The Generosity of Art

Being an artist I can produce, if I am able, universals of general applicability. If I succeed in keeping myself objective enough, sensual enough, I can produce the factors, the concretions of materials by which others shall understand and so be led to use-that they may the better see, touch, taste, enjoy—their own world differing as it may from mine. By mine, they, different, can be discovered to be the same as I and, thrown in to contrast, will see the implications of a general enjoyment through me.

That—all my life I have striven to emphasize it—is what is meant by the universality of the local. From me where I stand to them where they stand in their here and now—where
I cannot be—I do in spite of that arrive! through their work which complements my own, each sensually local.

This is the generosity also of art. It closes up the ranks of understanding. It shows the world at one with itself. And it solves, it is the solvent—or it can be—of old antagonisms. It is theoretical, as opposed to philosophy, most theoretical when it is most down on the ground most sensual, most real. Picking out a flower or a bird in detail that becomes an abstract term of enlightenment.

—William Carlos Williams, Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist (1939)

In our first Writing Workshop this week we found ourselves wrestling with the generosity of art. In her draft Connections, Anna offers a breathtaking description of how a poem by Gary Snyder, “The Bath,” moved a reader (Anna) through what Williams calls “concretions of materials by which others shall understand and so be led to use—that they may the better see, touch, taste, enjoy—their own world differing as it may from mine.” This is the generosity of art.

The challenge is always to find in the gesture of form the generosity that can, in some cases, make all the difference. Reading the first version of Anna’s thinking I am hearing genuine interest—a version, perhaps, of the “authentic curiosity” Courtney uses to describe the presence of Virginia Woolf—leading out toward something new. Listen first to the emergence of descriptive vocabulary in Anna’s draft:

Snyder has a unique voice.  I’m not sure if I even have the correct language to talk about ‘presence’ yet.  However, there is definitely something going on in his writing. From his poetry to his prose, he sounds like himself—if that’s not too vague a statement—not only in the way he conveys information, but, when he is working through a thought on the page, he creates the feeling that, as the reader, you are thinking with him. This kind of meditative writing, invites the reader to evolve along with the essay.

Well, it is too vague, as the only available terms are mostly conventional—“unique” and “voice” and “presence.” What then happens is an attempt to move from familiar terms. In Anna’s words, “there is definitely something going on” in Snyder’s essays. But what is going on? Here is the list that follows:

“he sounds like himself”
“working through a thought on the page”
“creates a feeling”
“invites the reader”

This is a working list of elements that leads to fresh questions. What is “the sound of a self,” this self, the self of Gary Snyder? How exactly does a sentence or paragraph “work through a thought”? How does language “create feeling”? In ways do words on a page “invite”?

Let us consider together examples of this sound and work and creating and inviting. Let us learn from these examples how to come to terms with the art of the essay. And let us then find in our own essays what Williams calls “the universality of the local.” Or, as he puts it, “By mine, they, different, can be discovered to be the same as I and, thrown in to contrast, will see the implications of a general enjoyment through me.

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