Tuesday, December 31, 2013

To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain

Although, as Mary Oliver observes in her nearly twenty-year-old guide to writing, A Poetry Handbook, 'in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins', the role of imitation in the development of voice is decidedly under-valued. In fact, '[t]he profits are many,' she writes, 'the perils few.' (p. 13) And later: 'Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one's own work -- these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there', (p. 18) with the practice of imitation, we infer, making up the more inspired moments of this long drudging. Proust would agree, and it could be said that the entire oeuvre of Orhan Pamuk meditates on the problem and, indeed the necessity, of imitation when it comes to being yourself, as he would call it. There is something shilly-shallying in this word 'imitation', however -- even in her own handling of the word as it occurs within a couple of pages. When addressing the concern of apprentice poets to stay contemporary by only reading current publications she writes:

...perhaps you would argue that, since you want to be a contemporary poet, you do not want to be too much under the influence of what is old, attaching to the term the idea that old is old hat -- out-of-date. You imagine you should surround yourself with the modern only. It is an error. The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.

Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air. (pp. 11-12)

We imitate and it drains us of something; we imitate and we are filled. Is there something in the time delay of imitation where we imitate something from another period, another context, even another language -- something in its apparent dead-aliveness, its mountain strata -- that sends us upwards, as Oliver has it?

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