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Creativity and Social Energy

Because lately I’m working up a review-essay about a collection of letters between two writer friends—A Critical Friendship: Donald Justice and Richard Stern, 1946-1961, edited by Elizabeth Murphy (U. of Nebraska Press 2013)—I’m thinking all over again about the power of literary and other artistic communities, however loosely defined and gathered they may be. Justice and Stern had not only each other, but also an array of friends pursuing art together. The poet Edgar Bowers was a friend of theirs, along with many others who regularly met while they were students at the University of North Carolina. In marrying Jean Ross, Justice married into a literary family, for Ross grew up on a farm in North Carolina with her two novelist brothers, James and Fred, and her poet sister, Eleanor, who married the fiction writer Peter Taylor. They all became a part of this extended community, as did Justice’s friends and colleagues at the University of Iowa, and Stern’s at the University of Chicago. Although there are many ways that the idealized vision of the isolated artist lingers—and of course many artistic pursuits demand some doses of healthy solitude—we are such communal creatures that we need various forms of creative togetherness to function well. Even Carthusian monks, who are hermits, recognize the need to punctuate their solitude with time together, so they gather in the church to chant the divine office and once a week take a long walk during which they converse.

It wasn’t until college that I started noticing how often writers knew and influenced each other, and how sometimes they were even friends: Boswell and Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne, Eliot and Pound, Bishop and Moore, on and on. The more I learned, the more I discovered that to be creative, it helps to have creative friends, or at least to circulate in some creative network. Some of the more recent work on Shakespeare and the theatre of his day indicates that a great part of Shakespeare’s genius related to his involvement in the energies giving rise to London’s public theatres. (For anyone interested in reading more, David Scott Kastan’s Shakespeare and the Book is an excellent study.)

It’s understandable that the great Romantic poets needed the myth of the lone genius to motivate their work, which committed them to move away from “what is usually called poetic diction” (as Wordsworth puts it in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads), and to write “by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” They were working, in other words, to recreate the poetic language of their day, which is in some sense what poets must always strive to do—it’s just that some, and very few, do it conspicuously; and part of what they were up against was the calcified “poetic diction” of their day. I remember in college Father Mel, who taught our Romantics courses, giving examples of this poetic diction: “winged tribe” and “finny tribe”—the Romantics saw fit to write about birds and fish. George Crabbe’s “The Library” provides multiple examples of such formulary phrases: “vulgar tribe” (for the lowliest of authors), “flow’ry tribe” (flowers), “tame tribes” (domesticated animals), “midnight fairy tribe” (fairies), and so on; such language has its charms, though the moment for such things is past, as the Romantics knew. And to overcome this older diction, they needed to combine their energies, as the Lyrical Ballads, one of the signal works of English Romanticism, discloses; it was authored not by a lone poetic genius, but by two, Wordsworth and Coleridge together.

In the context of these reflections, I think also of my appreciation for the growth of MFA and other such programs promoting the growth of creative communities. In some circles it used to be commonplace, and perhaps still is, to decry the rise of these writer’ programs because of the sameness that they enforce in their students’ writing, as if there isn’t a striking sameness to the vast majority of the writing in any given era. In another piece that I was recently writing—this one about Donald Justice, who studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then taught there for years—I had occasion to list a few of his prominent students: Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Marvin Bell, James Tate, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Debora Greger, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, William Logan, Chase Twichell, James Galvin, Mark Jarman, Eric Pankey. One would be hard pressed, it seems to me, to compile a list of more varied styles.

I believe that there may be many a “mute inglorious Milton” in our world, for I see no guarantee that “genius will out,” as one of my early professors claimed. Geographical isolation and constraints of class still take their toll. We work to make our communities as we can.