Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Artist's Awareness

I met with an acquaintance who writes poetry a week or so ago. When we were closer and he was just beginning to write, I encouraged him and helped him, in some small ways, to improve. After he moved away I continued to follow his work in various publications. Then it stopped, and I had no idea if he had quit writing poetry or taken up something else (for he was also interested in film and music.)

When I met him recently I was going to ask until I realized immediately that he was not the same man. Oh, he talked about writing poetry and a possible poetry/music/film project. He also let me know about a number of health issues. Throughout our conversation I could sense that the creative urge was still there but greatly subordinate to his mental and physical state. He seemed to me incapable of focusing on anything outside himself, as if he no longer had any interest in the world around him if it did not directly involve his well-being.

At first I was going to chastise him for abandoning his writing but I’m glad I did not. I have come to realize how much awareness must be a basic part of the creative process. I don’t mean a ‘hyper’ awareness, some sense more developed in artists than in others. I’m referring to the primitive consciousness that keeps the senses operating and the mind processing the information the senses receive. The sudden notice of a smell and all the associations it may bring; an awareness of how colours and shapes flow together; the way one thought leads to something other under certain circumstances; all these are part of how we interact with our surroundings and how we understand it.

That’s what poets work from, an awareness and understanding of the world around them. That’s what any artist has. It doesn’t matter if such awareness is called “the Muse” or insight or vision. It is nothing more than any person has. The artist, however, has come to use that awareness in creative ways to enhance what he needs to show, to say.

It’s very much like a muscle the artist or writer exercises almost unconsciously, one that more ordinary people tend to ignore and sometimes even actively suppress.

That calls to mind one beautiful morning not long ago. In the early morning quiet I had paused to sit in the nearby park, simply to think, perhaps make some plans, get away from any pressure in the house. Before the day’s impending heat could overtake the morning I enjoyed the play of sunlight and breezes in the trees and on my skin. I felt aware of my surroundings and even as one with the environment. And then a young lady came by, running along the paved track that circles the park.

You’ve seen them, the early morning joggers. This one was no different: proper footwear, light snug clothing, sweatband at the forehead. I’ll swear there would be a bottle of some special drink waiting where she had stashed it (probably in her car.) The dark glasses to protect the eyes. The ear buds leading up from the I-pod.

And it struck me; she had gone to a lot of trouble to negate all the things I was enjoying – the sunshine, the slight breeze, the movement of leaves on the trees, the singing and chirping of birds, the scurry of a squirrel, the splash of colour in a nearby flowerbed, the scent of a juniper bush. All these external stimuli and all the pleasure they give she was denying herself because she wanted to focus inward. Her feelings concentrated on perspiration and muscle fatigue; all she heard was whatever mechanically reproduced sounds she allowed herself to hear and perhaps the pulse of her own blood; all she saw was just enough to keep her on the chosen path. She certainly did not seem to notice me. In no way was she open to any outside stimulus.

That’s just a case of normal awareness being suppressed, for whatever reason. And what if such awareness is impaired, perhaps even lost altogether? What if I, as a poet, suddenly could no longer see the brilliance of colour, could no longer hear the small sounds around me? If I was unable to enjoy all the small miracles that make my life worth living, could I still write poetry?

I shudder to think of myself so wrapped up in myself that nothing else matters. To what sort of animal is the poet reduced when he has lost his Muse, his awareness of the intricate world outside himself?

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