Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A poet’s education

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If you want to be a writer, sooner or later, you’re faced with the question of how much you need to read in your field before you can start to write in it. You’ve probably done a lot of reading already, but you still have the nagging feeling that you should be approaching it more systematically. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves observes that the standard training for an Irish oral poet included memorizing epic poems and tales, studying advanced metrical forms, and much more: “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…His education, which was a very general one, including history, music, law, science, and divination, encouraged him to versify in all these departments of knowledge.” Robert Anton Wilson outlines a similar course of study in Cosmic Trigger:

[Aleister] Crowley always insisted that nobody should try his more advanced techniques without (a) being in excellent health, (b) being competent in at least one athletic skill, (c) being able to conduct experiments accurately in at least one science, (d) having a general knowledge of several sciences, (e) being able to pass an examination in formal logic and (f) being able to pass an examination in the history of philosophy, including Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Spiritualism, Comparative Theology, etc. Without that kind of general knowledge and the self-confidence and independence of thought produced by such study, magick investigation will merely blow your mind. As Brad Steiger has said, the lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.

I love this last sentence, which is as true of writing as it is of mysticism, and I’m also of the school of thought that believes that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Yet I’m also aware that this attitude can turn into a kind of gatekeeping, which discourages beginners from doing what they love until they’ve mastered a body of canonical knowledge. And a true writer doesn’t wait. But there are good practical reasons for becoming familiar with the tradition in which you’re working, and despite what you may have been told, they have nothing to do with “avoiding” what other writers have done. In his fascinating book The Singer of Tales, the classicist Albert Lord lays out the pitfalls that confront the oral poet, whose situation is even more challenging:

There are two factors in oral composition that are not present in a written tradition. We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough, but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different. Secondly, there is a factor of time. The literate poet has leisure to compose at any rate he pleases. The oral poet must keep singing. His composition, by its very nature, must be rapid. Individual singers may and do vary in their rate of composition, of course, but it has limits because there is an audience waiting to hear the story. Some singers…begin very slowly with fairly long pauses between lines, working up gradually to very rapid rhythmic composition. Others insert many musical interludes of brief duration while they think of what is coming next. Still others have a formulaic phrase of general character addressed to the audience which they use to mark time…But these devices have to be used sparingly, because the audience will not tolerate too many of them.

Lord’s great insight—which he based on the work of his late mentor Milman Parry—is that the form of oral poetry and the poet’s education are designed to address these exact problems. He continues:

If the singer has no idea of the fixity of the form of a song, and yet has to pour his ideas into a more or less rigid rhythmic pattern in rapid composition, what does he do? To phrase the question a little differently, how does the oral poet meet the need of the requirements of rapid composition without the aid of writing and without memorizing a fixed form? His tradition comes to the rescue. Other singers have met the same need, and over many generations there have been developed many phrases which express in the several rhythmic patterns the ideas most common in the poetry. These are the formulas of which Parry wrote.

The italics are mine. An oral poet’s performance is only the most extreme case of the challenge that faces all writers, which is the problem of what to do next. The more models you’ve absorbed, the more easily you can draw on solutions that other writers have found, which is an honorable form of creativity in itself. Sometimes, of course, this kind of craft can be a trap. Graves notes that some of the most educated Welsh bards strayed from what was best about their art, “while the despised and unendowed minstrel…showed the greater poetic integrity, even though his verse was not so highly polished.” And Norman Mailer memorably wrote: “Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.”

He’s right. But it’s also necessary for survival. For an oral poet, craft is literally a way station—a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts—and it serves much the same role for writers who can’t rely solely on inspiration. At its best, it also provides material that an author would never be able to invent on his or her own, which leads in turn to greater freedom. As Lord writes: “We might say that the final period of training comes to an end when the singer’s repertory is large enough to furnish entertainment for several nights. Yet it is better to define the end of the period by the freedom with which he moves in his tradition, because that is the mark of the finished poet. When he has a sufficient command of the formula technique to sing any song that he hears, and enough thematic material at hand to lengthen or shorten a song according to his own desires and to create a new song if he sees fit, then he is an accomplished singer and worthy of his art.” And he concludes with a description that applies just as well to those who write as to those who sing:

The singer never stops in the process of accumulating, recombining, and remodeling formulas and themes, thus perfecting his singing and enriching his art. He proceeds in two directions: he moves toward refining what he already knows and toward learning new songs. The latter process has now become for him one of learning proper names and of knowing what themes make up the new song. The story is all that he needs; so in this stage he can hear a song once and repeat it immediately afterwards—not word for word, of course—but he can tell the same story again in his own words. Sometimes singers prefer to have a day or so to think the song over, to put it in order, and to practice it to themselves. Such singers are either less confident of their ability, or they may be greater perfectionists.

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