I HAVE BEEN TOLD I DESERVE
“A FULL LIFE THAT ISN’T JUST ABOUT FIGHTING FOR THINGS”

Gladwell on late-blooming geniuses. Now, tell me honestly: Can you understand this passage?

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently…. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.

Can you understand it better if I show it to you like this?

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through 47 major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently.

The top 11 are, in order:

  1. T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (composed at age 23)
  2. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” (41)
  3. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (48)
  4. William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” (40)
  5. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (29)
  6. Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife” (30)
  7. Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (30)
  8. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (28)
  9. Frost’s “Mending Wall” (38)
  10. Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” (42)
  11. Williams’s “The Dance” (59)

There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. 42% of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of 50. For Williams, it’s 44%. For Stevens, it’s 49%.

Now the important part

Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others…. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti…. But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and… Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne.

Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing che[que]s to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once – never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for Brief Encounters belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

I read that and I nearly lost it. It takes a village to raise a genius.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2008.10.15 15:08. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2008/10/15/dreamteam/

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