Conrad’s Preface To The Nigger of the “Narcissus”

For his early novel, The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Joseph Conrad wrote a very interesting and thoughtful Preface. Not all editions of this work include the Preface so I want to share it with everyone.  The subject is art and the artist: in this case the writer. Conrad is a serious writer and this Preface should be read with the expectation of some effort and thought. Do you agree with Conrad? Do his thoughts fit in with more contemporary views of art and literature? Have you read The Nigger of the “Narcissus”?

Those readers that want to experience this work by Joseph Conrad are in luck: Project Gutenberg contains the text of  The Nigger of the “Narcissus” with the Preface intact.

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Tequila makes her clothes fall off

I was reading the poems published in a journal I receive regularly and was disappointed that they seemed, for the most part, strained and almost silly:  I would say that the poet was trying too hard to be poetic and to write poems that are easily recognized as being poetical. There were, however, several example of non-standard poetry (very non-standard) that I enjoyed, if only for the form.

Now it should be understood that I spent most of my undergraduate and graduate education reading, analyzing, and discussing poetry (and drama later), so I am truly not adverse to the idea of a poem and secretly wish that poetry was more mainstream and available in this new century. Furthermore, I can take a volume of Keats or Donne or Ginsberg off the shelf and amaze myself that such powerful and often beautiful writing exists. But the current crop of ‘the typhoon of your kisses drips blood on my Post Toasties’ poets just aren’t doing it for me anymore. City Lights keeps my hopes up but some of the doggerel that gets published today makes me wonder.

What is going on?

Maybe poetry is spreading out and becoming more accessible outside of the literati and  prone to the same continuum of quality and intelligence as is the world of prose? Obviously there are novels written for simple entertainment:  bodice rippers, teen romances, formulaic westerns and science fiction, hard-boiled and fast-moving detectives, etc. These types of novels are appealing to read but we can expect them to have a short life and be replaced in our bookstores by newer titles that promise variety but more often are slightly stirred variations of all the titles that went before.

Is poetry evolving into this same model:  classics that have endured, contemporary examples that may show quality, and the rest which is targeted for the average reader seeking entertainment? I don’t know.

Paul Valéry defined the poet’s function and I agree (what do you think?):

A poet’s function … is not to experience the poetic state:  that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. … The man of genius is the one who infuses genius into me.

Many people consider poetry a personal, cathartic expression:  the poet has such a level of experience and sentiment that the poet eases the pressure by creating a poem. The reader of the poem, then, is an observer of the poet’s condition. Valery doesn’t discount the poet’s condition, but he reverses the idea of a poem being cathartic, which wouldn’t even need a reader, to the idea of a poem being a way of conveying or sharing experience:  an “educational” experience. This seems consistent with my exposure to the mechanics of creating poetry:  some poets struggle with every line of the poem, every word; other poets write and rewrite the poem over and over in many different versions often with radically different variations. It’s the old inspiration vs. perspiration routine.

Writing poetry, despite the clichéd scenes in an early sixties movie, does not involve a garret, incense, or bongos; it is an artistic creation much like a symphony, an ivory statue, or a painting on the ceiling of a church; and like these other art forms, it is the artist’s way of getting the observer or reader to share in the same intense experience. It’s hard work and along the way the poet or painter may have a cathartic experience, but that is personal; the complete poem is turned over to the reader to be experienced.

Two things I notice about this view of the artist:  first, there is an element of intention and second, the goal is to have the reader essentially duplicate the experience and not to have the reader attach his own personal, extra-textual experiences onto the poem. So on one side we break with the New Critics and on the other we conform. Furthermore, with apologies to Roland Barthes, the author is once again important.

I like that:  but I’m just musing this fine afternoon and may go walk barefoot on my new carpet for a while …

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the state of poetry as it pertains to country music and overpriced greeting cards … no, I can’t do it … way too painful.