“Shall I find genius only among Geniuses?”
-Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
Sometimes I’m in danger of being a snob. I go to the library, and I only want to read Good Books: Impressive Books: Books of Genius. Whenever that habit puts on its fedora and tries to lead me around, I think back to a poetry reading with Richard Wilbur. At least, Wilbur was in the room, sitting in the second row: another poet, far less famous, was reading. Afterward, I heard someone behind me: “history will forget him.” Perhaps they were right. This other poet’s lines didn’t seem to soar like Wilbur’s do. They didn’t land on the windowsill, tap the glass, and set off flying, inviting me to join them. At least, they didn’t seem to, not to me–and then Wilbur spoke up with a careful question, and I realized that, of all of us, he had been listening the most attentively. In Wilbur’s hands, these other poems that could, perhaps, have been lesser, weren’t lesser at all. There was genius in them, and Richard Wilbur found it.
When I’m in danger of reading only Good Books, I think back to that night. That’s led to a little habit at the library: whenever I go to pick up the volumes I want, I also take something, almost at random, off the shelf. Sometimes that’s led me down a rabbit hole that, frankly, seemed to dead end in the dirt, and I came out muddy and not much else. But sometimes that’s opened up a world where I didn’t know there was one.
Genius, I think, is a good thing. Or at least it was, before it stepped to the start of the sentence: because while genius is promising, the idea of Genius, yawning open with that capital G, hurts us. It hurts us when we think that good ideas, balanced solutions, and perfectly baked cakes can only come from the Noble Few. (For one thing, we don’t bake as many cakes). It’s dangerous if we think we’re a Genius, because that means putting ourselves over others; it’s dangerous if we think we’re not, because that means discounting our talents. So I don’t want Geniuses. I want to find genius wherever it lives, growing with the mushrooms, dancing in the games of children, changing in the steam of a boiling pot.