The Poet Speaks #11: George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Levine, Stephen King, Seamus Heaney: “struggling erring human creatures”
George Eliot, on empathy: The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.
The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.
Ernest Hemingway, on how detached a writer must be to deal with a real-life experience in fictional terms – e. g., his plane crashes while on safari in Africa: It depends on the experience. One part of you sees it with complete detachment from the start. Another part is very involved. I think there is no rule about how soon one should write about it. It would depend on how well adjusted the individual was and on his or her recuperative powers. Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly. Whether they will be of use to him is conditioned by survival. Survival, with honor, that outmoded and all-important word, is as difficult as ever and as all-important to a writer. Those who do not last are always more beloved since no one has to see them in their long, dull, unrelenting, no-quarter-give-and-no-quarter-received fights that they make to do something as they believe it should be done before they die. Those who die or quit early and easy and with every good reason are preferred because they are understandable and human. Failure and well-disguised cowardice are more human and more beloved.
Philip Levine’s memories of being a young poet, and taught by John Berryman: There was something very particular in my poems Berryman liked, a combination of formality with a common American voice that wanted to be in contact with how Americans actually spoke. At the same time I didn’t want to write “talky” poetry; I wanted to make those voices eloquent or songlike. When I tried to bring these two “aims” together I usually failed, but John praised the ambition. I met him at just the perfect time in my life. He treated me as an equal. He was incredible fun to be with. At night he could be hopeless, drunk, and an imbecile, but at the time that seemed unimportant to me. In class he was true to us and to himself, and all of us were treated with equal candor and ruthlessness. When he lectured on the poetry he loved, somebody like Whitman or Milton, his excitement was so great he would quiver all over, almost as though that frail, wiry body couldn’t contain his emotions. It was extraordinary, an incredible experience. I’m sure all the people who were in that class must have felt it.
Stephen King, on writing about children: I wrote a lot about children for a couple of reasons. I was fortunate to sell my writing fairly young, and I married young and had children young. Naomi was born in 1971, Joe was born in 1972, and Owen was born in 1977 – a six year spread between three kids. So I had a chance to observe them at a time when a lot of my contemporaries were out dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band. I feel that I got the better part of that deal. Raising the kids was a lot more rewarding than pop culture in the seventies. So I didn’t know KC and the Sunshine Band, but I did know my kids inside out. I was in touch with the anger and exhaustion that you can feel.
A few from Seamus Heaney, from an incredible autobiography of collected interviews,Stepping Stones:
On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the poems didn’t stand the critical test later on, the experience itself was crucial. From that point on, I felt different in myself as a writer.
Does Heaney see “forcibleness” (from the Greek energeia) as a litmus test of true poetry? It’s certainly what sets the seal of inevitability of much of the best writing. It’s “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” The attribute that makes you feel the lines have been decreed, that there has been no fussy picking and choosing of words but instead a surge of utterance.
Heaney on his previous comment that “My notion was always that, if the poems were good, they would force their way through”: Eagerness, excitement, a sense of change came over me when I began to write poetry in earnest in 1962. So I’ve always associated the moment of writing with a moment of lift, of joy, of unexpected reward. For better or worse, I arrived at the notion that labor wouldn’t help. From Catholicism, I acquired the notion of grace; and I do believe that, unless there is a certain unforeseen energy to begin with, you can’t proceed.
What I’ve always been interested to find is the right balance between insouciance and application. For years I had a dread of turning out conscientious verse and had a rather negative attitude towards industriousness; it didn’t seem to produce great artistic results—in others, at any rate. Poetry had come into my life suddenly and I’d experienced a change that felt almost magical at the time. So that old-fashioned understanding of poetry as a visitation has been a determining one for me; and, for better or worse, I never set up my writing life on what you might call a professional basis. For most of the years when I was teaching and breadwinning, there was no daily time to set aside for the composition of poems, no routine. I’d even say that deep down there was a superstitious fear that such a procedure might drive the poems away. I had this contrariness, a kind of perverse drive not to trade, even in my own eyes, on the safe conduct that the word “poet” might provide in the academy. Does that many any sense to you?
On the cycles of creative life: What I said in that interview I have repeated often since, but in a somewhat different way. I believe the three phases turn out to be cyclic, that there are renewed surges of endeavor in your life and art, and that, in every case, the movement involves a pattern of getting started, keeping going and getting started again. Some books are a matter of keeping going; some—if you’re lucky—get you started again. Seeing Things was a new start. There, for once, the old saw came true: life began, or began again, at fifty.