“In art the best is good enough”, Italienische Reise, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
At any awards season, I am impressed by those persons who garner their gongs or statuettes, particularly thinking of the process they would have gone through, with long periods of unrecognised effort, and their creative resources developed in very competitive environments. Especially those few who receive awards across several genres, such as those receiving Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. It makes me realise that there must be similarities in the creative impulse across all the creative arts.
Having spent some time attempting to learn arts such as photography, music composition, writing, and poetry there do seem to be parallels. I cannot speak very authoritatively about the other arts, but in conversation with those who also paint or draw, I have decided to come up with this article about the creative process across multiple disciplines and some consequences for poetic work.
I believe all arts represent a human effort applied to a given medium to produce lasting works with an emotional import. Each of the elements below are brought into play and considered by an artist, either consciously or subconsciously. As the artist’s skills mature, application of these elements may become more and more a subconscious effort. These elements are: Inspiration, Perspective, Constraints, Craft, Iteration, and Performance. In the following sections I will look at each of these in turn.
Inspiration: the motivation for works should be to create something with solid emotional import or that is memorable. A great work can haunt the mind for a long time. To achieve this, the artist considers what emotion(s), character(s), theme(s) are to be communicated, and how to do this through setting, scene, narrative, genre, trope, mood, or through a suitable level of abstraction. Several themes may be overlaid or juxtaposed, perhaps with ambiguity between several possible interpretations used as a deliberate device. I often use this approach in my sonnets. Less prosaically, inspiration is the source of great melodies in music, compositions in photography, or lines in poetry. For these the artist has to open themselves up to their own well of inspiration. The stimulus for an overall work may be found either: (a) externally i.e., a response to other works in the sister arts; (b) internally, or from personal experience:
- External stimulus. This is where the artist draws their inspiration from works in one or more other disciplines or sister arts. Response to an external stimulus was often used as inspiration during the Romantic period. When a poet is responding to a visual artwork, such a poem is called an ekphrastic work. There is also the concept of a integrated art work or Gesamtkunstwerk, where, say, fine artists, sculptors, musicians, and writers collaborate on multi-disciplinary piece. This was often the case in recent centuries in opera and in artworks devised for religious buildings during the Renaissance.
- Internal stimulus. Where the artist has an urge to communicate their personal experiences either in a concrete or abstract manner. They may be trying to portray a very personal experience but be subject to the “anxiety of influence”, unsure to what extent they are subconsciously influenced by extant works. Their work should be original in some way and avoid clichéd devices, which is one of the reasons that the study of art is helpful to encourage learning about traditions, techniques, and previous masterpieces. Many poets extol the benefits of reading as much contemporary poetry as possible. Much modern era and popular work is self-referential. It is also more likely the artist will be working in a single discipline.
Perspective: Art requires active observation by the artist. For this element, they decide how to approach the work. This also means deciding on the starting point, whether ‘in media res’ or otherwise (i.e. choosing where a poem starts, the novel’s plot and point of view, the viewpoint of a photographic image). It may also mean deciding the ending or outcome, although some writers, painters, etc. might allow this to evolve from the initial characters or conditions. Finding an unusual perspective can result in striking images, original poems. In respect of point of view in writing, some authors may choose a secondary character to observe the primary subject in order to create an interesting narrative.
Effort applied within the Constraints of the Medium: One or more media may be chosen in which the artist’s intention is to be communicated. These media will present some constraints within which the artist has to operate, e.g., film stock, gouache, oils, stone, clay, diction, text, form, or harmonic language of chosen musical genre. Creation will be an iterative process of design and execution within the possibilities of the medium. I believe all creative arts depend on an iterative effort of discovery, but the activities may vary depending on the medium used and its constraints. The degree of planning or preparation will depend on the constraints of the media, mutability and material costs are factors:
- Mutability. With some media, it may not be possible to go back and easily correct a mistake. In sculpting, or pottery, for example. Consider the approach between watercolour painting and oils – one permits easy correction, the other does not. As a result, artists may plan or conceive their work in advance before executing in the desired media. This could be in the forms of sketches or models. Many musicians use software composition and notations tools like Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), which allow much more rapid development than with pen, piano and musical manuscript. With these tools, composers have the capability to go back and make as many corrections as they wish. Likewise for poets, who can edit their work as often as they desire. I sometimes find word processing very useful when I wish to move phrases or stanzas around, without which I would have to copy the poem out longhand again;
- Material Costs. The cost of the raw material may affect the creative process. A sculptor may be working in Caen stone or clay, a painter in watercolour or gold leaf, the affordability of the material will play a role in the approach taken. Luckily, poets are working with inexpensive materials, and in my case, often pen and paper.
Poets are lucky in having a choice over which strategy they use, since there are few media constraints. We have an inexpensive material, which is very mutable. There is a choice between much preparation or no preparation. Some poets may write a draft immediately or use free association to surface subconscious ideas. Others may mull over an idea for weeks before writing a first draft, capturing potential phrases in a notebook. An artificial constraint may be imposed by the poet to enhance the creative conditions, e.g., by imposing a specific form, e.g., the sonnet.
I will continue with this discussion next month, starting with Mastery of Craft.