The Art of Any Impact

March 11, 2011 in Articles, The Grapevine

Thor Vilhjálmsson, Icelandic poet, died a week ago. Standing up, with his feet on the ground. It's an important talent to learn.

The most important thing to keep in mind during a fistfight (or while writing a poem) isn’t what to do with your arms and knuckles, but where to place your feet. If you keep them too close together, you’re liable to fall over – and if you keep them too far apart you leave your genitalia vulnerable (you don’t want to do that, not even if you’re a girl). If you have one foot directly in front of the other, you might keel on your side, whereas if you keep them side by side, you risk falling on your ass – or alternately, your face. So while your fists may be doing most of the bodily harm, your punching is pointless if you don’t mind your footwork.

The same goes for writing. Or, for that matter, living. (I have now assumed the position of life-changing prolonged metaphor – do not stop reading!)

Writing does of course not cause much bodily harm. In fact writing entails only a bare minimum of bodily harm and it’s mostly harmful for the person doing it (long bouts of writing have been linked to bad blood flow, back aches, haemorrhoids, alcoholism, sleeplessness, severe angst and frequent panic attacks), while the person reading need not worry. At least not much.

But just like when you punch someone in the face (which I’m supposing is a reality most Grapevine readers are intimately familiar with) to perform any good (nevermind great) writing you need to find a comfortable base-stance from whence you throw your jabs, strophes, plots and uppercut in-rhymes.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

And yet most poets, most writers – and indeed perhaps most people (not excluding me, alot of the time) – tend to put a great deal of effort into perfecting their punches (the most obvious aspects of their technique) while failing to seek good grounding. Now what I’m trying (and failing, obviously) to aggrandizingly metaphorize towards (besides changing your life), is that (sometimes) I get the distinct sense that most writers, poets, painters, musicians and performance artists seldom stop to think about why they do what they do, what it is they seek to accomplish. That is to say: where they want to place their right foot, and where they want to place their left foot. Rather, they seem to have perfected their quick-jabs and knockouts – their paintstrokes, metaphors, plots, frills and moaning, without seemingly having the slightest idea why they are doing so. And so the world slowly but surely gets filled – not with revelatory art curious about life, its bits and pieces, but hollow posing.

Now, lest I be misunderstood (oh! the horror of possibly being misunderstood!): I’m not saying everyone should now go fill their poetry with social consciousness or political messages. I’m not saying art can’t (or shouldn’t) be made for the sake of art. I’m saying art shouldn’t be made for the sake of nothing-better-to-do or being-an-artist-seems-fun (or, at the very least, if so, then be it decisively so).

What I’m saying (with any and every ounce of whatever authority I may have, and a lot of assumed authority I have never had) is that the fundamentals of what you do are more important and deserve more of your attention than your technical prowess. When you know what you want to do, you may accidentally stumble upon a great way to do it. But if you don’t, you most definitely won’t.

Originally appeared in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

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