ARTIST (painter) and MUSICIAN (bass) . I am a Prof. Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I taught studio arts and seminars on Contemporary art. I graduated from the University of Chicago where I recieved my MFA in 1977. I have exhibited nationally and internationally for over thirty years. My work has been published in numerous journals and books. I am an avid reader and an amateur poet. I played music professionally for fifteen years; primarily jazz. I am also a former steel hauler of fifteen years. I was born and raised on the southside of Chicago.
As I have stated in the past, I consider myself a neophyte as to the poetry that I attempt to write, however, I think that I have improved over time. If so, it is because of the generosity of criticism that I have received from various sorts. I am placed on my blog today a piece written by Richard Cohen, an author and personal friend who has guided me through much of my efforts. I find it one of the most insightful and forthright views on creative writing, or perhaps any form of writing. I am placing it here as well. I share this with you in the same spirit that I spoke of earlier; an opportunity for all who are interested in journaling or writing poetry a chance to grow. You will notice at the end of this short essay a copyright indication. Please respect the author’s wishes. Thank you and “Bon Appetit! ”
Mystery vs. Mystification
A young friend of mine has started to write poetry. He has a keen visual eye—-the poems contain bursts of bright imagery, ten or twelve words at a time—-and he seems to feel deeply about what he’s describing, but I can’t tell what he’s describing unless he says so in a note. “I like this imagery of silvery water and red lightning, but what does it actually refer to? ” “Oh, that’s about the time when I was a kid and my younger brother got hit by a car.” Aha, that clears it up. Knowing what it’s about not only brings the images into better focus, but makes the poem more moving.
Many poets today seem to think that suppressing the narrative is a sophisticated move, making for an effect of mystery.
In American Lit nowadays, if you can create an air of transcendence, of awareness of another realm, it brings in extra critical points. The problem is, many writers do it through mere technical sleight of hand, by withholding information from the reader. This creates a sense of puzzlement as we’re reading, and when the story is cleared up, we shrug contentedly enough and say, “Okay, so that’s what it was all about.” But the facts the author withheld could just as easily have been given to us at the beginning. If so, where would the story have gone? The author wouldn’t have known where to take it because he didn’t actually have what his evasiveness implied he had: a vision going beyond the literal.
The word mystery has many meanings and I’m concerned with two of them here: 1) a profound truth beyond the reach of human reason; and 2) facts that are concealed from some people for a time.
When a writer or poet makes me feel that I am on the brink of contact with an inexpressible truth, that is what I call mystery in literature. When a writer makes me feel that he is withholding basic narrative facts as a substitute for unveiling truths, I call that fake mystery, or mystification.
Genuine mystery can only be achieved when the facts are laid bare. Only when the reader comprehends what is happening on the literal level can the possibility be raised for exploration of a higher level.
This, by the way, is why the mystery novel genre can rarely reach the height of art, even though it’s a lot of fun and often better–written than the “literary” novel. In a mystery novel the whole point is to prolong the reader’s mystification until the end, at which time the literal facts are revealed but nothing else is left.
Something that can also be done, on the technical level, is to leave out most of the detail but provide just enough grounding for the reader to feel the sensation—-perhaps illusory, perhaps not—of a wide landscape opening up, waiting to be explored. I can write a 500–word story telling you just enough for you to imagine the areas of the picture I have not filled in. I can make you feel that even though I have only given you a glimpse, it is a glimpse of complex people who have full lives somewhere else.
On a higher level, though, a great writer can show all the facts in a blinding light and because of this, make you feel that you and the characters are stepping together onto a raised platform above the level of ordinary human living. In OEDIPUS AT COLONUS there are no literal facts left to be revealed. The whole mystery—-in the mystery novel sense—-was solved in OEDIPUS REX. In the sequel, there is just the immense, awe–inspiring mystery of how Oedipus in old age achieves blessedness and peace—and of how the ninety–year–old Sophocles knows how to write it.