Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ted Kooser

The Theater of Apollo

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In 1972, the physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on Vitamin C and the citric acid cycle, wrote a famous letter to the journal Science. He noted that scientists, like most creative types, can be roughly divided into two categories, variously known as the classical and the romantic, the systematic and the intuitive, or, as the physicist John R. Platt proposed, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. “In science,” Szent-Györgyi wrote, “the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research.” After defining intuition as “a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious,” he continued:

These are not merely academic problems. They have most important corollaries and consequences. The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support most takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian. Applying for a grant begins with writing a project. The Apollonian clearly sees the future line of his research and has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction in which he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he is going to find there and how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum. In his work, the Dionysian relies, to a great extent, on accidental observation…The Dionysian is often not only unable to tell what he is going to find, he may even be at a loss to tell how he made his discovery.

Szent-Györgyi, who clearly identified as a Dionysian, went on to state that writing grant proposals was always an “agony” for him, and that while he always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s commandment “Do not lie without need,” he often had no alternative: “I filled up pages with words and plans I knew I would not follow. When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell, then, what I would do a year hence?” He added that while his “fake projects” were always accepted, his attempts to write down honestly what he thought he would do were invariably rejected:

This seems quite logical to me; sitting in an easy chair I can cook up any time a project which must seem quite attractive, clear, and logical. But if I go out into nature, into the unknown, to the fringes of knowledge, everything seems mixed up and contradictory, illogical, and incoherent. This is what research does; it smooths out contradiction and makes things simple, logical, and coherent. So when I bring reality into my projects, they become hazy and are rejected. The reviewer, feeling responsible for “the taxpayer’s money,” justly hesitates to give money for research, the lines of which are not clear to the applicant himself.

Szent-Györgyi concluded by saying that in his lifetime, he made two important discoveries, both of which “were rejected offhand by the popes of the field,” and that he had no doubt that they both would have been bounced with equal dispatch if he had tried to describe them in a grant application. And he left the problem without any real solution, except the suggestion that proposals for future research should either take into account the scientist’s earlier work or consider “the vouching of an elder researcher” who can attest to the applicant’s ability.

I’ve never had to apply for a grant, and I’d be curious to hear the perspectives of readers of this blog who have. But I’ve written book proposals, which presented me with a milder version of the dilemma that Szent-Györgyi described. (It’s milder, in part, because writers often work on spec, which means that the submission process in commercial publishing isn’t subject to the same pressures that you see in academia.) A proposal is a kind of map or miniature version of the finished work, whether it’s six pages long or seventy, and the author usually prepares it in a relatively short period of time, before the research or writing process has even begun. As a result, it can’t capture the information that the writer has to discover en route, as Ted Kooser puts it. It can only hint at what the author hopes to do or find, which, depending on your point of view, amounts to either a strong inference or a lie. It’s a system set up to reward or accommodate writers whose style lends itself to that kind of presentation, or who have the skills to fake it, and there are undoubtedly gifted people whom it excludes or discourages. Like grant writing, it exists primarily for the convenience of institutions, not individuals, and it creates a parallel world of obstacles that have to be navigated to get to the real challenge of doing interesting work. You could call it a necessary evil, or, if you’re feeling generous, you could argue that it’s a proxy for kinds of talent that can’t be measured directly. If you can handle the artificial, even ritualized strictures of the grant or proposal process, it’s a sign that you can tackle more important problems. Like an audition or a job interview, it takes on aspects of a game, and we’d like to believe that the test it provides will be predictive of good results later on.

It isn’t hard to find the flaws in this argument. (Among other things, until recently, I would have argued that the organizational demands of a successful political campaign serve as a similar audition for holding high office, and we’ve all seen how that turned out.) The greatest danger is the trap presented by all rituals of admission, which is that they ultimately measure nothing but the ability to pass the test. Just as college entrance exams and whiteboard interviews have inspired a cottage industry of books, tutors, and classes designed to coach applicants who can afford to pay for it, grant writing has mutated into grantsmanship, with its own rules, experts, and infrastructure. And the risks, as Szent-Györgyi said more than forty years ago, are very real. It’s a system that rewards researchers who are content, as Peter Medawar once put it, to figure out why thirty-six percent of sea urchin eggs have a tiny little black spot, simply because it’s the kind of project that can get funding. The grant application process may also play a role in the replication crisis in the social sciences, since it encourages applicants to project an unwarranted certainty that can be hard to relinquish when the data isn’t there. Perhaps worst of all, it penalizes whole groups of people, not just our hypothetical Dionysian geniuses, but also women and minorities who can’t always afford to play the game—and Szent-Györgyi’s otherwise reasonable suggestion that weight be granted to “the vouching of an elder researcher” only compounds the problem. If an Apollonian system resulted in a society of Apollos, we might be inclined to forgive it, but that isn’t the case. To the extent that it works, it’s because the division between Apollonian and Dionysian isn’t an absolute one, and most people learn to draw on each side at different times. Those who succeed have to be less like Apollo or Dionysus than, perhaps, like Hermes, the trickster who can change in response to the demands that the situation presents. And as flawed as the current system may be, we’ll have reason to miss it if it disappears.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2017 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The poetry of insurance

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Wallace Stevens

If you know only one fact about the poet Wallace Stevens, it’s that he spent most of his career working as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s arguably the most famous literary day job of the twentieth century, and the contrast between what the critic Peter Schjeldahl recently called “Stevens’s seraphic art and his plodding life” tends to stick in our minds more than, say, T.S. Eliot’s stint at Lloyd’s Bank or Henry Miller’s years as a personnel manager at Western Union. In part, this is because Stevens simply stayed at his job for longer and rose higher in its ranks even after he had become the most acclaimed poet of his generation. (The story goes that he was offered a faculty position at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, but he turned it down because it would have meant giving up his position at the firm.) It’s also a reflection of how we see the insurance business, which seems like an industry suited more for painstaking drudges than for the kind of visionary personalities that we associate with poetry—although every good poet also has to be a great bookkeeper. If we want to drill down even further, we could say that there’s something inherently unpoetic about the methods of insurance itself: it deals with human beings in the aggregate, as a statistical abstraction without a face, while poetry is naturally concerned with the individual, the unquantifiable, and the unexpected.

But we can also draw a clear line between Stevens’s life at the office and the development of his poetry. In his review in The New Yorker of Paul Mariani’s new biography The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Schjeldahl notes that the book “ignores the details of Stevens’s day job, probably as being too mundane to merit attention.” Yet Schjeldahl does his best to invest them with meaning, in an eloquent paragraph that has been rattling around in my brain ever since I read it:

Stevens’s specialties, surety and fidelity, turn profits from cautiously optimistic bets on human nature. (Surety covers defaulted loans and fidelity employee malfeasance.) Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful. The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.

I like this insight a lot, because there’s something to be said for a conception of poetry as an ongoing act of risk management. A rational artist wants to take on as much risk as he or she possibly can, because high risk goes with high return in art as much as it does in other kinds of investment—but only if you can live with it. If you’ve miscalculated your tolerance for volatility, as many aspiring artists do, you’re more likely to go out of business.

James M. Cain

The insurance industry also seems like a good place for a writer to learn something about the complex ways in which institutions and impersonal systems interact with human nature. Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institution, for instance, clearly played a crucial role in the development of his vision, and far more explicitly than it did with Stevens. But my favorite example comes from another singular voice in American letters: the novelist James M. Cain, who sold insurance for the General Accident Company in Washington D.C. He seems to have only worked there for a short time, but that’s interesting in itself—he repeatedly returned to the subject in his fiction, which implies that he regarded it as a great source of material. It provides a central part of the plot of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which are fables, in essence, about the collision of messy emotions with the clinical, depersonalized logic of the insurance business. In the former, it leads to a surprise twist that makes nonsense of the violence that came before it; in the latter, it’s a plan for the perfect crime, conceived by a crooked insurance agent, that is quickly undermined by such basic, uncontrollable emotions as greed and lust. And Cain correctly realized that the intersection between insurance and human desire was the perfect territory for noir, which is often about the contrast between what we think we can plan and what the unfair universe really has in store for us.

That’s true of poetry, too. It’s traditionally the most exacting and precise of literary forms, but it puts itself in service of emotions and ideas that resist understanding and explanation, which is another form of calculated risk. The works of a poet like Shakespeare, who was a shrewd businessman in his own right, are notable for the way in which they seem to combine total specificity of detail with oracular opacity, a combination that can only arise from an artist who knows how to surrender control while retaining enough of it to bring the work to a conclusion. A career in insurance provides one way of thinking about such problems, as long as the poet can keep the core of his spirit intact. As the poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote:

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away. So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

A poet, in short, succeeds by learning how to manage many small instances of failure, which is the definition of insurance. And Kooser would know—because he worked in insurance, too.

Quote of the Day

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Ted Kooser

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at [it] day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from one hundred yards away.  So that is what it’s about—showing up for work.

Ted Kooser

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The wisdom of a poet laureate

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Robert Pinsky

I met Robert Pinsky once. At the time, he had been serving as the United States poet laureate for just over a year, and I was a high school senior at a conference held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a long list of distinguished honorees were doing their best to hang out with one another and avoid smartass questions from kids like me. At one event, I got Pinsky’s autograph, and tried to ingratiate myself by saying that I’d really enjoyed his translation of the Purgatorio. (He’d actually only translated the Inferno, but never mind.) I also mentioned that I was writing an essay on the poetry of Ezra Pound for a literature class, and asked if he had any thoughts on the subject. He responded by citing Pound’s observation, which I recently posted here, that a poet is a centaur: he needs to master both the intellectual and the sentient faculties, so he’s like a man on horseback who has to shoot an arrow at the same time. I dutifully noted this down, and after returning home, I included his observation in my essay, which began with the words: “As Robert Pinsky once said to me…”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this encounter a lot, ever since posting a series of quotations from former poets laureate as my quotes of the day. The hard thing about finding quotes for a blog like this—and I’ve posted well over seven hundred of them—is that you quickly run through most of the famous aphorisms on writing fiction. Once you’ve gone through “Kill all your darlings,” “When you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out,” and “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” you’re forced to look further afield for material. I’ve made a habit of systematically plumbing other disciplines for insights that might be applicable to the art of fiction, and I’ve done so with profit in such fields as architecture, dance, and computer design. Whenever I find a rich new vein of quotations, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot. So it was with a great deal of pleasure that I realized that I could draw upon the work of recent poets laureate, ultimately posting quotes from Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Howard Nemerov, W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, and Stanley Kunitz.

Natasha Trethewey

And this strikes me as a fine advertisement for the role of poet laureate itself. Like most people, I’m not entirely clear what a poet laureate does. As Robert Penn Warren said upon his appointment: “I don’t expect you’ll hear me writing any poems to the greater glory of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.” According to the Library of Congress, the formal responsibilities of the laureateship—which is funded by a private endowment from the philanthropist Archer M. Huntington—consist only of giving a reading at the beginning and end of the term and selecting two annual poetry fellows. More evocatively, another page on the official site says:

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.

It’s hard to imagine a comparable public position that includes the term “official lightning rod” in its description, but perhaps it’s only fitting for such a peculiar role. And if nothing else, it means that poets laureate will have greater occasion than most of their contemporaries to speak seriously about poetry’s craft and importance, often in a book or two, which explains why they’re such a good source of quotable wisdom.

As far as I’m concerned, this justifies the position all by itself. Appointments and prizes in the literary world are often ridiculed as meaningless, and not without reason, but at their best, they provide a soapbox for prickly, passionate, cantankerous artists to bring their opinions to a wider audience. Novelists have a range of awards that can serve a similar function, which is why establishing a “novelist laureate” would be redundant, as much fun as it might have been to watch the likes of Mailer or Updike fight over a title that probably would have gone to Louis L’Amour. For most ordinary readers, though, who presumably have trouble remembering that something like the Bollingen Prize even exists, a poet laureateship is one of the few things that can make us sit up and take notice. And most laureates, to their credit, have used the position admirably. Poetry is the most fragile and precious form of literary expression we have, and it’s a national resource that deserves to be protected. And since I’ve been quoting them so much, I’ll close with the words that our current poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, fittingly uses to describe her own job: “You are the cheerleader for poetry.”

How are poems like ham cubes?

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Ted Kooser

The butchers at the Pac ‘N’ Save where I shop have started using equipment that form-fits a plastic covering over ham cubes they sell for making bean soup, one of my favorite winter meals. The ham cubes lie in the open refrigerated counters looking just like loose piles of ham chunks upon which is a shiny, see-through coating. I suppose it’s a kind of shrink-wrap, done with heavier plastic. It used to be that I would buy a little Styrofoam tray of ham cubes with a sheet of plastic wrap stretched over it. Quite a bit of empty grocery store air got sealed in the tray with the ham. But with the new equipment there’s scarcely a bubble of space that isn’t taken up by pure ham. Maybe you too have seen meat packaged this way.

The form of a poem ought to be like that. What’s important, after all, is the ham cubes—that is, the words and images of the poem, not what contains them. The form ought to fit the poem just like that shrink-wrap, and be just that transparent, so you can look right through the form to the ham.

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Repair Home Manual

Written by nevalalee

February 9, 2013 at 9:50 am

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