Message in a Bottle

I was fortunate to attend the Midwest Literary Walk yesterday in Chelsea, Michigan. There were some amazing authors there but the one touched me most was Edward Hirsch. Not only because he read from his latest book, Gabriel, A Poem, an elegy to his son, but also because he talked about a question that has been bopping around in my head lately. When it concerns art, what matters more: Intent or impact?

I was talking to a young writer last week about racism and it led to that question. He held that the artist’s intent was all that mattered. That as artists, we produce our art to express ourselves. We don’t create for the masses, we create for ourselves. In one way, I totally agree with him. When I am writing, I have to write the story that I need to write at that time, masses be damned. I’m writing it because it is a story that needs to be told, not to please someone else. If I have done the best work I was capable of at that moment, my work is done.

But, there are people whose motivation to write is to sell books. Are they less artists than someone who writes because they have been deeply touched by life in some way and feel the need to express it? And, would anyone really ever go through the editing process if they weren’t writing for someone else to read? We’d just stuff it in a drawer somewhere if its only purpose was to express our feelings and spare ourselves the pain of seeing it marked up by an editor!

The other problem I have with his stance is particularly true for writing. I’ll let artists in the other media weigh in on whether it is true for other art forms. And that brings us to what Edward Hirsch said yesterday. I paraphrase: Poetry is like a message in a bottle. You create it, then toss it out to sea. But it’s not until someone finds it and opens the bottle that life is breathed into it. Writing requires a vessel – the reader – to reach its full potential. Like the message in the bottle, it’s written in hopes that someone, ANYONE will find it and set it free.

PS: A friend just reminded me that Edward Hirsch was paraphrasing himself! Here’s the reference:

“A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense too are under way: they are making toward something.”

Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by Josh Felstiner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 115.

 

~D

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