“The truth is that a man’s sense of the world dictates his subjects to him and that this sense is derived from his personality, his temperament, over which he has little control and possibly none, except superficially. It is not a literary problem. It is the problem of his mind and nerves. These sayings are another form of the saying that poets are born and not made.”
– Wallace Stevens, from the essay ‘Effects of Analogy’ in the The Necessary Angel
10 thoughts on “For Your Consideration”
I like this saying. Is it true though, also, that a subject is always treated, and that the way a subject is treated is entirely within the artist’s control?
Good question Edward. I suppose it is – but how about the times when a storyteller or filmmaker portrays misogyny and then is labeled as a misogynist? Notably – Von Trier and Kubrick (I can feel Adam already foaming at the mouth about this one).
It seems nothing is as simple as people want it to be, at least I would hope it’s that way.
Up above, I like how Stevens specifically mentions ‘the nerves.’ As in I think we write what we are. And that axiom saying ‘write what you know’ is kind of outmoded, because we write what we are whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not.
Though the quote above argues that “personality” and “temperament” dictates one’s sensibility and that that sensibility dictates the way one uses language, or, more specifically, whether one becomes a poet or not, it remains ignorant of the idea that the language we use influences how we think, who we are, what we do, its ignorance also indicated through its use of gender-exclusive language, a language that may decrease the level women relate to it, that may inhibit women from identifying themselves as the intended audience (that is, if Stevens even intended this) of the quote.
That said, I think it’s far too simplistic to say that it is only animal urges and behaviors, the dictates of chemistry and whatnot, that influences, that forms who and what we are. The way we use language also influences and forms who and what we are. The objects we interact with influence and form who and what we are.
And I think it’s nonsense that “poets are born and not made.” Poets make things, poetic things, and they learn how to do it. Leave a baby alone without showing it how to do anything and it will become a blithering idiot.
I like parts of this quote, particularly the nerves that Greg cites and the notion that we don’t necessarily have as much control over our “temperament” as we’d like to think. I would agree with John that language is at the very least a two-way street in terms of its causal relation to mind. New work has recently come out reaffirming the Whorfian view of language (Firefox recommends I substitute “Whoreish”), though maybe not in the unalloyed form that Whorf himself propounded it.
I do like the phrase “It’s not a literary problem.” Reminds me of something I just read in William Giraldi’s reminiscence of Barry Hannah, wherein Hannah’s advice to a woman who asked how to make her writing more interesting was, “Try becoming a more interesting person.” Harsh, and perhaps also with gendered undertones, but I like how he reframed the problem as an extra-literary one. But I also like that he basically turns Stevens’s conclusion–that poets aren’t made but born–on its head.
I’m definitely obviously more than sympathetic to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, while still thinking that it too might be a bit overdetermined. I’d love to know more about the “new work [that] has recently come out reaffirming the Whorfian view of language.”
Sure, John. Here’s a couple of links:
The “interesting person,” hmm, that’s a slippery slope. How many sensitive folks of some talent at least do themselves & others around them damage, in the name of Artistic Temperament? If I’ve got the point of Greg’s post correctly, it’s that Stevens’ “problem of… mind and nerves” made him a brilliant & unbounded poet, while anything but a hipster wild man.
Certainly, John, but I’d like to think that “interesting person” doesn’t necessarily mean being wild in the obvious ways, going on a continuous bender and leaving behind a trail of garments and emotional shrapnel and breathless stories. It could equally mean something more contemplative. There are nerves and there are nerves. Then again, the damage aspect is another story, because damage can be inflicted quietly and contemplatively as well as in the more dust-raising sense. But I think that’s almost a related but distinct issue.
Mmmm, this gets more interesting…
It would seem Hannah might mean Rilke’s edict to start ‘looking’ at things, understand one’s surroundings.
It’s interesting that again and again writers and people who want to be writers come upon these questions about ‘how’ to right or they are asked how to describe where creativity comes from and again and again the answers seem to be never satisfying enough. Maybe Hannah and Rilke and Stevens said what they said in lieu of ‘well, it’s takes a lot of work.’ But by work one means more the accumulations of words and texts and rereads and study and letting the mind go and look at tree, right Mr. Keats?
In the Center for Fiction event with the Lish crew, which should be on-line soon, these questions came up, but they came out as more, Why do you write the way you do? Ben Marcus took a stab at answering and it was noble but I believe he came to the same dead-end answer I’ve heard often – I can’t describe how or why I write, I just want to keep writing. I so wished the other three there would have answered, I thought we were on the crest of really breaking into these questions.
I’m looking forward to that video becoming available–was sad to miss it.
Was thinking about this quote again in light of teaching today. As shorthand I’ll sometimes talk about something like taking a Foster Wallace approach to an essay versus taking a Robert Sullivan approach–DFW’s repleteness and pervasive authorial presence, what I’d loosely dub an interventionist approach, versus Sullivan’s “just the facts, ma’am” method of self-effacement–both of which are successful in their own ways and manage to be at once funny and trenchant. But if writing’s a matter of one’s own personal disposition finding aesthetic form, does trying out these authorial approaches mean straining against one’s nerves? Conversely, does it mean stepping into them temporarily like masks, a Commedia dell’arte approach where if I don the mask I’ll also gain access to the nerves and take on that temperament? Obviously there are no easy answers but it’s part of what’s underneath that annoying but persistent question of whether writing can be taught.