*today: a special guest post by the poet Lianuska Gutierrez (bio below) on the artistic temperament and the inscrutable text, complete with footnotes and nary a word about the Indian cricket team.*
A Facebook poet pal recently endorsed this quote on her page: “People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.” –attributed to Calvin, close associate of Hobbes. She explained her stake in this satisfying jibe– that inaccessible poetry does not go far enough to communicate, it merely expresses, like infantine babble at its worst; it stays mired in “linguistricks”1 and dismisses the sober task, the role the poet can take if he or she chooses, of communicating to a public, more than leaving them stumped and alienated. One responder to the post lampooned the “sensitive artist,” that writer (as snarled out by Larry in the film Closer) who cannot breathe the same air as the common folk, who stands apart, who says again and again, “I stand apart”. The one who whines in this way, who asserts his difference with arm across forehead on a fainting sofa, must be a pretender, is the implication. He wants to feel special; he has a major minus hidden in his gut, a lack he cannot face, so he forcibly pushes down the crowd to stand aloft on their shoulders, engendering a sham and show, with himself as cynosure.
Hold up– I guess the real artist must then be a modern-day cowboy, who girds his feelings- gives no sign of having an “artistic temperament,” that plumelike nonsense. He can hold it, whatever his burden; everyone suffers, and to single out your own story is asinine. He crumples in private. What he feels, he puts on the page, and even then, you will not catch him writing about his difference. He is part of a brotherhood, a uniformity- a collective not cold but reticent- which grants him integrity. In his plainness and sobriety, he cannot be accused of counterfeiting. He has no surplus that drives him to create, no difference, nothing special to teach.2
Well then he can save it, I think. I mean, let him express, but I don’t know that he communicates, what the other ‘side’ with whom I engaged in discussion wants and expects him to do. If communication is the reinscription of the familiar and redundant, how is it meaningful, how does it earn its name, how is it any viable currency (past reassuring, throwing back a lulling mirror image of completeness and finitude that needs no more pulling, no more growth)? On the other hand (–to return to the butt of the joke, the tossing bull, trussed by the non-histrionic cowboy), while the assertion of personal difference can be asinine and deluded, I think it can also be a dare (when the writer knows to anticipate a rejoining smack), or a plea. The writer who ‘fancies’ he has something important to tell– well, he may. One way to understand this is that he may have the access to and the capacity to delineate a peripheral subjectivity. More broadly (political stake put aside), he may have the ability to body the heretofore ineffable. He may be visionary, a word weighted with the start or the revelation of something, an imminent futurity or a now so deeply embedded in our world that it has been palpated by some, but not seen from a panoramic altitude, and not previously spoken, let alone with the redolent precision of the artist who heralds it.
The problem with these claims is that they need proving. To be proven, for the texts created by these self-said different voices, who often express differently as well, to be worked with and given a chance, there first needs to be trust and allowance, rather than dismissal as a first gesture. (And in fairness, there needs to be a thread to grab in the work, a ‘logic’, of any kind, in fact there to parse.) Naturally, there is cynicism hailed at a writer who purports to know in a way above the heads of others, because we enshrine our writers the way we do celebrities, there is a glamour and mystique afforded to the writer who has done something singular and moving; so there are many aspirants in the game, and some surely try to inhabit a loose template of ‘specialness’. Some may move toward it too without even realizing their volition—along the way, they just picked up on what gained repute for being affecting, the makings of lore, the (crossfired) injunction to be unexpected and memorable (if not sellable in the moment, if we’re talking about this “it” factor marring/making the text, a la Steinese or Joycean), and they incorporated this image and thrust in a gulp, automatic as synaptic fusion. They were imprinted. They are not meaning cheats.
The idea of anyone made of a special fiber is indeed a sticky one. It soft-shoes into hierarchism, which is very unpalatable, to some. At the same time, hierarchism is obviously staple; the world ranks and makes no apologies for this. But an essential betterness, rather than success born of any story and any mode of being, as long as these are limned with craft? This exclusion does not fit with the contemporary climate. We are still in multiple postmodernity, and in this there is a blessed democratic spirit. However, paradoxically, a kind of writer and his output are seen as undemocratic, and often gagged. What does not have some readily gaugeable, hefty measure of utility and assimilability, is not as welcome. The one discomfited by or hostile to opaque work and to the notion of the one behind it having peepers on a more deepset reality, having feelers out to something that remains beyond (conscious or linguistic) awareness for many others, may ask: How dare anyone try to define a writer, try to bridle him with anguish (or elation, logically- access to a sublime beyond), ascribe to the artist a surplus sensitivity, or knowing (-in a separate sphere from heart?)? The complaint here is two-part, and a little scared—how can that sad papery person, knock-able by any gust, be lionized; and how dare you try to keep me relegated in this enterprise, which is multivocal, which has room for all? There is no requisite constitution here. There is no such thing as an artistic temperament. The hermetic text must be a put-on, it is showing off, it is pretending specialness. If the critic and more realist writer does not fully believe this, he still insists on it, because the dispute more fundamentally concerns hegemonies (-not only, some are truly invested in a poetry that can reach many and that can survive in the market, even if by conformism). Everything is a power struggle, and the writer who prides himself on his legibility may think, You mean to leave me by the wayside, so I’ll preempt you. It is easier for him to win this war, because the common voice (-not barring its elegance and imagination), is more common; he has a larger battalion of artists on his side. He may disagree, he may be able to pull out a long list of inscrutable poets. But then, he has more of an audience, and he will not abet the esoteric poet in catching up; he will not beg effort for the hermetic text. (A caveat: some surely don’t have this hegemonic outlook, they only want to understand the text, and they make an earnest request for more giving from the poet; they speak from the position of reader, not contending artist.)
We allow for leaders in every field, we do speak of people’s gifts, and certainly Americans like self-assertiveness, healthy confidence (not quietude, not nay-saying the self). Why does the writer- a kind of writer- the tragic clown- who anoints himself (veritable) artist, who calls himself a leader, earn instant distrust in some circles? One charge is that of intellectual arrogance; but I’m confronted at this point also by the shadow ‘feminine’ other. Could it be that if a seminal strength in this field is a more salient emotionality (if not in itself, to alert one, like hackles up, to a thinking man’s quarry; or in itself, as the means to insight and base of an alive text, and as the foundation for any valid ethic, which a literary work cannot do without), then this cannot be a strength? Even if it is… it cannot be, avowedly, audibly. The kind of artist with blurry edges, who spills out, who is permeable, who feels in an overlarge way, is an unsavory leader. If he then brandishes his taint as a boon, it is just too much.
But difference does not always call attention to itself, not purposely. This difference may show itself in the cryptic, difficult text, but this may not be a flaunt- or a shaming, by the same token (of all the lame same-os! –the imputation imagined by some), of the community that needs an accustomed legibility to consume a text. Sometimes ideas need more than banality to gain expression. Or if the writer does strive to mime his own singularity textually, it may not be for the sake of gaining notoriety- out of egoism; it may not be an uppity move or have a cheap aim; his intention may be humane– a task put to the reader that is meant as practice in empathic widening. The unfamiliar, including the difficult, elusive text, has ethical traction; it calls for a patient, volitional effort toward what is other/the other. Why should one have easily readable signs brought to one on a platter at all times? This is poetry, not a 911 emergency; we can take some time here. The mandate to be clear can be dictatorial and dangerous; it hits against the immanent. The immanent is the as yet undisclosed, or the unable to be disclosed but present. A silent body, or a body (being or text) below common expressivity, gets swept into the category of the invisible and absent, no matter what may lie under the surface. The text (the writer) can help it (perhaps); the real subject cannot; for the subject, the text should be intractable (in deference to the subject; as training which benefits the subject; to communicate while retaining an adequate trace of the topical enigma– to give an honest rendition, to truly evoke– the text must stay close to phenomenal consciousness, even as it rises above it to testify of it what it can, to steep the reader as far as possible). The mainstream voice that wills itself as exemplar makes me uncomfortable because this world is ruled already by an ethos of visibility, and so, ready legibility. A text that makes you work stokes an empathic practice of coming near to the other rather than shutting down when faced with the unfamiliar, in frustration, or even worse, in presumptive disbelief that anything worthy or kicking can lie beneath that palimpsestic surface. This is a kind of violence. For example, because animals do not express as we do, many assume there is no depth or keenness there, when in truth, an animal can be far more a repository of feeling than a human. They perceive, they know, they discriminate, but all of this happens on a visceral, sensational, intuitive level (or it happens ‘linguistically’ too, a species has its mode of communication, its utterances that signify); so much, and of such an intensity, has to go on inside nonhuman animals (and anyone who spends time with animals recognizes and gets to know their signage), and it is often called nothing because people insist on their own signs—on speech at all.
The difficult poetic text benefits marginal subjectivities. The artist who writes in this way may not want to appear sophisticated (and if this is on his mind in some measure, it may be part of the bid for credibility), and he may not be one nursing illusions of difference in order to feel big. He may really have something to tell that defies familiar categorization, operates in an uncommon logic (but a logic nonetheless- even psychosis has a logic; metaphor presents a new logic; etc.), and that is not easily relatable. I think that one purpose of poetry is to represent the yet un-figured. What is wrong with learning about someone not quite like us, who has passed through different experiences, whose mind may function differently? Some find this imperative, they have been schooled in this moral openness; others see cause for opposition to this. Not everyone wants to know, say, what makes a killer tick (an ethic on the side of the victim may draw the line with that); and not everyone cares to know how a ‘weak’ subject operates, they do not want the contamination (–the mindset that someone who is excluded deserves to be). But to learn about another’s suffering (the plaintive artist…) causes us to be more careful with each other. This suffering, scoffed at by those who laugh at the caricature of the suffering artist- so that the burden with which the person lives is made more unbearable by denial- may be rarefied, but relevant. For one, the person suffering lives in this world and needs deferring to like any other. If people do not know what his sensitivities are (maybe based in trauma or disability- both utterly private experiences, which to gain articulation may need for language to reach and push, may necessitate the invention and deployment of strategy, over an accustomed discursive route), if he does not take it upon himself to make his susceptibilities and discernments known, then he gets steamrolled repeatedly. Secondly, the marginal subject is rarely totally alone; his work will resonate with others, with a coterie who will find him needful, who will see him as one who gets it. Even when there is a small group with very specific interests, they still need a voice in the body politic, representation and protection. And concerns that seem very limited, in terms of who is affected, may not be; the problems spied out may be constellatory, tie to many things taken for granted, called inevitable, in the society, or seen already as not passable, all undergirded by a certain ideology.
So, the ‘sensitive artist’ who wants to talk may be well-motivated, worth listening to, endowed like any other with a right to speak- and maybe earmarked because he cares more, he has more need. His enterprise may not be egoistic, it may be based in an ethic of connectivity, of responsibility to the other. And if his text is hermetic, this may be strategic, in benefit to said ethic, or it may be because he is speaking something into existence and has to jostle words out of what they normally do and challenge typical notions of coherency. No lie.