TS Eliot, Adrienne Rich, WH Auden. When they were alive, these poets were some of the most celebrated voices in their generations. They were heralded as masters of their crafts from whom all other poets could and should learn from, and that’s exactly what poets across the country and world did: students would study these masters’ styles in painstakingly close detail in pursuit of the wisdom and virtuosity their work carried.
This raises the question: if students were eager to learn from these master poets who operated at the top of their game, where were those poets learning from?
Well, unsurprisingly, a lot of their learning came from the intense study of their other preeminent peers, from fastidiously editing their own work, and from pursuing the diversity of organic life experience that fueled the imaginations and perspectives that enabled them to explore new horizons in their work.
But these decorated poets all shared another major source of inspiration and influence in their work:
All three of these poets spent a ton of energy keeping their ear to what the newest and least experienced voices of the poetry community were doing. This not only opened their eyes to emerging styles and trends that would end up proliferating throughout the poetry world, but would also simply expose them to unconventional ideas that they might never have encountered if they limited their spheres of influence to the professional peers whose refined styles, despite being their greatest asset, also served to limit the scope of what they were willing to experiment with in their work.
These student-reverent poets recognized that no matter how accomplished or senior they were, there was always more to learn – and oftentimes, the place to learn the most came not from other experts, but from those not cursed by the rules inculcated by their own expertise.
When we reach a certain level of expertise in our fields, we naturally develop a bias towards perspectives that confirm our existing beliefs, or that operate from a similar base of knowledge and experience. It’s understandable that we would do this; we tend to trust people who we see as being similar to us, and we tend to be more skeptical of those who we see as less similar to us. But some of the most meaningful insight on the work we do and the people we are can only come from the places that are farthest from the perspectives we find familiar; and if we can learn to trust the voices outside of those familiar places, we’ll invariably find we unlock a power not easily reachable from within the quarantine of our own bubbles.
So, I’ll end this post on two questions:
How open are you to remaining a student despite your expertise?
And are you willing to seek the wisdom and provocation of the same young poets who look to you for the same?