Friday, November 18, 2005

A Dilemma of Originality

Here is a problem that I am having. I am wrestling with the dilemma of whether poetry can be original and whether we want it to be original. By "original" poetry, I mean that poetry which is innovative and unique in both substance and form. (The subjectivity of originality is something that I would like to address in a separate post, but I will just work with this basic definition for now.)

One of the problems with poetry is that it cannot be entirely original. In terms of substance/content, the same basic themes emerge over and over again: love, life, death, religion, politics, etc. In terms of form, the same basic structures emerge -- rhyme, fixed forms, free verse, dream transcription, visual poetry, etc. Poetry uses language and is a form of communication. Poetry follows a certain set of rules, though the set itself varies from poet to poet, from reader to reader.

Within these fundamental confines, elements of originality are present. I am not saying here that all poems are alike. A Catalina Cariaga poem is unlike a Lee Herrick poem, a Garrett Hongo poem is unlike a Tan Lin poem. You could make the more radical argument that no two poems are alike, meaning that every poem, in a sense, is original, or you could even assert that every stanza or line is original.

But the more interesting question to me is whether we want poetry to be original. Should poets aim for originality? Most poets would answer yes, but maybe most poets have not given enough thought to the question. Original does not always mean good. For example, in Cambodia, in the late 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sought to return the nation to a state of originality, making their nation different and apart from all other nations, and it led to the destruction of all major cities and the auto-genocide of millions of innocent civilians.

Originality can paradoxically mean regression. If we seek to write an original poem, we run the risk of writing a regressive poem. A poem can be a pale imitation of another poem without having intended to be, just as Pol Pot probably never intended the anarchy and chaos in which his search for the original and the regenerative ended. Examples of regressive poems abound in the volumes of the International Library of Poetry -- they strive for originality but end in unintended imitation.

Because originality is not necessarily good, we need role models as poets and models of good poems. In Asian-American poetry, we need and want a Carlos Bulosan or Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin to guide us. We need to read their poems and take them seriously. Tradition is important. History is important. We need a past. We need a coherent narrative from the past to the present to guide us into the future...Or do we? Maybe this paragraph is entirely untrue. As readers, we should always be aware of that what is asserted boldly, as this paragraph does, may not necessarily be right.

After all, one can make a good case for originality as well. One can argue that tradition is dangerous. History is dangerous. The past is dangerous. Even a coherent narrative is dangerous, because it implies linkages that might not otherwise exist, and whether triumphalist or apologetic, ratifies what it says through the telling. We do not need or want a Carlos Bulosan or Li-Young Lee or Marilyn Chin to guide us. First, they have already done it, and we have their poetry already, so why bother to imitate. Second, it could turn out that their poetry is awful; their poetry is not inherently good -- it is up to us to decide. For example, I think that slavery is awful, but tons of people thought it was good and right for centuries, and it turned out they were being stupid. We should not seek to think and write like our predecessors. We should seek to think and write like ourselves, independently and critically. We need originality.

At any rate, I am saying here that originality is a double-edged sword. Boring people will tell you that you can dabble in both tradition and originality, building upon the traditional to formulate the original. I suppose, although I don't understand why that isn't just another way of trumpeting tradition as the main course and throwing in a little originality as cole slaw. There are gradations of tradition/originality, but there are choices as well. Important choices -- in what we read and what we write.


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Some author I read somewhere stated the essential difference between science and art as follows:

In scientific work, the goal is to create results that can be repeated (at least theoretically) over and over again an infinite number of times. An atom of sodium and an atom of chlorine always combine (under the right conditions) to make salt. The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle always equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

With art, on the other hand, the goal is to create results that are essentially unique, results in which the uniqueness is more significant than the repeatability. The Mona Lisa or Hokusai's Wave, repeated on 10,000 T-shirts or 100,000 magazine covers, doesn't fundamentally improve on, or add artistic validity to, the original painting.

(I keep thinking that the source of the above was Christopher Caudwell in Illusion and Reality, but when I've gone back I can't find the formulation in the book, so it may be from a different author.)

This is not to say that originality is the only essential quality of art, but I think art -- or at least good art -- tends or leans toward original rather than repeatability. Not as hard and fast categories, but as a relative emphasis.

We, human beings, exist in the context of the actions of other human beings, and of our own actions with other human beings. Our actions in the present, and the past (what we usually call history), and our potential future actions. The poems we write may or may not be original, but they exist in the context of poetry people have written previously.

There are several somewhat related, but different, questions here. If someone wants to write poetry as an act of emotional expression, without regard to literary value (however we ultimately decide literary value), there's nothing wrong with that by itself. Originality may not be of great importance for an essentially limited private act.

On the other hand, if someone wants to write poems that people may want to read in a hundred years or a thousand years, it might be useful to have some sense of the historical (including literary) context in which one is writing. Originality and tradition may each take on greater importance then.

Real originality, in poetry (and other creative arts), requires at least some knowledge of what other poets have done previously. It's important to use critical judgement in reading poetry; nobody likes everything, and someone who does maybe isn't reading carefully enough, or with enough thought.

The act of writing is, among other things, a choice. Greater possibilities arise from a greater range of possible choices. A knowledge of the past, of the literary (and other) traditions and practices that lie behind us and around us, can open us to a greater range of possibilities.

I believe this is true, whether we chose to draw on other traditions and practices, or ignore them, or aggressively reject them, or follow them mindlessly or mechanically, or pick and choose from among them with careful and discerning insight.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Lyle,
Thanks a lot for your very helpful remarks on originality!

12:44 AM  

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