During a conversation with an emotionally intense and literarily prolific friend earlier this evening, the friend said many of the greatest poets had led doomed lives; doomed in the sense that they’d all suffered great misfortune – emotionally at least – and sorrow and loss. There were enough examples, too: Plath, Woolf, Hughes, Hemingway, Sexton, Haggard, going so far back as Lucanus himself. On second thought, that’s not really surprising because the greatest writers, in my opinion, are simply the greatest articulators of the human condition, however jaded or otherwise.
However, this friend also said that those poets had been recklessly extravagant with their emotional investments on purpose. That they’d deliberately led lives of misery, and that that’s where they drew their literary inspiration from. This seems an awfully distressing proposition: That you’d have to give up the right to live happily in order to be a great poet. The other problem I have with it is if a poet’s living tragic times and then writing great poetry, then the poet is simply a creative chronicler, not a poet at all.
It was a difference of opinion that the friend and I couldn’t reconcile over. While poetry may be one of the greatest forms of human expression, its pinnacle cannot be founded on human misery. Its production cannot be honed at the price of happiness… can it? I understand that these are hollow questions to ask because I’m not going to get an answer to them anytime soon (More importantly, I don’t know any poets to ask what I think must be these intimate questions).
However, to think one has expressed oneself well not by displaying commendable prowess with the tool of expression (i.e., language), not by displaying tremendous insight into the human condition and its trappings, but simply by forcing oneself to live through what I can only describe as emotional trauma is experiential writing at best, historiography at worst. It’s a convenient route through which one accumulates pain to the point of forcing it to transcend one’s existence. I would imagine poetry – or any other art form for that matter – requires effort toward its creation, not simply suffering and then release. There must be room for the aesthete, too.
I’m not securing a case for ‘ars gratia artis‘ either because I’m not discussing the utilitarian or moral function of art, which is the product. I’m simply hoping to establish that the creative process must not be transcendental, while even the product may be. In other words, art has to be humanist – constituted by human agency – in order to be art (Also, my friend, I think Plath would be really disappointed if you’re suggesting she intended to kill herself to be a good poet).