The Muse in the News

Andrew Ciofalo | February 2002

Andrew Ciofalo

The title for this essay is an apt borrowing from a headline under which on August 1, 1993 Washington Post political reporter David Von Drehle lamented the loss of the poet in him. Though some dispassionate copy desk denizen contrived the headline's internal rhyme, it did not stray far from the spirit of the author's disaffection.

When Von Drehle says "I lost my grip on the study of poetry when it turned to structuralism and deconstruction" (my italics), he laments the shift in the ownership of poetic works from the poet to the reader, from the primacy of intent and form to the literalness of content and function. In reality, poetry, like the journalism Von Drehle does, is a marriage of form and function, intent and process. Poetry and journalism are more rooted in the details, in the external stimuli than in the invention; conversely, fiction and the essay shape the world to conform to an inner, personal vision.

The Von Drehle piece, in its brevity and in its perceptivity, accomplishes all that he says is lost:

The idea of distilling life into treasurable, memorable elements of truth was gone. I went with it. I became a newspaper hack. A hack with poems echoing in my ears. Those echoes, I find, still have an uncanny amount of truth to them. Why did I study poetry? To get life in the condensed form.

Even The Post's usually punctilious copy desk reverentially avoided dealing with the incomplete sentences (my italics) here.

Journalism and poetry, at their functional best, are about delivering "life in the condensed form." But that which is "treasurable" to the poet is "sensational" to the journalist, and the "memorable elements of truth" become for the journalist "repetitive facts." Yet the journalistic writer does share with the poet the need, as Von Drehle puts it, to "deliver large and universal truths in small and disciplined containers." For the journalist it is difficult to accept the notion of universality in a throw-away world, to live for the hope that a reader will appreciatively clip and xerox some of his or her words and rescue them from the Monday–Thursday collection schedule. But at their minimalist best, the truths of poetry and journalism belong to the reader and not the writer, a rather deconstructionist notion.

While poetry may emanate from the fictive imagination, there is no way for the reader to know what is actual or biographical and what is not. Readers intuitively credit modern poets with writing from experience. Consider William Carlos Williams' reflection on the wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The brevity and unadorned language keeps the reader centered by not dissipating the meaning under a torrent of adjectives and adverbs. Yet, it is the very simplicity, the bare facts in interesting juxtaposition, that allows the reader to fill in the empty spaces surrounding the poem. It's like listening to old time radio.

In the rhetorical view, readers don't necessarily want the poet's truth; instead, they pull individual meanings from the language. "Intentional fallacy" would be the retort of most poets and critics who see the text seamlessly connected to the author's process and intent. Universal agreement on the meaning of a text, regardless of an author's conscious intentions, perhaps indicates a sub-text that is inevitable when writer and reader share certain commonalities, such as culture, place, dogma, experience, humanity, and so on. These commonalities support the metaphorical opportunities implicit in the facts and the details.

When a journalist describes a manned space launch by giving the exact time that the "rocket dwindled to invisibility," there is a sub-text about faith, bravery, and technology of near epic proportions. Without facts there is no journalism, and it is the writer's grasp of all salient facts that gives a vocabulary to objective news discourse. But caution, do not confuse the facts with the truth. And if journalism is about anything, it is about truth. Facts are to writers as numbers are to statisticians.

Facts can be configured to tell any story that the writer wants, or how else does one explain such reportage as surrounds the John F. Kennedy assassination where endless theories are spun out of the same set of facts and where "new facts" are analogously gleaned from recreations where watermelons stand in for a president's head. That's why the writing of reportorial nonfiction, journalism included, is an ethical act. The essential contract between writer and reader is to deliver the truth.

The journalist may write in an event-driven environment, but who is to say that the inner urgency of the poet is any less compelling than the practical urgency of the journalist? The old note pad on the bed stand, as Loyola's Dan McGuiness has commented, expresses the poet's "need to get it before it is gone." The poet's time, according to Octavio Paz, is "living for each day; and living it, simultaneously, in two contradictory ways: as if it were endless and as if it would end right now." Masscom sociologist Michael Schudson says pretty much the same thing: "The rhythm of news is regulated not only by a sense of ending but by a sense of recurrence." Most poetry and news sinks into historical oblivion, not because they are "old" or "bad," but because new metaphors evolve to express the same truths or discover new truths in life's endless, repetitive cycle.

The literary durability of poetry surpasses that of journalism. True, journalism never loses its evidential value to the historian or cultural anthropologist, but poesy, though subject to the literary fads that cycle in and out the likes of Browning and Shakespeare and Ferlinghetti, is the seemly concern of the academic gatekeepers of literary discourse. Of course, Ezra Pound's view that "Literature is news that STAYS news," while excluding purely topical and timely journalism, holds open the gate to journalistic forms that break free of such temporal constraints.

You'll find no argument here that the journalist is merely a poetaster or that journalism's current forms could be considered poetry. But there was a time when the conventions of journalism and poetry nearly merged (at their best) into a common discourse. Echoes of that discourse still reverberate in journalism today, from the broadsheets and topical satires of the 18th century, clangingly through the unadorned news story and in the more fulsome tones of literary journalism and the personal permissiveness of op-ed journalism.

Like poetry and the personal essay, the creative op-ed piece is an "act of writing" that is more "lyrical" and "personal" than topical. The writer's unique voice is allowed to emerge, unfettered by the restraints of journalistic convention or AP style. The op-ed page environment nurtures the journalist's creative quest for the most lucid of truths.

Garcia Lorca's evocative imagery that "black horses and dark people are riding over the deep roads of the guitar" could just as easily be a feature writer's probing into the depths of Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing in a Rolling Stone article. Journalism is too linear to sustain much writing that is more about feelings than ideas and, according to Louis Simpson, "feelings are expressed by the movement of lines. In poetry, the form more than the idea creates the emotion we feel when we read the poem."

Josephine Jacobsen, on the occasion of her being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, told an interviewer from The (Baltimore) Sun that unlike her "somber" fiction, her poetry "goes a little deeper and delves into the basic joys of life. They're more inclusive."

Poetry's route to the truth is usually celebratory; journalism finds the same truths in tragedy: disaster, death, mayhem, loss. Poetry eulogizes the poet's past experiences, imbuing them with eternal human optimism. Journalism is about failure, disappointment, and the end of life's cycle. The epic, which combines all the elements, is left to fiction and history, though McGuiness sees "increasing pressure for poetry to reclaim the epic, the big picture." Yet, the genres commingle.

Poet John Logan, writing in 1971, (a year after The New York Times re-invented the Op-Ed page, in an age when journalism would find a new voice through the intercession of the likes of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Tony Lukas, Tracy Kidder, Mary McCarthy, John McPhee, and Hunter Thompson) attempted the literary linkage:

Poetry is existentially the first among the great genres because, thinking of poetry as lyric as contrasted to tragic and epic and agreeing with Yeats that out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry, we can say that this thing, poetry is the expression in literature of the narrowest or first circle of encounter, the circle of one's self, whereas tragedy is the expression of encounter with the immediate community, the community of family, and epic the expression of encounter with the larger community of the nation or the race.

How strange that poetry and journalism should be literary bookends, the first seeking the lyric by using external stimuli to turn inward and the latter using the same stimuli to reach outward toward the epic.

Journalism occurs in many venues, both within and distinct from the daily newspaper. Journalistic writing is distributed along an increasingly complex continuum that proceeds from daily lists, to news shorts, to news stories, to news analysis, to feature stories, to reviews and editorials, to magazine articles, to columns, and finally, to op-ed pieces. This hierarchical taxonomy progresses from the bare facts to the highly personal, from the concrete to the abstract, from the reportorial to the creative, where it forges comfortable links to poetic process.

Today, it is in the op-ed piece that the poetry of journalism is most clearly discernible. Both the op-ed essay and poetry require a higher truth than can be delivered by what Russell Edson calls "the self-serious poet with his terrible sense of mission, whose poems are gradually decaying into sermons of righteous anger; no longer able to tell the difference between the external abstraction and the inner desperation; the inner life is no longer lived or explored, but converted into public anger." Such writing, whether poetic or journalistic, is simply an "act of opinion," more beholden to social agenda than inner vision.

The creative op-ed piece is a new genre of essay born out of the necessity to compress all thought into 850 words or less. The creative process that produces such an essay is akin to the process of writing poetry. It is no accident that Carl Pohlner, Baltimore's most published op-ed essayist, turned from poetry to op-ed writing when his creative focus became communal: parenting and living in the suburbs. His voice became strangely silent on the op-ed pages as his children approached emancipation and he chose not to sink into the Bombeck role of the forever parent. Switching genres never seemed to alter the creative process that drove his work. Several years ago, while delivering the annual freshman lecture at Loyola College in Baltimore, Pohlner described his writing/thinking process as free association, which he represented in chalk as a cognitive spiral that established metaphorical links between seemingly unrelated ideas and observations meandering toward a universal truth.

Unlike the journalist who writes about an incident, the op-ed journalist uses incidents—much as a poet uses experiences and observations—to stimulate the writing. As of now, the op-ed page is the only venue that accommodates short, lyrical essays. This is a double-edged blessing because very often the time required to craft such a piece also reduces its timeliness, which is a problem for most op-ed editors. In order to avoid being caught in a time warp, op-ed essayists anchor their ideas in descriptive detail rather than transient facts.

Editors usually don't know what to make of such writing. Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, in nicely rejecting an op-ed essay that floated over his transom, quizzically called it a "meditation." The piece—on the acquittal of the Rodney King bashers by a Simi Valley jury—was subsequently published in The Catholic Review, where the BMW generation reacted meanly to such comments as: "The first match in the Los Angeles riots was struck over a Simi Valley barbecue by cloistered suburbanites able to deny the reality of the desert through better gardening."

Even the fictional editor in a Richard Harding Davis short story, "The Red Cross Girl" (1896), could not deal with the personal, off centered story by a young reporter, obviously a follower of William Dean Howell's new fangled Realism:

It's not a news story at all. It's an editorial, and an essay, and a spring poem. I don't know what it is. And, what's worse. it's so darned good that you can't touch it. You've got to let it go or kill it.

Outside of the newspaper, very few publications know how to handle these short pieces, accustomed as they are to longer, more expository forms. But "meditation" seems an apt description for a process that begins when a writer identifies an inner vision through the mediation of an event or incident. While topical, this approach is wholly different from the event-driven commentary of editorials and columns.

Robert Atwan calls the process sculpting from memory:

Essayists understand, too, that a true story doesn't usually come packaged in a compellingly dramatic shape but rather tends to disperse itself into observation or anticlimax. Which is fine, since essayists love to pause.

To be sure, creative op-ed writing, at its lyrical best, is a form of personal journalistic writing that offers the easiest parallels with poetry. But what of feature writing and news writing? Are they not so bound to journalistic formula—feature writing perhaps less so—that they can be considered more "information processing" than writing? The existence of a formula, as in a sonnet, does not necessarily preclude creativity.

The journalistic formula—a lead featuring the five ws and an h followed by facts arranged in inverted pyramidical order—enables the writer to master the rudiments of news at a point that is basic to understanding the cognitive relationship of all forms of journalistic writing. The writer must understand the shift that occurs as one moves from news to feature writing. It is "information" that is at the core of all journalistic writing. The difference among the many genres of journalism is in the degree of personal perspective, the point of access and direction: lyrical or epical.

The news writer may be said to have a deductive approach to the story in which all facts are subsumed in descending order of importance under a single overarching event that sets a dominant theme for the story, such as violence or conciliation. Once this theme is set, the story—according to news formula—is almost automatically driven from point to point. It goes from the general to the specific, from the effects to the kaleidoscopic array of causes.

The feature writer takes an inductive approach to the story, starting from a seemingly inconsequential point, seeing the causes, and moving toward the big picture of the effects. The feature story thus relies more heavily on human interest because the easiest identifiable trait shared by the broad audience is its humanity. Human interest enables the reader to make a direct experiential connection with the story. The magazine writer has no need to manufacture such interest; it is implicit in the narrowly targeted audience. But the poet (like the feature writer) digs deeper into the self so that "a human inside is talking to a human inside," according to Donald Hall, who goes on:

The inside speaks through the second language of poetry, the unintended language. Sometimes, as in surrealism, the second language is the only language. The second language allows poetry to be universal. Lyric poetry, typically, has one goal and one message, which is to urge the condition of inwardness, the "inside" from which its own structure derives.

Through "human interest" the journalist searches, as the poet, for some universal connector between his inner self and an objective reality, between himself and his readers, and among his readers. Unlike the poet, the journalist cannot separate form and content without violating the coherence of his appointed discourse. Even apparently formless poetry expresses an incoherence that poet and reader share at the deepest psychic level, as in Bliem Kern's "Sound Poetry," where the non-linear juxtaposition of words and letters make it unquotable in this linear format.

While we suspect that the poet and the feature writer are of the same inductive mindset, A. R. Ammons thinks that poetry as an inductive or deductive enterprise "is likely to remain provisional by falling short" on both counts. But he leans a bit when he says:

Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated: extensions of the laws to other poems never completely take. But a poem generated in its own laws may be unrealized and bad in terms of so-called objective principles of taste, judgment, deduction. We are obliged both to begin internally with a given poem and work toward generalization and to approach the poem externally to test it with a set—and never quite the same set—of a priori generalizations.

That both the feature writer and the poet start at a specific point in time in a specific place with a specific detail, regardless of the cognitive route to that detail, results in an inductive construct.

The journalistic writer starts off with an advantage over most other writers; he is free of the sequencing constraints of time and place. Thanks to the pyramid news formula, he has long since left behind the notion of organizing a story chronologically. Feature and magazine writers are free to enter the narrative at any point, looking for the most compelling effect, and then arranging the causes and effects that put events in motion according to whatever logical schema that best serves their discursive purposes. However, in moving through events freely, the newspaper feature writer develops a convenient formula that is somewhat personal and repetitive, and therein lies the first glimmerings of voice and style. Tess Gallagher describes the poet's temporality:

The time of the poet is not linear, is not the time of "this happened, then this, then this," though I may speak in that way until I am followed and the language leads me out of its use into its possibilities. It is the poet who refuses to believe in time as a container, who rushes into the closed room of time. The poem. is like a magnet which draws into it events and beings from all possible past, present and future contexts.

Newspaper feature writers and magazine writers have the extended deadline time to articulate and develop stories with fuller and more discreet voices, using the fictive devices of creative or literary nonfiction. These writings are still fine tuned by an awareness of audience. The media writer is always testing his or her choices against the reaction of the audience: will they object; how much do they need to know; is this clear enough, etc.?

While poets are not slavishly in the service of the reader, their poems share with feature stories an approach to truth that marries content equally to form, viewpoint, and imagery. There was a time in 16th century England when some news was published in poetic form; and these may have been the first modern feature stories. Even earlier, poetry was mnemonically crucial to an oral medieval tradition that brought news of distant parts via itinerant story tellers and minstrels.

Around the end of the nineteenth century, Realism was the dominant movement in American literature, imported through the earlier French realists (Flaubert and Balzac) and English realists (Eliot and Dickens). William Dean Howells and his proteges, Stephen Crane and Frank Norris, trendsetting practitioners of the movement in the United States, were preceded by poets James Russell Lowell and Walt Whitman. It was no accident that all of these writers (with the exception of Lowell) were first journalists.

The journalism of the penny press, with its highly competitive atmosphere and insatiable appetite for copy, gave rise in the U.S. to a new profession, that of reporter. It was the rule rather than the exception that nascent creative writers would pursue newspapering as a way of making a living. In fact, it was that premier Muckraker, Lincoln Steffens, who as editor of the Commercial Advertiser put out the word to the Ivy League colleges that he was looking to hire "not newspaper men, but writers." The journalistic beginnings of these writers, rooted as they were in the discourse of fact, not only led to the first experiments in literary journalism but also contributed to the later flowering of Realism in fiction and poetry. Some of Walt Whitman's poems are almost verbatim lifts from his journalism.

Realism found its inspiration in the comings and goings of ordinary people, in their daily lives. This it attempted to present in an unromanticized, non-subjective way. Thus the penny press writers tried to show "life as it is," at its mundane best. They were interested in the conditions and situations that surrounded an event, its causes and its effects. They were pushing the bounds of news toward a journalistic form that was to become known as features.

Realism cleared the way to objectivity in news writing by pushing out the ornate rhetorical style that characterized much of the writing and speeches of the mid-nineteenth century. Thus news writers adopted a plain style not only to simplify communication but also to deprive the facts of any literary or attitudinal adornment which was bound to be subjective. The enshrinement of factual reporting and its required formulas just before the turn of the century can be said to mark the beginning of the Information Age. Realism transformed that factual event-driven news story by opening it to the inclusion of facts that were nothing more than the reporter's "eyewitness observations." When these observation pieces began to stand alone, independent of a particular news event, feature writing (and some say literary journalism) was born. Journalistic writing had come to a stylistic fork in the road: realism leading to the development of feature writing and straight factual reporting leading to the objective standard. However, objectivity, which is an ethical-political concept of news, is a rather modern development. The penny press reporters used the diction of realism to convey as accurate a depiction of an external world as possible.

Such minimalism was practiced in its extreme by Williams, who "asked poetry to confine itself to wheelbarrows, bottle caps, weeds—with the artist 'limited to the range of his contact with the objective world.' Keeping close to the surface becomes an obsession," according to Robert Bly.

The news writer's objectivity is no different than the "objectism" that Charles Olson, the most visible advocate for the ways of Williams and Ezra Pound, defines:

Objectism is getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the "subject" of his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature. and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects.

A journalist getting behind the façade of a major medical center to convey the notion that all that glitters is not high-tech might easily have penned Williams's lines (converted to prose form, of course), "The back wings of the hospital where nothing will grow lie cinders in which shine the broken pieces of a green bottle."

If poet and journalist could execute the same line with equal ease, what then is the difference between the poet's optional subjectivity and the journalist's required objectivity? While the purely creative writer (egocentric) derives form from a keen inner vision, the media creative writer (sociocentric) relies on an audience filter in choosing appropriate imagery, syntax, vocabulary, and form.

To the practitioner of daily journalism, creativity means subjectivity, which means loss of objectivity. That's why the more imaginative journalists often desert the pulp venue for the less strictured confines of magazines and nonfiction books where "facts" are only part of the search for truth, equal partners with "creativity" and "invention."

Reportorial realism was born in the awareness that more could be told about life, culture, and society from trivial daily details than from the sweep of great events. The reporter, who wants to escape the guttural monosyllabic prose of plain factual writing without breaking the contract of objectivity with his readers and without crossing over into the feature genre, has many options if brave enough to take them.

He or she would like to write imaginatively, but imaginative writing, is anathema to news and feature journalism because of its association with fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction. Journalists, instead, call it colorful writing, which is something quite different.

Sometimes there is a confusion between imagining and inventing. Imagination—"fancy" to Coleridge—is the implacable enemy of objective journalism; imagination pertains to creating fictions, imagining facts or versions based loosely on real events and experiences. Imagination is what drives the TV docudrama as it seeks to flesh out an incomplete set of facts with plausible fiction. What matters in the imaginative enterprise of the playwright, fictionalist, and the poet is the truth of the whole. Aristotle, in The Poetics, notes that "it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened but what can happen according to the law of probability or necessity."

However, invention is an aspect of the composing process that can be brought to almost any piece of writing. Invention enables the reporter to use imagery and symbolism to make an idea clearer or to get at the poignancy of an event.

In newspaper feature writing "literary" usually means inventive writing. The Latin root of the word "invention" means "to find" or "to come upon," an act of "discovery" whose further Latin root means "to uncover" or "to disclose." Such root terminology may seem more applicable to the reporting process, but when applied to the writing process it demonstrates the power of language and words to synthesize facts into truth, to express relationships that reveal meaning. According to Dr. Judith Dobler, teacher of nonfiction writing at Loyola College (Baltimore), through invention, the writer "finds something, uncovers something, comes upon something, discloses something—something that implicitly is out there to be found." In other words, the writer, through invention, explores a world outside of the self in an act of pure journalism.

On the other hand, creativity, employing the same process of discovery, turns inward. Dobler says that

... creative comes from a different sort of metaphor: instead of "finding something on the outside," we're causing it to grow from within ourselves. In other words, when we're creative, we're creating a new, original thing from the bits and pieces we've got floating around in our brains, the flotsam and jetsam of our experiences. The implication is that the writer knows what she is doing and how to do it, when the writing is good and when it needs revision.

Rather than face the awesome responsibility of writing creatively, young writers might seek security in formulas.

Invention allows the writer to keep the journalistic formula intact, if he or she so wishes. In that case, the structure of the story changes little, and invention is reduced to the veneer of colorful writing. An editor can take any reporter's story and by deft use of metaphor and imagery create a colorfully written piece out of a dull one. The only problem is that such an external imposition deprives the piece of the ring of truth that would normally come from the writer's spontaneity.

Any editor can overlay such imagery on a story, but here's a purely poetic line, popping up in a feature interview, that no editor could invent. The line depends on the unique perception of the reporter. Stephanie Shapiro, interviewing Red Skelton for The (Baltimore) Sun, wrote:

.... he wears a pinkie ring with a rock that speaks in facets to the sparkly chandelier above.

Literally, what does that mean? No one knows, perhaps not even Stephanie, but its much better than:

The diamond on his pinkie ring was so large that its brilliance competed with that of the large crystal pendants hanging from the chandelier above.

This is a case where the imagery is a perceptual event that happened in the writer's head. But it depended on linking two unrelated external stimuli in order to make a hyperbolic observation about Mr. Skelton's ring without being insulting or crass. This kind of perceptual shift is what Dobler calls perceptual invention.

The connections between poetry and journalism are not to be found in a search for that poetic line, for that flash of creativity that comes from inner vision, but in the way poets and journalists go about constructing truth from snippets of reality.

Consider Jimmy Breslin's 1966 report on the return of American remains from Vietnam in military issue aluminum cases. Early on Breslin tells us that stenciled on each box was the inscription, "RETURN TO USAF MORTUARY TSN RVN." He translates at the end his story, this "meant when the bodies of the four Marines were taken out of the cases, the cases should be put on a plane and returned to Tan Son Nhut in the Republic of Vietnam, so that the cases could be used again." It is a bare poetic simplicity that paves the way, in the words of Ortega y Gasset, for "the intersection of the different points of view" in which the reader fills in the blanks of meaning. Seymour Krim's commentary on Breslin's technique deserves repeating:

In that flat, open, deceptive. and yet completely practical tone of voice, Breslin gave a picture of contemporary reality that went beyond the particular Sunday story he had written. By sticking entirely to the facts... —the art in Breslin's shrewd hands being to underplay details packed with emotional consequence and by flattening them allow their intrinsic value to float clear—he forced his readers to experience larger meanings than the return of four men, or parts of them, from Vietnam. The simple details. became symbolic of the technological impersonality demanded by war in the 60s; of how men who were alive 24 hours before on distant soil became converted into neatly packaged meat sent home in the wink of a mechanical eye; of how the quick utilitarian techniques for transporting and disposing of this meat become the foreground of a story about death today and makes the luxury of sentiment ridiculous; of how the living try to adjust to the rapid businesslike logistics of human annihilation and the only act of baffled mourning allowed them is to handle a sealed aluminum box gently.

For all they knew there could be dirty underwear in it, so weird, abstract, numbing to the emotions and mind is the way boisterous young bucks fly out from the West Coast terminal as souls of aluminum.

If Breslin had been a poet, then perhaps the foreground would have been all he wrote, far fewer than the 1,800 words of the original piece.

Sometimes the poet gives us insight into the inexplicable. That's what Von Drehle found as he mulled over the suicide of Vincent Foster Jr., a top aide to President Clinton. He thought of an Edward Arlington Robinson poem:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich -yes, richer than a king-
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet in his head.

Von Drehle also felt that no one "got closer, in the miles of reports and commentary, to the essence of the 1993 Mississippi flood than T.S. Eliot did, writing from his St. Louis home some 50 years ago":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god-sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonored, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching, and waiting.

Such poetry is as clean as journalism; it's all there in the words, nothing in between. It is the legacy of Realism. Marvin Bell, in celebrating changes in poetry since 1955, asks, "Do you know why more and better articles about books of poetry don't appear? Because now that poetry is no longer written between the lines, the critics don't know what to say."

Loyola's McGuiness suggests that maybe poetry should cozy up to journalism: "Having failed at the epic... that is reportorial 'news'... American poetry 'retreated' (depending on your point of view) into the 'op-ed'—autobiographical, lyrical.... (There is) much grumbling now. that poetry should return to 'hard news'—i.e., politics, social statement, etc."

There are no critics of journalism as creative discourse. There are no rhetoricians or lit-crit types who take the genre seriously enough to mine the rich lode of material represented by daily and other forms of journalism. The field is left to sociologists, philosophers and political scientists whose perspectives and agendas are circumscribed by their training. Unless one is a Walt Whitman or a Theodore Dreiser or a Mark Twain or a John Steinbeck or an Ernest Hemingway, a writer's journalistic output becomes important only in the developmental sense of greater things that followed. Yet, more and more, today we hear about "literary journalism," a term that is so oxymoronic that respectable academicians invented "literary non-fiction" to isolate discourse that is considered less mean, less the product of journalists, and more the product of litterateurs: scientists, doctors, historians, psychologists, and other highly educated professionals who engage in literaryism. That is why there are no studies of a single journalist's work. A journalistic career that spans forty years of the bylines of not-so-rich-and-famous writers surely is productive of a body of work that can be mined to reveal veins of social significance, changing conventions, personal stylistic development, and psychic and literary influences.

Without the paradigms engendered by criticism, journalism cannot begin to reinvent itself as the brilliant media philosopher James W. Carey would have it do:

... we ought to think of journalism not as an outgrowth of science and the Enlightenment, but more as an extension of poetry, the humanities, and political utopianism. What would journalism look like if we grounded it in poetry, if we tried to literalize that metaphor rather than the metaphor of objectivity and science? It would generate, in fact, a new moral vocabulary that would dissolve some current dilemmas.

Science could at one time serve as the exemplification of our culture and the scientist at one time could be our hero. The sciences at one time did enormous and important work in securing the foundations of liberal democracy, and it is not surprising that journalism should take science as its model and try, in however degenerate a form, to imitate it. But that age is over.

Today, the most important parts of our culture are in arts, in poetry, in political utopianism, in the humanities. We should not shrink from this new metaphor. Social life is, after all, the succession of great metaphors. The metaphor that has governed our understanding of journalism in this century has run into trouble. Neither journalism nor public life will move forward until we actually rethink, redescribe, and reinterpret what journalism is; not the science or information of our culture but its poetry and conversation.

The point of all this is that before we can take seriously the notion that journalism and journalists have more in common with poetry and poets than with drama and playwrights and any other genre of literature and its artists/practitioners, we must begin studying journalistic writing as part of the cultural literature that defines a society and its ideas. We need to examine the balances between the formulaic and the creative, the differences between good and bad, and the factual conventions that determine truth, both locally and universally.

This was all very clear to John Steinbeck:

What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have. But over a long period of time and because it is the product of so many. it is perhaps the purest thing we have. Honesty has a way of creeping in even when it was not intended.

Von Drehle may call himself a "hack" in a fit of self-deprecatory despair, but like all of us, he needs to be honored and cherished in a nurturing environment that will permit his muse to creep out from under the hard place of his journalism.


Andrew Ciofalo is a member of the Communication Department at Loyola College in Maryland where he teaches courses in news, feature, and magazine writing. His op-ed essays have appeared frequently in The Baltimore Sun and other daily newspapers.

No Comments