The reporter as artist

“What is uttered from the heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own.” —Goethe

“I was signed up in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, so I was a poet and they didn’t let you cross over. If you said you were a poet, then you had to write in those funny lines. You couldn’t switch. But when I started writing nonfiction, memoir, and the kind of prose that I’m better known for, I didn’t really feel that much difference at the heart of it. . . . The difference has to do with the way you want to go about writing something, rather than something intrinsic about the material.”—Patricia Hampl, interviewed in River Teeth

When I was studying journalism, I loved The Reporter as Artist: Readings on the New Journalism Controversy, a 1974 collection of essays edited by Ronald Weber. Lots of essays on narrative nonfiction, use of scenes, the article as art. Not that anyone in my journalism school had a clue how to teach us to become nonfiction artists. Now, I am certain, students taking nonfiction classes are being taught much better the techniques of narrative storytelling, at least in strong English departments. J-schools probably remain a mixed bag but many are now trying; undergrads in them are now writing “features” indistinguishable from what kids in English’s “creative nonfiction” sequences are doing. And some J schools are even calling their narrative nonfiction creative nonfiction. Things have changed.

In any case, I am not sure that Archibald MacLeish’s distinction in “Poetry and Journalism,” below, holds. Creative nonfiction and the web have invigorated and animated all forms of nonfiction by acknowledging how personal are even journalistic constructs:

What really distinguishes poetry from journalism, aside from the obvious distinctions of form—uses of words, patterns of words, sequences of words—is not a difference in kind but a difference in focus. Journalism is concerned with events, poetry with feelings. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world: poetry with the feel of the world. Journalism wishes to tell what has happened everywhere as though the same things had happened for every man. Poetry wishes to say what it is like to any many to be himself in the presence of a particular occurrence as though he alone had faced it.

He admits this is a generalization, that journalists like Elmer Davis and Ernie Pyle would “not have separated the feel of things from the look of them if they could,” and he acknowledges that some modern poets wrote about specific wars and the history of their time. He notes that William Butler Yeats nailed the modern world in “The Second Coming,” with famous lines like the “center cannot hold,” the “falcon cannot hear the falconer,” and of course, “The best lack all conviction while the worse/Are full of passionate intensity.”

CNF’s influence. This omission of feeling is not true at all for creative nonfiction’s personal essays, which seem to be greatly influencing print journalism—as has, let’s face it, television and, increasingly, amateur videos. And even memoir. But in MacLeish’s day the objective style was in ascendance, aiming to present an event “in the colorless air of intellectual detachment at the cost of its emotional significance,” as he put it. MacLeish blasted contemporary poetry, for its part, for a detachment from the world: “Poems so composed are like kites without strings. They cannot bear up against the carrying away of time because they have no attachment to a point in time.”

The sins of both forms help create an apathy that places humanity in great danger in the modern world, MacLeish argues. He felt this keenly in the teeth of the Cold War. But this “divorce between knowing and feeling” goes farther back, he acknowledges, at least to the case of the Germans who knew about the Holocaust but who seemingly failed to feel their knowledge.

Feeling the facts. Both information and the “feel of the facts” are crucial, he says, even as we seem less capable of taking the world’s dangers and disasters into our imaginations—we tune out the world, too much with us. How much truer that seems today, fifty-three years after MacLeish’s great essay! He saw peril for the human soul as well as for the fate of the world in this indifference. And yet, I think of the concerned response to the natural disaster in Japan, to the bloodshed in Libya, and to so many of the world’s sorrows.

I am not certain, though, that MacLeish’s essay is dated; in many ways it  still feels prescient. It is a warning about the professionalization of journalism. About whatever forces would separate journalism from feeling and therefore from literature and therefore from humanity. But he warned that even poetry “has lost its power in men’s minds”:

We have not discarded the art as Herbert Spencer thought we would when the machine had come to flower, but we have impaired the practice of the skill the art can give, the skill of feeling truly and so truly knowing. We know with the head now, by the facts, by abstractions. We seem unable to know as Shakespeare knew who made King Lear cry out to blinded Gloucester on the heath: “. . . you see how this world goes,” and Gloucester answers, “I see it feelingly.”


Filed under emotion, journalism, poetry, teaching, education

3 responses to “The reporter as artist

  1. theexile

    Richard, this series of posts on poetry and journalism have been great reads. Although the more I witness from afar daily newspaper journalism’s collapse, I’m not certain narrative style features will save it. What I’m afraid of now is that the readers of traditonal papers aren’t interested in well-written features, at least from what I can judge by the commentary online. (OK, guess that statement may be a paradox given that I’m judging feature readership in print by online commentary). The stories at the last newspaper for which I worked that received the most commentary were the “news” stories. I was chiefly a feature writer, and about the only feature I wrote — that had a slight amount of narrative– that received serious attention was somewhat sentimental piece about a crippled dog in need of rescue from the local animal shelter. While it was a piece of good deed journalism — the dog was saved — it also bothered me that the story itself was sentimental; it seemed the audience wanted either sentimental feel-good stuff or town gossip. And maybe it’s the sentimental influence of narratives found especially on the worst of TV (I’m thinking of glop like Extreme Home Makeover) that influences audiences/readership. And maybe readers find the best narrative nonfiction online and in journals like narrative nonfiction and sadly don’t find enough good writing in traditional journalism to care to turn the page.

  2. Hi Todd. Thank you for reading and for this thoughtful post. I agree with your sense that it is probably too late for narrative to save newspapers. It is fascinating, however, that narrative is what so many critics, like those in j-schools and like Tom Wolfe in his 2003 essay I cited, claim was missing: newspapers did not give readers good writing and so are dying. I think it had a lot more to do with the Internet, and not all newspapers will die, but many, or even most; they will go on line.

    I’m on a journalism jihad probably because I’m teaching a “feature writing” class, mostly to journalism majors who have had the “I” beaten out of them and the inverted pyramid drilled in. They seem to be loving the infusion of CNF I’m trying to bring to going out in the world after others’ stories.

    • theexile

      I think that’s one of the worst thing that happens in j-schools–writers get the “I” beaten out of them; but, for those who go on to do newspaper work, even as they transition to wholly online versions, they’ll still get the “I” beaten out of them for the sake of “objectivity”.

      How nice it would be to read a standard AP-style story paired with a 1st-person account of, say, a journalist’s perspective of combat in Libya, a feature that blended that perspective with solid reporting as much journalistic CNF does.