Really, it would absurd for me to invent generalized answers to these questions. All of our explanations would be different and would probably escalate into bad-tempered confrontation or self-excoriation. But I think it is occasionally important to consider the private import of such questions. That may sound narcissistic, but for the most part artistic creation emanates from the individual outward into the world. Artistic influence, on the other hand, is drawn from the world into the individual. So these questions matter to each of us, though our answers will all be different.
After reading yesterday's post, a friend remarked to me, "I just read The Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon. At first, really responding to the early stuff, I thought, 'I'll bet Dawn likes her.' Then, as the collection leveled out or tailed off, I began to grow irritated. Yes she's all rural and rustic but not in your 'I have to go and feed the cows now' way. Rather, she comes across as a walker through a pastoral landscape counting on it to poetically stimulate her. When not writing poetry, her real job, mentioned exactly once, would seem to be that of a teacher. But there's no confronting the problems and emotions teaching raises."
His comment moved me for several reasons. First, as I know well, it is difficult to decide whether growing indifference to a book is the reader's fault or the writer's. As my friend said later in his note to me, the poems felt "un-needed," and that is a something no writer wants to imagine hearing about her work. Second, there's the issue of detachment--in this case, the sense that an artist is "walking through" a place but somehow not participating in it herself. This is something that photographers do constantly, so why is it more difficult to bear in a poet? Or is it? After all, Kenyon's primary theme is not the countryside but her own melancholia; and the poems do accrue into a sort of poetic Prozacian amble that, in fact, does quite accurately mirror how depressed acquaintances describe the action of medication. Finally, though, there's the question of "what does this poet do?" How does she actually engage with the world? Does she teach kindergartners? Does she train circus dogs? Does she rob banks? What life does she vigorously live? Where, in other words, does the impetus to write come from?
This is the self-education question, from the other side. What must one know if one is to be, in Vendler's words, "exquisitely well educated"? Is Shakespeare enough? Or do we also need to know how to clean a chicken?
As I said, I am not going to begin to offer any snappy answers to these questions. But I'm thinking about them.