A long table was set up on the corner of Boylston just outside the main branch of the public library on the edge of Copley Square filled with cellophane bags of bread and Styrofoam plates of lunch meat, and sliced cheese. I had been standing on the rain-slicked steps of the library waiting to meet up with an old college friend for a lunch date. Ten or fifteen minutes passed as I watched a steady stream of homeless men assemble fat sandwiches and then walk off in all directions to eat.
The book that I am currently working on stems from these ten or fifteen minutes. For some reason the image of these men making sandwiches in the rain has haunted me, so much so that for the past few years now I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about poverty in an effort to better understand the pull poverty has on me.
Is it just that I am an overly sensitive writer, a bleeding-heart liberal who cannot stand the sight of human suffering?
The reading and writing I have done in these past few years hasn’t lead to answers so much as one big question: What relationship does poverty have to creativity, and specifically my creativity, my imagination, my aesthetic, my purpose as a writer?
As you can tell, I’m having a hard time boiling it down, and the book manuscript as it stands now reads that way. Instead of just one patron saint, these days I am courting a half dozen or more, among them Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Federico Fellini, and Flannery O’Connor.
At one point or another each of them has seemed like the key that will unlock the question of poverty’s pull on me. What I think I’ve discovered thus far is that when confronted by poverty I am not simply being bowled over by pathos, but I am forced to confront my own poverty, the radical poverty at the heart of being human; the reality that we are not our own light.
This confrontation is both frightening and spiritually nourishing at the same time, which I believe is why artists continue to come back to the subject again and again. The artist struggles constantly to give form to the nagging, difficult-to-pin-down longing that humans feel; that yearning for something larger than ourselves.
Lewis Hyde, in his superb book The Gift, recounts the story of Saint Martin of Tours who as a young soldier cut his cloak in half to clothe a near-naked beggar. Later Martin had a dream in which he heard Jesus say to a host of angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me.” When Martin awoke his cloak had been made whole again.
Hyde sees this miracle as a parable about how to be a successful artist: you must see your craft as a gift, and as such it must be freely shared or it will wither. Hyde writes of Saint Martin’s encounter with the beggar: “There are spirits that appear as beggars in our peripheral vision; what we bestow on them draws them to us.”
In other words, when we encounter the poor and indigent we project on to them our own deficiencies.
But it isn’t just that we become mindful of our deficiencies. Hyde believes that we must actually become beggarly. He writes: “An essential portion of any artist’s work is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.”
However, this is easier said than done. The question of how the artist cultivates such a beggarly ethic has been dogging artists for hundreds of years. The most popular (and misguided) solution has been bohemianism, a lifestyle defined by a kind of voluntary poverty adopted by young urbanites who can usually afford to be idealistic for awhile.
The problem with bohemianism as a way of being in the world as an artist is that it is too focused on lifestyle, on creating the perfect situation in which to make art. As George E. Woodberry wrote in his “New Defense of Poetry” the successful poet is the one who “makes one’s life a poem.”
The danger of such advice is manifested in a figure like the poet Hart Crane who was notorious for his dissolute lifestyle and his habit of blathering on and on about his writing projects, many of which, critics say, never materialized because he was spending so much time “making his life a poem” and not enough actually writing.
Crane believed as many young artists do: “real work and starvation, or being fed materially and going hungry artistically: these seem to be the only options.”
There are no easy answers for how to be an artist and make a living at the same time—I’m still trying to figure it out. But it does seem that I am beginning to find some answers as to why I am drawn to poverty.
In confronting poverty I am forced to examine a part of myself that I would not usually choose to examine.
Those homeless men making sandwiches in the rain, and countless other encounters I have had over the years with poor and indigent remind me that all is vanity. They remind me of how blessed I am. They remind me that the longing I was feeling as a young bohemian (and that I still feel) was for something that could not be fulfilled by simply ordering my life around making art.
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Written by: David Griffith
Dave Griffith is the author of Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The LA Review of Books, Killing the Buddha, Offline, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He lives in Michigan with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, where he directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He recently finished a book manuscript titled Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America.