Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Value of Poetry






Today, after teaching, I delved into a book that just arrived in mailbox today, a book of James Dickey's letters. The book is called Crux, after the title of the book Dickey was working on when he died. (Many people will remember Dickey as the novelist who wrote Deliverance.)

In the Introduction to the Dickey letters, the editor, Matthew J. Bruccoli reveals the last words Dickey spoke to his poetry composition students before he died, just two days later. I want to reproduce Dickey's last words to his students because I need to type them out. When I type passages out, they become a part of me. And I think some of my friends in the blogging world will be moved by Dickey's words. So many of us are striving to give ourselves to our creative lives. It's wonderful, then, to read the words of someone like Dickey, who loved poetry as he loved life. (I think you can use "poetry" interchangeably with any artistic endeavor, any act of creation).

In reading the following passage tonight, I was struck by how similar my thoughts are to Dickey's. I have discussed in my blog many times how I think art and religion are the same for me. Dickey also thought the creative life was connected somehow to God. He said the following life-affirming things even as he knew he did not have long to live. So one of the last things he talked about was the importance of poetry. Here is what he said:

When we get started, I want you to fight this thing through. Fight the thing through that we start with your own unconscious and your own dreams and see where it comes out. That's the excitement and the fun of it. Deep discovery, deep adventure. It's the most dangerous game and the best.

Flaubert says somewhere that "The life of a poet is a hell of a life. It's a dog's life. But it's the only one worth living." You suffer more, you're frustrated more. All the things that don't bother other people. But you also live so much more. You live so much more intensely and so much more vitally and with so much more of a sense of meaning of consequentiality. Of things mattering instead of nothing mattering.

This is what's driving our whole civilization into suicide. The fear that we are living an existence in which nothing matters very much or at all. ...A sense of non-consequence, a sense of nothing, nothing matters. No matter which way we turn it's the same thing. The poet is free of that. He's free of it.

To the poet everything matters, and it matters a lot, and that's the realm where we work and once you're there you are hooked. If you're a real poet you're hooked more deeply than any narcotics addict could possibly be hooked on heroin. You're hooked on something that is life-giving instead of destructive. Something that is a process which cannot be too far from the process that created everything. God's process. ...

What this universe indubitably is is a poet's universe. Nothing but a poetic kind of consciousness could have conceived of anything like this. That's where the truth of the matter lies. You are in some way in line with the creative genesis of the universe in some way, in a much lesser way of course, because we can't create those trees or that water or anything that's out there. We can't do it but we can recreate it. We are secondary creators.

We take God's universe and we make it over our way and it's different from his. It's similar in some ways, but it's different in some ways. The difference lies in the slant. The slant that we individually put on it and that only we can put on it. That's the difference and that's where our value lies. Not only for ourselves but for the other people who read us.

The other people who read us. There's some increment there that we make possible that would not otherwise be there. I don't mean to sell the poet so long or to such great length, but I do this principally because the world doesn't esteem the poet very much. They don't really understand where we're coming from. They don't understand the use for us or if there is any use. They don't really value us very much. We are the masters of a superior secret, not they. Not they. Remember that when you write. You are at the top level and they are down there with ... the general idols of the schlock culture we live in. ...

My grandmother was born in Germany and she used to quote from Goethe a lot and one of her favorite sayings was, "Whoever strives upward, him we can save." ...we must find some way to write as though our hands were the hands of someone miraculously superior to ourselves. This is what we aim for.

So when you begin to say things you didn't know you knew or you never had any idea you had any notion that you knew, then maybe you're getting somewhere you should be as a poet. Not invariably, but it's possible under those conditions. It's possible. ...

18 comments:

beths front porch said...

"They don't really understand where we're coming from. They don't understand the use for us or if there is any use. They don't really value us very much. We are the masters of a superior secret, not they."

What if, just if, blogs are a way to reach, share our secrect, and pull those who are willing to stretch, with us? What is our responsibility to teach and to share the superior secret, to make ourselves and the secret accessible, once we know that is who we are? If the statements Dickey says are truths for us as artists--and by artist I mean anyone engaged in creative, constructive work--how can we bridge the gap between "us" and "them"...? I can't help but think of Ghandi..."we must be the change we want to see in the world." So many thoughts I have emanating from your post Theresa...thank you, as always! ~Beth

ggw07 said...

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!"
Goethe
What a valentine. Thanks much.
Gretchen

ckays1967 said...

"To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there's the rub."

--From Hamlet


Shakespeare knew too.


You live so much more intensely and so much more vitally and with so much more of a sense of meaning of consequentially. Of things mattering instead of nothing mattering.


Instead of living inside of myself I am always seeking, I think that's partly what this is saying. Artistic people seem to recognize that it all matters, completely.


This is yummy, yummy stuff. I shall go broke buying the books I must have to survive.


But, thank you.

Judith HeartSong said...

interesting. I need to think on this a bit. It is the creative souls that I hold in the highest esteem..... and many I know also do.....
But I totally agree that there is a difference in the feeling and experiencing of life for the creative soul.
Lovely post.

McFawn said...

James Dickey, from what I understand, was in the Oscar Wilde stamp of "my life is my art"...meaning they lived as artistically as they wrote. In Des Profoundis, Wilde says he "stands in symbolic relation to the world" which I take to mean that the writer, or poet, is not only a creator of symbols, but a symbol him/herself. What does it say about the world that it necessitates poets? Or that they are largely overlooked? Or that their task is so abstract, yet so urgent? (How many times have I felt desperate to communicate somthing totally diffuse, even in my own mind? How can something so intangiable demand such tangiable action?) I like Dickey's words because they make the whole enterprise seem noble...the poet as the symbol-maker, and as the symbol itself of the strain of humanity trained on the idiosyncratic (not heaven, not an agreed upon god, but your own "slanted") beyond. Thanks for ths, Theresa.

Paula said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, so very, very much.

Vicky said...

Theresa, I like this very, very much. And I can see how it must resonate with you. And I agree, it goes beyond poetry to all art.

But there is one part that bothers me a little, and that comes from the depths of my egalitarian soul. It is his reference to the superiority of the poet's (artist's)existence:

"We are the masters of a superior secret, not they. Not they. Remember that when you write. You are at the top level and they are down there with ... the general idols of the schlock culture we live in. ..."

Yes, the poet/artist is different, and indeed very likely more sensitive. But does that make him or her superior? More fortunate, maybe. (Or less fortunate, given the pain that accompanies such sensitivity.) But superior? I don't believe so. Regardless of who we are, we are all equal in this place.

But I do love the idea of the poet/artist being "in line with the creative genius of the universe in some way..." Now that may well be true, and in that case, what an honor, what a gift - to be treasured.

Thanks for bearing with my streams of thought and thank you, as always, my friend, for providing so much food for thought.

Love, Vicky

Theresa Williams said...

Ah, Vicky, how to explain it? I think, maybe, Dickey, who knew he was very near death, sought to compensate for what he saw as a great wrong done to artists. He perhaps overcompensated, but I give the dying man his due. (sigh) Thanks, as ever, for your wonderful insights, my friend.

Anonymous said...

I am reading this post the day after Valentine's Day and I am weeping. Weeping. Another Valentine's Day without a lover--to be divorced is only slightly better than to be in a bad marriage--another Valentine's Day without a publishing contract. Yes, I agree with Vicky. Dickey's words move me, except for the notion of superiority. To the hungry soul, a poem is food. But to the hungry body, a potato is a poem. Who am I to rank the value of a farmer and a poet as if it were possible to do? I do not want to compare them. I only want to appreciate both, and be the one I was meant to be. Tea Grapple is back!

Tom said...

Dickey writes, "Deep discovery, deep adventure. It's the most dangerous game and the best." As I view this quote in terms of the introspective life, I find that discovery of self brings about the excitement of new challanges. Successfully meeting them constitutes "the thrill of victory." But this self-discovery is a dangerous game, because in failure, one suffers "the agony of defeat." Persistence is the compass in this deep adventure. A poet's universe is truly a hard, but noble one.

Paula said...

Thoughts on what Vicky said:

Dickey didn't say that the poet was superior. He said the SECRET is superior and that the poets are the masters of the secret.

He also said, "we must find some way to write as though our hands were the hands of someone miraculously superior to ourselves. This is what we aim for."

I might press that "ourselves" could be the poets and would-be poets he speaks to, but it could also be the we who are a part of a civilization drawn to suicide.

Striving to be superior, or reach a level of superiority, can be quite honorable...and it does not necessarily conflict with the ideals of egalitarianism.

Theresa Williams said...

Paula, you unlocked the true meaning of the passage for me. Thank you.

Vicky said...

Well, yes, I see what Paula is getting at, and I agree that Dickey says that the secret is superior. But he also says the poet is "on the top level," and not "down there" with the "general idols of the schlock culture..."

Look, I know nothing of Dickey - have to confess that your quotation may have been my first encounter with him (other than the movie, Deliverance). And if you admire him, Theresa, then he must be very special. But I do worry when I see someone as seeing himself, or his art, as being on a level above others or the beliefs of others. That is my extreme form of egalitarianism - possibly born of an inferiority complex - and I don't expect others to agree necessarily. I could expound, but I don't want to hijack your blog. Maybe I will expound on mine!

My two cents, Theresa - and thanks for the food for thought.

Gannet Girl said...

Ah, and what is Emily told toward the end of Our Town, when she sees from the next world how truly beautiful each moment on earth is, and asks whether anyone really understands it while they are living their ordinary lives? Something like,

"The saints and poets, maybe. They do some."

Erin said...

Theresa--beautiful entry! I was especially inspired by the portion fo the Dickey quote having to do with "secondary creators". Genius! And I know Dickey himself did this masterfully in his own poetry. His "nature" was like ordinary nature, but with the slant he describes.

V said...

Theresa, Dickey was one of the first poets I directly posted in my AOL J. I think Goethe was second.

I`m going to have to post some thoughts on this. See what you do to me?

V

V said...

Theresa I think Dickey was making a value judgment of his life as his time was dwindling. A little hyperbole about an artist`s value has been earned.
V

Theresa Williams said...

Vince, I think you are right. In the interview at http://james.dickey.com/audio.html Dickey talks about how he thought poetry was a higher calling than fiction. He valued poetry and poets above all.

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