The Power of “They”

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Speaking with a very gifted portrait painter recently, I once more encountered the enormous power of “They” among otherwise confident artists.

“They” say no one will ever take my poetry seriously if I use rhyme,” she told me.  She had recently begun spending more time writing poetry, as well as painting.

I asked how she envisioned using or publishing her poems. She said she was going to create a book of paintings, accompanied by her poems, that explored a recent traumatic event in her life that had unexpectedly brought her new freedom and depth in her work.

Now, it is certainly very true that rhyme is not generally held in high esteem in the Academy today, and if she were trying for a professorship or attempting to break into the pages of the New Yorker, neither she nor her rhymes would be unlikely to be greeted with open arms. But she is a talented and successful artist in the field of portrait painting, which is probably about as likely to get her a chair at Harvard as rhyming poetry, and she is very happy in her work. So why was the critical writing “they” so much more powerful than the painting “they” in her mind?

The answer, I think, lies in her taking poetry up seriously later in life. Being new to writing for others (although not for herself), she was more sensitive to the possibility of criticism. A friend telling her that they would have laughed anyone who rhymed out of her poetry class was enough to give her pause.

What I suggested to her was that she was being true to her own gifts and her own way of expressing them, a way that worked for her in her painting. Her rhymed poetry and her realistic painting achieved a consistent and unique personal aesthetic. If she forced herself into free verse forms, she would be abandoning her own view of the world on several levels. And while I am all for this as an occasional exercise – we can all benefit by seeing the wider world through a different lens occasionally – it’s not our primary job as creative people. Our job is to see the world through our own eyes, our once-in-the-history-of-the-universe perspective, and share it with everyone else as best we can. Those who aren’t interested in it, because it is rhymed, or representational, or uses old-fashioned harmonies, or is shot in black and white instead of color, will most likely ignore it, but for the audience who is waiting to find it, it will be just the right thing.

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