The other morning I picked up the complete poems of Hart Crane beside me, opened it at a random page and didn’t understand a thing he was saying. Fair enough. It happens with any poet that you sometimes miss their point. I tried another page and poem but didn’t understand a thing either. I tried a third, possibly fourth, until I told myself it could be the early hour and gave it up.
In the afternoon, I casually browsed my old English textbooks, read Skelton, Marvell and the like until Milton. The morning with Crane had depressed me a little beforehand: how can a person like me that cannot understand other people’s poetry expect to write any herself. And now, here was Milton to remind me how pathetic I was.
It is so: I understand what Milton says but I cannot appreciate him. I don’t have the ability for it. I only know that he is great because others say he is, but I cannot pick it up myself. I can pick up Crane’s excellence (in spite of not understanding all his poems, I love how he sounds and the things he does), but not Milton’s. Before the obvious suggests itself, I will counter it by saying that it is not a matter of taste. I dislike T.S.E. but his Love Song of Alfred Prufrock is a masterpiece, and Waste Land is pretty good too. I can keep personal taste out of it.
Obviously I felt pretty downcast and my opinion of myself as a writer sank further until my freshly-found counter-arguments started pouring in:
“Look here, how did you feel like when you opened your neurobiology textbook for the first time? Yes, that’s right, just as you do now – “I don’t understand a thing”. And what happened? By the end of the semester you were able to read it, understand it and do your exam for an A. It just took some work.”
“And didn’t that favourite poem of yours by Crane require a little study too at first? You needed to look up “eidolon” and “cleaving” in the dictionary. Now you know it so well it’s easy to forget the first reading wasn’t 100% smooth.”
“You are a beginner. It’s okay not to understand Milton. Everything has its time.”
I felt much better looking at it like this.
And looking at things like this has managed to fix the problem of my debilitating self-doubt. I still got self-doubt, but it’s not debilitating and I can write under it.
I grew up a Wordsworthian. This means, among other things, that I believed poets were born, not made. I had internalized all the myths of the artist of the Romantic era. I thought that good poets just sat down and wrote good things. That the proportion of effort and study required in comparision to whatever raw talent could produce was low. Oh sweet blessed naivety, eh?
When I wrote a bad poem, I took it to mean that I was hopeless, so I wrote very little or gave things up midway. The natural course of this was that I stopped seeing myself as capable of writing poetry entirely. I used to humorously define myself as having a poet’s soul without being able to write poems. My dream was to be a children’s author and create a character as memorable as Anne Shirley or Sherlock Holmes, but poems were clearly out of my league.
To summarize my error in the shortest way possible: I got the ratio of talent vs. work all wrong. I wasn’t completely insane and did think work/study was important too, but more like in the form of polishing on top of what talent could do.
I feel silly writing about it, but it was, for a very long time, my truth. The new truth hasn’t fully internalized yet, so I do need to have the above conversations with myself a lot. Remind myself how much a beginner I am and how it is okay to be bad.
This stage of my journey has also made me realize that there are some activities out there were beginners get a lot of support, encouragement and appreciation. And then there are those where you are pretty much expected to be good before you come public with your thing. No one expects a first-time surfer to be any good, for instance. If you take up surfing as a hobby, your coach will evaluate you by beginner standards and compare you to other beginners or yourself at an earlier time (not to professionals). Writers don’t really have that. I feel like I need to publicly, explicitly claim my status as a beginner to be permitted to be imperfect. And furthermore, to be permitted to be proud of my improvements too. Even if my work is not yet up to the expected level, if it’s better than anything I’ve done before, it’s an achievement to me. But I feel this all I must forcefully claim to myself.
It is also quite lonely at the start. For many years I dreamt of finding someone who believed in me and would teach me or write with me. I felt I could do nothing without such a person because my self-doubt wouldn’t let me. When I had given up on it, I did find a person who believed in me and who encouraged me to pursue poetry over prose. That was quite a novel thing and I resisted it initially. Probably still do (but I’m studying/writing poetry currently to practice in general). I wrote my best poem to date in response to his excellent suggestions. But he didn’t become my teacher. I have become my own teacher and it’s going well as far as our cooperation goes. My role is mostly to treat myself as a beginner, make sure I compare my writing to my own previous work (not Emily Dickinson’s or Yeats’s!), challenge myself to try writing different things, procure myself new books and authors to learn from and all this with a deliberateness I haven’t felt before.
I have come to see poetry as a craft (like embroidery or music-box making) and myself as a crafter. This is giving me back my ability to be meticulous and slow. When I was about twelve, I was good at embroidery and enjoyed doing it. At about twenty-three, I had lost it. I recall trying to finish an older abandoned project and being frustrated I couldn’t achieve the same quality any more. Partly due to my job, perhaps other factors I can’t name, my approach had come to be about bold sweeping strokes, about getting a thing done. I had an impatience for the result. It was all about making it look good on the outside, while nevermind the minutiae or how one gets there. Obviously, it’s not a good approach to embroidery, while it may work for knitting (it does!). Poetry is closer to the former.
My writing experience these days is approaching, brushing against rather, the feel I had for embroidery at twelve. Not quite there, but closest I’ve been and it feels good.
What else is there to add? Oh yes. Hart Crane. On the evening of that same day, I read that he was actually known for his “difficulty”. Many far more competent people (like critics and such) hadn’t understood all he wrote. This made me cheerfully uplifted. Ah-ha. So mine was discerning criticism then, not sheer incompetence.
It’s a beautiful little craft.