Updated: Jul 23
It’s a peculiar situation that writers find themselves in, isn’t it? We work in solitary, spiritual prisoners of our own devising, away even from others doing the same work—even artist colonies keep us apart during the work day.
But then, after that day’s work ends in inevitable failure or the startle of success, we want others around, even need them around. But we want this in a special way: because we do not necessarily want them around as real entities.
We want (maybe I should say, I want) the idea of others, that is, the idea that they could be there, whether they are or not. And we want them there not to lament the failure or to rejoice in the success, but to be there, part of the world that comes after the writing.
I said the situation was peculiar. Maybe I should have said strange.
This idea of the community of others is one kind of informal, virtual, but necessary community. There is another kind, the factual or real community, created, ongoing, institutionalized: an actual thing. It is the kind produced by and from writing workshops, and readings, and teaching—by intention and effort.
Both are important, both necessary. I want to explore notions about them in this post.
The situation of the poet is that we practice our sullen art (apologies to Dylan Thomas for dropping the “craft” of his characterization in favor of the option) alone, in an effort that is not and cannot be communal.
The art requires our journey into darkness as individuals who carry only what we are, seeking to bring something back into the light. Our fidelity to that experience makes our poems true for us in the moments of creation and for those who will later read what we have made.
The work is ongoing, of course. There’s a line of Paul Valery’s that captures the necessary intensity of the work as well as the inevitable failure of the effort: “A poem is never finished,” he says, “it is only abandoned.” I love that.
It is our failures—for every poem fails its inspiration—that we must live with and acknowledge, afterwards, if we are honest. They are not sharable, except as an accumulated weight, a burden we carry until the next poem is finally abandoned, and the burden is replaced.
The journey and the fidelity to it, the failure of abandonment, the solitariness, the success, and so much else specific to the task, are what make the writing life different than others.
What I say here applies to other artists as well, I think; but I am not a painter, sculptor, and do not engage in other arts, so I cannot speak with much certainty about them.
Here’s the thing I want to stress: that every other human activity I can think of, even the most abstruse, has its stresses and strains, its pressures, its integrity; but all have at least the comfort of collaboration. The experience of poets is unique to the poetry community, and even unique, sui generis, to each writer.
So who else can we share it with at day’s end except another writer, someone who could understand the experience in the way we do? I don’t mean we want or need to talk about it, though of course some do; only that there is a common knowledge, a common frustration that brings and binds us together, that is the bridge between us. The secret is that we could talk about it, whether we do or not.
In my case, it is after creation of the work, or more likely, after a day of work at the process of creation (for per Valery, the process does not end) that community becomes important. What do I want at that point? Everything. Nothing. Contact. Appreciation and support, I suppose.