Tag Archives: Archibald MacLeish

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.”

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Poetry & journalism

“Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”John Updike

As with David Shields, when Archibald MacLeish talks about “poetry” he means poetry in the larger sense of writing that is literary art vs. writing considered a mere transcription of events. Good journalism was never that, but exemplary works of reportage have always tended to get lumped by the literati—perhaps more so in MacLeish’s day—with garden-variety news reports. Following are excerpts from MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism” and my comments as I try to think my way through this seminal work.

No one would claim that the usual news story is a work of art, at least in the ordinary sense of that term. No one would deny either that great works of journalism exist and that when they exist they exist within a discipline of their own—a discipline which reveals itself, as the disciplines of art always reveal themselves, in form.

The distinction MacLeish makes here is that journalism can be art but that it must be judged against its own kind—just as a sonnet should, perhaps, best be judged in relation to other sonnets. That is, in comparison with other works of art that share the same formal constraints. The poets have chosen their constraints, of course. An apparent weakness of daily journalism’s ascension to art is that the constraints have been chosen by people or forces outside of the journalist—by publishers and editors—by the marketplace, as it were. Thus, does the journalist struggle toward art despite the form?

No, Philip Gerard answers in Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. A “really good piece of nonfiction will stretch the bounds of whatever genre it falls into,” he says. “If you balk at writing to satisfy formal constraints, believing that only absolute freedom of length, subject, and structure is necessary to produce art, you’ll find yourself at odds with most of the greatest writers who ever lived.”

And MacLeish seems to think, as the following excerpt shows, that form surely serves intent and content.

The style of a great work of journalism is the man in terms of the purpose—the man working at the utmost intensity of which he is capable toward an end to which he is wholly committed. But this, of course, is precisely the characteristic of the style of any work of art—the precise characteristic which distinguishes a work of art from a mere indulgence of personality on the one hand or an impersonal “job” on the other. The young critic who recently remarked that the magazine article or newspaper story has become, with us, a more effective form than the novel, may or may not be right, but the recognition that the newspaper story or the magazine article is capable of a form comparable to the great form of fiction is as just as it is belated.

Paging Truman Capote. MacLeish’s essay, in part a 1958 time capsule, underscores how old the new claims to nonfiction’s supremacy are. And it showcases MacLeish’s prescience, coming as it does eight years before Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, which amazed novelists and journalists alike with the power of highly evolved storytelling techniques when applied to true stories.

Truman Capote in 1966

In any case, what MacLeish understood here is that a great work of journalism is a personal construct, however much its form (a slippery word) might indicate otherwise. The conventions of the objective form obscure the degree to which the journalist is making sense of the world like any other writer. She may be unable to waffle on like an unfettered essayist, but her portrait is equally based on personal perception.

MacLeish asks, “Is the poet’s ‘creation’ different in kind from the journalist’s ‘selection’”? He concludes that it is not. Without denying imagination, he says there’s no pure creation, only re-creation from the world’s elements, for both poetry and journalism. Thus the forms are “different in degree” only. Poetry’s truths inform us, just as some journalistic facts take on symbolic weight and “become something more” in their telling. MacLeish takes some pains with this point, spending about six pages of his eighteen-page essay on it.

Creation has a grander sound than re-creation and is undoubtedly, if we may accept the evidence of the book of Genesis, more difficult. But poetry, despite the almost magical powers of the greatest poets, is a human labor and what humanity most desperately needs is not the creation of new worlds, but the re-creation, in terms of human comprehension, of the world we have, and it is to this task that all the arts are committed. Indeed it is for this reason that the arts go on from generation to generation in spite of the fact that Phidias has already carved and Homer has already sung.

Art is useful. MacLeish seemingly advances a utilitarian view of art, with which I agree. That is, the notion that art is useful in helping us live richer lives by making sense of the world’s “humming, buzzing, boggling confusion” at various levels. Or just to remind us of the world’s beauty and the gift of our existence. MacLeish goes on to argue for new forms, however, in a passage that would surely delight David Shields. At least it helps explain Shields’s disdain for the old ways.

New charms are necessary, new spells, new artifices. Whether they know it or not, the young . . . [writers] foregather in Paris in one generation, in San Francisco another, because the world goes round, the light changes, and the old jugs will not carry living water. New jugs must be devised which the generation past will reject as monstrosities and the generation to come will, when it arrives, reject for other reasons: as banalities and bores.

Next: MacLeish’s great essay “Poetry and Journalism” on what really distinguishes poetry from journalism.

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Bob Dylan meets Archibald MacLeish

MacLeish: poet, essayist, playwright

Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) won three Pulitzer prizes, two for poetry and one for his play about Job, J.B, which also won a Tony Award. His collected poems won the National Book Award. Like some other famous writers of his generation, MacLeish served as an ambulance driver in World War I but also as an artillery officer. After the war he moved to Paris and knew many artists, including Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker. He was good friends with Scott Fitzgerald and one of Ernest Hemingway’s closest. He served as Librarian of Congress.

MacLeish ultimately broke with modernism, though his early modernist statement in his 1926 poem “Ars Poetica” endures: “A poem should not mean/But be.” Later, he became somewhat unpopular in the literary world for writing poems that dealt with political and public life. As David Barber wrote in an essay for Modern American Poetry, “He rejected the modernist emphasis on the private individual’s experience and the poet’s alienation from society. The poet, he came to believe, was inevitably involved in society.” MacLeish defended himself to Benjamin DeMott in an interview for the Paris Review:

There are those on the fringes of the art who think that poetry and the public world should be mutually exclusive—as though poets were the internists of the profession and should stick to their bowels. . . . If you can break through the confusion of words about a political crisis like the Pentagon Papers to the human fact—such as the human reality of an attorney general’s behavior—you have written the experience. And the fact that the writing appears in The New York Times won’t change that fact for better or worse. Journalism also has its uses—and to poets as well as to journalists.

You spoke of the Apollo flight—the first circumnavigation of the moon—the one that produced that now familiar, but still miraculous, photograph of the earth seen off beyond the threshold of the moon . . . “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats.” This was one of the great revolutionary moments of the human consciousness, but the moment was not explicit in the photograph nor in the newspaper accounts of the voyage. Only the imagination could recognize it—make imaginative sense of it. Are we seriously to be told that the imagination has no role to play here because the event is in the newspapers? Or is it the publication in the newspapers of the imaginative labor which offends?

MacLeish’s statement about the dangers of pride for writers also endures, while also being the first and last word on ethics for writers. (He knew well three hugely talented victims of egotistical self promotion: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Robert Frost.) He said in the Paris Review interview:

The essential is not to think of one’s self as a writer and to do nothing which will put one’s self in that popinjay attitude. You don’t write as a writer, you write as a man—a man with a certain hard-earned skill in the use of words, a particular, and particularly naked, consciousness of human life, of the human tragedy and triumph—a man who is moved by human life, who cannot take it for granted. . . . You can put it down, I think, as gospel that a self-advertising writer is always a self-extinguished writer.

MacLeish courted Bob Dylan in the late sixties to write songs for his play Scratch, based on the Stephen Vincent Benét short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Dylan said in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, that MacLeish was “the poet of night stones and the quick earth. . . . He could take real people from history . . . and with the tender touch of a creator, deliver them right to your door.”

Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles. I’d bought Chronicles years ago and only recently opened it to read about MacLeish, then read the whole thing, and was glad. It’s impressionistic, unconventional—the New York Times called it “flabbergasting.” It zooms when Dylan jumps years ahead and writes about his creative rebirth with producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans, working on what became Oh Mercy. That 1989 album—another Dylan “comeback”— features one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat,” and Dylan tells of its genesis. He got in a funk during the recording sessions, and to change his emotional weather took a long motorcycle ride through Louisiana, met a strange old apocalyptic coot named Sun Pie who ran a funky store-restaurant-boatyard. Sun Pie’s Old Testament ramblings sparked something mysterious; it’s like one of his Mojave songs, or so I think of them, like “All Along the Watchtower,” “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” or “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power),” the latter with the immortal line: “Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled/ Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field.” But unlike the other Mojave songs, “Man in the Long Dark Coat” is humid, with a hurricane, crickets, floodwaters, a menacing Bible-quoting stranger.

Bob Dylan’s New Morning

Anyway, Dylan found MacLeish’s Scratch too dark, “heavy,” and MacLeish found Dylan’s trial songs too light; after a second meeting at MacLeish’s house they went their separate ways. Dylan used some of his Scratch efforts on his wonderful 1970 family-man, Woodstock-phase album New Morning (the title song, for one, according to Dylan; evidently “Father of Night,” supposedly “Time Passes Slowly”). After the disaster of Dylan’s Self Portrait, critics hailed New Morning as a comeback. As for Scratch, it bombed, closed in three days.

When Dylan met MacLeish. Dylan’s accounts of their meetings are touching for how he portrays his feeling of being flattered by MacLeish’s attention and for how star-struck he seems in MacLeish’s presence. Dylan saw Joyce’s Ulysses on MacLeish’s shelf and almost asked him to explain it, since when Dylan tried to read Ulysses Joyce had seemed “the most arrogant man who ever lived” and its words mystifying. MacLeish was highly educated—the product of Hotchkiss, Yale, and Harvard Law—and could have summed up Ulysses for Dylan, the intuitive bohemian. MacLeish had even known Joyce. But Dylan was too shy: he wondered but didn’t ask. As for “Archie” MacLeish, Dylan said, “He possessed more knowledge of mankind and its vagaries than most men acquire in a lifetime.”

I agree. MacLeish was wise. He took a long view—he knew he was no Yeats, was modest, but he was a poet; his efforts fed the ocean of literature, and he was smart and had learned from experience. In a continuation of his thought that a writer lives as a man, not as a writer, MacLeish said in Paris Review:

What you really have to know is one: yourself. And the only way you can know that one is in the mirror of the others. And the only way you can see into the mirror of the others is by love or its opposite—by profound emotion. Certainly not by curiosity—by dancing around asking, looking, making notes. You have to live relationships to know. Which is why a lifetime marriage with a woman you love is a great gift, and five marriages in a raddled row is a disaster to everyone, including the marrier. The great luck—the immeasurable luck—for a man trying to write the poem of his life is to have known good men and women and to have loved them well enough to learn the differences from himself. It won’t guarantee the poem will get written but it is immeasurable luck.

Reading Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to Ernest is illuminating in this connection: you see at once what was wrong with that friendship. Scott writes as a writer. And in friendship, in human relations, in life, there is no such thing as a writer: there is merely a man who sometimes writes. I can’t imagine anything shallower than a friendship based on a common interest in the production of literature.

MacLeish’s essay “Poetry and Journalism,” delivered as a lecture in 1958, published as a monograph, and collected in his 1967 book A Continuous Journey, is a touchstone for me. His recognition of journalism as a form of literature inspired me when I was a young reporter. I returned to his words during this surge of creative nonfiction, curious about what he said about journalism and whether it applies more broadly. MacLeish defines art in the essay in a way that includes journalism, still literature’s and nonfiction’s red-headed stepchild.

David Shields redux. Today’s creative nonfiction seems often to set itself apart from journalism, on the one hand, and to claim equal artistic status with fiction on the other. David Shields, in Reality Hunger, claims greater artistic merit for creative nonfiction, at least compared with what he considers the dead narrative moves of traditional fiction. Shields calls the book his “ars poetica,” which means the art or nature of poetry. In fact it was Shields’s recent, second interview with The Rumpus, on the occasion of his book’s issuance in paperback, that spurred my return to MacLeish’s “Poetry and Journalism” to try to figure out for myself, once again, what art is and how much freedom the artist needs to achieve it.

I believe that art is intensely personal and so must the artist be. Does this mean that journalism, at least, cannot be art, while creative nonfiction with its greater freedom can be?

Next: Archibald MacLeish’s seminal essay “Poetry and Journalism” on how all writing, from poems to news reports, consists of recreations from the world’s materials and shares more similarities than fundamental differences.

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