Credit Where Credit is Due

To be fair, my creative writing students were much better on Wednesday than they were on Monday. I'd still complain that most of them haven't really tried to apply the principles & ideas & techniques we've looked at in example texts & that we've discussed in workshop to their own writing. A few have begun to do that, perhaps -- something that comes out much more in conferences than in workshop sessions. For a few of these better students I may have gotten them to point where they can imagine a relationship to a reader. I think that's part of the "aesthetic distance" I was talking about in the previous post. (Writers who say they "write only for themselves" are either beginners or pros who have so internalized the basic needs of a reader that they have forgotten them.) The failure to internalize the habits (Bordieu) of literary writing is not a matter of intelligence or even talent with my students; rather, I suspect it is a belief about the imagination. Or about "creativity" as it is usually conceptualized in current culture. According to this view, imagination needs no limits or techniques, but only expression.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Credit Where Credit is Due”

  1. I like that phrase, “pros who have so internalized the basic needs of a reader that they have forgotten them.” I’m constantly writing with several imaginary readers over both shoulders telling me “that’s not clear,” etc… Or I often imagine particular individuals and how they would react, what they would say. I do this instinctively, not as a part of a conscious strategy.

    I think too that the creative is creative writing is a problem. This kind of writing requires more, not less discipline than expository prose. Yet the idea is that is should be easy because it’s “creative.”

  2. The group I’m in is slowly working its way through Moby Dick (it’s a three-year tour for us). I suppose Melville imagined his readers 150 years ago, but what astonishes me is that readers all these decades later are still plumbing the depths of that book and finding sense and human insight. I think there is something about imagining a reader that must transcend time and culture.

  3. I don’t know if I’d use the word “transcend,” but the imagined reader is a capacious concept, though different I suppose for different writers. I think one of the reasons we can read Moby Dick or Middlemarch or Bleak House is that human psychology remains relatively stable & that readers can imagine themselves into those books. It’s a bit more questionable, say, with Sophocles or Euripides, whose world is a lot further away in time & culture. And in my work with contemporary Vietnamese poetry, I have often had to inform myself about & account for quite different sorts of cultural assumptions — about the individual within the family, about the role of authority in society, etc. There is, with any literary work, an on-going negotiation between the writer’s imagined reader, a given actual reader, the text itself, and the cultural context in which the reading occurs.

  4. it’s a tough subject to write about the making of a poem.

    for this writer what is essential is necessary. what you do after that in shaping or framing or identifying the speaker (george oppen would ask: who’s speaking here) is potentially destructive to what has emerged.

    teacher-poets combine birdsong and ornithology

    –almost “the worst evil”

    (basil bunting says richard caddel in his august 1999 introduction to bunting’s collected poems said “Never explain –‘he advised fledgling poets,'”your reader is as smart as you.”)
    –but also (as john bennett of vagabond/hcolom presses in ellensburg,wa quotes the Dhammapada to me abt ‘hunger’)

    “the greatest need”.

    i’m not a teacher or a birder but i see the problem isn’t abt extinct birds.

    you young men and women are thinkers, makers, doers who as thoughtful caring responsible teachers of the fledglings are bound to have your great hearts bruised, possibly damaged.

    in your duties you must protect yourselves(from despair and the exhaustion that breeds an emotional catatonia) because caring is both give and take in a jungian sense: you also are a part of the whole.

    edward mycue

  5. Ed, thanks for this lovely comment. Part of my problem is that, while my students are smart, they aren’t smart or particularly well-informed about poetry. Which means that they are not as smart as their readers.

  6. imagination, creativity, craft, expression combine with some current expressions ‘failure to launch’& ‘failure to connect’ — poles in the continuum of a broadcast network where the making and the reception have a linear life.
    here i think abt paul valery’s A POET’S NOTEBOOK (pantheon, bollingen series XLV,THE ART OF POETRY) where valery says “No doubt the product is the thing that lasts and has, or should have, a meaning of itself and an independent existence; but the acts from which it proceeds, in so far as they react on their author, form within him another product, which is a man more skillful and more in possession of his domain of memory.”
    i’m thinking this is what you are signed into.
    valery also says “A work is never necessarily finished, for he who made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it, and so
    on….He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things. And he ends by considering as satisfactory on those works that have taught him something more.”
    valery also says: “The habit of long labor at poetry has accustomed me to consider all speech and all writing as work in progress that can nearly always be taken up again and altered; and I consider work itself has having its own value, generally much superior to that which the crowd attaches only to the product.”
    Lawrence Fixel redirected me to Valery 4 decades ago now, and think larry’s 4 laws (as i call them)
    are useful here to iterate: l. start where you are,
    2. learn from the material,
    3. believe in the process,
    4. become your own reader.
    joseph, you and your friends encourage a lot of maundering, ruminating, confusion, delight in my sandbox. (and that sandbox, in a jungian sense, i keep rearranging and peopling following it seems justine jones fixel’s teaching at uc-berkeley of therapy using that technique.) this has been a long letter here at 3 in the morning and i hope i haven’t wandered too far into a land of writing-Nod. but it is because of your subjects that i couldn’t stay abed. ed

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