Poets, playwrights, and programmers
If you’re an attentive reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that there have been a lot of poets around here, usually in the Quotes of the Day. This isn’t an accident. I’ve been posting quotes on a daily basis for almost five years—I haven’t missed a day yet—and in the process, as I’ve noted before, you quickly run through most of the usual suspects. (There are also a few unwritten rules. I do my best not to run more than one quote from the same source within three months, and I try to avoid falling back on excerpts from the interviews in The Paris Review, which seems a little like cheating. Whenever you see one on this blog, it’s usually because I ran out of ideas.) Whenever I find a promising new source of quotes, I tend to mine it dry before moving on. Sometimes it takes the form of a reference work, like Gaither’s Scientific Quotations, or a book that copiously cites other interesting sources, like Robert Root-Bernstein’s Discovering. Most often, though, it’s because it suddenly occurs to me that a certain field or profession would be a good place to look for wisdom. This month, it happens to be poetry, and it isn’t the first time. A couple of years ago, I ran a long series of quotes from most of the living poet laureates, like Robert Pinsky, of which I said later: “Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless…but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience.”
Which brings us to the poets whose thoughts I’ve been posting here recently, all of whom have one thing in common: they’ve all won a Pulitzer Prize. And if their interviews are invariably interesting and packed with insights into craft, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most practicing poets—the ones who manage to make a career out of it, even if it involves teaching or selling insurance on the side—are repositories of lore and good tricks, and the only difference a Pulitzer makes is that they’re being widely interviewed for the first time. In many cases, as with a poet laureateship, it’s the first touch of mainstream fame that these poets have ever received, and you can feel their eagerness to pour out decades of accumulated wisdom for a larger audience. If much of the resulting advice is relentlessly pragmatic, this only reflects the reality of poetry itself, which doesn’t have much patience for dilettantes or dreamers. Threading the needle in any creative profession is a tricky proposition, and it’s all the more true in poetry, in which the needle, not to mention the thread, has a way of disappearing entirely. A poet smart and talented enough to pursue that calling successfully for years has to be preternaturally driven in the face of widespread indifference, a combination that tends to produce useful strategies for living and working.
And what they have to say is often more valuable than what other writers might have to offer under similar circumstances. Looking at the quotes that I’ve posted on this blog over the years, I’m struck by the fact that many of the best come from three professions: poets, playwrights, and programmers. I’m just more likely to learn something interesting from an interview with someone in one of these categories than I am from yet another novelist. Part of this is because the best insights often come from outside your own field, and applying a trick from one discipline to another can be as useful in the arts as it is in science. Even more fundamentally, though, I’d like to think that there’s something about these three jobs in particular that enforces a certain quality of thinking, and it isn’t hard to guess what it might be. All three are defined by constraints. For a poet, those constraints are self-imposed, but any meaningful career in poetry has been shaped at some stage by a prolonged confrontation with form, meter, and rhyme. A playwright—at least one who has any interest in being performed—operates under considerable limitations of length, budget, cast size, sets, and practicable action onstage. And while the hardware and memory limits that coders once had to confront are becoming less of an issue, programming is still constrained by the problems it has to solve and the unforgiving logic of the language. Writers would take a vastly different approach to their work if a poorly written story refused to load altogether.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to Job’s famous question—”Where shall wisdom be found?”—lies in the following equation:
Wisdom = Constraints + Time
If the novel has produced less in the way of useful advice than we might expect, it’s in part because it has been historically defined by its lack of constraints: originally, it was simply a long prose narrative that didn’t fit into any other category. A novel can be anything we want, and as a result, the tips that novelists provide have a hard time being useful to anyone in particular. In poetry, playwriting, and programming, by contrast, the constraints inherent to the form result in a lot of collective wisdom about how to survive. And the lesson for novelists isn’t that we ought to switch fields, or even that we have it easy: in some ways, the lack of constraints in the novel makes it the hardest of all to do well. The real takeaway is that we should impose constraints on ourselves whenever we can, even if it’s just an arbitrary word limit, and that we should pay close attention to fields in which such practical limitations aren’t merely voluntary. (Even better, spend an hour or two talking to a poet over the age of sixty.) And we should remember one of the few great pieces of advice from any novelist, in this case Dennis Lehane, while substituting one of the other two professions as necessary: “The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?”