solitude verging on loneliness; periods of intense depression; and, worst of all, complete lack of recognition for his art.
Think of all the things we take for granted in the connection economy, the prizes, the mentoring schemes, the festivals, the networking on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs (!), and now think of a life without any of that save one man you occasionally dare to send your poems to, your champion and curator of your reputation, which in any case you will not live to see. It is insane, isn’t it?
If anyone obeyed the instructions spoken at the end of Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’, it was Hopkins:
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light. (North, 1975)
I am a great believer in the ‘power of the group’ theory of creativity, which says that creative artefacts, including those in the fields of science, politics and sport, are usually made by individuals who are connected to others with similar passions and concerns. Yes, I know in order to get my work done as a poet I need to sit alone and walk and mutter and face down that proverbial empty notebook, but I also know that to get it out there and start connecting and evaluating what I have made, what Godin calls shipping, I need to have a group of like-minded people around me, even if they are far away.
The evidence seems to show that Hopkins lived most of his artistic life without that kind of connection. The amateur psychologist in me (you know you do this too) wants to say that ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ is the inevitable product of living in deep isolation. The realist in me wants to say Hopkins would have written it anyway, whatever anyone thought.
You can read ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ at the Poetry Foundation website
You can find links to other poems in the Lifesaving Poems series here.
Not for one second do I think this the fault of the poem.
My first encounter with it was through Neil Astley‘s anthology Poetry With an Edge, published in 1988. As I have written before, this book came into my life at a time when reading and writing poems seemed as important as breathing. This was mixed with the giddiness of sleepless nights in the early stages of childcare, a heady cocktail, and not always conducive to optimal concentration.
This isn’t special pleading, this is just how it was.
Still in that phase of trying to find and create art in the cracks between working and late night feeding, I found The Way We Live (Bloodaxe, 1987) in a secondhand bookshop in Teignmouth in the autumn of 1995. We were living in London at the time, and, though we did not know it, had begun to feel the pull of the west country, where we now live.
If I am honest, ‘The Way We Live’ passed me by; I was more taken with the poems in the book’s first section, especially ‘November’.
‘The Way We Live’ finally came into my life in October, 1998, at the Arvon Foundation‘s Lumb Bank writing centre. With Siân Hughes, I had been asked to fill the ‘in loco parentis’ role for prizewinning young poets who were being tutored by Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough, for the first ever Foyle Young Poets Award (then called the Simon Elvin Young Poets Award).
As I remember it Jo led a workshop on writing poems of praise and curses. I will always be grateful to Jo that one of the models we worked from was ‘The Way We Live’.
I loved its energy and fusing together of disparate elements to make a coherent whole:
Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
That seems witty to me, both deeply felt and light. What a masterstroke of control to place the notion of ‘unswerving’ after ‘driving fast’, and linking it, over the cliff fall of a line break, to ‘friendship’.
Book-ended with instructions to ‘pass the tambourine’, I don’t think it is overstating it to say the poem is Psalm-like in its intense cataloguing of experience. Creativity-theorists call this kind of openness ‘over-inclusivity’. The poem thus records and is a record of the necessary and sometimes extreme receptivity required to get a piece of work or project completed.
I suspect its lack of judgementalism played a key role in appealing to those young writers that day. The poem presents and accumulates details in a continuous present tense; it does not commentate. In this way I suspect it spoke to them of who they were at that time, as it were holding up a mirror to their lives: here is a poem by a young person: you can do this too! Watching them love it, I loved it.
You can read ‘The Way We Live’ here
You can find ‘The Way We Live’ in Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead: Poems 1980-1994
Read more Lifesaving Poems series of blogposts here
Here is a revelation: I did not always adore the work of Frank O’Hara.
I had pause to consider why this was so at a reading once. In the Q and A afterwards the poet I was reading with said they had detected a strong American influence in my work: ‘Frank O’Hara, perhaps?’ This was told to me in a way rather as one would remind a recalcitrant child that they had stepped in something.
I replied that while I had been reading a lot of O’Hara’s work, I still felt as though I did not get it and that I was missing something.
That changed when I read ‘Why I am Not a Painter’.
Everything I’d read of O’Hara’s up till that point had left me with the impression that it was all jotted down in five seconds, and that no thought had gone into it. Simply, I felt he was not serious.
I was wrong on at least two counts, namely that his poems do not contain thinking and that they are not serious. (Similarly, Kenneth Koch famously said that he was always serious in his poems, even his humorous ones; what he refused to be was solemn).
This had the rather bracing effect of forcing me to re-evaluate everything of O’Hara’s that I had read up to that point. It changed everything, and here is why.
The poem is offhand, casual, definitely not solemn. It is about a very particular social milieu and the chance encounters that take place within it; even though it relates these events straightforwardly, it presents its subject matter (making things, the nature of creativity, having a fulfilled life) as though they are the most important things in the world:
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
I realised O’Hara was serious about the process of creativity that he describes because he refuses to romanticise the act of creativity or the decision to pursue it. He wants to be able to make paintings, but knows he will have to stick at poems. We all do that, I think, at some level, wishing we were like our genius photographer brother or writer we once read with. At the same time he undercuts this status anxiety with wit and humour about the processes he engages with and those he observes in the work of others. The drinking and the talking about what is happening seem as important as showing up to make the work in the first place.
Most of all O’Hara is open to the possibility that much of what we are up to when we make stuff up remains sealed off from us, in a purely rational sense. We know that the word ‘Sardines’/'Oranges’ needs to go into our painting/poem but we do not know why. We live by the decisions we make in such moments, evaluating (‘It was too much’) with a detached mind that at the same time unconsciously controls the response we bring to our work in ways the rational mind cannot:
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
Finally, I felt I would give my arm to write a line as serious, profound and throwaway as: ‘It is even in/ prose, I am a real poet.’ Hilarious can be devastating.
Eye Level blog post on Why I am Not a Painter
Read the rest of the Lifesaving Poems here
Photo Credit: Tatiana Wilson
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.
I first came across An Horatian Notion by Thomas Lux on a tape of a reading he gave at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2000. It’s a commanding performance, by turns controlled, tender and ferocious. Everything about his poetic DNA is there. His hypnotic rhythms and run-on lines spiral and riff close to nonsense sometimes, it seems. I wonder where he actually drew breath. It might be this is what people mean when they call a performance ‘virtuoso’.
And yet, ‘An Horatian Notion’ would have it otherwise. Lux has written that the poem is an ars poetica written in agreement with Horace that ‘poems are made things. They don’t just come down your arm, the poet is a maker (that’s the Greek derivation of the word: poet means maker) not a mere conduit.’
If you need an anti-Romantic definition of creativity, therefore, look no further than this poem. As the quotation at the top of this post explicitly notes, being creative is a social process, not one that happens in isolation. Think of all the great movements in art, writing, sculpture, science, music, dance etc.: they were all developed in a social atmosphere of mutual endeavour and support, encouragement and competitiveness (sometimes).
The poem suggests there is a moment, however, when the solid ‘thing’ we are making seems to take over its own creation, coming into a possession of a life of its own. Psychologist Jerome Bruner calls this a necessary ‘second wind’, where the poem/story/song begins to invent the dream of its own narrative.
I think everyone involved in art-making identifies with and longs for that moment when the object itself begins to dictate the shaping of its own reality, whatever our intentions as artists. As the jazz pianist Earl Hines is supposed to have said: ‘You know when you see me smiling I am lost’.
Lux leaves the reader in no doubt that is ‘work’ (the poem’s final word) and that it is ultimately a decision of the will, not something we wait for or vaguely hope might happen to us:
You need to love the thing you do – birdhouse building,
painting tulips exclusively, whatever – and then
you do it
so consciously driven
by your unconscious
that the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own. Inspiration, the donnée,
the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Grow up! Give me, please, a break!
With thanks to Naomi Jaffa for showing me this video of Lux talking about his poetics