Hannah VanderHart, “When Someone Says a Poem is Masterful”

Mastery, as VanderHart demonstrates, is an exceptionally cruel word. This did not need to be the case. However, hundreds of years of slavery and not nearly enough serious reckoning with every drop of blood drawn with the lash has created a peculiar situation. “Mastery” should speak to the empowerment, confidence, and joy which expertise in craft brings. Instead, ghosts appear to speak a disgusting reality. Some have built pride, wealth, and even a set of warped traditions from owning and abusing other human beings.

It is morally imperative, then, that “mastery” is undone. But when a word has to change, that change must start with an individual, and what to do with masterful as a compliment? Masterful… is arrow after arrow in the still-pumping heart; it is possible to be proud and wounded, both at once. One has to remind oneself of what is at stake on a number of levels. Who is the master of art? no one / Who wants to master the body of a poem? no one should / I have a master in my family tree / Jack Allums: he will always be there

When Someone Says a Poem is Masterful (from On the Seawall)
Hannah VanderHart

It is arrow after arrow in the still-pumping heart
 
who is the master of art? no one
who wants to master the body of a poem? no one should
 
I have a master in my family tree
Jack Allums: he will always be there
 
the male head of a household
a person licensed to command
 
teacher and enslaver: Jack
the original from which copies were made
 
his word was writ on bodies
 
–
Even in Amherst, Dickinson’s imagination
runs to mastery, to master
 
in her third “Master letter,” she crosses out the line
 
but I knew you had altered me.
 
when Emily crosses a line
she revises, she helms herself
 
she circumnavigates
 
–
 
The mythos of mastery is this — a canvas sail
is said to master the wind
 
and a wooden rudder the sea
 
but the wind can shred the sail, and the ocean
dissolve a human tongue
 
so that it cannot say a single word
 
to make will always be better
than to master
 
better than salt and sugar, fields
of someone else’s labor

The desire to become the “master of art” and the desire to “master the body of a poem” cannot be understood as normal accomplishment or frustration regarding craftsmanship. Everyone gets tired of trying to make every word or stroke or motion or inflection count and just wants expression to be easier. But there are some—some considered terrible artists, some at the top of the field—who think it is possible to possess something which makes everything easier. They’re tempted by no less than precedent. On the smallest, most superficial note: it absolutely is the case I’ve been able to write more and write better since I bought a new laptop. New materials, new techniques, new ideas transform our making, make our products better than what we made before. Why can’t there be something that speaks superiority once and for all? The hubris sneaks in imperceptibly, as we would all like a legacy as artists.

We turn to Dickinson, who addressed an unsent letter to a Master, crossing out the line but I knew you had altered me. Mastery erases identity; the worst teachers want all the credit. The funny thing is realizing one’s own expertise constitutes an obstacle to oneself. That if you submit, declare everything as revealed, proclaim yourself the vessel, then there is no more growth, no grounds for pride, no way to see yourself. You don’t have a superpower, it has you. Against this, VanderHart posits that Dickinson stopped and went around. When Emily crosses a line / she revises, she helms herself / she circumnavigates. In revision, an admission of change; in helming oneself, committing to a direction and readiness for defense; in circumnavigation, not merely going around an obstacle, but exploring a world hitherto unknown. The assumption of mastery is the limit of one’s world. An abandonment of formal authority, in this case, brings into being possibility.

It sounds beautiful. Still, as a practical matter, we will try to make things, striving for not only what is better, but best in the end. And so the mythos of mastery must be addressed. A canvas sail / is said to master the wind / and a wooden rudder the sea. A canvas sail and wooden rudder sound like simple materials. Mastery has a deceptive humility about it. A second’s reflection: how exploration turned to exploitation, how a few countries claimed the world as their own, setting in motion centuries of genocide and violence. The wind can shred the sail, and the ocean / dissolve a human tongue. Sails proved not enough for empires glutting themselves. They eventually needed iron and lead. The ocean did dissolve human tongues in the worst way, blotting out innumerable voices, creating tuneless praise of brutality and order everywhere. To make I take to be the call to fine art. To make will always be better than to master. What matters is doing it yourself, warts and all, being 60 and producing lines sometimes outdone by an 8th grader. Integrity must never depend on possession. That some can only see themselves as worthy possessors, one might say, is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

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