(originally posted October 2010)
I’m currently reading a book of essays by Stephen Dobyns, “Best Words Best Order”–a book that I now consider an ESSENTIAL read for any writer, especially poets! Halfway through it I feel both challenged and inspired–and a little daunted too, I suppose. The essay that I just finished reading on Rainer Maria Rilke has been in my mind, raising different questions about my work and growth as a poet.
In the essay Dobyns charts the writerly growth of Rilke, and claims that talent is merely potential, the promise of possibility–but that it takes more. Talent isn’t enough. Determination, ambition, energy and gall as well as the need to have one’s ego serve the writing (and not the reverse). Most poets go through two stages of a three stage process, but the third stage is where the difficulty lies. Dobyn’s points us toward Rilke’s explanation of the final stage:
- A willingness to face and forgive all the nastiness (insanity) that the unconscious mind dredges up.
- The need to look (at something) without imposing one’s prejudices, without any ulterior motive. (to be concerned about telling the audience about one’s loves and hates is not to make art.)
- To measure the work against your conscience. Are you truthful in your gazing?Are you being influenced by outside concerns: fame, money or love? Is it the totality of your craft? Are you lying about its completion?
- The need of unconsciousness. Whoever meddles, arranges, injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility is already disturbing and clouding their activity. Ideally, should be unconscious of his insights. (Rilke made distinctions between ‘making’ and ‘revising’ and the making was the unconscious part.
- The final point is that the artist must not turn his/her back on any subject. If it catches his gaze, he is not permitted to turn his back on it
I think I am in the second stage, where Dobyns describes most MFA grads to be in–I’ve learned some important things from my MFA, like how to write with clarity, streamline my writing, and, most important, how to truly revise. These are all good things but the downside to learning in an MFA invironment is that I’ve learened a certain “correct” way of writing, so the challenge for me will be to deviate from the way I’ve been taught to write (not only in my classes, but by the poets I read and admire). I think that I need to take more chances to push into that third stage–but what to do when “taking a chance” feels more like “making a mistake”? I guess that is where being completely “pure” and having no training in writing can be an advantage–never taught what is the “mistake” just completely leaning on intuition. although nothing is new under the sun, so maybe having that education can save me from making mistakes a poet who never attended any writing classes might make. I have often thought that my work progressed much faster than it would have if I had not attended undergrad creative writing classes and much faster if I had never gone for my MFA. I don’t know if either degree pushed my writing in a different direction–who can tell anything from the emotion-wrought high school poems from my old diaries?–but I would count them, however formative they might have been, as positive influences in my writing.
Its something to think about but maybe not to fret about. I believe that the best way to improve is through voracious reading, habitual writing, and giving no regard whatsoever to the possibility of having a work published until the work is completed.