Lewis Hyde on writing to your origins

So yesterday 13 books arrived from Alaska. I officially moved to New York in May of 2014; I moved without the vast majority of my books and I’ve been aching for each one as they slowly come trickling into my petite Manhattan apartment.

A few I needed for teaching (Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio, A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart) but one was just for my personal amusement: The Gift by Lewis Hyde.

It’s been years since I read The Gift, but two things have always stuck with me from it: 1. the goal of art and the goal of business are incompatible and will likely always be so 2. art does not take but give.

As I work toward balancing the need to make art and the need to make money, I’ve found ideas in The Gift incredibly valuable. They become more so as I have one more year left of an MFA program.

I’ve been shifting through random sections of The Gift, and one in chapter eight appropriately called “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit” stood out to me.

It’s the question of who does the artist address? Why does he labor?–who is it for? For creative writers, the question is who is your most cherished audience?

The Gift examines the giving culture of several non-Western tribes. The cultures in these tribes see giving gifts as a circle–the good is passed from person to person to person. It’s quite foreign to them for anyone person to kept hold of the gift for themselves. Indeed, capitalism in the US would be (or is) disgusting to this POV.

Hyde talks about how the artist is thankful for the gift that just seems to swell up inside of him. He uses poets like Pound and Whitman because each of them were so thankful for these glimpses into the soul that they had to dedicate their labor to their origins.

For Whitman, the feeling of a work rising was, so he saw it, a gift of his soul into his body. As Hyde writes:

His responsive act was to “make the work” (this being the motto that sat on Whitman’s desk) and speak it back to the soul, the boy.” – Lewis Hyde

This reminded me of David Shield’s conception in Reality Hunger that ‘realness’ is how you push back against reality, and nonfiction is one’s attempt at realness.

Pound saw his stories as a “live tradition” that returned to their source: Homer, Confucius, Dante, Cavalcanti. His creative life was not unlike the English poet Stephen Spender and one of my favorite poems, The Truly Great.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

So often, “the gift” speaks back to whoever created: the boy for Whitman, various high culture for Pound.

Lewis rounds out this section with a brief mention of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. His said that his gifts sprang “from the people” and that his art was a recognition of that debt. “I have attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood.” After a coal worker from Lota said that he knew Neruda’s poems was enough for Neruda.

To find an unknown worker who had heard his poems was sign enough that his gift had managed to bear some equivalent back to its original clan and homeland – Lewis Hyde

To resonant with your origins out of a gratitude is a powerful motivator for an artist. The impulse instantly reminded me of an Auden excerpt I passed in “Sweet Theft” by J.D. McClatchy

I just try to put the thing out there and hope somebody will read it. Someone says: ‘Whom do you write for?’ I reply: ‘Do you read me?’ If they say ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘Do you like it? If they say ‘No,’ then I say, ‘I don’t write for you.” – W.H Auden


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