Poets don’t improve…

“As I tell in the entry for October 22, 1952, he had asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been trying to make my poems better. Disdainfully he asserted that poets don’t improve, they only change. A poem must be written in one impulse, at one sitting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting. But a moment later he admitted that it had taken Grey eighteen years to complete his Elegy. I think Frost, if put in a corner, would concede that spontaneity sometimes has to be labored for.” [p. 85]

I laughed because I didn’t originally read this in terms of a poet improving or changing a given poem, but as a sardonic comment on their overall development.  I think there’s something to be said for that misinterpretation. The great poets (along with the mediocre) seem to be born with something that doesn’t improve, but only changes—and that invites a withering debate as to what we mean by change and improve. I won’t go there. Truth gets blurred in generalities, and I think it’s okay to enjoy the truth a little blurred. Certainly, the sly critique could be applied to a whole generation of poets who haven’t so much improved poetry, as changed it. I suspect the ever canny Frost would agree.

14 responses

  1. Given that change is objective and improvement is entirely subjective, I’m not entirely sure what more could be said on the subject. That “sly critique” could be applied to every generation of poets in every language since poetry has existed. I simply don’t believe that poets of any quality are “born that way.” Maybe some have a little extra potential due to intelligence, or some as-yet undiagnosed extra-creative state of their brain, but all of that matters little next to amount of work, effort, and study it takes to master and refine the craft.

    • //I simply don’t believe that poets of any quality are “born that way.//

      David Brooks would agree with you. I don’t. Great artists seem to be born with the innate ability to grasp their given art with an ease and breadth that simply isn’t accorded the lesser species of artists. I say this because history strongly argues against you. If all that mattered were the “amount of work, effort, and study” any individual applied to his or her given art, then every Salieri would be a Mozart. Every Hunt would be a Keats. The ease with which Mozart absorbed music wasn’t due to “work, effort, or study” — not when he was 6 years old. This isn’t to say that there might not be a Keats or a Bach who was born in the wrong time and culture for their genius to be realized. :-)

  2. “If all that mattered were the “amount of work, effort, and study” any individual applied to his or her given art, then every Salieri would be a Mozart.”

    This is assuming that every Salieri really puts in the same amount of work, effort, and study as Mozart. Mozart himself said: “It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.” For the sake of argument, however, I would say that if you took two artists and were able to measure objectively the amount of work, effort, and study they put in and declare that it was equal; then, yes, there would still probably be differences in quality between them due to different levels of, as I said, intelligence or some “more creative” brain state.

    The larger point, though, is that Mozart couldn’t/wouldn’t have been Mozart, nor Keats Keats, without the work, effort, and study they put into their art. As Picasso said: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” How many have the potential to be a Mozart or Keats but utterly lack the discipline, knowledge, and craftsmanship required to transform that inspiration from raw material into Don Giovanni or To Autumn? I’m guessing the answer is “more than those who have the discipline, knowledge, and craftsmanship but lack the inherent inspiration.” A side point, but I would very much argue that Mozart’s training in music from a young child likely DID have a great deal to do with his ability to “absorb music.” Immerse yourself in any endeavor that long and you’re bound to gain some seemingly supernatural abilities concerning it.

    • //This is assuming that every Salieri really puts in the same amount of work, effort, and study as Mozart.//

      Yes, I knew you would bring up that letter. Mozart said all sorts of things in his letters, including that his sister shouldn’t play Clementi lest it damage her dexterity (written in a fit of pique). No, Salieri’s catalog of operas is far more extensive than Mozart’s. He lived longer. Composing was much more arduous for him than Mozart. But leave off music.

      I don’t dispute that Keats or Picasso couldn’t have accomplished what they did without work or effort, but that’s not what made them great. Genius is 1 part inspiration and 9 parts perspiration. Mediocrity, by contrast, is 9 parts perspiration and 1 part inspiration. :-)

  3. “Salieri’s catalog of operas is far more extensive than Mozart’s. He lived longer. Composing was much more arduous for him than Mozart.”

    I realize Salieri lived longer, but that’s beside the point. We really have no way of knowing if (or to what extent) Salieri “frequently and diligently” studied every famous master, nor do we really know how arduous composing was for either. Even with the tales of Mozart’s prodigious feats, like composing masterpieces without a correction in the span of a coach ride, we don’t know how long he worked on them in his head.

    I don’t want to harp on one example, but I think any example would go to show that we really know quite little about how much work, effort, and study any artist put into their craft. Yet I do think we can say that with the greats we tend to see the fruits of those studies, like Mozart’s increasing interest in counterpoint in his late works, that we tend not to find in others. Perhaps we don’t find it in others because they’re unaware of them, because they haven’t put in the extra time; or perhaps we don’t find it because they are too busy conforming to popular tastes; or perhaps they are inherently weaker artists that don’t know how to incorporate all of these elements they’re familiar with.

    There are several possible explanations (not to mention combinations of those explanations), and I think because of our general ignorance on which it is, it’s easiest to blame it on some inherent difference in creativity. I’m not saying that’s not a possibility or factor, but I think it’s only one of many, and one that probably plays a relatively minor role compared to everything else.

    “Genius is 1 part inspiration and 9 parts perspiration. Mediocrity, by contrast, is 9 parts perspiration and 1 part inspiration.”

    Am I missing something, or did you just say genius and mediocrity are the same thing? Or does the order of perspiration/inspiration really matter that much?

    • //I realize Salieri lived longer, but that’s beside the point. //

      C’mon Jonathan. No it’s not. No more so than any 19th century poet who lived decades longer than Keats.

      //We really have no way of knowing…//

      Yes, we do. We have all sorts of information in that regard. Diligence and hard work is secondary to talent/genius. Nobody wants to hear it. I understand why; but God & Nature don’t play fair. Sorry.

      //There are several possible explanations (not to mention combinations… //

      Child prodigies flatly put to rest all these obfuscations and objections. And are you missing something? Yes, I guess you are. The difference is in the quality of that inspiration. :-)

  4. Artists living longer and working more doesn’t mean working better or more critically or continuing to study their art, especially for those who find success by appealing to a niche. The greats are usually relentlessly experimental, never satisfied with what they’ve achieved, always looking for new challenges, new influences, new ways to do old things. An artist can live and work to 80, but they can stop studying, challenging themselves, trying to improve, absorbing and utilizing new influences, etc. at 30, so those 50 years serve no purpose than for them to endlessly retreat old forms, cliches, etc. in the same way. This sometimes even afflicts great artists who find early success, like Wordsworth, who may could’ve been greater than Milton if his middle and late period work matched his early period.

    I don’t know what “all sorts of information in that regard” we supposedly have that you refer to. We do not have access to every artist’s brain, and we’re usually stuck to inferring what we can from drafts and anecdotes, which aren’t always reliable (some early drafts could be lost, anecdotes can get distorted easily, etc.). Converse to you, I think blaming some sort of mystical “God and nature” is a much easier way to explain the disparity between creativity than diligence and hard work. It makes people feel better about failing by thinking that it’s out of their control. In almost every instance in life when mystical explanations are proposed, there are far more mundane and ordinary answers behind them. Keats himself fell into this trap in his Lamia regarding the deplorable (to him) notion that rainbows had simple explanations behind their existence.

    “The difference is in the quality of that inspiration.”

    Again I go back to Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” How many masterpiece-worthy inspirations have either found their vessels not working, or found them not capable (due to a lack of study, diligence, technical ability, etc.) of working that inspiration into the medium it deserves to fully express it? What’s more, where does “quality inspiration” come from anyway if NOT from (re)arranging the material that an artist has learned and studied? Without Keats’ critical reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we don’t get the odes; without Mozart’s critical study of Bach and Gluck, we don’t get the late symphonies and operas. How different are these works without that study by both?

    • //Artists living longer and working more doesn’t mean working better or more critically…//

      Your argument only works if you can apply it to every artist who ever outlived their betters. You can’t. It doesn’t work. You can smudge and obfuscate the obvious until the cows come home. The fact is this: If your assertions held any water whatsoever, greatness would not be as rare as it is. In respect to producing great works of art (and all else being equal) there is no relationship between how hard an artist works and the quality of their output. There is no relationship between how they study or who they study and that same quality. History is replete with examples.

      //I don’t know what “all sorts of information in that regard” we supposedly have that you refer to. //

      It’s the variety of information that every biographer has ever used to examine someone else’s life. As to your last paragraph, are you suggesting that lesser composers didn’t study Bach or Gluck (Salieri was Gluck’s student by the way)? — or that lesser poets didn’t study Shakespeare? Your argument seems premised on some demonstrably fallacious assumptions. You may not like the fact (and it is a fact) that there are 6 years olds right now who will learn to play the piano in a year better than you ever will or could in a lifetime and with far less “diligence and hard work”, but them’s the breaks. Too bad. It’s called talent. And in some rare cases it’s called genius. You’re born with it or you’re not. And you’re not the only one whose every fiber cries out at the injustice and inequity of this supremely unfair advantage (there’s a movie called Amadeus about just that), but suck it up, work hard, and be diligent. Some manage to excel in their averageness. Who knows if you’ll improve, but you’ll certainly change. :-)

  5. I firmly believe that great poets were born with an innate ability that can be enhanced with education and exposure to culture. Keats, the greatest poet of all time in my opinion, was creative, intuitive and extremely intelligent. He had a generous heart and a genuine thirst for expression. Would his ability have improved over time? We will never know but we do know that had an amazing capacity for creative expression. Others pale in comparison.

  6. “If your assertions held any water whatsoever, greatness would not be as rare as it is”

    I don’t know why you think this is. You have to consider there are a great many factors that go into “greatness” besides what the artists themselves do. It’s just as much bound up in the culture’s reaction to what they do. Donne would not have been considered a great poet in the 19th century, today he is. Donne didn’t change, the culture did, and the culture mirrors individual’s limited ability to remember what they experience. So it’s a slippery slope when talking about greatness, in assuming that what’s remembered is “great” and what’s forgotten “lesser,” and that the canon itself doesn’t come with a great many hidden cultural assumptions about what “greatness” is.

    Even ignoring THAT quagmire, it is demonstrably fallacious that there is NO relationship between the quality of an artist’s output and how hard they studied, who they studied, and how they studied. We may debate the nature and degree of that relationship, but to suggest the relationship doesn’t exist is ridiculous. How differently are the late works of Keats and Mozart without the former’s study of Shakespeare and the latter’s study of Bach? When we talk about the difference between their work and the works of others that likewise studied Shakespeare and Bach, you’re just assuming that their study was equal in both extent and quality. Studying is a skill in itself, and a large amount of creativity is HOW we make use of that study.

    “It’s the variety of information that every biographer has ever used to examine someone else’s life.”

    That information is often very limited in amount and how much it accurately reveals about the individuals. Biographers are usually tasked with extrapolating a lot from relatively little. It’s why you can read different biographies of the same person and end up with completely different perceptions of them; and no biographer yet has gained direct access to their subject’s mind to ascertain how they studied and how they created.

    “are you suggesting that lesser composers didn’t study Bach or Gluck”

    Not at all, but I am suggesting that the extent and quality of that study could explain the difference in quality of their output just as easily as some mystical, inherent level of creativity. You (like many others) seem quick to jump to the mystical explanation when there are much simpler ones available you can’t rule out.

    “You may not like the fact (and it is a fact) that there are 6 years olds right now who will learn to play the piano in a year better than you ever will or could in a lifetime and with far less “diligence and hard work”,”

    How would you propose to prove this “fact?” How about finding some 6 year old who, after one year of study, can play better than anyone who has been playing as long and practicing as much as Maurizio Pollini, whom once said in an interview that he still practices 3-4 hours a day and has since he was a child. Find that, and I may put more stock in this “fact.”

    • As a general matter, the argument of greatness as cultural phenomena has been argued (in relation to Beethoven) and has been largely dismissed.

      //…it is demonstrably fallacious that there is NO relationship between the quality of an artist’s output and how hard they studied…//

      That misrepresents what I wrote. I said that all else being equal, there is NO relationship between the quality of inspiration and the labor put into it. That’s demonstrably true. The old bromide that you get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice just ain’t true (see below). but it interests me to see how many people simply refuse to acknowledge this.

      //That information is often very limited…//

      And sometimes it’s not.

      //How would you propose to prove this “fact?” Find that, and I may put more stock in this “fact.//

      Here you go.

      “He says his research does not support “the egalitarian view that anyone who is sufficiently motivated can become an expert.””

  7. “As a general matter, the argument of greatness as cultural phenomena has been argued (in relation to Beethoven) and has been largely dismissed.”

    Not sure what you’re talking about here…

    “I said that all else being equal, there is NO relationship between the quality of inspiration and the labor put into it… Here you go.”

    Yeah, that article’s not nearly as cut-and-dried as you’re making it out to be. Here are some relevant extracts:

    [[[It’s clear that not just any practice, but only dedicated and intensive honing of skills that counts.]]]

    I’ve said this frequently: it’s not the sheer amount of study/practice, but the quality of that study and practice. Lots of people can read Shakespeare and listen to Gluck, lots of people can then go write poetry/operas inspired by them, but it takes a Keats and Mozart to have “dedicated and intensive honing of skills” based on that study.

    I also think Ericsson raises a good point that:

    [[[the studies Hambrick and his colleagues included did not measure practice time appropriately, in part because people often remember it inaccurately. None of the reported relations proves that deliberate practice could not explain all of the variance… With better research using daily practice diaries during the entire development of music and chess performance, we might find that individual differences in the amount and timing of deliberate practice [do] not account for all observed variance, but current data cannot claim to show that.]]]

    It’s imperfect/imprecise research at best, and the numbers given are bound to reflect that imprecision.

    Kaufman also makes a point similar to what I said above:

    [[[Scott Barry Kaufman, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, says the debate is really one over priority; innate talent invariably plays a role in proficiency, but so does training to hone that talent. “The field needs to move beyond such simplistic questions as ‘Is it practice or talent?’ and needs to look at the whole wide range of personal characteristics involved,” he says.]]]

    One can also easily interpret that study as implying that study/practice IS the most important factor, as the article itself points out:

    [[[Let’s not lose sight of the fact that practice accounted for [roughly] 30% of the variance,” he says. “By scientific standards, that’s an extraordinary amount to capture.” So whether you view the data as suggesting that practice is less important because it only accounts for one-third of the variability in proficiency, or more important because it explains more than any other factor discovered so far, is a matter of perspective.]]]

    So even your quoted conclusion has found disagreement:

    [[[Ericsson disagrees, insisting that there is no evidence — outside of obvious physical limitations — for significant constraints. But Kaufman takes the middle ground. “Everyone can’t be a genius in everything,” he says. “But I’m coming around to the idea that every single person has the potential for genius in something.”]]]

    So this article is far from a slam dunk for your side, and I could argue that it more accurately reflects the points I’ve been making.

    • Yes, you–ever the master quibbler. The portions you quoted were, like yours, from dissenting opinions.

      The research, however, in no way “reflects the points” you’ve been making:

      “We looked at the two most widely studied domains of expertise research: chess and music,” says Hambrick. “It’s clear from this data that deliberate practice doesn’t account for all, nearly all or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music.” Two-thirds of the difference, in fact, was unrelated to practice.”

      At this point, there’s not much more to be discussed. Those facts may change or be further revised, but for now they make the same argument I do, whether you; or Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University; or Scott Barry Kaufman, assistant professor of psychology at New York University, like it or not. My reference to Beethoven comes from here.

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