Saturday, 30 April 2016

Must I Write?

Karen Solie wonders if we're overselling the idea of poetry as a "vocation":
As many brilliant poets have written, there’s not a whole lot to recommend becoming one, practically speaking. It’s not a good plan. So there must be something else involved. Rilke bids us ask: “must I write?” If the answer is “a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of the urge and a testimony to it.” A prescription that might make some of us tired and anxious. I don’t reject or disdain the idea of poetry as a vocation. Some of the poets I most admire speak of their philosophy and practice in this way. But it’s also possible to write beautifully while believing one’s vocation lies equally, or singularly, elsewhere—in teaching, activism, the machine shop, scholarship, music, whatever. It need not mean one’s commitment to the contemplative and technical discipline poetry requires is diminished, need not mean one doesn’t (even if in a fractious, queasy, intermittent way) love it.

But belief in vocation, feeling “called to be an artist,” has also been known to present itself wreathed in a fog of quasi-religious incense, or in a thoroughly modern odor of reverence and authority that nevertheless likewise signals a presumption of, and romantic infatuation with, separateness. With the poet as, somehow, more than. I truly wish the pursuit of poetry as a “destiny” whose “burden and . . . greatness” one accepts were an idea—like hamburgers sandwiched by Krispy Kreme doughnuts—whose time has passed.

Identifying one’s art with vocation can be a mode of solidarity, of belonging in solitude, a comfort, challenge, and discipline uniting intellect and spirit. If poetry is your calling, more power to you. But to Rilke’s admonishment that “to feel that one could live without writing, then one must not attempt it at all,” my first response is I could live without it. Not without reading, no way; but without writing, probably, yes.

1 comment:

Natalee Caple said...

This is great. A student asked me this term if I was ever tempted to give up and do something easier, to fall back on something. I said, I've always done multiple things, most writers do. And I've never thought of other work as "falling" or other commitments (family, community, life in general) as less than, or easier than, writing. Writing (art) is important, not more grandiose than caring for others, than work, than teaching, than activism -- it is one incredibly important expression of being in time.