In defense of gratuitousness

I kicked off my summer vacation right, having lunch with a wonderful friend. She’s someone with whom I can talk about things that really matter: fears and frustrations, hopes and goals. Both of us articulated writing as one of our summer goals, and the conversation turned to favorite tools (typewriter for her, pen and notebook for me), topics, and genres.

After a few minutes one of us (I don’t remember who) was brave enough to say the P-word: Poetry. We both admitted there was something a little pretentious about writing poetry. I used to write quite a bit, and most of it was crap but some of it wasn’t terrible. Now I write infrequently, only when I’m just bursting and the poetry nearly writes itself. There’s not a lot of craft or discipline or even art to it. I rarely share what I write because it feels presumptuous to think that I could possibly have something worth saying and that I believe I have expressed it beautifully.

Presumptuous, pretentious…and gratuitous. Poetry is so unneccessary, so impractical. Why not write an essay or an article? But all creation is gratuitous – even ours. If it was good enough for our Divine Creator, it should be good enough for me.

Some volumes came from Amazon today. I had decided I couldn’t go any longer without the Four Quartets on my nightstand. Skimming some of the new selections I was overwhelmed at how much they made me feel. Emotion may be gratuitous too, but it is also beautiful, beautiful enough that it is worth whatever creative labor or happy accident that inspires it.

I’ll never be a T.S. Eliot, but I don’t have to be. To say what I have to say and to participate in the divine creation are worthy goals. They may be gratuitous, but so are many holy things.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
– T. S. Eliot, from East Coker, Four Quartets

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