It’s been said of Picasso: “At the age of sixteen, he produced two paintings which were of academic perfection…. So what do you do with your life if you’re producing academically perfect works at the age of sixteen? Every step afterwards is an innovation.” Indeed, whether you like where Picasso went or not, it’s undeniable that he never stopped moving. It would have been spiritual death for him to do otherwise.
There’s the same kind of traditional perfection in early poems of W. B. Yeats, so that even though (to his annoyance) these were the poems he was most known for during his lifetime, he couldn’t continue to write them for the rest of his life. You may prefer “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to the Crazy Jane poems (or vice-versa), but certain great creative spirits demand that they be capable of writing both.
The director Paul Thomas Anderson, who in his own way made a perfect kind of bravely emotional collage in 1999’s Magnolia, said at the time that for better or worse it would be “the best movie I’ll ever make.” And how true is that? For while it’s nearly impossible to fathom that the same person could make that cold and pretentious bore The Master, Anderson also couldn’t go on making Magnolia again and again.
I think of Bob Dylan in this way, too, since you could say that before he was in his mid-twenties he had already mastered a certain kind of folk and protest song. What he did in response amounts by now to more than fifty years of innovation, false starts, more genius, bad albums, and back around again. Had I written this post even a year ago I would have pitied someone’s huge career always being in the public eye, warts and all; but I see now that was just a bit of jealously, since while I’m sure in the past twenty years my writing had changed massively, it’s so rarely been published no one could even track it.
I used to feel the same way about the American poet Robert Lowell, who I simplistically criticized for seeming to write less out of poetic inspiration than out of his own mental illness and need to keep himself sane: constant revision of autobiographical poems, constant sort-of translations from Latin or Russian, constant poems “after” some other poet. I actually wondered why the reading public should be the audience of anyone’s ongoing neurosis before realizing that’s largely what they are anyway, all the time. Lowell couldn’t have stopped even if he’d wanted to.
For my own generation there’s the British band Radiohead, who with The Bends and OK Computer made about as perfect a set of guitar albums as you can imagine. In the six albums since they’ve gone mostly into beautiful electronic music; and while they’ve probably created better songs, they’ve created no entire album quite as good as those two. But when I hear their lead singer Thom Yorke say that it was the idea of “albums” at all that they were trying to get away from, I realize even more that these are just my own hangups. Because even if later Picasso or Dylan or Yeats feel messy and less cohesive and whole, they aren’t any less true, or powerful. And sometimes the mess is more powerful for lacking roundness, category, or easy placement.
I say this at a moment in my own creative life when I’m starting to write rhyming poetry. As if writing an epic poem, or archeological poems, didn’t alienate me enough from what’s popular, I cringe now at how yet again I’m probably making sure that I remain unread. And yet even with nothing of any perfection under my own belt, the question is still the same, as it is for all of us: what are we supposed to do but keep creating, one way or another?