the art of creation

The Act of Creation and Its Artifact

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No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.

Walter Benjamin

I don’t think that it has been fully acknowledged, or even admitted, that the writer’s finished product, the artifact, is not as important to its maker as it has been made out to be by critics and scholars; or, to be more precise, that its importance to critics and scholars is infinitely greater than it is to the writer.

This is a state of affairs that is totally at odds with the idea of “the job well done” as that idea exists in professions or vocations other than the artistic. This latter concept is often almost the entire rationale for a given job’s being done at all; and, indeed, the so-called empty job is usually described as that one which has no end product that can be identified with the labor that went into making it, or the job that has no tangible end product at all.

I set aside the profit motive, since what a man is paid for his work most often only accidentally reflects that work’s value. But, curiously enough, for the writer, the end product, the artifact, but testifies to the fact that he is once more unemployed. It is a truism that the successful completion of a poem or a work of fiction leaves the writer with a feeling of relief mixed with a sense of loss and anxiety, but I would go further and say that this completion also leaves him abashed, disgruntled, even in a state of what might be called intellectual despair.

A writer discovers what he knows as he knows it, i.e., as he makes it. No artist writes in order to objectify an “idea” already formed. It is the poem or novel or story that quite precisely tells him what he didn’t know he knew: he knows, that is, only in terms of his writing. This is, of course, simply another way of saying that literary composition is not the placing of a held idea into a waiting form. The writer wants to be told; the telling occurs in the act itself.

And when the act is completed its product is, in truth, but a by-product. The bringing to conclusion of a work guarantees the writer nothing; that is, he cannot, because of the artifact’s presence, know if he will ever produce anything as good as that which he has Just produced. Nor does the artifact preclude the question: Is this as good a job as one can do?

These things are answerable only in the act of writing. By some subtle contradiction, the finished work attests to the writer’s reality only in the eyes of its audience. It is, for them, since they had no hand in its making, almost the writer himself, or at least a legitimate surrogate for him. The writer’s reality is, however, proved to him only in the act of composition.

His finished work is before him as it is before anyone else; he, indeed, is usually as much in the dark about it as the reader who comes upon it for the first time, with the burden that it often proves far inferior to his intention. Eliot, in “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” writes: “What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.”

There is a story told of the late Jack Spicer, reading proofs of one of his books with friends, who pointed out to him that one of the poems in the book was exactly—word for word and line for line—the same as another poem in the book.

To which Spicer replied that the poem had to stay because it was written at a different rime and was, therefore, a different poem. This is only truly understandable in light of Jack Spicer’s practice of writing poems by the process of what he called “dictation,” which I will return to later. We may go back to the middle of the twelfth century, and discover Marcabru, the Provençal troubadour, writing:

I’ll take him on as critic,

who’ll call the meaning, in my song,

of each word,

who’s analytic, who

can see the structure of the vers unfold.

I know it’ll sound absurd, but

I’m often doubtful and go wrong myself

in the explication of an obscure word.

I think these comments on completed work, by three totally different poets, writing out of three totally different traditions, help point to the fact that the act of writing has, for the writer, little to do with the product that issues forth from it: for him, the act itself is the product. When the writer reads his own work he sees, as it were, through it, not to anything so shifting or profound as its meaning, bur to the fact of his existence as the one who wrote.

The work does not testify to his existence, but to the recollection of himself in the act of writing: for the writer to be alive as a writer he must recreate himself or discover his reality again and again. Pound’s disavowal of his early poems as “stale creampuffs,” Dahlberg’s refusal to acknowledge the worth of the remarkable social-protest novels he wrote during the thirties,

Joyce’s impatience with people who wanted to talk about Ulysses after he had begun work on Finnegans Wake: these are not examples of eccentricity or perversity, but instances of candor. The finished work is, for its maker, a kind of intrusion into his life, almost an affront to it. It marks a full stop and guarantees nothing but that which is self-evident; that his work is over. What is most disturbing to him, as I have suggested, is that this completion does not presage anything in the way of future work.

The well-known state called “writer’s block,” and the equally frustrating state in which the writer writes, but writes badly, are bitter and destructive, not because they obtrude between the writer and the finished product, but because they cut him off from the process of creation itself, that process which tells him that he is alive.

Perhaps most unsettling of all is the situation that obtains when one has written with excellence, for excellence does not foreshadow as great or greater excellence to come. The idea that an artist’s work becomes increasingly more sublime as he grows older and, if you will, wiser, is a critic’s idea, a neat method whereby one may judge what critics like to call “growth” or “development.” Writers know better, and it is not at all uncommon that a work of great power and beauty is succeeded by a lesser work.

Literary style is not sharpened or refined by diligence. Rémy de Gourmont writes, with his usual unsentimental clarity: “So little can be learned in the way of style that, in the course of a lifetime, one is often prone to unlearn: when the vital energies are diminished, one writes less well, and practice, which improves other gifts, often spoils this one.”

To retreat into a cliché, for the writer each work, each phrase and sentence, is new, and he is as much working by feel when engaged with new work as he ever was in the past. It is quite literally the fact that the writer’s controlling motto is “Scribo ergo sum”: and the verbs of that sentence are always in the present tense.

In Baudelaire’s great and harrowing prose poem, “À Une Heure du matin,” he writes: “Dear God! Grant me the grace to produce some beautiful lines that will prove to me that I am not the basest of men….” The grace that he asks for is the grace that will enable him simply to work, to prove to himself that he is real, that he is what he is—a poet.

If what I have said has any value, then there must be something particularly ecstatic, mysterious, and sublime in this act of creation, something so infinitely finespun and elusive that no one, including the artist, has ever been able satisfactorily to describe it, much less describe the reasons for its power over the artist.

No one has ever been able to isolate and analyze the link between this act and the artifact that it produces. Why this word and not that one? Why this startling and defining image? Why this metaphor, so blinding in its clarity that it remains unforgettable, and, indeed, often colors the way we see and think of whole areas of experience forever after? When Yeats writes:

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement

he has, in eleven words, isolated a bitter, unidealized, and absolute fact about sexual love, the kind of carnal love that the Greeks called ? ???, delusion and madness, what love was understood to be by the Greeks, and Romans as well, before its idealization as courtly love and its further transmutation into romantic love, which concept still possesses our modern spirit. Yeats, in two lines, recovers 2500 years of pre-medieval Western thought and, more importantly, allows us to see ourselves in its mirror. And when Yeats writes:

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side.

he encapsulates epigrammatically the cultural, ethical, moral, economic, and sexual changes wrought by the industrial revolution on a society that had no idea of how to cope with it. These poetic truths are carried to us by metaphors, those sudden flashings into the light of what has hitherto been hidden from our understanding.

Poets know that metaphors are not literary ornaments that give the poem a pleasing surface polish; they are the very bones of the poem, ways of translating what is unknown or inchoate in the poet’s mind as it has absorbed the data of the world. St. Thomas says:

Now these two—namely eternal and temporal—are related to our knowledge in this way, that one of them is the means of knowing the other. For in the order of discovery, we come through temporal things to the knowledge of things eternal, according to the words of the Apostle (Rom. I. 20): The invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.

And it is the metaphor that allows us to understand “the things that are made.” Our word comes from the Greek ????????, to carry from one place to another, to transfer. And metaphors come, by and large, unbidden; they are part and parcel of this mysterious creative act; they are, indeed, sometimes the entire creative act, for some sublime works of art are, in their entirety, metaphors.

Shelley has said that “the mind in creation is a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” “Some invisible influence.” Lest that be considered the purple effusion of an arch-Romantic, here is Wyndham Lewis, a writer whose devotion to classical principles of composition has perhaps no equal in this century: “If you say that creative art is a spell, a talisman, an incantation—that it is magic, in short, there, too, I believe you would be correctly describing it.

That the artist uses and manipulates a supernatural power seems very likely.” Despite the fact that Shelley says that the artist is used by, and that Lewis says that the artist uses, some outside power, both concur that the power is not, in fact, “theirs.” All right: “some invisible influence”; “a supernatural power.” We may recall Baudelaire’s “grant me the grace,” in which we hear him asking for the power to create.

There are dozens of other comments by dozens of writers on the creative process—from Lorca’s belief that the artist at the peak of his powers is possessed by a duende, a spirit, that permits him to make his art, to Eliot, at the opposite pole, who denies the existence of a friendly demon who presents the writer with the “gift” of a poem but concedes that the creative act is the lifting of “an intolerable burden” and that it is effortless.

His figure is that of a bird who hatches an egg after a long period of incubation but doesn’t know what kind of an egg it has been sitting on until the shell breaks. And in Kafka’s Diaries we read, on his writing “The Judgment,” “The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water.” Andrew Marvell, in “The Garden,” writes:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind Does streight its own resemblance find;

Yet it creates, transcending these.

Far other Worlds, and other Seas;

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green Thought in a green Shade.

Yeats’ “automatic writing” may also be adduced here, as well as Jack Spicer’s reliance on what he called “dictation”; that is, that it is the poet’s “outside” that is important, not his “inside,” and that true poems issue from the former, unclouded by the opinionated ego.

I have gone on at some length about this process of creation in order to make clear my argument: that the process is sublime and that one of the writer’s rationales for his vocation, if any rationale is needed, is the recapture, the re-experience of this sublime state. I don’t agree with Eliot that creation is the shedding of an intolerable burden; or, I should say, that has not been my own experience.

Rather, it has been, for me, a release from a rootless anxiety, the excursion into a state of exhilaration, of freedom, that is explicable neither in physical nor intellectual terms, since it is an uncanny blend of both the physical and the intellectual. It is as if one could think through and into corporeal pleasure, so that the mind might delight in what is rightly the body’s province; or, conversely, as if the body could feel the pleasure that the mind takes in thought. It is a curious truth that when everything is going well, nothing is easier than writing.

When nothing is going well one cannot write at all. In the first instance, one works, certainly, but one works almost flawlessly; in the second, the work is wearisome and frustrating and fruitless, the language that one thought so familiar and malleable becomes intractable and gluey. At best, one writes, at these times, “decent prose”—grammatically correct, syntactically rigorous, logically cohesive—and absolutely wooden. The work has everything but the one thing that all good writing must have—style. One might almost say that to fight the language is to court failure.

Excellence, stylistic excellence, is somehow achieved by that part of the mind that has nothing to do with thought, as we generally consider thought; nor is it done by that part of the mind that says “good morning,” or “pass the butter,” or “I love you.” It is far removed from linear, or logical, thought and is done in a kind of trance or semitrance state, in which this dark corner of the mind performs quite independently.

Proust has gone so far as to posit the idea of the writer as two distinct beings, when he writes: Any man who shares his skin with a man of genius has very little in common with the other inmate; yet it is he who is known by the genius’s friends, so it is absurd to judge the poet by the man, or by the report of his friends…. As for the man himself, he is just a man and may perfectly well be unaware of the intention of the poet who lives in him. And perhaps it is best so.

Proust was speaking here of Saint-Beuve’s denial of Baudelaire’s genius because of his disapproval of the poet’s scattered and wretched life. But the Baudelaire who whined and begged and pitied himself was a Baudelaire who had nothing to do with the poet who wrote Les Fleurs du Mal.

That is one of the reasons why “À Une Heure du matin” is such a great poem, for in it we are privy to the first Baudelaire addressing God and asking Him to allow the second Baudelaire the grace to write; or, to put it more precisely, we see the poet recognize the fact that his poems come from some “other” part of him and are produced with the aid of some power which he does not normally possess.

I have said that the writer works in a kind of trance or semitrance. I don’t really like these words, because they conjure up the image of the artist as a kind of idiot savant, a comfortable image for many people, since it reinforces their prejudice toward the artist as an overgrown child, still dabbling in fantasies.

I think it is instructive that the word “fantasy” has taken on a totally different meaning from its roots, which are Greek. The noun, ?????????, means making visible, from the verb ???????, to become visible, appear, from the verb ?????, to bring to light, make to appear. We have, by denying the etymology of this word, tried to make the artist as discoverer or revealer into the artist as daydreamer.

So, instead of using the words trance and semitrance, let’s rather define this state as one in which the writer is possessed by the will to make, to the exclusion, during this act of making, of all other things. In a sense, he becomes the act itself. In this state, he does not so much invent as find what is already there, find, to return to Proust, the “intention of the poet who lives in him.”

Our word, “troubadour,” is the French version of the Provençal “trobador,” which means, precisely, “finder.” In this state, this magic state, things that are unknown to the writer in his everyday life are found, the clearest example being the discovery of metaphors that will reveal to him what he does not know, that will express to him those things that are there, but there in darkness and obscurity.

This state is surely what Shakespeare had in mind when he spoke of “the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,” if we understand “frenzy” to mean a state of temporary “insanity,” and not, as the vulgar would have it, a description of The Crazy Artist, still one of the philistine’s most cherished inventions, an invention that reinforces his belief that art, since it is produced by maniacs, who are also, let us remember, children, is not to be taken seriously, or not to be taken at all.

To this point, it is interesting to note here that I’ve recently read of psychological studies that have found links between the voices heard by paranoid schizophrenics and the “voices” heard by writers in the act of composition. These latter are not necessarily “heard,” but may be considered to be the power that effortlessly directs the writer’s thought or that he directs.

When he is not composing, he does not hear these “voices”; or, to paraphrase Jung on Joyce, the artist is different from the psychotic because he can will his return from the state in which the psychotic is helplessly trapped. We might say that the “everyday” man in whom the poet lives never enters that state, but the interior poet lives in it always, waiting to assert himself in the act of creation.

It is to the point to remember that Finnegans Wake is in essence a world of voices, all of which continually and unpredictably shift into other voices; it is as if Joyce’s interior voice has been consciously splintered in order to evoke and reveal a state divorced from what we think of as temporal reality. His methods, as he once said, in elaboration of criticism that called the Wake “trivial,” are also “quadrivial,” an absolute exploitation of the mind’s detritus.

But how does this poet who “lives in” this otherwise very ordinary human being select and order the materials used in the work? How does he go about setting down on paper specific elements in specific ways?

Writers’ minds are as full of trash as is the mind of anyone else; writers are subject to the same weaknesses and temptations as anyone else; they are, as is everyone else in the industrialized technocracy that the world has become, bombarded daily by the same endless and disconnected data. How then, does the writer, writing, work?

What happens that permits him to select, from all this jumble of garbage, the items that go to make his poem or work of fiction? If he is lucky, information long lost, or partially remembered, or completely forgotten by the “ordinary man,” is held gingerly by the “other man,” the man inside, and released as it is needed. This release of data is not neat and orderly; the process might be compared to working a jigsaw puzzle which not only does not have an illustrative paradigm as guide, but one in which the pieces themselves are continually changing shape.

While it is presumptuous to speak of how other writers compose, and while it is well-nigh impossible to give a coherent account of how one composes oneself, I hope I may be forgiven if I end these remarks with a brief account, one that is remembered as exactly and honestly as possible, of how I composed part of a chapter of Splendide-Hôtel.

The chapter under discussion is the one titled “R.” First of all, it is necessary to know a little about this book: (1) It is an imaginative and critical foray into the life of Arthur Rimbaud; (2) Rimbaud wrote a famous poem, “Voyelles,” in which he assigned colors to vowels; (3) my own favorite color is orange. I quote the pertinent passages of the chapter:

R is a beautiful letter, ultimately deriving from the Phoenician 4, a tiny pennant. I will it to be an orange pennant, since orange is my favorite color.

• • •

R is a letter of enormous beauty. I take it to be orange. In the context of this work it stands for the poet’s very name. • • •

In 1876, the poet, the monarch of colors, sailed to Java. I imagine his slight smile as he discovered that the ship that would take him there was the Prince of Orange.

The tiny pennant, the Phoenician letter that has the exact shape of a pennant, I have made into an orange pennant, since orange is a color, my favorite color, that appears elsewhere in this book. Its assigned color allowed me to partake of Rimbaud’s invention of vowel colors by here giving a color to a consonant.

The “R,” which is the title of the chapter, gave me the occasion for permitting it to stand for Rimbaud’s name, thereby weaving his name into his color inventions, and, by extension, into my own, and, by further extension, into my designation of him as “the monarch of colors.”

If the poet may invent colors for vowels, why may he not invent colors for all letters? And if Rimbaud, my subject, did not invent all the colors, I, as his surrogate, invented at least one of them, this orange “R.” At this point 1 stuck. The chapter needed closing, some paragraph or phrase or even sentence that would snap it shut as well as coherently incorporate the elements I had already composed. At this point the “poet inside,” if you will, declared his intentions.

The orange pennant, each time it came to mind, presented itself as the sort of signal pennant flown from ships; 1 have no idea why. It may have been because of my recollection of the Phoenicians as mariners par excellence; it may have been because of my memory of the “Death by Water” section of “The Waste Land,” in which maritime imagery and language arc used for effect and whose figure is that of Phlebas the Phoenician.

I submit these data in retrospect, as the reader of my own work; at the time, these shards and bits and pieces of information entered my mind willy-nilly, urging me, it now seems plausible, toward something of which I had no knowledge—or, let me say, toward something of which I had no inkling that I had had knowledge.

Buried in the detritus of my mind was the dim recollection of something—but what?—something I had long ago read in a biography of Rimbaud, the celebrated study by Enid Starkie. Its information had settled in my conscious mind as a series of “major facts,” but it was not “major facts” that the poet within needed. I was sent from my orange maritime pennant to Professor Starkie’s biography to look for something that I was not sure existed; but that “something” was what the “other” Sorrentino knew all about.

The poet within knew exactly what he was searching for; I was, as it were, his agent. And then, in Starkie, I read that Rimbaud “made his way to Holland where he enlisted in the Dutch army to go to Java. He signed on for a term of six years and was given a bonus of twelve pounds. He sailed on 10 June 1876, on board the Prince of Orange….” When I saw that sentence, my chapter had what it needed, my orange pennant, which was also an “R,” which was also the sign for Rimbaud’s name, now flew from this ship, the Prince of Orange, on which Rimbaud, the prince of colors, had sailed, taking with him my personal color.

I tell this story to point to the fact that I insisted on my orange pennant being a marine pennant and I went to Professor Starkie’s book almost as if 1 had certain instructions to do so. In this act of composition, what I had forgotten was not forgotten by the writer who knew how to end the chapter. I was, very calmly and aloofly, manipulating, in some way I did not understand, some outside power, one that enabled me to find what 1 needed.

The entire process was exhilarating, an instantaneous release from anxiety. What seemed to be unsayable became possible to say. Kafka writes: “How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again.” The chapter, as it now stands, written, exists for me as a memory of the act that made it. In a very real sense, a writer’s finished work is, for him, a mnemonic device that allows him the recollection of its creation. The finished work is an artifact; and if it gives its maker pleasure to regard it, it is a cold pleasure. Thomas Middleton writes, in his great tragedy, The Changeling:

A cunning poet, catches a quantity Of every knowledge, yet brings all home

Into one mystery, into one secret

That he proceeds in.

The “mystery,” the “secret that he proceeds in,” is the essence of his vocation, made intense precisely because it is as much a mystery and secret to him as it is to anyone else. The artifact that emerges from this procedure attests to the latter’s absolute reality but can never explain its workings.

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