There's a charming anecdote about Larkin and Amis from the old days. After they'd both achieved some recognition, both as writers of verse and fiction, these two long-time friends enjoyed getting together, drinking, and making up scatological limericks. What good limericks aren't dirty, you ask? The question I'm inquiring about is the effect friendship has on creativity, and the consequences of confusing friendship with other qualities (or values), such as inspiration, or importance, or opportunity.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Poetry & Friendship--Connectedness & Originality
It takes both skill and a sense of naughty fun to make up dirty limericks on the run, and when you're good and drunk it can lead to unbridled hilarity. Collaboration may rear its ugly head, as well, as alternative lines are proposed and vanquished by even more outrageous (and ingenious) inventions. Amis and Larkin, two of Britain's best-known and most popular writers (Larkin eventually became his country's favorite poet, whilst Amis more or less abandoned poetry to pursue the writing of popular comic novels, for which he demonstrated a considerable facility; both had long careers; Amis was never more, really, than a witty light verse "practitioner"), would not have believed that their respective talents would benefit from a mutual association, either "professionally" (in academia or publishing), or creatively (in assisting in or managing each others' writing careers). They were too smart to think that.
The history of literature is filled with examples of the effect of influence of one writer upon another, or of writers being associated with a certain style or conceit (usually invented or perfected by a single, dominant individual voice). The first generation of New York School poets were famously friends for the first decades of their careers, wrote "to" each other, and often thought of their works as a sort of extended aesthetic colloquy upon common themes--especially, in the case of those four (Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and Schuyler)--in relation to painting and the plastic arts. Living in New York may seem, at times, like inhabiting a small country in which everything of importance is happening right in your extended neighborhood, particularly among those who may be of the same generation, or interact socially. But the phenomenon is not confined to the metropolis: Black Mountain participants have shown an equivalent brand of stubborn solidarity, over the years, protecting and preserving their franchise through thick and thin.
The Second Generation of The New York School carried this idea of coterie to new levels, through co-habitation, active compositional collaboration--multiple writers of a single text, or writers and artists collaborating on joint projects--and shared favors (publishing each others' work, promoting their friends' careers, and generally pretending that only people they knew and enjoyed, were doing, or could do, work of importance). This chumminess was a redefinition of the value of literary friendship: The idea that simply by insisting, through a single-minded concentration on the work and reputation of your friends, you could build a constituency (or "fame") and get along in the world. Parenthetically, the mood of the times (Andy Warhol's perception of the meaning and power of media to shape "image" and "personality") seemed linked to this idea of gratuitous literary-social climbing. Fascist propaganda techniques perfected during the 1930's insisted that "truth" (as with Orwell's cautionary vision of a future of manipulated news) was indeed relative to power, the ability to prevail, to bury opposition simply by yelling louder, and longer.
The obvious risk in seeking to place friendship--and the welfare or advancement of friends--before the value of art, is that one may either become literally deluded about the quality of one's own (or one's friends') work, or that one's own reputation (or judgment in taste) may be compromised. The creation of a circle of "us" versus the world (all other aspirants to the title of artist or writer) of "them" can lead to confusions of all kinds, as the tapestry of literary history unfolds.
Serious criticism is about the application of principles from an objective exterior to a work conceived from inside out. If criticism is allowed to be the expression of the profile of affection, concern and familiarity, instead of objective standards, it becomes nothing more than a kind of informed gossip. It may be possible to "know too much" about the intimate life and progress of a writer, preventing one from seeing clearly what is either perfectly obvious, or inconveniently troubling about a work. Any one who sets up as critic needs to restrain the impulse to promote friends, even if attempting to do so in an objective way. This is a continual problem I see over at Silliman's blog (though he by no means is alone in this), that of believing, as he appears to, that those with whom he has been actively "associated" over the years, or whose work he knew from its inception, deserve a special position, that those people, indeed, are the very best of all. There is a certain bogus security and warmth in being faithful and deferential to old friends: Like the two old cantankerous Irish poets, drinking at the same pub for 50 years, who'd never dream of dissing each others' efforts in print.
Silliman appears to accept the a priori idea of a corrupted marketplace of ideas, in which the insistence upon a contrarian claim--no matter how genuine or valid--constitutes a responsible function in the historical dialectic of competing interests, which may in part account for the absurdity and extremity of some of his assertions. Readers of his blog might feel more inclined to believe his high praise of Armantrout, for instance, if he hadn't overpraised the work of an imagined compatriot in the interests of a political correctness in the lit'ry wars. Each of us, no matter what our reputation, only has so much literary "capital" to spend. Better to save your praise for those who really merit it, than throw it away on secondary work simply because you think it has its heart on the correct side of the chest cavity.
Which may be one crucial argument against poets writing criticism. Randall Jarrell was notoriously "hard" on his fellow writers. Poets, even those who venerated his judgment, loathed going under the scalpel of his scrutiny, fearing the worst. But that is exactly the quality of honesty, of disinterested regard that we cherish in the greatest critics. When the critic gets too "close" to his subject (like Mencken telling us how monumental Dreiser is), there is always the danger of fake praise, of declining to offend, of withholding honest reaction in favor of mild non-commitment. But it's always a mistake. Unearned praise, like inflated currency, has little value.
Any critic who actually believes that his friends are always better than all the others does not deserve the credential. His judgment is unreliable, slanted, biased. We read criticism to determine how to understand, to place, and to value art. We read history to find out what happened, and why, and biography to find out what happened to whom. The trouble comes when we conflate these genres, confusing the life with the work, or ambition with judgment, or friendship with value.