Archibald MacLeish’s great essay on literature vs. transcription.
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.
Capote applies highly evolved storytelling techniques to nonfiction.
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. Norman Mailer’s astonishing personal reportage followed.
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.
MacLeish’s argument for new forms precedes David Shields’.
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: More MacLeish and “The Reporter as Artist.”