- Humility, Concentration, and Gusto. Okay, Mostly Gusto.
Poetry is a serious subject. But I am not a serious poet. I am not a poet at all. I am a reader of poetry. Don’t get me wrong: I studied poetry and wrote poetry. Alan Shapiro was once my mentor, and he wrote on a poem, “Brian, this is a foolish piece of work; you have the attention span of a hyperkinetic three year old.” I have cobbled this assessment into a career.
But what I lack in seriousness, I make up for with enthusiasm, and this is what my blog intends to address. We must, all of us, as writers, attend to the form we’ve learned and also try to surpass it, break it. We must try to surprise and delight. I talk with other writers about all the rules, grammatical, structural, and legal. The rule of 3’s, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition. About the gun on the stage and how it has to go off, about splitting infinitives, about how too much enjambment will only look like free verse. Avoid—or embrace—the subjunctive mood. A sem icolon is as ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. Eat your beets. Don't feed wild animals marshmallows the way birds feed their young.
Santayana once said, “A great work of art must strive toward perfection.” And then he wrote, “And it must fail.” Perhaps you’ll be appalled to know that I want to speak about poetry in this way. Victorian writer John Ruskin, in his six tenets of good architecture, interpreted this striving as “Savageness”—a love of rudeness and imperfection.
“The demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” Ruskin believed very much in the exploratory and playful aspects of art. He believed in something we cannot quantify or map, really, in writing: Enthusiasm. Which is weird, because every time I see a picture of him, he looks like he just said, “You kids get off my lawn.”
“Enthusiasm” derives from the Greek “enthousiasmos”, that state of inspiration, of being filled or possessed by the god, for which artists might be praised or chastised. In a more secular application we can still speak of enthusiasm as the condition which combines an artist’s concentration, preoccupation, attentiveness, and excitability. In social life it is usually called “intensity”, as in, “Damn, he’s so intense.” It’s a vaguely accusatory description of an artist’s extreme and discomforting alertness. Ruskin was intense.
Enthusiasm does not excuse lack of talent and craft. But it has to be present in great writing. E.M. Forster had something to say about enthusiasm, or rather, his characters had something to say, the one who waltz happily, then sadly, through Italy in Where Angels Fear to Tread. One evening, the British tourists of that novel decide to go to an amateur opera in the fictional town of Monteriano. “There was a drop scene, wherein sported many a lady lightly clad, and two more ladies lay along the top of the proscenium to steady a large and pallid clock. So rich and so appalling was the effect… There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty’s confidence. This tiny theater spraddled and swaggered with the best of them, and these ladies with their clock would have nodded to the young men on the ceiling of the Sistine."
This is just the sort of enthusiasm and confidence that seem out of favor in this day and age. "Enthusiasm", like "amateur" and "fail", is a four-letter word. But maybe that's because I am shackled in the ivory tower, where amateur is hard to assess or quantify. So follow me to Ruskin's and Forster's Sistine Chapel with me, which, if not beautiful, attains to beauty's cofidence. Also, we can look at wild animal attacks and boobies and suchwhat. In church. I'll explain later (but look over there. BOOBIES. In church. And I think that's the chick from Starbuck's.)