What’s a Genius to Do?

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?



7 replies »

  1. Pingback: Serendipia
  2. O my Tim pal, i think we have some very different opinions on things here, but that’s ok. Magnolia is for me a much weaker film than The Master. The Master is an utter triumph, with Seymour Hoffman finally in a lead role & absolutely smashing it. The scene where he is prancing around singing “a roving” is brilliant. & the scene with the critic who he calls a “pig fuck!” is so tense.
    Magnolia suffers for putting Tom (i am the greatest thing since God & sliced bread) Cruise, who is just an insufferable, terrible, one dimensional actor, who i just cannot abide.
    On Radiohead, OK computer is still incredible, but for me Hail to the Thief was their peak, it melds their future & their past with a present.
    But i can see your point on the creative not being able to stay in one place. It just doesn’t make sense. i can associate with Lowell’s problem (the constant revision). I always have an itch to meddle with my own work.
    i have to ask you what you found a bore about The Master? i’d go so far as to say it is perhaps the best film of the past 10 years no quarrel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “sometimes the mess is more powerful for lacking roundness, category, or easy placement.” I take comfort in this statement as one who has strived for a linear progression in whatever I’ve accomplished personally, professionally and creatively, yet have found the path to be winding and painful instead; as you say, messy and less cohesive. Maybe success is being able to reinvent yourself to explore new avenues of creativity and productivity regardless of notoriety.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve recently ‘regressed’ to trying out some rhyming poetry too. I truly underestimated the beauty and communicative power of rhymes. Now I can’t get enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Danny my brother, this must be serious since you bypassed entirely the question of early Yeats being awesome. I’d give PTA “There Will Be Blood,” but even there seemed to be a move towards coldness and pseudo-sophistication. “The Master” was one of the only movies we ever almost walked out on–staying to finish the popcorn. It’s been awhile, but I do remember a montage early on showing Phoenix’s character all PTSD’d & fucking the sandlady on the beach; for me anyway compare that to any of the montages Magnolia opens with, & (for me anyway) one holds you at a distance, the other is maybe melodramatic & over the top, but it’s human & alive. I remember too the scene at the end where PSH’s character sings & weeps at Phoenix’s character, but I didn’t feel I’d been given any reason to care about why they might be crying, & it seemed a bit more of pseudo-European-cinema-profundity. & PTA’s take on religion is a bit simplistic. It just wasn’t for me, but if it’s ever on Netflix I’ll give it another go for yr sake. ….& I’d only say PTA seemed to know what he was doing, giving Tommy Cruise an insufferable character to play, since Cruise is mostly that.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s