A few years ago I moved to what seemed to be a nice apartment, in an odd, nonresidential, part of town, in an old triangular building that stood on a corner all by itself. As it turned out it was an awful place to live. The building was too small and the apartments were too close together. The least bit of noise carried through the whole building. My apartment was on the second of three floors so I got noise both from above and below. About a year into my time there some extremely noisy people moved in below me and that was the last straw: I was miserable and had to move, which I did after not too long a time.
However, there was an interesting and encouraging aspect to this experience. I found that despite the noise and mutual animosity, and my intense anxiety resulting from it, I was able to write poetry. I couldn’t read without a lot of effort, it was difficult to watch TV or listen to music, but fairly frequently I was able to write poems, a surprising percentage of which were pretty good, and quite a few of which were accepted at magazines relatively quickly.
The fact that I could write despite the adverse conditions reminded me of Mark Strand’s poem “My Life by Somebody Else,” which follows:
My Life by Somebody Else
By Mark Strand
I have done what I could but you avoid me.
I left a bowl of milk on the desk to tempt you.
Nothing happened. I left my wallet there, full of money.
You must have hated me for that. You never came.
I sat at my typewriter naked, hoping you would wrestle me
to the floor. I played with myself just to arouse you.
Boredom drove me to sleep. I offered you my wife.
I sat her on the desk and spread her legs. I waited.
The days drag on. The exhausted light falls like a bandage
over my eyes. Is it because I am ugly? Was anyone
ever so sad? It is pointless to slash my wrists. My hands
would fall off. And then what hope would I have?
Why do you never come? Must I have you by being
somebody else? Must I write My Life by somebody else?
My Death by somebody else? Are you listening?
Somebody else has arrived. Somebody else is writing.
The experience of writing in that unpleasant apartment was exactly as though someone else, or some force coming from outside of me was either doing the actual writing or allowing me to do it. Rather than being a supernatural or mystical experience, I believe that what I experienced, and what is expressed in Strand’s poem, reveal a very important aspect of artistic creation, which is that the creative act does not come from the everyday, practical, rational mind, but from something we could call the unconscious, for lack of a better word. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that there is an “other” resident in our psyches who (or which) is above the stress of everyday life. We could call it “the writing other.” However, this way of thinking about it points out the important truth in Strand’s poem that the “other” arrives when he decides he has to write “My life by somebody else, etc.” by himself. The “writing other” is an aspect of ourselves, not literally some supernatural force that comes from outside.
In antiquity the muses were assigned this function. Epic poems traditionally included an invocation of the muse. Virgil, for instance, starts the Aeneid by asking the muse to “remember, for me, Juno’s anger and its cause” (a rough paraphrase). But again, although he invokes the muse, the muse is not doing the actual writing, Virgil is. He is enlisting the aid of something he thinks of, to one extent or another, as a supernatural force (it’s hard to know how literally this should be taken or whether it was more of a convention, especially by the time Virgil was writing), but again, it is he himself who is doing the actual writing. The muse stands in for the unknowable “other” that writes despite whatever else is going on in our lives.
Of course, the conscious mind plays a very important role in writing, as organizer, critic, reviser, in short, all of the functions that fall under the rubric of “craft.” The function of the conscious mind in the artistic act is like the function of air for a swimmer—a vital necessity at intervals but always in the service of the immersion and momentum of the act of swimming. But regardless of the extent of the involvement of the conscious mind, the impetus and initial creative act in making a work of art, take place below the threshold of consciousness. This is also true whether or not one is creating work that might be partially inspired by the Surrealists, for instance, who were knowingly attempting to invoke the unconscious. Creative work is always from the bottom up, from the inside out, rather than vice versa. Nor is this a new discovery—Plato banned poets from his Republic precisely because he considered them (or they considered themselves) divinely inspired and/or mad. I say this with the reservation that interpretive art (playing someone else’s music versus composing, dance versus choreography, etc.) is less intuitive and comes more from the conscious mind. But I still believe that its genesis, the desire to dance or the relative adeptness with which interpretive artists learn what they are going to perform, and what they bring to the piece as individuals, is not primarily conscious or rational, though it does take a tremendous amount of practice. Also most interpretive art, at least in the last century or two, often involves a certain amount of improvisation, which relies on inspiration in the sense we are describing. These factors also bring up the question of “talent,” the amount of innate ability a performer or creator brings to his or her art, something that cannot be acquired. As a musician, for instance, I hear things some of my fellow musicians do, which I couldn’t duplicate if I practiced twenty hours a day. Talent is as unknowable as the involvement of the “other” (in our sense) in making art. I believe they are related but I’m not sure anyone can know what that relation is. Perhaps an experimental psychologist might be in the best position to answer this question.
However in asserting these beliefs I have almost forgotten that the ability to call up the “other” part of me that writes is something that was not always as easy as it is now. It isn’t easy now either, but compared to when I first began writing poems it is relatively easy. I think the ways in which writers teach themselves to write (and this must be true to one extent or another for all art forms) is a very individual thing, and yet it is generally true that one gets better (or gives up); that it does become easier with time. Also, now that creative writing has become an academic discipline, aspiring writers have access to a kind of assistance that wasn’t available until recently.
But even with MFA programs, the artist is pretty much on his own when it comes to learning how to make authentic art. I suppose there might be an approach to art that consists purely of craft but I believe it would be relatively sterile. All artists ritualize the creative act to some extent, that is they do something “special” to invoke the “other” that makes art. The “offerings” in Strand’s poem are a bit of a lampoon of the efforts made by the artist to summon creativity. These efforts run a gamut from taking extensive notes and planning a piece exhaustively; or on the other hand, simply sitting for hours staring at the blank screen or sheet of paper; or making numerous attempts to find a first line and throwing them all out; or, in the case of acting, for instance, “preparing” in Stanislavski’s sense; to getting stoned or drunk, using tobacco, listening to music, having a studio outside of the home that is dedicated solely to the practice of one’s art, etc. If we are at all successful starting out this way, we can cultivate the ability until it becomes significantly easier, but it never becomes completely natural or easy. Some sacrifice is always involved.
Strand’s poem is not only a metaphor for this struggle to invoke the “writing other,” but it also recalls similar processes, as, for instance, the ways in which religious favor and/or inspiration were invoked in both monotheistic (Old Testament) and polytheistic (Graeco/Roman) antiquity. In a sense “inspiration” is not a completely spontaneous gift (though sometimes it can work that way), but something we have to “call down.” The word inspiration contains the meaning of “breathing in,” which seems to be a good metaphor for the summoning of the creative impulse. One must purposely inhale the power that allows one to create. This requires offerings of some kind, just as the Cumaean Sibyl in the Aeneid, for instance, requires multiple and massive sacrifices of ritual food before she can be possessed by Apollo and prophesy about Aeneas’s quest. Also in the ancient world, the Nine Muses were worshipped and invoked in a number of ways and had many shrines and natural sites dedicated to them. They were considered the ultimate source of creativity, and there were religious cults centered around them.
But, as Strand’s poem also points out, the artist’s (or at any rate the modern artist’s) sacrifices are always sacrifices of him-or-herself or some aspect thereof, something important to him or her to one extent or another. At the minimum the artist sacrifices what anyone sacrifices for their occupation—time and energy. However in the artist’s case this sacrifice is in the interest of returns that are much more ephemeral and much less sure than those of someone involved in finance, for instance. No wonder artists are looked at as “holy fools” at best, or simply as fools, at worst. Who would willingly undergo the kind of stress most artists experience in the pursuit of developing their craft, voice, career etc., especially when the material rewards are so uncertain? And this is not even to mention the kind of self-destructiveness which the process sometimes seems to require of some artists (there is no need to cite examples).
In his poem “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems,” James Tate has a slightly different and much funnier take on the creative process, and particularly on the act of writing poetry. Here is his poem:
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
By James Tate
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”
There is something that simply rings true about this poem, at least for me. When one is sitting at one’s desk with the blank screen or page in front of one, poised for the moment of composition, one does feel like a god. And indeed the creative process is godlike; one of the major functions of the gods in all mythologies, or cosmologies, is that of creating the world. Any act of creativity carries a godlike echo of the act of creation as portrayed in mythologies in a wide variety of cultures. This is especially true of poetry, since it is a much older form than what we call “fiction,” and historically it has close ties to religious practice.
Tate’s poem is funny because it almost seems that going through the motions of creativity is creativity, and that all anyone (or any animal) really needs is the external accoutrements of creativity (desk, pencil, paper) to inaugurate the poetic (or artistic) act. It has nothing to do with who you are or your own abilities; given the right “setup,” even an ape could do it. There is also an echo of the timeworn cliché regarding abstract art: “My three year old could have done this.”
The ape, of course, is chosen because, at least in popular culture, monkeys or apes are a sort of prototypical representation of the silly or absurd aspects of humankind, possibly because they are so close to us in evolutionary terms. The ape is a kind of lampoon of the human being. Therefore an ape being taught to write poetry with the encouragement that he “looks like a god,” reflects on the act of real human poets in a mocking way. It’s as though the poet’s relation to his or her evolutionary ancestor also connects him/her to the absurd naiveté and hubris of taking on the artistic mantle. And when one considers the act of writing poetry (or making art in general) it does take a lot of hubris to believe that the product of one’s pen, or paintbrush, etc., will have some sort of aesthetic value for other people; that they will appreciate it; that they will be happy to consume it.
More to the point, this focus on the godlike aspect of the artistic act (and particularly the act of writing poetry) again implies the irrational and unconscious aspect of inspiration. Approaching the act of artistic creation, even for an ape, is a vatic function. It requires a shamanic or priestly channeling of the “writing (painting etc.) other,” a “calling down” of the creative force. In a sense the god/poet/ape is sacrificing his private self, letting it go, in order to take on the godlike act of artistic creator.
Again one wonders why? Why do certain individuals feel the need and also have the hubris to express themselves artistically, when the effort is so great and the rewards so intangible? Why bother with something that has no practical utility or function for society? Working on an assembly line seems to have more “use value.” I don’t know if anyone really has the answer, but the question puts me in mind of a quote: “Art is useless to society, but society would be useless without it.”
Ian Ganassi’s poetry, prose and translations have appeared in numerous journals, including Fogged Clarity, Octopus, New England Review, Folly, Map Literary, New American Writing, Interim and Sawbuck, among many others. Selections from an ongoing collaboration with a painter friend have appeared at Zone Contemporary Art in Manhattan and the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, and online at Fogged Clarity. Visit www.thecorpses.com to view almost 200 collages.