The Perils of an Audience

Apollinaire's calligramme (1918).

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One of the potential problems with a blog such as this is that the more I publicize it (although I don’t think that’s going too well), the more people will form an opinion on me as a writer and, more worryingly, as a person. And the fact that when I typed that sentence out the first time it read ‘the more criticism I will face’ shows you how I feel about this. I am not the best person at handling criticism – but I have come a long way! From the girl who, when someone said they weren’t sure about a line in one of her poems, deleted everyone poem on a previous writer’s blog attempt; I learned how to share my poetry and fiction with groups in a class – precisely for criticism! – and read out my poetry at a poetry event in front of total strangers.

Second most important thing I learned on my degree: to accept, welcome and positively encourage criticism and opinion.
(Without it, in fact, I now believe that you won’t become a writer. Sharing writing equates to asking opinions, and if you can’t handle an opinion that matches yours, then you can’t put your things out into the open – and then you’re not a writer.)

Opinions allow you to see what you’re doing right, where you’re going wrong, and how you’re coming across to others. Also, another important lesson from my degree was that everyone is entitled to an opinion, but you don’t have to satisfy everyone. Actually, I learnt that before uni. The first quotation in my Big Black Book of Inspirational Writerly Quotatations (notably sparse as I am bloody lazy) is:

Seek not the favour of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of the few; and number not the voices, but weigh them. – Immanuel Kant

The reason that this appealed to my teenage self so much, was that it went against everything I previously believed about writing, and yet made so much more sense. It doesn’t matter how many people say something, it’s what they say that matters. It’s the depth of the opinion, and the engagement with your writing, that you really consider useful, not 500 ticks at the side of the page. It’s not about pleasing everyone and accepting dull, unexciting praise for dull, unexciting writing, it’s about creating what you want to create, listening to the reaction, and taking interest in what is then said.
In fact, flicking through the Big Black Book now, all of the quotations are about individuality in writing, and the fact that you have to accept that before you can call yourself a writer.

Which brings me onto the third most important thing I learned on my degree: detach yourself from your writing.

My first mistake, as a sensitive teenager deleting her blog posts, was believing that my poems were me. They are not me. Yes, they incorporate some of my deepest thoughts and emotions (at times – I am eager to add that ‘I’ isn’t always me, and sometimes ‘she’ is (although I won’t tell you when ;))), yes they’re inspired by things that I see, that I do and experience, but they are objects all of their own. Of course, people may well form judgements about me based on my poetry, but I know what’s true and what isn’t, and what actually matters is what they have taken from it (even if that it a criticism about me – nothing says I have to pay attention or censor myself for the sake of fear).

In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (which as an undergrad I thoroughly hated), T. S. Eliot writes about the influence of tradition on the poet, and the poet’s mark on his work. He writes “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry” and that’s basically what I’ve learned. If your critics criticise you, then they’ve missed the point of writing, which is to create an object. If they criticise your work, you and your work can be improved if you take it the right way.

There was always this quotation in Eliot’s essay that I could never work out if I agreed with.

“What happens [when the artist writes] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

[…]

When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”

(The underlinings are my own, and for emphasis.) I always had a hard time believing that the artist left no impression on his art at all. But now, I agree. The poet’s role is to absorb an atmosphere, a moment, and preserve it in poetry. This poetry is not representative of the poet himself, or even his experience, but by becoming a poem object is an entity of its own, for analysis and consideration. Although I still think it is possible to tell who has written a poem (from reading an entire body of work, say), the poem is nonetheless an object existing independently of its writer. And similarly, the good writer will not impress his own opinion on a poem, at least not in a way that is obvious or the detriment of the poem. This sounds contradictory even as I write it, but I know that as an aspiring writer I’ve come to detach myself from my poetry and as such accept my poems as single objects which carry my views and are inseparable from them, but without being the sole vessel for them. I am the sole vessel for my feelings, my poems are like the moments they try to capture, and as such don’t have to be consistent.

It’s for this reason that John Donne can write poems about wanting to conquer a woman, about women being completely false, and then about wanting to be ravished by God – the poems stand alone as snippets of a consciousness which through the writing has been eradicated. They stand for that one moment, not a manifesto of the entire belief system of the poet.

I think I’m rambling now. I should come back to this later. But the main point is to say that regardless of my audience and their opinions, my writing should remain the same (or at least as consistent as it can be according to my constantly changing views). I don’t have to let opinions colour my writing, and certainly not myself, and although it’s taken me a good three years to come to this conclusion and (hopefully) therefore become  a better writer, it’s better late than never!

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3 thoughts on “The Perils of an Audience

  1. So I think you’re saying… the poet is a preservative tool of society?
    I was going ask what you thought about all this in relation to fiction writing, but I think that might be another post entirely – and I know you’re a poet at heart 🙂

    • I am an unacknowledged legislator, my dear.
      I think I’m more saying that I’m a preservative tool of myself and my experiences, but that’s because when I write I don’t consider the implication for everyone else – if I did I’d be too scared to try. Obviously, when other people read my poems they bring their own experiences to them and in that way I guess my writing could have a role to play… But it’s something I’d have to consider more.
      (Also, I’m saying that if you read things and hate them, I’ll get over it :P)

      And I see fiction as about entertainment and a message so much more than preservation. As a selfish writer/person, I am definitely a poet at heart!

      • I’m glad you say that, I almost always despise literary fiction. That’s what irritated me so much about a lot of the lecturers – what’s so wrong with just wanting to spin a great yarn?!
        Does this make me an unselfish writer? I’m still trying to worm my way into people’s hearts with my stories though, so perhaps I’m just concealing my ego better 😉

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