Friday, December 5, 2014

Genius and fraudulence in music and poetry

Genius is easy to recognize if you understand how it works. Once when I was in college studying music, I had a professor who asked me to explore some early Mozart works. I was very curious myself as to what this child genius would sound like as a composer. The music library had some very old rare LP records, and I heard some of Mozart's earliest symphonic works. What was so moving and poignant about the child Mozart was that I could hear and feel the style of the mature genius, but he was still very obviously a child. But within that child I could see and feel that self, the original and unique style of the later Mozart. The genius of Mozart was always there from the beginning, and he had learned later to do more marvelous things with it, but the self within that style was the same "person."

Just as one can often see the same smile on a baby picture that one sees in the adult picture, there is something essential that identifies one self as no one else. And one self can sometimes do truly awe-inspiring things by remaining true to itself.

On the other hand, fraudulence in poetry and in the arts in general is quite easy to slide into. Likewise, corruption is easy to fall into, that is, if one is given certain unfortuitous circumstances. It often begins with the best of intentions; for example, an editor might believe that there really is only ONE style of poetry that has validity, relevance and truth on its side (or beauty, irrelevance and truth on its side, as some might believe).

When poets realize that a style or trend is running "hot," they know that they must appear to embrace this craze or they will miss out on the wave. One can learn to mimic the particular affects of a style and to plug them into one's work, as needed. Then one can ride the wave, which may include publications, jobs, money, prizes etc.

But when poets study the affectations of any new style just to show off that they have acquired the new or last or greatest avant-garde symptoms, it is like they are checking off a list of things to do and to not do. Now they will be accepted, promoted, and valued, or so they believe. In reality, what has happened is that they have sacrificed the most important thing in any self-expressive art—one’s true self.

I actually know some people who have altered their style for exactly these sorts of reasons, which means that they did not feel that the writing was truly better. But it would help them please the powers-that-be.

The poets who do this sort of thing may be largely unconscious or lying to themselves in part about their own motivations. I had a friend who was a well regarded, famous poet who admitted that he thought all of his poetry was $#!*. He wrote just to make a career. I had been troubled personally by the way he portrayed himself and his culture sometimes, for he would sometimes create self images that would play into or gratify a cultural hegemony that put a dominant Eurocentric American culture above his own culture. I do not believe he really thought that any Eurocentric culture was superior to his own culture. But it worked well for his career.

I have also known poets who are in positions of power of one sort or another (editors, publishers, professors in Creative Writing programs) who only promote poets who emulate their own school or style. (You know who you are by whom you have hired.) If one fails to subscribe to and support the "right" people, then one is devalued and marginalized. One fails to get the invitation to the big wealthy-donor-supported conferences. One does not get the great job.

I have also known people with great integrity in similar positions of power who, due to ideological systems of belief, cannot recognize any great art unless it conforms to certain political ideals, whether they are very progressive or very conservative. I have seen both sorts of ideological programming, and they both suffer from a lack of openness to real differences of perspective.

It's hard to truly love any art that was made to fit a political agenda.

And, by the way, for some strange reason, the average book of poetry published in the United States today sells 300 copies.

The generally curious and intelligent reader who cares about society and culture resorts to the poetry area of the bookstore only if serious depression strikes. Or it could be during the post-New Year's doldrums when winter has a grip on everyone and life isn't fun anymore. That's when poetry books have their best chance of selling. And those books are written by mostly dead poets and older poets.

In the end, after the careers and the short-lived fame of prizes no one will value in the future, only the love will remain. The love, and only the love, will remain.

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