Kona’s column 15: On originality

June 10, 2011

“Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

I was reminded of this pithy slapdown (attributed, apparently unprovably, to Samuel Johnson), when I encountered the following remark from Paul Sutton in a recent review in Stride:

“Frankly, it seems bizarre that such an established figure should lack originality; but then maybe it isn’t so unusual. With the proliferation of courses on the ‘craft’ of writing, simple originality – in terms of saying something new or different – is regarded as almost irrelevant. In fact, the very idea is often sneered at; certainly its absence seems no impediment.”

Speaking personally, I’ve never met any creative writer who sneered at originality, or dismissed its centrality as a creative aspiration, so I feel there might be a straw man dancing about here.  More critically though, to constrain originality as novelty – the merely “new or different” – seems to me to diminish it.  The danger of pursuing novelty is that you can end up reducing your art to gimmickry, where the froth of “this hasn’t been done before!” starts to override the more measured “is this worth doing?”  A novelty-based creative arms war can result in escalating attempts at outlandishness or shock value that themselves become a meta-cliché;  I sometimes wonder if, by establishing the idea that anything can be art, postmodernism has eaten the tastiest bits of the conceptual artist’s lunch before it got to the table…

Even if we aspire to “simple originality”, the one-offness of our work, we can never guarantee it.  It’s a rare poet, for example, who hasn’t had the experience of finding one of his or her own most prized images, metaphors or phrases employed similarly in an older, previously undiscovered poem by somebody else.  Saying “This poem is wholly novel” is like stating “No crows are white”;  no matter how many black crows you see, you haven’t proved your contention – and it only takes one white one, however freakishly rare, to knock it over entirely.

In being dubious about novelty, I’m not in any way defending the derivative, the unambitious or the mediocre;  I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the “sausage factory” criticisms sometimes made of creative writing MAs/MFAs and the publication-by-prize culture so prevalent in the US.  I value originality tremendously;  I simply don’t believe that it’s “simple”, or reducible to “saying something new and different”.

So what is originality, then?  At this point, I’ll give the cop-out answer that I generally offer to clothing shop assistants when they ask me what I’m looking for:  “I’m not sure, but I’ll hopefully know it when I see it.”  Some poems, even on the most timeworn themes (love, death, ageing…), achieve a quality – perhaps some combination of exactness, slant, particularity, intelligence and beauty? – that feels both deeply original and very hard to quantify or explain.

As an artist, I want to understand this mysterious quality;  I’d love to have a shortcut, a rule-of-thumb, a gimmick that would let me achieve it reliably. Isn’t it the very essence of originality, though, that that no rulebook or mechanistic process can generate it, and no shallow checklist can reliably detect it?  Acknowledging that we can’t teach originality is by no means the same thing as deeming it irrelevant or sneer-worthy;  if anything, it’s entirely the opposite, a reticence born of deep respect for something ineffable – that weft of emergent magic threading the warp of our conscious creative will.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

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