Two days after my birth I arrived at my grandparents’ stone house on the plains. Around us ripe wheat spread across swaying prairie, and words rose from the fields offering themselves to my grandparents’ mouths by way of the King James Bible. Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is like the dew that descendeth upon the mountains of Zion.
My grandparents’ voices had the resonance of a cathedral’s struck bells. When they read Genesis, it was as though Adam and Eve spoke. I listened to the Bible’s incantatory narratives of history, the prophets’ scolding authority, the praise and pleading of Psalms, the love poetry of Solomon, the fiery prophecies of Revelation. I felt no demarcation between myself and these voices, no demarcation between myself and the land. I was an open system, improvising my relation to whinny of stallion and mare, to chicken chatter and meadowlark call, and my grandmother’s voice reciting beneath stars. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voices are not heard.
That Great Lap the earth was alive, and it offered up words. I heard them rise from the grass, and passed them on to heifer and rooster, bugs and hogs. Once my grandmother overheard. “You made up a song!” she said.
I shook my head. I hadn’t made up the song—I’d heard it.
“That song came out of the ground,” I said. “I’m singing it on.”
My grandmother read me Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. At four I learned to read. There were as many words as bits of limestone gravel on the road, so white it looked like a path to heaven. At ten, on the assumption that the longer a book the more pleasure awaited me, I checked out the longest book in the library: War and Peace. Out words came, Greek and Roman mythology, The Secret Garden, Little Women. In fifth grade I read Moby Dick, alternating each chapter with a chapter from the adventures of Nancy Drew.
I remember staring at a word until that word became not ink on a page but live sound vibrating in space, flooding me, billowing me open. To be one of the places where language appeared of its own accord, entered me and then emerged into the world was nifty, and I came to take it for granted. Language seemed a realm of gods, and now calls up Keats’s remark: My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk.
Except for a high school lit class where I read Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, education was a series of accidents left largely up to me. I lived with working-class parents in a house so small and shabby that I trusted only one girlfriend enough to invite her there, and to endure getting through senior year I read all of Faulkner’s novels and The Brothers Karamazov.
Every student of writing needs to read the classics, and by reading at random, I’d inadvertently devised a curriculum of sorts for myself. That spring, when a family friend left a religious magazine at our house, I wrote a story about a man who carries Christ’s cross a while so that Christ can take a break, and mailed it to the magazine. The magazine sent me a check for $50. A month later poems I’d shown my English teacher won me a full tuition scholarship to the first year of University. I was on my way to Shakespeare, Joyce, Yeats, on my way to my own serviceable, edgy, whimsical style, on my way to what my parents called an education. And though I couldn’t have defined my experience at the time, I’d begun the process of transformation that Keats called making soul.
2. TASTE AND MAKING SOUL
The word taste refers to individual preference, but the term also refers to the taster’s good or not so good judgment. Taste has no system and no proofs, Susan Sontag remarked. On the contrary, I submit that taste can be measured by how thoroughly a work of art enlarges the artist’s sensibility and soul. We who are working writers know that the making of soul requires reading classic texts, for it’s by experiencing the expanded minds of our literary forebears that we grow into our own concentration and abandon, raging fire and contemplative stillness.
Having done our reading, our lives are then grist for the creative mill. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is, Keats wrote, to school an intelligence and make it a soul? Keats invokes “pains and troubles” both as writers’ subject matter and as writers’ transformative goad. It’s those pains and troubles—and joys, ecstasies—that nudge us courageously to step off the cliff blindfolded and see if we can walk on the water down below.
3. MAKING SOUL AS THE STANDARD FOR JUDGING TASTE
There is the soul of the artist, and there are the souls of those who experience the artist’s work. Through childhood and adolescence I’d been a reader, reading without judgment, every book grist for my mill, reading an act of merging with the text, becoming one with it. And it happened that my random reading included classics such as that cornerstone of western literature, the King James Bible. I’d read it like every other book with no purpose in mind other than pleasure. Nor did I judge this work or the others. Each, to my mind, simply was what it was.
Then in my Junior year of undergraduate studies, I fell for and carried on a love affaire with Auden. Because I’d read Yeats’s Easter, 1916, I recognized its echo in Auden’s September 1, 1939. All through junior year I walked the campus with the line “we must love one another or die” thrumming through me. The poem surrounding that one amazing line had transformed me, and it was the experience of being transformed by the poem that to my mind rendered this work an instance of high art.
I went on to memorize Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats, and later still admired Walcott’s elegy for Auden himself. Auden’s elegy for Yeats had set the bar of taste high. The poem spoke to my brooding about spirituality and politics, and it demonstrated the sheer power to transform us that certain lyrics can exert. It positioned me to favor free verse lyric and formal lyric equally, and confirmed that free verse lyric and formal lyric can marry within a single poem and the marriage thrive.
I was learning to make judgments about the quality of a particular work, and this particular work had—yes, it had transformed me. Eventually I moved on, but Auden’s line has remained with me like the scar from my appendectomy.
4. OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: THE IMPACT OF TASTE ON CREATIVITY IN BOTH HIGH AND LOW ART
Rebel angel Salvador Dali was expelled from the Academia, an art school, in 1926, shortly before his finals, when he stated that no one on the faculty was competent enough to examine him. Clearly he held himself in high regard, and we may take with a grain of salt his remark: It is good taste, and good taste alone, that possesses the power to sterilize and is always the first handicap to any creative functioning.
Some writers in the throes of creating may agree with Dali and with Picasso who said Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness. But whether one possesses “good” taste or “bad” also depends on who is judging and by what standard. Assume for a moment that Sontag’s remark that taste has no system and no proofs refers to the general reader. Yes, in a cross section of the reading public, readers’ tastes will be as idiosyncratic as choosing from a rack of dresses. A literary historian, on the other hand, will read for comprehensiveness. And one professional literary critic might read with specific historical precedents in mind, while another who fancies him or herself an arbiter of taste reads to bolster or to decimate the careers of rising stars.
Questions of taste also call up the realms of high and low art. Is doggerel high art or low? Is Part Three of David Rothman’s “Three Variations on a Theme by Jim Hall” which delivers the release of laughter high art or low? If a poem strikes deep chords of response in us—if, as in the case of Rothman’s poem, amused release constitutes a species of transcendence—do the labels “low art” and “high art” simply dissolve in our relieving laughter? And if I were to limit my discussion of taste to high art, would this mark me as a snob?
4. MAKING SOUL AS PROOF OF TASTE REVISITED
Those of us who experience a work of high or low art and are transformed by it can attest to that works’ transformative power. Take Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
(tr. Stephen Mitchell)
Rilke’s poem asserts that we can discriminate levels of taste for ourselves by experiencing works of art and noting the degree to which each one gives us a heavenly kick in the pants, transforms us.
5. TEACHING ONESELF TASTE
I think back to childhood where I read assiduously, choosing at random from the widest array of contrasting works possible. I was one person, like no other person, only I could be me, and what I happened to choose to read would begin to make my soul. As for our students, we insist they read the classics, and we also suggest particular works which intuition tells us might be pivotal for that particular student. It’s my inclination also to provide them what I’d provided for myself in my youth ̶ the widest possible idiosyncratic array of tasteful and tasteless choices.
I entered University with no worldly knowledge whatsoever, but because I’d won a scholarship, the poet Ralph Salisbury invited me into his senior level workshop. Salisbury, half Scot and half Cherokee, had lived a harrowing life, and he recognized my utter lack of sophistication. I was too innocent and myopic then to understand how fortunate I was. But later, when I heard the testimonies from both female and male students who’d been in one way or another exploited or simply ignored, I realized that Salisbury had respected me, honored me, nurtured me.
He’d saved my inner life, the life that matters.
And he’d done that by urging me to read and write my way though life’s inevitable suffering, and to transform it into soul.
It took years for me to truly understand the gift he’d offered, and through my blind stumbling and feeling my way forward, I kept reading, book by book, teaching myself taste. There was something magical about being me on a particular day at a particular time in a particular library, browsing. I wanted the one book that would speak like living water to me alone. I wanted the experience Jane Hirshfield described in Nine Gates. “Free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read—in such a moment anything can happen.”