[Ramble ahead] Do you fear never creating great art? I do. Sort of. Not art that others consider great, necessarily, but rather art I can look square in the face and say, This one was truly good. I think we use superlatives too freely with art. “Genius”, “masterful”, “transcendant”, etc., along with whatever new buzzword is marketing art at the moment. It’s a symptom of a world in which we have to take even praise to an extreme in order for it to seem positive, much less garner any attention. Academic friends of mine have said that reference letters for students have to be over the top in their praise or the other profs reading it will take it as code that the prospective student/hire is merely mediocre. The same seems to be happening in art marketing/reviewing/commentary. The mythmaking is off the charts and out of hand. It’s okay if not everything is brilliant. The fact is that most everyone and everything is mediocre. Competent. (In some ways, this surfeit of competence is actually a plague. There are many, many, many competent poems — so many so that they drowns out and obscure what might be actually great. But I digress.) And even the canonical best (Heaney, Szymborska, MacEwan, Hill, Plath, Hughes, addyourownfavouritehere, etc. etc.) have mostly written what I’d call “passable” poems. Poems that are good. But not great. Heaney has maybe 12 truly great poems. Maybe three or four that are perfect. Most of the rest are pretty damn good. That’s what makes him a great. (But there are stinkers in there.) Picasso painted as many as double the great works as Heaney. And a few that are masterworks. The rest are very interesting and instructional. Does my lack of superlatives sound like I’m being negative to you? That’s part of the problem — we’ve burned out our words like “great”, not to mention “brilliant”, “masterful”, etc. It’s not enough for art to be good or great anymore. Our scale for what’s good/great/masterful has slid into the ridiculous in terms of both marketing and expectations. But on the other hand, I imagine the desire to reach those levels and see what it’s like has always been part of what drives artists. Personally, I have written some of my favourite-ever poems in the last couple months, none of them addressing the pandemic, but rather the minutiae of internalizing the external and seeing the world in discrete, concentrated through-lines. Are they great? Very unlikely. But a couple are good. Twenty-five years of writing and reading have taught me at least how to identify a good thing when I see it. My goal in life is to write one perfect poem — one that no one can take away from me. To see what Heaney, et al., felt when looking down and going (presumably), “Holy Shit!” In all likelihood, none of us reading this will ever create great art. And that’s okay. It’s the desire and repeated attempts to do so that makes you an artist, not the finished product, not the accolades, nor the sales — especially in a world that is at the point of having to invent new words every year to keep upping the ante on “brilliance”. (It’s like Christmas present creep, really. Every year has to be bigger or better than last year or it seems disappointing. Shut up and drink your fucking eggnog and enjoy your new socks and the company of friends). Of course, it’s easy for a poet to say, “Stop thinking of art as a product that needs marketing to increase sales” (we don’t sell much anyway), but it’s kind of true.
(tl;dr: “Great” is rare and precious and probably won’t happen to you.)
A few weeks ago, this author who is feeling the fear of pandemic “failure”, was telling people to not put pressure on themselves to create during the lockdown. Today she wonders if that was wise.
Of course, I’ve read the same inspirational posts you have about authors who didn’t write their first book until they were 50, or who were rejected by the first ten publishers they approached before becoming disgustingly successful. Last year Blackburn resident Margaret Ford became the world’s oldest debut author when, at 93, she published a book based on the love letters she and her husband sent each other during the Second World War. I don’t think my time is up, and I’m happy to wait and practise and wait and practise and somewhere along the line, hopefully improve.
But why didn’t I use lockdown to do so? A few weeks ago, on these very pages, I lamented that we shouldn’t put pressure on ourselves to be productive during a pandemic, and that it’s permissible – nay! even desirable – to watch Neighbours reruns and forget the very concept of a bra. I still believe this, and I forgive myself, but a voice in the back of my head is muttering, “If not now, then when?” If I can stare down another day of sofa, kitchen sink, park, sofa, bed and still not pick up a pen, when will I?