The playwright Tom Murphy heard a folk-tale about a laughing contest in a pub and he witnessed a mother and two daughters praying for The Blessed Virgin to appear in Glenamaddy. These images were, as the work progressed, transformed into three plays “Brigid”, “A Thief of a Christmas” and “Bailegangaire.” Their purpose is to point out that, at the heart of the Irish psyche is a superstitious religious grief for the loss of a home.
Robert Frost, after working on a poem through the night went out into the Vermont sunrise and the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” came to him. He went to his desk and wrote it in a few minutes without effort. Its ultimate purpose is to help us recognise the truth, that in rushing through life we miss the import of its passing moments.
We can hardly say that either Murphy or Frost began with a burning desire to convey any specific experience to their audience/readers. In fact Murphy was perhaps asking “what is this laughing thing about and why does the praying women’s grief mean so much to me?” and Frost “What is this poem that wants me to write it?” However, if we look more closely at all three examples in these two blogs, we can see that whether the ego’s initial intention is clear or not, some time before the piece is finished, purpose emerges, the artist knows it, follows it and refines the work to match it. The mechanics of this emergence of purpose are worth looking at:
When Kavanagh in “Epic”says “Gods make their own importance,” he is effectively saying “art-works make their own importance” or “art-works make their own purpose.” This is not very far from Eisner’s statement that art “requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.” However, for me, Jane Hirshfield in “Nine Gates of Poetry” is the one who finds the heart of the matter when she says “The poet dialogues with the poem that wants to emerge.” And Beethoven dialogues with his music, Bacon with his sculpture and how can you tell the dancer from the dance? Ego drives but the work itself dictates and the ego can only be a receiver if he/she surrenders to it. Artists, through a lifetime’s experience, learn to do this and Eisner’s “lessons” are like a ten-point summary of what their lives in art have taught them. Each piece of work is a gift to them to be handed on and, like diviners or prospectors, they know how to seek the next gift.
In general we teach young people well in the matter of form, content, texture appreciation, but I believe the good teachers are those who teach their students to be open to the gift and grateful for it and who help them to sample that giftedness in both making and receiving. Whether that teaching takes place in a room, a classroom or a youth-club, it can have a profound effect on young people’s lives and on society.