Archibald MacLeish on the fine line between poetry and journalism.
“What is uttered from the heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own.” —Goethe
“I was signed up in the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, so I was a poet and they didn’t let you cross over. If you said you were a poet, then you had to write in those funny lines. You couldn’t switch. But when I started writing nonﬁction, memoir, and the kind of prose that I’m better known for, I didn’t really feel that much differenceat the heart of it. . . . The difference has to do with the way you want to go about writing something, rather than something intrinsic about the material.”—Patricia Hampl, interviewed in River Teeth
When I was studying journalism, I loved The Reporter as Artist: Readings on the New Journalism Controversy, a 1974 collection of essays edited by Ronald Weber. Lots of essays on narrative nonfiction, use of scenes, the article as art. Not that anyone in my journalism school had a clue how to teach us to become nonfiction artists. Now, I am certain, students taking nonfiction classes are being taught much better the techniques of narrative storytelling, at least in strong English departments. J-schools probably remain a mixed bag but many are now trying; undergrads in them are now writing “features” indistinguishable from what kids in English’s “creative nonfiction” sequences are doing. And some J schools are even calling their narrative nonfiction creative nonfiction. Things have changed.
In any case, I am not sure that Archibald MacLeish’s distinction in “Poetry and Journalism,” below, still holds. Creative nonfiction and the web have invigorated and animated all forms of nonfiction by acknowledging how personal are even journalistic constructs:
What really distinguishes poetry from journalism, aside from the obvious distinctions of form—uses of words, patterns of words, sequences of words—is not a difference in kind but a difference in focus. Journalism is concerned with events, poetry with feelings. Journalism is concerned with the look of the world: poetry with the feel of the world. Journalism wishes to tell what has happened everywhere as though the same things had happened for every man. Poetry wishes to say what it is like to any many to be himself in the presence of a particular occurrence as though he alone had faced it.
He admits this is a generalization, that journalists like Elmer Davis and Ernie Pyle would “not have separated the feel of things from the look of them if they could,” and he acknowledges that some modern poets wrote about specific wars and the history of their time. He notes that William Butler Yeats nailed the modern world in “The Second Coming,” with famous lines like the “center cannot hold,” the “falcon cannot hear the falconer,” and of course, “The best lack all conviction while the worse/Are full of passionate intensity.”
The influence on journalism of creative nonfiction.
This omission of feeling is not true at all for creative nonfiction’s personal essays, which seem to be greatly influencing print journalism—as has, let’s face it, television and, increasingly, amateur videos. And even memoir. But in MacLeish’s day the objective style was in ascendance, aiming to present an event “in the colorless air of intellectual detachment at the cost of its emotional significance,” as he put it. MacLeish blasted contemporary poetry, for its part, for a detachment from the world: “Poems so composed are like kites without strings. They cannot bear up against the carrying away of time because they have no attachment to a point in time.”
The sins of both forms help create an apathy that places humanity in great danger in the modern world, MacLeish argues. He felt this keenly in the teeth of the Cold War. But this “divorce between knowing and feeling” goes farther back, he acknowledges, at least to the case of the Germans who knew about the Holocaust but who seemingly failed to feel their knowledge.
‘Feeling the facts’ crucial for reportage.
Both information and the “feel of the facts” are crucial, he says, even as we seem less capable of taking the world’s dangers and disasters into our imaginations—we tune out the world, too much with us. How much truer that seems today, fifty-three years after MacLeish’s great essay! He saw peril for the human soul as well as for the fate of the world in this indifference. And yet, I think of the concerned response to the natural disaster in Japan, to the bloodshed in Libya, and to so many of the world’s sorrows.
I am not certain, though, that MacLeish’s essay is completely dated even with the rise of creative nonfiction; in many ways it still feels prescient. It is a warning about the professionalization of journalism. About whatever forces would separate journalism from feeling and therefore from literature and therefore from humanity.
But he warned that even poetry “has lost its power in men’s minds”:
We have not discarded the art as Herbert Spencer thought we would when the machine had come to flower, but we have impaired the practice of the skill the art can give, the skill of feeling truly and so truly knowing. We know with the head now, by the facts, by abstractions. We seem unable to know as Shakespeare knew who made King Lear cry out to blinded Gloucester on the heath: “. . . you see how this world goes,” and Gloucester answers, “I see it feelingly.”
[Previously: “Archibald MacLeish’s great essay “Poetry and Journalism.”]