A while back I was at a poetry reading / dissection with my old Linguistics professor, Hajj. I showed up mainly because the subject was Wallace Stevens, one of my favorite (if not my absolute favorite) poets. We were dissecting “Domination of Black,” which I thought was one of his best – I’m not gonna post it here, go google it or whatever if you want to see it.
What’s important is that we broke it up and examined it in-depth, noting how he repeated images, words, and sounds (phonetics) in the lines and verses (among other things). At the end of the night someone asked “do you think Stevens meant to do all this?”
I was appalled, dismayed, and a little angry. Wallace Stevens was one of the best poets America’s ever had, and this guy’s asking if he meant to craft something this bad-ass. I was inches from literally jumping up and yelling at the guy, something to the effect of “WTF are you saying?! It’s Wallace muthafuckin’ Stevens, and you think that he was accidentally awesome?!”
Luckily for me, Hajj was quick to answer. “I don’t think so,” he said. He explained that he thought that good art comes from a “feeling” the artist has, which they then try to translate into their medium, and part of how we measure if an artist is “good” or not is how familiar they are with their craft so as to make that translation as seamless as possible without over-thinking it. It’s like the difference between telling a joke and telling an assembly of facts – it’s all in the delivery, and delivery is all about one’s skill in that medium. He really was in a sense “accidentally awesome.”
Hajj said that what likely happened was that Stevens wrote the rough draft, then went back and played with it to make it really great, but even then he probably wasn’t thinking “I can use this particular literary device here and here and…” Editing is where a good chunk of your real talent shines, but that first draft was fertile enough to make the editing worth it.
“And how does one become skilled in that medium?” you ask. Practice. Stevens probably had to write a lot of stinkers to get good. He also probably exposed himself to a lot of good art, particularly literature. THAT part was no accident, but it did set the stage for him.
And thus I admit defeat. I am an idiot.
Though sometimes I too am accidentally awesome.