Does the Artist Matter?

A piece of art, when completed, encapsulates its own reality. As its architect, the artist’s task is to craft it well enough that the reader believes in its existence and is willing to enter, explore, and engage based on the artist’s version of the truth, even if that truth is artifice.

This is especially true of writing.

Are You “I”?

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is told with death as a narrator, and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red contains chapters told from the voices of animals, inanimate objects, and even colors. We accept these narrators because their authors have painstakingly crafted their worlds and drawn us in. Because the books are well written, we will believe anything the narrator tells us.

In poetry, it is often assumed that a speaker who addresses the reader from the perspective of an “I” is, in fact, the poet speaking as his or herself. Keats said, “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually filling some other Body.”

When a persona poem takes the point of view of an elephant, the reader willingly suspends disbelief and sets down between the elephant’s eyes to see what it sees. But, what if the writer doesn’t put a clue in the text to reveal the speaker as an elephant, and it just referred to itself as “I”? Do we need to be told that a narrator is human? No. We make an unconscious choice to perceive the speaker that way without the writer’s interference.

Once a poem is done, it’s no longer mine. While my name appears with it because I’m its creator, once it’s complete and printed before a reader, its meaning is up for grabs. I like it that way. I don’t want to be told what inspired a poem, or what it’s “about.” I want to have my own set of feelings, associations, and meanings, and I want my own readers to have the same freedom. The poem contains a multitude of realities, and another is born each time the poem enters a new reader’s brain house.

So, does the artist matter?

Within the confines of this argument, no.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss art with the artist. The experience of art is enhanced by the community that appreciates it. Writers question each other’s choices and techniques so they can learn from each other and advance the art form, and it would be impossible to share our creations and try to make a living through them without sharing some of ourselves as well.

While most viewers don’t expect every painting to be a self-portrait, writers are asked again and again about the degree to which they draw from their own lives. Even actors are asked if they are like their characters “in real life.” The answer is, of course it’s all drawn from the well of the artist’s own life, but the point is, that doesn’t matter.

Because the poem emerged from my own imagination, my ear chose the cadences, and my hand recorded it, it is inevitably marinated in my own personal experience. When I am in the process of writing, I am making choices, pulling from my own memories, emotions, and truths. I am the root from which the image stems.

The point is, once the poem is done and I’ve shared it with readers, none of that matters anymore. I’ve taken a chaos fog of emotions and stories and crafted them into something new, something that has a new life of its own and stands on its own two (or four) feet. I could be an elephant for all you know, and that’s okay.


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