So here’s an idea tossed around my facebook stream this last week or so by a poet friend:
“I wonder if excellence is the new mediocrity…”
to which someone else asked if perhaps the reverse was true…the cynics view,
that “mediocrity is the new excellence…”
Me, I think that the follow up to this is that “celebrity is the new excellence…”
Having thought about it though, I have to amend my response and say that truthfully celebrity has BEEN the new excellence for a while now. I know I succumb to this thinking pretty easily. I look at the success of American Idol and X Factor, the news coverage of Charlie Sheen and Sarah Palin…obviously, celebrity is pretty damn important to us. This is nothing new.
And then, I’m thinking about Emily Dickinson again…
Emily Dickinson was a most prolific poet, writing over 1700 poems in her lifetime. Only a handful were published while she was still alive and many of those were, in fact, edited to fit a certain style of the times. Reading them side by side, her words and those that were “fixed” riles up my inner punk rocker so I won’t even go there today. That’s a post for another day.
Not everyone is a rabid Emily Dickinson fan, I get that…and yet, her work continues to be inspirational, emotionally impactful, no one would deny that she has been a shaping force for MANY a modern poet and many a modern poet have been shaping forces for many a modern person.
Notice here…something important:
Her poems were found after she died, by her sister… under her bed in a box.
IN. A. BOX.
Who knows what she intended. Maybe in her head she was waiting for something, waiting for the world to change, waiting for the right moment, waiting til her life was different or her heart was ready. I don’t know. I don’t know why she waited but I admit, I’m glad she did. I don’t know what the world would have done to her work if she’d published while alive. Perhaps they ALL would have been edited to “fit” the culture better. Maybe that’s what we do even still. We try to form things to fit where we are now instead of hearing and seeing what is before us. Celebrity is birthed here, in this dynamic.
My beef with “celebrity” as it is now, as it defines us as a culture, is about a manipulation of our emotions, though. That is what gets me on this rant. I question, greatly, the “stars” that come from the reality show based media. I’m sure they have some talent. Some of the songs or the work they produce do have a certain quality, I’m sure…and yet…how much is the fascination about the quality of their art and how much is about all pulling of our heartstrings we get from the show…the backstory, the drama of the moment, the “what’s at stake if she loses!”
Is this what we do now? Is this how we decide what we’ll listen to, what we’ll buy, what we’ll support? I know a lot of artists, friends…I can promise you we all have a story of heartbreak and actually, we also all have a story of mediocrity. Thoreau was right on when we named us…most of us do “live this life of quiet desperation and go to our graves with a song still in our heart…” For some, the mature artists, the mature people…it’s more about the song in our heart and the living out of that song, not the publication of the song or the royalties from the song or the number of people in an arena who hear that song…but the fact that the song is there. As artists we are driven to writing it down, that is our calling.
I admit, I’m driven to write it down and yet I’m also really geeked to show it around. I LOVE when someone connects to my work. I know this about me. This part, though, this isn’t what makes me an artist. I confess that I know this is a broken part of me. This is the part that never really knows how very loved and accepted she is…how talented she might be…how worthy, how valuable.
I know this about me. I’m working on it.
The fact that I know this is more than likely the only thing that keeps me from complete depression…and from throwing myself headlong into the competitive stream of mainline media. It’s the thing that prevents me from believing that each rejection I encounter means I am a shitty writer. It’s the thing that brings me to workshops that keep me from really being a shitty writer. It’s the thing that drives me to sit down every single day and write whether I feel like it or not. I’m an artist because I do the work, not because someone holds it up in front of a stadium of people and because they clap.
Now, here’s the thing. Nobody has yet held my work up before a stadium of people who have clapped. I don’t know what that feels like. I imagine it feels pretty awesome, at least at first. I imagine it’s the first taste of a powerful drug. An emotional epidural of sorts….numbing the very painful impulse which produced the work being shown at that very moment. I imagine it must be quite a relief, quite a profound relief. It’s a relief I really could use during this labor of love on more days than I care to admit. I don’t condemn the epidural, truly. I get it.
And then, all roads lead to Emily Dickinson…with 1700 poems under her bed. 1700 really lovely, wonderful and engaging poems…under her bed.
I don’t know what the world would be, what my world would be without Emily Dickinson. And in this I’m reminded that this all came about exactly as it needed…the work was birthed when it needed to be birthed…the life it’s lived was lived out exactly as it needed to be lived, the way it continues to be lived. I can’t deny that. I won’t deny it.
So today, I’m writing…I’m writing it down. I’m not putting it under my bed but on my hard drive, sometimes I’ll hold it up in front of this here audience and you can either clap or not. Your comments are, of course, welcome affirmation (whether you agree or disagree with me.) Sometimes I’ll even risk rejection, venture out and show it around to the outside world. The important thing, in this life of quiet desperation, is the song. I’m writing it down.