Reading poetry should be just like how travelling should be – the journey matters more than the destination. I was reading Muriel Rukeyser’s “Then I saw what the calling was” and it felt wonderful to make a single sentence interpretation out of a thirteen-line poem.
The poem goes:
All the voices of the wood called “Muriel!”
but it was soon solved; it was nothing, it was not for me.
The words were a little like Mortal and More and Endure
And a world like Real , a sound like Health or Hell.
Then I saw what the calling was : it was the road I traveled,
time and these colors of orchards, gold behind gold and the full
shadow begin each tree and behind each slope. Not to me
the calling, but to anyone and at last I saw : where
the road lay through sunlight and many voices and the marvel
orchards, not for me, not for me, not for me.
I cam into my clear being; uncalled, alive, and sure.
Nothing was speaking to me, but I offered and all was well.
And I arrived at the powerful green hill.
And what did I make out of this verse? The road may not beckon us at all times but we can still always proceed. We can be “alive and sure” even in decisions to tread which are hardly motivated by external prompts or initiations but by our internal will or confident instinct. Is not that what the etymology of experience is telling us: to go faring even in the face of peril? To go and see and feel for ourselves the howling of foxes and the rustiness of old thorns because life gets real when it does not just stay in our heads?
How poetry becomes not just a breath, but a humongous cloud of air in spaces where suns have recently become oblivious; how in expanding a simple thought, we do not frown just as in redundancies, but delight at occupying “verbiage.” Arriving at the message, poetry can always make us feel fancy at the manner by which we get there.
At the onset, I proffered tinctures of commiseration to Eugene Pota, Heller’s surrogate in his own novel. Aging and on the decline in terms of written productivity, Pota struggled to produce a novel that could fittingly cap his illustrious career after a consistent slump after his first breakthrough work. The entire novel was in fact dedicated to this entire hardship that otherwise could have gone tasteless if not for the inclusion of interesting drafts from Pota’s attempts at a final novel. Pota likened his dilemma to the classic voice in Beckett’s The Unnamable who typified the intensity of volition coupled with the vitality of action in the statement “I must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.” Standing at stark contrast is Franz Kafka who discourages going on through his police character in one parable who, when met by someone whose map failed to coordinate with the place he is going around alone, asked the police and notoriously responded, Do not go on.
On the one hand, Pota’s resolute drive and his efforts to materialize it is somewhat admirable, if not amusing at times. From the Sexual Autobiography of his wife to the rewriting of Greek mythology and turning parts of the body into a novel, Pota did not have a scarcity of sound ideas to start with and develop. In the end, as we can correctly expect, Pota was not shown to have finished a novel and Heller need not to do that in his “own” novel. The point about the rigor and the difficulty not just of novel writing but of being a writer in general has been fairly shown. In an identified postmodern manner also, we can say that Heller used Pota to show how the book we were reading was actually made, how this book about the difficulty of writing a book and being a writer has been produced. For purposes of padding a review or notes on this book by Heller, I can still languish on commenting about its satiating self-referentiality. That I would refrain to do however since I believe a more significant point — a point on Heller’s conception of the “artist” in this novel – needs to be made.
The “artist” in Heller’s novel
Apparently, Heller’s “artist” in the novel, as embodied by Eugene Pota, is one who is most concerned about his craft and how this can propel him to a self-satisfying stature. Having lost the youth and its concomitant prolific power and also the recognition and validation that resulted from those, Pota was pressed to regain a semblance of that production and reception, if not an emulation of it, as he treads the final laps of his career.
As always, one cannot and must not overlook the economic factor that impinges on every decision and action of the author and his characters. Pota was trying to do a “novel that motion picture industry might want,” and here, with the thought of selling the rights to some movie company, we can surmise that Pota also considers the economic assurance a last, successful book can provide for the rest of his life.
Several pages have been allotted to the character “Tom Sawyer” finding first his creator Samuel Jenkins, the real name of Mark Twain, before knowing the dreary process he went through before finally dying in debt and despair. Disappointed, Tom sought to learn the tricks of successful writing career from some of the other renowned authors of the past, among them Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, only to find out the dampening similarity of their fates and was likewise somewhat discouraged to ever covet such brilliant career in the letters as those writers had.
Pota, and hence in extension, Heller, seemed to be finding ways to preclude such dismal thing from happening to him and this gave him the itch to produce that one last, sealing novel. Here, we can see that the literary artist for Heller is one who develops massive doubts and insecurities in the end as brought by his selfish perseverance to recoup recognition, if not mere economic stability.
In the novel, we can notice also Pota’s insistence on elaborating a new plot, something that no one has ever done yet. A very familiar sentiment among writers but perhaps among cultural practitioners in general as well, this provides one crucial hint to the framework Pota is following as he embarked on producing a new novel. This emphasis on a neoteric plot implies a treatment of art as something that must be judged based from its own elements and components. This view disregards altogether the important external factors such as the conditions of production and consumption or reception and the larger social and historical conditions where the artwork, its creator and its readers/audience are all situated, that need to be looked into as we regard what is art and how it becomes valuable.
In other words, the novelty in content which Pota deems necessary for his work to be voted as art and have a chance to be received with affirmation, if not with exaltation, is prepared by an almost hermetic conception of art loosely made famous and recalled in Oscar Wilde and the Aestheticists. This is one key manifestation of the novel which I openly avert for my views of art are diametrically opposed to what the novel carries through its implications.
Ultimately, I believe that art must be valued based both on content and form and one that accentuates novelty of content in itself too much seems oblivious, if not plainly ignorant of existing social conditions that have hardly changed in the recent decades. Or else, one who puts too much premium on his newness of content seems to rely too much on the powers of imagination and not on the credibility of observation and astute analysis of concrete conditions in producing a masterful work. This tendency I find abominable for I believe that art should reflect and strive to better the social conditions where it is born. Eventually, I believe that this kind of art can prove more adept in making its readers think and elicit particular actions from them.
Apart from its predictable and unchallenging self-referentiality, it is most importantly the aesthetic principles it subtly forwards that Joseph Heller’s Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man passes me as not just nothing extraordinary but more aptly, a stunted artistic exercise.