The Guardian has a piece pondering whether adversity and unhappiness are the font of art.
The poet John Berryman once told an interviewer: “I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business: Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing.”
For the future of his own poetry, Berryman said he counted on “being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know. I hope to be nearly crucified.”
This is what Sylvia Plath was getting at, too, more concisely and with less ironic humour, when she wrote: “The blood jet is poetry.” It’s what Auden was getting at when he wrote of Yeats: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” And it’s what Yeats was getting at when he said: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work/ And if it take the second must refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.”
My instant response was exasperation: what bullshit! But I realise that almost all the novelists whose work I really love had some terrible trouble in their lives: illness, or exile, or grief. Or all of the above. I wonder if contentment saps the will. Why do you need will if you’re not striving for anything? My my opinion creating art requires will.
Do I think writers need to be unhappy to write good stuff? No. But we do need to want. We need to yearn. We need to long.
What do you think?
16 thoughts on “The blood jet is poetry…”
I wish I could say that was all bullshit, but I cannot. I agree that creating art requires will and longing. And passion. And long hard work. I think that some of that comes from experiencing tragedy. I wish for us all to have healthy, happy, and joyous lives, and for most of us I think that includes spending time with loved ones and with being. So yes, that probably leaves less time for creating art. No, I don't think we need to be unhappy to create great art, I think it's possible to draw on past experience. Experience that teaches us about what it is to be human, etc. But I don’t think it’s the same for everyone. I can think of musicians whose music I loved when they were younger and angsty, but as they got happy and comfortable, the music lost it’s fire. Now, I don’t want to listen to grim music or read grim stories or watch grim movies most of the time, but I do think great art that is joyous and comes from one who is joyous is produced less often. And that is a shame.
Joyousness and yearning are not mutually exclusive. I think one can be longing for something, striving for something, and still have a lot of joy.
More and more, I need art with a bright thread of joy and zest running through it. I don't care if it's a tragedy, or everyone dies but they better have flashes of joy along the way.
Joyless art isn't art, in my opinion.
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” So says Cyril Connelly on a similar topic – the idea that comfort and art are not good bedfellows. For me there is a grain of truth; the struggle to achieve draws on the character of a person in any endeavor but I don't think it requires misery. Happy and hard working immigrants can create an economic security for their children that later generations fritter carelessly.
I suspect that for every artist who has blossomed through adversity, a dozen have withered and died.
Kevin–good quote. But women have had to make their art surrounded by children for, well, ever. I don't have kids but if I did, I would absolutely not have stopped writing. But, yes, I do take your wider point: smugness and settling are not where art comes from.
Dianne, I often forget that on some level. It's a very, very good point.
I think whatever you write about, to write it well, it helps to have experienced it. I read Stay before I knew your story and I remember distinctly thinking, my god, she gets grief. (I'm happy to add that I also think you get joy!)
Sadly, yep, I really do get grief. One of the biggest ironies of my writing life is that I began Stay twelve years after my little sister's death, thinking that it was far enough in the past for me to be able to handle it. And then my older sister died just as I began the second rewrite. I rewrote the book thirteen times. It was terrible. Going through grief over and over.
But, yep, I love life and am determined to bring joy to everything I work on. Otherwise, what's the point?
Interesting how I got linked to this discussion through Facebook…I was just thinking of you and the painting you liked for its joyfulness (The Girls). When I created that piece, I know I was in a place that was lacking the joy I longed for– that of a lover– but full of the joy of my friends.
Now I have that longed-for true love but less time to paint because of it (and, naturally, less time for friends)! I think the trick for artists is not whether they have the right measure of pain to milk for a masterpiece, but the time to spend reflecting on whatever it is they are experiencing.
An illustrator friend of mine said that more people would be artists if they could just make the time for it. Any emotion can be beautiful and radiant with the right amount of attention.
Personally I need to create some quiet space inside in order to create. And once I start doing it, that space expands.
Here's what I think without reading the other responses just so you know this is my stuff. Okay, I think what is needed is real knowledge or experience if you will of what life can throw at you and how you handle whatever it is.
I think it's like building something with bricks, one brick at a time smoothing and trimming the mortar as you go creating yourself in your own image with some accessories gleaned from outside yourself.
Then you place into the world your vision of what you have witnessed in some way that is unique to you. Not that the actual act is unique but your doing of it is. Like painting or writing or beading or listening, whatever your strengths are use them, give them.
I think when things are kept too close to the breast, they wither and die from lack of active life. with the caveat that your version of active life can and probably is way different from mine. I think ultimately we are responsible for our own happiness and our appreciation and contributions to art.
Viva La Difference! Sly
I must add that in sharing things like music it is a kind of art especially when you are a retired musician. It occurs to me also that creating is not only for the creator but a way of giving that can be interpreted in different ways. Things done and given out through art can be healing for many and just plain fun for many, so keep doing it whatever it is that you do which comes from your inner self. Cheer the world with your birdlike song. Just watch out for those wires if you have human toes. Sly
I feel that the terms that all the authors used including Nicola…'yearn', 'long', 'blood jet', 'ordeal', 'Mad Ireland'…and the idea of suffering as source of art…I think it is that they are all conditions of being awake.
The texture of such a state of 'awakeness' and what it will yield for each novelist varies, of course. And, to me, that's what a writer does and uses.
So it isn't so much that contentment crushes or suffering inspires but that 'yearn', 'ordeal' and tragedy do tend to wake you up and even if you don't live on the edge of that experience after time…you are still forever changed by such and that can translate, I think, into art.
I don't know how much this necessary or true for the visual or other arts…but the narrative with its core need for tension, I think the writer does need the rose's thorny stab.
Alisha, yes. Time. Anyone can mirror 'real life' in pictures or words (well, anyone moderately skilled). But art is more than that, it's clarification and distillation.
Sly, I think art is sharing, yes. It requires a particular generosity, and a willingness to be vulnerable: a lot of trust.
Marisa, being awake is a good way to put it.
It's me again, this is a conversation right? I was just thinking about how I compare almost all art to music and it occurred to me that the difference in writing as being a solitary action as opposed to music being an art that requires other people in the presence of the artist to hear it if not recorded.
That led me to the work that goes into writing, the alone time that takes the writer away from the world and the alone time for the music is practising. You know that old saw about how to get to Carnigie Hall, practice, practice, practice. Blood then calouses, practice, practice and more practice which the listener never sees, like the reader never sees the writer writing, stressing over words and whatever.
Yeah Marisa, awake is an awesome state of being. I've really been enjoying this discussion thanks for posing it Nicola. I just watched Alice In Wonderland with some local friends one who is subscribed to this feed. It was great fun. Sly
Sly, it's all about the conversation. I love the notion of a community out there, coalescing around disparate interests: blogs, books, music, film and the ideas/feelings aroused by each.
I'm not sure that unhappiness itself is the source of creativity/art. Perhaps it's a more general sense of wanting that fuels art. Wanting to see things more clearly. Wanting to visit a place you can't go. Wanting for things to be more exciting/better/happier than they are. Wanting to see what things are like if they're not so good…
(Is wanting a form of unhappiness or is unhappiness a form of wanting? I don't know. :)
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