The other day, one of my low-res MFA students, Dani Putney, and I were conferencing a poem and we got into a side discussion of the personal and the universal. Dani’s stance, which I agree with, is that the Universal doesn’t exist. (I’ll use a capital letter here, though Dani didn’t since we were talking by video, not writing out our thoughts. The capital is to indicate Universal in the broadest terms.)
The idea of the Universal is often used in the sense that an artist should make their work accessible to a Universal audience, but Dani’s point was that this often means to make it palatable for an older, white, male audience. This is not new ground, of course, but it was a good discussion to have and to keep having. Universality in this sense is a myth. What gets defined as Universal is far from universal, and what gets defined as too personal or too limited in scope is often just as relevant, but to different, less powerful communities.
Isn’t that hegemony, after all? Those with cultural power define what is good or beautiful or universal and then assume, because they can, that everything else is lesser-than if it is other or different. I get it, and I fully agree that this definition of Universal is wrong. But the question remains, where does that leave the artist—in our cases, where does it leave the poet? Is it, therefore, simply all right to write about your own personal concerns and not pay any concern to universality?
On the one hand, I would probably answer: sure, why not? After all, what feels important or beautiful or moving to you will likely find a group of people who share that feeling. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to a slight reservation: couldn’t this lead to endless navel-gazing?
The question I posed to Dani is: Do we, as artists, look out or look in? The answer may be that we should do both, simultaneously. In other words, to only concern myself with my own concerns and never consider how they might be relevant to others is probably a mistake for an artist. I say probably because there are exceptions to every rule.
When I’m drafting a poem, I am intially only concerned with myself, with what I think or feel or the words that come to me, and I try not to worry about any other audience. As I’m revising a poem and maybe even as I’m thinking about what poem I might write next, I do look outward. I want to know who gives a damn about what I’m writing, and I hope the answer might be ‘someone.’ This is where the universal without a capital letter comes in. Do I write only for my moment or do I write for a future reader? Do I write for myself or even my community, or do I hope to reach others who are vastly different from me?
Writing that is universal is relevant to many readers from many communitites and with many identities. That is its strength. Who those communities are may be up to the writer or may be impossible to predict. It comes from looking in and looking out and finding ways to connect with others. It does not fit any one definition of Universal, though.
The Universal comes from looking in and assuming everyone else should see what you see and value what you value, assuming that your experience is definitive and therefore is Universal by definition.
How personal and how universal to be is every artist’s choice. We know that sometimes the most intensely personal art (at its creation) can become the most universal (as others respond to its intensity). The more intricate and deeply felt a work of art is, the more relevant it can become; the more general and universal it tries to be, the more it loses its power to move us. We want to write about things other people will care about, yet often the things we care most about end up being what finds others who care.
Like a lot of things, there is no one right answer, and everyone must find their own balance. It is an issue we subconscioulsy weigh with every line, every image, every poem. And then we make our peace with it in a final draft (we hope) and send the poem off to make its way and find its readers. No one should tell us what we need to write to be Universal, though. No one can predict the journey a poem will take, who will read it, or how they will respond. To make assumptions about Univerality is to make assumptions about which readers matter, and to be truly universal is to remain open to all readers, regardless of their status, their community, their identity, etc.
I believe this comes first through embracing your own identity and your own community, however you define it, and then through striving to make your art relevant to anyone who cares to listen. True Universality may be a myth, and an oppressive one at that, but the goal of universality, though unattainable, may not be such a bad one if reaching it goes through the personal.