At the bidding of one of my MFA teachers, I once read a 400 plus page book on pencils, Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. I remember writing a snarky introduction when I responded to the book. It amounted to, “What the hell was that for?”
But I knew. He meant to set me thinking about art and engineering, creativity and inventiveness, poetry and… pencils. Petroski’s thesis is that art desires “a sense of unity…evoking an emotional or aesthetic response,” whereas technology seeks to improve earlier forms. New pencils, Petroski notes ad nauseum, supersede old ones as literary works never do. “Ulysses” did not supplant The Odyssey, Petroski said, nor did anyone fix “On Reading Chapman’s Homer” because Keats said Cortez instead of Balboa first viewed the Pacific. Though, actually, wasn’t Balboa the first white man…?
Pencil makers do make aesthetic decisions—the book includes a long discussion of the failed attempt to replace wood with plastic in pencils, which “violated the aesthetic and psychological sensibilities of its intended users.” I just thought plastic pencils felt funny. However, no method of pencil making is ever intended to be the last statement. No poet could think he or she is writing the last poem either, but the poet might write as if this poem was the omega. It’s supposed to be complete in itself and not a stage to a better way of writing poems.
Maybe, but writing poetry isn’t always about the poem you’re presently engineering. Sometimes it’s about writing this poem so you might write a more expressive or effective one later. That later poem won’t arrive without a best effort to make this poem all it might be, but trying to write the omega seems, to me, a death wish. What if you succeeded? What would you do next?
According to Petroski, the biggest difference between poems and pencils is the motive of the maker. Artists seek self-expression in the abstract. An engineer’s job is to solve an existing problem. He or she is not a theorist endowed with “for its own sake” motivation, the way an artist might create to create. Petroski makes a careful distinction between scientists and engineers and favors engineers’ pragmatic and creative approaches. He observes that “drugs predate medicine, belief religion, conflict law, artifacts formal engineering.” “Applied science,” to Petroski, is a misnomer because it reverses what actually happens—scientists spend most of their time trying to explain why new technology works. Petroski says the reverse process—finding a way to use discoveries—is far less common. He calls science “thinking after the artifact.”
Do poems solve an existing problem? In content certainly. Personally perhaps. I suspect most poets write to resolve something, even if they are working it out subconsciously. In practice, however, poets can also be like engineers, looking for a form, style, or approach that gets them closer to what they wish to express. Sometimes artists seem to be inventing new schools or new art forms out of a perverse desire to be novel, but I wonder if, like the misnamed “applied science,” starting with something abstract is the exception or the rule. How often do artists come up with whole new ways of painting, writing, or composing they are just itching to try?
In The Shape of Content Ben Shahn writes, “Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.” Novelty and art seem inextricably wed. A good measure of poetry’s authority arises from the feeling that we’ve never seen or heard this before, at least not in quite the same way. But Shahn also recognizes art may “take its form from something closer to provocation…it may not just turn to life, but . . . at certain times be compelled by life.”
An artist can respond to “provocation” in just the way an engineer does, and provocation can be to solve a problem. It could be a problem no one else recognizes yet, but in that sense too, art isn’t that different from engineering. Shahn tells the story of an art show in Paris in 1925. When officials suggested the Salon of the Independents was no longer necessary, a critic cited 25 artists in that Salon who had not won the overall show’s prize but who became major names in art—Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, and Van Gogh among them—while prize winners had fallen into obscurity.
With this allusion, Shahn means to assert artists’ need to define themselves apart from contemporaries—to offer a vision unavailable elsewhere—but isn’t their nonconformity also a reaction to circumstances, to a perceived need?
In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says that the usual stance for a poet is “believing you are the wrong thing in a right world.” Not all artists embrace being vanguards. Some may have an uneasy feeling about being iconoclasts or outcasts. The vision of artists as the mad fringe of society—the anti-engineer—is limited and limiting. Though artists may seem “out there,” they are a part of the world, not apart from it.
I think about an exceptionally innovative poet, John Berryman. Far from being a gift, Berryman’s creativity was a heavy burden. His innovations in form arose from a kind of “engineer’s necessity.” His primary purpose was not to revolutionize poetry so much as to stay alive. Certainly he needs the ampersand and minstrel voice and the “all problem, no solution” modified sonnet he invented in The Dream Songs to reproduce the workings his mind. His numerous, structurally uniform poems helped represent a single chaotic life, a struggle with his own suicidal thoughts.
But he distrusted other’s praise for his innovation. In “Dream Song #340” he sees that with praise, “an element of incredulity / enters and dominates.” What he really wanted was not to be known as trail blazer, but to accurately represent his agony, period. Berryman worked very hard at his idiosyncratic form. He created artifice—he used “Henry,” not John—but what made Berryman brilliant was his earnestness—granted, his humor too—but mostly the way he had of making us feel these poems were, ultimately, no game.
The Dream Songs put Berryman near a waterfall, swimming hard to keep from being sucked down. “Dream Song #137” focuses on his daughter’s reluctance to fall asleep. His argument is that in sleeping she will be “Little Baby” again, “while I pursue my path of sorrow / & bodies, bodies to be carried a mile / & dropt.”
Perhaps poets should be reluctant engineers—just as Berryman was a reluctant poet—but, to me, they seem engineers nonetheless. The part of poets and artists that makes them create a new world comes from this world. No less than the engineer, they respond to life and our common destiny.