A vacant loft in Chelsea that we just happened upon recently. Ah, the provocation of empty space. It always excites my “if only!” energy.

Often discussed, but still a furtive topic: How does an artist finds his or her voice? An identifiable style, that creative stride that becomes signatory?

The search for that essence is part of what gets tracked by art historians in studying the trajectory of every canonical artist. When does it appear? How does it come to be? Who are the influences from which it is fashioned?

As I said, it is furtive.

David Orr begins his recent review of two books of poetry by Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon* with his take on this topic:

According to conventional wisdom, younger poets are engaged in “finding their voices” — a process often described in terms that make it seem like a cross between having an epiphany and having an aneurysm…

Many readers think of a poet’s distinctive style as being “found,” rather than, for example, “built.” They suppose it arrives as “an unstopping flood,” rather than in dribs and drabs and half measures. They believe it’s a matter of, yes, inspiration.

And in some ways, it is. But it also isn’t. The achievement of a style is like the achievement of an individual poem writ large: it’s a delicate balance of confidence and guesswork, as the writer simultaneously relies on what’s worked in the past, bets on what might work right now and tries to leave a little room for things that might work in the future. It’s like baking a pie with a recipe in one hand and a wish list in the other. Some poets manage the feat in their first books (Bishop), others take a couple of outings to get things right (Larkin) and still others pass through multiple styles over the courses of long careers (Yeats, Auden). The process is fascinatingly byzantine, but it’s not really a matter of “divine prompting”; rather, a poet arrives at a style through the same combination of staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.

“Staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.” In other words, the rag and bone shop plus a dose of good fortune. If only that was all any of us ever needed to achieve the convergence of our work and our imagination. Meanwhile, it’s chop wood and carry water.

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* Rachel Wetzsteon is a poet I have written about a several times here:

Meanwhile’s Far From Nothing
One More From Rachel’s Hand
Throwing up a Curse That Comes Back a Blessing

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