Precocity, Maturity and Creativity

by David W. Galenson David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009). 13.08.2015

T.S. Eliot reflected that if there was one word that could be associated with classic works of art, it was maturity. He compared Shakespeare's creative life cycle to that of an exact contemporary:

We can...observe, upon a little conversance, that the plays of Christopher Marlowe exhibit a greater maturity of mind and of style, than the plays Shakespeare wrote at the same age: it is interesting to speculate whether, if Marlowe had lived as long as Shakespeare, his development would have continued at the same pace. I doubt it: for we observe some minds maturing earlier than others, and we observe that those which mature very early do not always develop very far.

Eliot thus recognized the difference between the life cycles of conceptual and experimental artists. The 56-year old Eliot remarked that "No reader of Shakespeare...can fail to recognize, increasingly as he himself grows up, the gradual ripening of Shakespeare's mind."

Other writers have observed that "those which mature very early do not always develop very far." So for example Joyce Carol Oates wrote that Sylvia Plath's "meticulously documented example suggests how precocity is not maturity, and may in fact impede maturity." And Louise Glück reflected that what had appealed to her in adolescence was an adolescent quality of T.S. Eliot's early poetry -- "in the intensity and unchangingness of its emotion it is adolescent."

And others have recognized important examples of "gradual ripening." The poet Thom Gunn recalled that when he first met Elizabeth Bishop, he felt there was a depth in her personally that had not gotten into her poetry, but that when he read Geography III, the last of her books published in her lifetime, "all at once everything was changed...It was only ten poems long, and yet its achievement was such that it retrospectively altered the emphasis and shape of an entire career."

A dreary succession of academic psychologists have concluded that, in the words of James Kaufman, "poets peak young." (And -- shame -- a poet, Dana Gioia: "Most poets peak early.") Other members of this depressing fraternity include Howard Gardner, who opined that "lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age," and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who declared that "The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young."

Believed by whom? Not by T.S. Eliot, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Louise Glück, or Thom Gunn. Kaufman, Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and their fellow academic experts on creativity should proceed immediately to the nearest library and check out the late poetry of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Seamus Heaney, or Joseph Brodsky, to name just a few of the great late bloomers of modern poetry. If they actually read these poems, they could hardly fail to recognize the error of their ageist belief that "poets peak young."

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