Beginning with anonymity

I was once told a story, which I have never been able to trace, about court poets in one of the middle dynasties in China. According to the story, these poets were encouraged to circulate their work until they became quite famous - and then they were required to change their names. Suddenly, from riding the crest of success, they were plunged into anonymity. They had to build new reputations from scratch. The greatest of these poets was, as I recall, required to change his name five times, enduring four intentional reversals of fortune for his five periods of acclaim.

This may seem like an odd story - after all, can't a writer's work be identified by his style, even though the name below the poem is different? If you think about it, however, the story not only makes sense, but actually sounds as if it has a point worth remembering. Take the names off the books of a given twentieth-century poet, and you might have a hard time linking those books to a single author. Almost any example will do: could the same person who wrote ''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'' have possibly written ''The Four Quartets''? T. S. Eliot did just that. Or look at Theodore Roethke: without his name affixed to both poems, one might be hard pressed to link ''My Papa's Waltz'' with the ''North American Sequence.''

These two examples involve writers who were experimenting, for better or worse, with new styles. Yet they both labored under the weight of fame. One can certainly argue that this weight did not contribute to the greatness of the poetry. A ''Home Forum'' writer did exactly that with T. S. Eliot several years ago, arguing that Eliot's early poems - written when he was virtually unknown - are much more exciting verbally and intellectually than his later work.

Perhaps, then, the Chinese poets and their patrons latched on to a valuable idea. Certainly one's identity as a writer can grow stale over the years. A writer can become so conscious of ''his'' themes, ''his'' style, that he actually narrows his sights, listens for the old music, and writes in an old vein - or worse, breaks into a new vein that sounds respectable but yields none of the old daring, the emotional or intellectual vitality that brought him earlier success. If we were the Chinese poets facing these circumstances, our fate would be sure: we would be forced to start over, to write under a new name. But here, in twentieth-century America, life is more complicated. One is not always aware of when the spark goes out of his writing, or when an ''experiment'' is merely a conventional thought dressed up a little. We don't always have someone to make us beginners again.

The story of the Chinese poets impresses me because I think quite a lot about my writing, and about being anonymous, about being a beginner. I'm not going to change my name over and over - at least I don't expect to. But often, when I sit down to write, I consider the real point of the story - the idea that I have to start afresh with myself, putting away the extraneous concerns that always go with writing: ''will I sell it?'' ''will a major magazine accept it?'' ''will Harper & Row publish it?'' ''will my audience like it?'' ''does it sound like me?'' This last concern is, at least for me, the most insidious. I can always bottle myself up by assuming that the type of poem I once wrote is the type I should still write, that I have an image to maintain or a range of subjects that critics have labeled mine. Such assumptions are the opposite of anonymity: they reveal the self at its most hard-edged, its most defined and limited. They are also sure to wither the budding poem. They permit none of the free inventiveness , the glorious clowning, the curious browsing through unfamiliar realms of thought, that bring the new perception in striking language. They permit none of the privileges of the beginner.

It is perhaps a paradox, but I try to make myself a beginner whenever I sit down to write. It's not that I ignore everything I've done in the past; for the fact is, I do have themes that I return to, that I mine with recurring productivity. But I do try very hard to ignore the results of what I've done in the past - the publications, or friends' or critics' comments, for example - as well as to lay aside visions of future pressures. I am a writer with a pen, some paper, and some ideas that I have not previously tried. My intention is to see them in this newness, to hold them, to handle them in my mind as if they were objects from another planet, something I had never before encountered and had to describe. And there are times when, confronted by my unrelenting self, I like to go back to truly anonymous poems. Ballads, for example, or lyrics from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, are often quite beautiful, finely crafted. Yet no name is attached. They have a life of their own, apart from whatever single self the author (or authors) possessed. Some of these poems, it seems to me, deserve the finest tribute one can pay a work of art: that it can live on and on, after everything about its author is forgotten. Keeping that tribute in mind, I find it much easier to write as I want, beginning with anonymity.

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