And, as I say, I have asked myself these same questions.
Not so much about the poetry, which I have written ever since I could write at all and which seems as natural to me as walking or breathing, but mainly about the criticism, which, after all, calls for trips to the library, the reading of page upon page of soporific prose, and other strenuous, unaesthetic activities. And I had to say to them, “I don’t know.” Because I knew I was looking for something, but I did not know what. Now I understand that, on a less-than-wholly-conscious level, I was looking for some kind of equation, a formula to explain what a writer is.
According to the first, the writer was born special and, by writing a little now and then, sprinkles specialness on those of us who were not so lucky.
According to the second, which assumes even more authorial passivity, the writer had specialness thrust upon him by the powerful and like-minded in his society and therefore, like an Aeolian harp, expresses the most oppressive of that society’s values.
23, 1895: “I take up my old pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. And I will.” And he did: in less than a decade he published what many consider his three greatest novels, works built largely around scene, dialogue, and other dramatic conventions he mastered during his “failed” foray into the theatre.
(Incidentally, late in life James tried again to write plays, though with little more success than before.) But even more than these other writers, Melville demonstrated throughout his career an aggressive resistance to discouragement; when he found one door closed to him, he looked around until he found another that was open.
Strand is one of America’s preeminent poets yet is also the author of short fiction, children’s books, and essays; in addition he has edited anthologies and translated the works of other poets.
What we see in each of these cases is dogged persistence matched with a consummate versatility.
Here I am reminded of the story of what the physiologist Claude Bernard is supposed to have said to a student who asked how he might succeed in Bernard’s laboratory.
said the scientist: work like an animal, that is, with the persistence of an animal and an animal’s disregard for failure, because, deprived of its bone or nut, an animal will not dwell on the absence of the thing lost but look elsewhere for another, without resentment.