The artist’s obligation (and we’re all artists)

I Have Something To Say

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…and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves, 
asking “How can I reach the sea?” 
And I will pass to them, saying nothing, 
the starry echoes of the wave, 
a breaking up of foam and quicksand, 
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself, 
the grey cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea 
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Pablo Neruda, from “The Poet’s Obligation”; trans. A. Reid)

Every day every one of us enjoys, consciously or not, some form of art, “high” or “low” – something that emerged from the creative mind of another person. Music, TV shows, paintings or pictures on the walls of our places of work, even news articles are acts of creation, a type of art. In fact, when you think about it, much of the stuff of our daily lives has its origin in human inspiration.

That’s amazing, don’t you think? We are literally surrounded by the legacy of the labor of creativity.

And creativity is labor, if you want anything to come of it. Ideas are easy – manifesting them in reality rarely is. This is true of any kind of art, but I often think that writers are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to sharing their work with the world. Writing in any form – poetry, fiction, blogging – requires a significant time investment by the consumer. And in today’s world, even five minutes can seem significant.

Why don’t I read poetry? Because it takes too much effort – which translates into time. I’m lazy and want the instant gratification of prose, not the slow unfolding in my mind of the meaning of a series of words I’ve had to read a few times over to absorb and understand.

I realized today, reading the above poem by Neruda, what I am losing by not giving my time to poetry. It’s not what you would think. Sure, I’m missing out on the beauty of it. But that’s not what struck me when I looked up from my iPad and thought, “Ah, I get it. I understand what he’s saying.” Reading poetry is both a discipline and a devotion. You have to focus your mind, as in mediation, and you must read the poem several times at least. And through so doing, you honor the poet and his/her work. You are expressing a kind of love for the poet.

This is the real reason reading poetry is so difficult for me. Because it requires that I open my heart up to the poet’s soul, in a sense. Poetry is meaning distilled. It is intimate and immediate. There is no hiding from the words and their meaning. Poems – at least the modern kind that tend to be short – must be read in one go; there is no escape from their meter.

Poetry can be hard work to read, intellectually and emotionally. Not many people read it. Few buy it.

And yet, poets continue to write. Just as I have continued to write (my fiction but also this blog and my dissertation), though I have no audience or publications. And I often ask why I bother. Because writing, like reading, can be painful work. As novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently wrote about being a writer, “I cry every day.”

I think, though, that Neruda provides an answer. I have an obligation to share my words and the perspective they emerge from. Not for any specific reason. Not to get published, or even for more altruistic reasons like helping others. Simply because all of us, each one, has an obligation to share ourselves as best we can. I do this through words. Others do so through service, or parenthood, or activism. This is what being human is, and how we collectively create a world worth living in despite all the ugliness we see every day.

I don’t have any high purpose such as Neruda expresses in his poem, but his words have touched me. They brought back the beach vacation when I took the above photo – one of the last truly happy times I spent with my ex bf. Neruda’s obligation has been fulfilled through me. But his poem also made me cognizant of my own obligation. My writing matters, even if few people read it. Because it’s my way of sharing who and what I am in the best way I can.

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