Form and despair – reflections on originality and creativity in poetry and beyond poetry.

Creativity and originality are often used synonymously but they are not same thing. Originality is always creative, but creativity is rarely original. Originality indicates the presence of something absolutely unprecedented in the created object. It means something is present in the work or product which has previously never been produced or experienced by anyone.

A created object is something which has been put together, more or less formulaically, out of other objects. Like a bird’s nest. Lots of creative labour goes into the the building of birds’ nests, different species build them differently, there can even be ornamental distinctions within bird species – levels of individuality, even of innovation. But the form is never a surprise, and it always fulfils the same function; it is always a birds nest. Nests are created by birds but, no matter how ornate or well-crafted they might be, a bird’s nest cannot be considered an original construction.

After a long struggle, the struggle towards consciousness, a nine-month-old child creates the word Mammy out of sounds previously separate and meaningless. A gigantic act of creation in their own lives, but not in the least original.

The difference between creativity and originality can be put as starkly as the difference between mass-produced pictures of the sacred heart – created by labour out of raw materials and machinic process – and Michaelangelo’s paintings in The Sistine Chapel, created by labour and individual genius.

Someone from the quantum party will argue that, in the days of the multiverse, and of sequences tending to infinity, that originality is bunk. Accepting quantum physics and its implications means that, speaking absolutely and fundamentally,  Finnegan’s Wake is not the least bit original. It has been, is, and will be (re)written infinite numbers of times by infinite James Joyces in infinite interwar Mitteleuropas. Certainly Joyce would have had such thoughts, known to philosophers as eternal recurrence, and ever-present in folk, myth, religion, poetry and philosophy for thousands of years before quantum physics was ever heard of. Finnegans Wake is in itself, due to its ourobouros structure – FW’s ending enters its beginning just as that mythical serpent swallows its own tail – designed to appear as an eternally-recurring book.

Getting back to the Michelangelo and Joyce known to and experienced in our world, the only world we can know and experience, the real and apprehensible world, we can observe, empirically, pragmatically, demonstrably that these supreme artists’ originality depended upon and evolved out of quasi-infinite acts of creativity which preceded and established the possibility of their originality. Industry, i.e collective labour processes, creates paper, ink, paint, canvases, paint brushes, violins, motherboards, in short all the materials which make possible singular acts of originality.

Creativity en masse establishes the possibility of instances of originality.The originality of the individual artist depends utterly on the creativity of all those that did the work to make the materials through which and upon which their originality can take place, and without all of which it could not take place.

Creativity exists independently of originality and could in theory go on forever without it. Creativity maintains, repeats, refreshes, repoints; originality exceeds and initiates –  it breaks in some important and irreversible way with previous creations upon which it takes its point of embarkation and out of whose long and complex history it evolves and emerges. Originality is a blossom attached to a long-stem, with deep roots. Roots are ugly, stems indifferent, flowers beautiful, yet all interlink. Part of the marking of originality is that it appears of a different kind to what gives rise to it, and we also respond to it differently. No-one bends down to sniff at rose-roots. Originality in the arts often produces a strong, sometimes shock reaction, veering between awe and disgust.

Yet logic dictates that all acts which now maintain and repeat were once acts of excession and initiation; paint does have an original instance or instances, as does ink, as does the motherboard, and so on.

Also, acts which were once of origination descend, through formalization and repetition, to the level of creation. When we teach perspective to an art student we are teaching them the formula of how to create an illusion of depth, a technique which many millions of art students have been successfully taught by same or similar pedagogic methods since perspective originated in the medieval period, when it was a thoroughly revolutionary representative technique, extending the representative possibilities of art and fundamentally changing the way art was and is experienced.

Of course there are exceptional art teachers who have found their own ways to teach perspective, as there may be flamboyant or over-enthusiastic factory workers who add their own little touches to a statue of Jesus intended for the souvenir market at Knock. The complexity of language, or rather of communicative contexts, is such that it is likely that each one of us utters a sentence or two every day that has never been heard on this earth before. But we do not prove ourselves great geniuses because of this.

The above are all just echoes and traces of potential or immanent originality within a larger and swallowing context of repetition and maintenance of previously existing modes of instruction, production, communication.

True originality, while evolving out of previous modes, changes irreversibly the structure of the mode out of which it evolves, extending its productive and receptive possibilities into new and unexplored territories, as perspective did in the fine arts, or as was initially achieved by importation of sound, then colour, into the art of cinema. A thing appears different and acts different after it has been passed through by originality. It has been changed both in terms of its internal relations and its external behaviours. A new creature is born which perhaps in some ways resembles the old creature, but is unfamiliar in crucial respects.

True originality then has an outmoding effect which condemns the previous mode to the domain of archivists, specialists, and obsessives. There are not many silent films doing the rounds – although the amnesiac process by which new modes obliterate the existence of the old modes which birthed them eventually returns some novelty to the hackneyed formulae, accounting for the success of 2011’s The Artist.

As a page-poet, and someone with a deep love of and twenty-five year engagement with page-poetry, I am haunted  by the persistent and somewhat despairing idea that originality in the thoroughgoing and metamorphosing sense I am describing above does not occur in that art form and has not occurred in it for many decades. This is not to say that there are not countless impressive instances of creativity, that is of skillful redeployment and recontextualisation of existing formulae, in contemporary page-poetry. There are and I enjoy and am affected by many of them. At the same time, it is hard to argue that the poetry book, and the poetry journal, are anything but the domain of archivists, specialists, obsessives. That doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon, despite the admirable efforts of so many of these specialists and obsessives, among which I include myself.

Originality, I think, is more present and more possible in emerging and hybrid art-forms than it is within the strictly established limits of forms like the page-poem – limits which are technological as much as they are based on guild conventions. Page-poetry has existed for many centuries and is, like all elderly institutions, thereby burdened (as well as, of course, graced), with a vast, overhanging heritage and a bureaucratic apparatus of convention, restriction, ossification.

The world will always throw up new content for enjoyable and affecting page-poetry to be made with, but I think it undeniable that its formal possibilities are more or less exhausted, were exhausted by the high modernists, in fact.

Originality these days belongs I believe, for the most part, in art-forms that have come into being in recent decades or are only now coming into being, art-forms that are made possible by new and evolving technologies and mediums, as the page poem was made possible once by the technology of the printing press and the medium of the book. The art form which seems to me – in my limited experience of it –  to be the most original contemporary art-form, the one that attracts me the most because in it and through it I gain a genuinely novel and contemporary aesthetic experience, one that is new to the world as well as to me, is sound art.

But originality is also possible at the mutating limits of the geriatric arts, where the old blood somehow flows over and into the veins of a new creature. It is in the hybrid modes of performance poetry, video-poem, digital poetics – the latter two only really in their babyhood and perhaps not having yet even learned how to say mammy in their own language –  that I expect to encounter artistic originality, as opposed to artistic creativity.

Dave Lordan