The receiving end

In her New York Times book review of  “On Whitman” by C.K. Williams (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/books/review/Vendler-t.html?_r=1&ref=books) Helen Vendler makes the point that “poets – great ones, at least – write ultimately not for any audience but for themselves or an exacting ideal”.  This is to back up W. B Yeats’ argument that “[a]s soon as the poet composed with an eye to the audience…he was was writing “rhetoric”, not poetry.”  This is the counter-argument to a proposition by C.K. Williams that “All great poems…by the way they colonize and amplify and enhance the music of our own inner voices, of consciousness and conscience, ask us to be greater than we are, and if we read them well even show us how to begin.”

 

Who is right?  It begs the questions, where does the impulse to write come from and why does one do it?  A friend of mine who is a professor of English at the University of Cape Town, once described to me how he would go onto another plane of consciousness when he was writing poetry, and that he had been told he made a kind of singing tone while he was doing it.  It sounded other-worldly and quite mystical.  It was as if there was some force driving him to create, with no consideration for anything else.  Yet these poets – my friend, W.B Yeats, Walt Whitman, C.K. Williams – are all published writers and so, somewhere along the line, an audience has to come into the equation.

Now, I don’t for a moment put myself into that category, but I do wonder who, in my small way, I am writing for.  I had a discussion about this with my niece.  She has been blogging for years; it is like a pictorial journal with images and thoughts about her life and her family, and I wondered who she wrote for.  In her case a lot of it is to do with sharing the process of her gorgeous children growing up with her mother in England, her grandmother in Cape Town, and other friends in Africa.  She turned the question back on me, and I used the analogy of who one speaks to as a radio announcer.  When you start out in the business there is all sorts of advice about how to come across as intimate and personal.  One school of thought is to imagine that you are speaking to one specific person.  That is hopeless for me; if I think of anyone in particular it makes me horribly self-conscious and I will be sure to “fluff” or misspeak.  Other advice, which I do adhere to, is that one should be speaking one-on-one and never treat a radio audience like an auditorium full of x-thousand people.  “Many of you..”, “some of you…” are no-no phrases.  It should always be an individual, even if that one person might be in a room full of people.  This makes perfect sense if you think of it in a social context.  If you are at a dinner party, say, with eight people gathered around the table and the talk is general, you will be addressing one person at a time, even if the collected group is listening to you.   So, over the years, with trial and error, I have come up with a concept of an individual I speak to on the radio, someone who is sort of like my alter-ego in a way, who shares my interests and my sense of humour, and who finds the same things interesting as I do.  I guess when I write in this kind of forum, that is who I write for as well.  This doesn’t really answer the question, though, of who the great poets have in mind when they are in the throes of creativity – if anyone.

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