Tuesday, July 15, 2014

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent - William E. Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, "I'll be back,"
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind -
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward...

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark -
"Made it again!" Oh how I love this climb!
-the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
"Made it again! Made it again!"

Based on the title, William E. Stafford strongly disagrees with the idea that art can only be produced by a discontented mind, by a mind in want of something.  What Stafford provides is a poem of triumph, sharing in his exultation and joy at the thrill of the challenging climb, and of Nature's awesome power.  The poem itself is a simple narrative, a man climbing a dramatic cliff-face over a turbulent body of water.  He revels in his success, ecstatic with the love of the climb.

I'm sure a persistent pessimistic malcontent could argue that the climb and subsequent poem are fueled be some deep discontent that forces him to physical extremes, but I don't buy that.  Poetry, and art as a whole, can be inspired by every range of emotions.  A desire to share the joy of one's triumph over harsh nature (as in this poem) can be impetus enough.  Desire to share the overwhelming joy one feels at God's Creation (the poems of Gerard Manley-Hopkins) can inspire.  The breathtaking awe one feels on the eve of discovery (Keats looking into Chapman's Homer comes to mind) has been a creative force for all of time.  It is not only dissatisfaction that drives us to create.  To anyone who argues that even those aforementioned wide-ranging inspirations are secretly fueled by discontent, I'd like to offer them one of my favorite T.S Eliot quotes, "For Christ's sake, stick it up your ass."

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