What fascinates me about Aristotle, in his writings on natural science, is the wonderful mistakes he made. He asserted that men have more teeth than women. In those days before the scientific method he did not bother, presumably, to ask his wife to open her mouth and take a count. (Or perhaps he did but Pythias had lost a few.) He asserted that if two objects of unequal weight are dropped, the heavy one will fall faster than the light one — a notion so obvious that for the next 2,000 years no one questioned it until Galileo climbed that leaning tower in Pisa and dropped two balls of different weights. They fell together.
In all our endeavors, the arts and sciences as well as the daily business of living, we need to stop thinking of error as failure. Mutation carries that negative connotation of failure (albino mammals and two-headed babies are mutants). But mutation is not a mistake. Without it there would be no variation, and without variety there would be nothing for natural selection to operate on, no pathway by which a species can survive through its fittest variants.
Pronouncements of what works and what does not work in poetry, judgments of good art and bad are of course the business of the community of critics: academics, reviewers, your readers, your peers. The folks who just reviewed your manuscript. Of this group Yeats spoke for many a writer when he published “The Scholars” in 1915.
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s depair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there, all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All know what other people think;
All know the man their neighbor knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
“Wrong” is related to “risk.” Artists today understand so well the taking of risk that their distinction comes in spotting it first, not taking it first. To see it is to take it. But no one wants to be in error, to be “wrong.” Daring is good, failure is bad. Except that failure is good, too. Any good poet knows, in writing a poem, that to play it safe is to be dead on arrival.
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John Barr’s poems have been published in five books, four fine press editions, and many magazines, including The New York Times, Poetry, and others. John was also the Inaugural President of the Poetry Foundation. His newest book, The Boxer of Quirinal, will be published by Red Hen Press in June 2023. You can view more of his work at johnbarrpoetry.com and on Instagram (@johnbarrpoetry).
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