Pulling Your Punches

The greatest foe of the artist is mediocrity. You start each new project with an unbounded canvas of infinite possibility, electric with potential. Yet all too often, you end up settling for something safe and comfortable. You color inside the lines. You pull your punches.

I know. I’m as guilty as anyone else.

Example. Say you wanted to write about a thunderstorm: a full-blast, rainy, wailing monstrosity of a storm. How would you describe it? Maybe you’d pull out adjectives like “towering” or “ominous.” Maybe you’d throw in a metaphor or two, comparing the storm to a dragon or something. Maybe you’d do something else entirely. Think about it for a second.

Now look at how G.K. Chesterton described a thunderstorm in his poem “The Last Hero”:

The heavens are bowed about my head, raging like seraph wars,
With rains that might put out the sun and rid the sky of stars,
Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above,
The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love.

I don’t know what your reaction is, but me personally? Damn.

Chesterton’s storm is vast, apocalyptic, beyond anything he could have achieved just by using the words “vast” and “apocalyptic.” He’s got whole worlds going on in the sky, a civil war in heaven, the Almighty tearing apart the stars.

Mr. Chesterton is not pulling his punches.

(By the way, full text of the poem is here. Or, for a very different but equally powerful description, try Archibald Lampman’s “A Thunderstorm.”)

Should all art be loud and over-the-top like the example above? Of course not. Subtlety is just as powerful. For contrast, here’s Anne Sexton’s “The Fury of Rainstorms”:

The rain drums down like red ants,
each bouncing off my window.
The ants are in great pain
and they cry out as they hit
as if their little legs were only
stitche don and their heads pasted.
And oh they bring to mind the grave,
so humble, so willing to be beat upon
with its awful lettering and
the body lying underneath
without an umbrella.
Depression is boring, I think
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up the cave.

No seraph wars here; this poem feels “smaller,” quieter. But look at the vivid imagery, the red ants, the corpse without an umbrella. She’s wrapped a topic as big as life and death into an action as small as making soup. I contend that Ms. Sexton, likewise, is not pulling her punches.

Maybe you’re not much impressed with one or both of these poems. That’s fine; look toward your own inspiration, whatever that is, and create something better.

Or maybe you’re intimidated by these examples and don’t think you can make something as good. That’s fine too. I’m not saying you have to succeed at this level; God knows, I don’t. I’m only saying you should aim this high, attack the canvas with this much energy. It’s fine to fail, only – as Samuel Beckett said – “Fail better.” Fail spectacularly. Fail hard with a vengeance.

Stop pulling your punches.

(UPDATE: It didn’t occur to me till afterward, but given the tornadoes that have hit the South recently, this may not have been the best timing for this post. No disrespect intended to anyone affected by those disasters.)

2 responses to “Pulling Your Punches

  1. “‘Fail better.’ Fail spectacularly. Fail hard with a vengeance.” That’s going in my little notebook (ok, really it’s a post-it pad) of thought provoking quotes that make me want to write.

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