ALL TRUE ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS, T Jackson Cade wrote in THE ART OF POW, "all the best writers and thinkers practice this ancient art, known or unknown to them. They are all anarchists, all incorrigible in their own peculiar way, orphans all of them. Vincent. Dylan Thomas. Sylvia Plath. The athlete as mystic—the author, the artist, the musician, the poetseer." POW doesn't begin in Cade, but he had the wiser ear for it.
POW is a school of thought that demands thought itself be invisible, that something deeper, more primitive than mind assume the reins. "It [POW] mimics genius," T Jackson continues. "It has a kick like genius. It has no allegiance except to itself. It has no enemies but itself. There is something uncivilized about the POW, something deliciously barbaric." That is why we admire it so much. It is the jaw-dropper, the one that unsettles us, the one we can't quite figure out. It cares little for convention, to process this peculiar world with any eye but its own.
It is supposed to bewilder. That's what it does best.
POW is the thunderbolt. It is that rare endowment, that spark of the divine that time, cultivation, and genetics have shaped and continue to shape in an individual. The trick is to be aware of it, to cooperate with it, to follow and learn from it, to be ruled by it, how to put it to its best use.
The best description may be the thing itself. Babe Ruth. Leonardo. Shakespeare. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King. Maya Angelou. And Michael Jordan. All game/world changers. Genius is a useful word, and comes close, but does not fully explain. POW is not just in the having or in the awareness of this concentration of power, but in the cultivation and execution of. POW as instructor. POW as both master and servant. POW as the hammer. The lightning.
Knowing his POW, as Cade would say it, in the bud of his writing life, in a letter to his mother, Thomas Wolfe wrote:
I don't know yet what I am capable of doing, but, by God, I have genius.
I know it too well to blush behind it.
—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937)
POW AND WOW
Though at times difficult to tell apart, POW is to be desired more than WOW. It is of a higher quality, an evolutionary step beyond, an art unto itself. If WOW is the image of the thing, and it is, POW is the thing itself. It is what we love about Babe Ruth, and the mystery surrounding Shakespeare or Leonardo—the dazzle, the bright flare of originality. The incandescence. Untaught. Feral. Wild for animation and expression.
That is not to misprize or underestimate the value of WOW. As a culture, we have been significantly tuned to WOW. WOW is magnificent. It's what we have. And though it is difficult to tell the difference, there is a difference. WOW currently dominates modern culture, but however it may convince, WOW is servant to POW. WOW accompanies POW, but the latter trumps the former every time.
Because this is a series on wordcraft [WRITES], I have put writing/writer center stage. Shakespeare, Dante, Dickens, Thomas Wolfe, Kahlil Gibran, Whitman are a few of my saints—writers with POW. You have your own saints, I am sure. William Tyndale (1494-1536), the one who gave us our quintessential English Bible, whose English we speak to this day, like his literary heir, Shakespeare, had deep reserves of POW. Still, POW acts the same whether it be writing a book, sculpting, throwing horseshoes, or doing math. An example from the sports world will help clarify.
In the history of the sport, Babe Ruth reflects a conspicuous break from convention. He swatted balls out of Yankee Stadium into the parking lot. POW. A thing unseen an unheard of at the time. To watch him run is another thing. As one commentator put it, Ruth's stride had in it more "debutante" than colossus. Each homerun afforded him a kind of gentleman’s leisure, the victory lap, and yet his step was delicate, small-footed, not to mention the ritual preening at the plate that prologued the event. It was as if all the violence in the man, all of Ruth’s natural savagery, the massive swat in him, all his general maleness, his lawlessness, his "incorrigibility," his old argument with life, were siphoned, reallocated, directed to one single and highly concentrated spot, that is, at a specific coordinate at the end of his bat. Ruth might call it the sweet spot. Freud might call it sublimation. Me? I call it the imperial, grand, and monosyllable POW.
But Ruth couldn’t have told you how he did it any more than Shakespeare could tell you how he did what he did. None of them could. And it didn’t matter. He didn’t care. He just did it. The same can be said of Mozart or Michael Jordan, Maya Angelou or Mickey Mantle. Ruth knew, instinctively, how to direct it (his POW), how to cultivate and exploit its potency, to empty or to allocate all his own personal force and turbulence into a single point of contact.
The good news is that POW is something more of us have than we suspect. Some have discovered, cultivated, and put it to use, or some use, depending on the liberty you allow it. Some, because of the demands of life or other reasons, have not discovered their POW. We all have a spark. I am convinced of that. The trick, again, is in the awareness, the discovery, in the cultivation, sometimes in the disinterring, in the exercise, the consistency and rigor your POW will demand of you.
By the way, do not confuse POW or this attempt at explanation with self-help or self-improvement models, for all their current popularity. POW is not so easily bridled or set to a rule. POW like genius, is self-contained. It only needs you, your cooperation, and your sweat. And it does not give up its secrets that easy. The very thing that makes it beautiful is the thing that will wear most of us out, that we may never fully grasp.
The best I can hope for with this brief account is to acquaint you with the notion of POW, to suggest that you have access to your own version of it, that it is there to be discovered, cultivated, and exercised.
By its nature, and I have seen proof of this firsthand, if it is formidable, if it has true sizzle, your POW will wrestle with you internally. It is not an adversary, though it is not necessarily a friend either. It is lightning. It is fire. It is the movement of plates beneath us. Ask lightning sometime who is boss. Or fire.
At last, the unconventional must by its very nature be discovered unconventionally. The best we can do beyond that is to get out of its way.
* The above post is Part I of THE ART OF POW, a series within a series (CALL ME ISHMAEL: EXPLORING WORDCRAFT). THE ART OF POW is borrowed from David's novella, MY BLUE PARADISE (Summer 2018). Unauthorized duplication prohibited by law.