Hallelujah! I'm No Genius
by Scott Edward Anderson
Arthur Rimbaud, the visionary 19th Century French poet, was a classic young literary success story: discovered in his teens, celebrated by the literati of his time, some of whom -- literally -- fell in love with him; one of whom shot him in a pique of passion.
In his “Lettre du Voyant” (Letter of the Seer), Rimbaud explained, “I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessence.” He was 16 years old.
Almost as quickly as he ascended, however, Rimbaud burned out. Fame and adulation weren’t worth the price of his vision. He gave up poetry by the age of 21, left Paris, became a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army and traveled to Indonesia, only to desert and return to France, eventually landing in Yemen and Ethiopia, where he dealt in coffee and guns. He became a legend. His works are still read today. Rimbaud’s poems seemed fully formed when they hit the page. Rimbaud was a genius. (More on that later.)
When I became serious about writing poetry and making art around the age of fifteen, Rimbaud was one of the poets I read with passion. My poems were a mongrel-mix of French symbolism, New England transcendentalism, and teenage Beat-generation rawness. In my mind, it was only a matter of time before I was “discovered” for my genius.
Genius or hubris? I did whatever I wanted as a young artist. There were no limits and no limitations. At sixteen, I created a conceptual art space called “Arsenic Basement” in the cellar of my mother’s house. A year later, I wrote a long poem on a single roll of adding machine tape, in emulation of Jack Kerouac’s famous typescript for On the Road. “Burroughs Adding Machine Tape Roll Pome,” I called it, liking the double play on the adding machine-maker Burroughs Corporation and Kerouac’s pal William Burroughs. Composing a section every day, I fed the tape roll into my typewriter until I finished the roll. Using a small, portable cassette player, I made recordings of experimental, atmospheric music in pale imitation of Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. Meticulously filling journals for posterity (remind me to destroy them before I die), I captured my every thought, convinced of my imminent discovery and future fame.
Before my 19th birthday, I launched a magazine called Rockstop, which started as a way to publicize my band, Active Driveway, with whom I performed as the pseudonymous lead singer/bass player Dash Beatcomber. New York area college radio stations WFUV and WFMU regularly played our song “Gotta Dance (Dance It Away)” in 1981-82. I was a bit more successful as a magazine impresario. Somewhere there’s a mid-1980s local TV news interview with me in Cleveland, Ohio, where the magazine really took off – 3 minutes of my 15 minutes of fame. “My life is my art,” I told the interviewer. (Gag me with a spoon, viewers of the day likely responded.)
Back then, I tried everything: painting, collages, assemblages, and short, mostly black & white Super 8 films – a few of my works got shown at galleries from Kent State University to New York. I even had a “one-man show” in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1986 – albeit, in a booth I rented at an art-focused street fair. Preparing for that show ruined me for painting, although I still have a handful of them. (Three of my better efforts hang in our Brooklyn house because my wife and kids and our art framer thought them worthy.)
I also experimented with other forms of art: there was an “earth work,” wherein I moved a pile of dirt from one location to another, documenting the entire process; an installation in a field behind a friend’s farmhouse constructed from discarded plumbing fixtures and farm machinery; and a multi-media performance piece at Gallery 53/Smithy Artworks in Cooperstown, NY, featuring a mime, a mask of Jacques Cousteau’s face on a stick, and Harry Belafonte recordings in a surrealistic dream-of-consciousness monologue poem. If that’s not genius, what is?
Towards the end of the decade, after a year living in Europe writing a still-unfinished book on Marcel Duchamp, I landed a job in publishing with an international literary agency, largely on the fact that I'd lived in Europe, spoke a bit of French and German, and had published my own magazine. I became part of the Hoboken poetry scene at Maxwell’s and Café Elysian, and self-published a few chapbooks of my poems under the “l’etoiluna press” imprint. Packaging a few sections of my Duchamp book, I tried selling copies on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art while visiting for the artist’s centenary. When nothing sold, I told myself Duchamp would have appreciated the irony and gave a copy to an assistant to the Museum director. A year or so later I started a writing group with a few friends called the “Decompositionalists” – our work was decomposing rather than composing, like the society around us. (Deep, man.)
The common denominator of the work I produced back then? It sucked. Neither genius nor savant, it became clear I wasn’t going to be discovered by a patron and rocketed to fame and fortune. Over the years, I gave up what I wasn’t good at: first to go was music (I was a terrible bass player – “You’re doing it in E,” our guitar player yelled at me while we were playing a song written in G); then painting, filmmaking, and performance art. Everything went, except writing.
As I approached my 30s, I settled down into a job at The Nature Conservancy, with whom I worked for the next fifteen years. Throughout that time, I continued to write and publish poetry, book reviews, and essays. I attended the Art of the Wild conference, a nature-themed workshop hosted by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley in California, where I studied with Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, and the late Walter Pavlich. I took a Master Class with Snyder at the 92nd Street Y in New York and corresponded with poets Donald Hall, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Colette Inez, all of whom helped me improve my poetry over time. I wrote a book exploring natural history hikes in New York, Walks in Nature’s Empire, published in 1995. The Millay Colony gave me a residency in 2002, an entire month to focus on my writing. There I wrote my “Dwelling: an ecopoem” sequence. For 25 years, I kept writing and revising, writing more and revising more, finally “becoming” a poet.
Over the years, I’ve had a little “success,” published close to 80 poems, and won a couple of awards. Thanks in part to the Internet, a student discovered my poetry and wrote about it for her college English class – a decade before my book came out. And I’ve heard from a dozen or so readers who were moved by one or another of my poems. Perhaps there are others out there too shy to reach out. No matter, I subscribe to Walter Lowenfel’s dictum, “One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement.”
The rise to stardom I anticipated for myself in my youth never came, and that may be a good thing. I no longer think I’m a genius. Rather, I keep working and writing and trying to balance the two, which works just fine for me.
Recently, I gained some perspective on these two views of myself – youthful hubris and middle-aged acceptance -- while listening to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History.”
In the episode, Gladwell talks about Elvis Costello’s “Deportees Club,” a horrible mess of noise from the early-to-mid-1980s (the heyday of my band Active Driveway, which also made a horrible mess of noise) that eventually became his exquisitely beautiful song, “Deportee.” Gladwell, as only he can do, weaves together the transformation of Costello’s song with the story of how Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became the song we know (and either admire or hate), concluding that both Costello and Cohen were experimental rather than conceptual innovators.
Gladwell elucidates a theory of artistic creativity first proposed by economist David Galenson. In his 2007 book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Galenson divides artists into two categories: “conceptualists,” those who create their most important innovations at an early age, say late teens or twenties, and “experimentalists,” those whose innovations develop slowly over a long period of time, refined through constant experimentation.
In explaining conceptual versus experimental innovators, Gladwell compares two artists, Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso, like Rimbaud, is a conceptual innovator, finding his stride early and seemingly fully formed, a butterfly of sorts, flitting from style to style, adopting and adapting, creating new work all the time, and rarely ever repeating himself. Cezanne, on the other hand, is a methodical, experimental innovator, obsessed with the same subject matter, mining the vein over a period of years, tweaking and tinkering, until his body of work emerges.
Would that I’d known sooner about Galenson’s construct of the experimental innovator. Life might have been a bit easier over the past 30-40 years, or at least I might have been less hard on myself while expecting the phone to ring with the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. (Actually, the MacArthur Foundation did call one year, but it was to ask me to be a nominator for their award, not a recipient. They wanted my professional expertise in the non-profit sector rather than my art.)
Experimental innovators, Gladwell and Galenson posit, explore by doing, taking sometimes a lifetime to figure out where they are going -- if they ever do. Gladwell notes Picasso did all his best work in his youth, then petered out; Cezanne was exactly the opposite. Cezanne was a late bloomer.
I published my first full-length collection of poems, Fallow Field, just prior to my 50th birthday. It took me 25 years to complete that book and still there are things about it I’d change today. Almost immediately after publishing the book, I thought about poems that should have gone in, and wished I’d made it a fully rounded 50 poems, in honor of my birthday, rather than 45. I’m never satisfied.
This is characteristic of “Late Bloomers,” as Gladwell titled a 2008 piece on the phenomena for The New Yorker (Gladwell is something of an experimental innovator himself): late bloomers are never satisfied.
Today, I admit, I’m no genius. Yet, after half a lifetime or more of writing and exploring by doing, I am still blooming. My work improves, even if I’m never fully satisfied with it. I keep trying, keep experimenting, and keep striving to get better. I’m a late bloomer – and that’s okay by me.
A Note About The Author:
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature's Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. Learn more about his work at ScottEdwardAnderson.com and connect with him on Twitter @greenskeptic