Monday, December 12, 2011

Flannery's "Something": On Adaptation

In his piece on John le Carré in the 12 December issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Lane is works up a comparison between the 1979 7-part BBC television adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the  2011 film version, which runs only 127 minutes. The film series he finds "purposeful, unbaffled, artfully composed..." some of the qualities contemporary viewer may like in their films, and certainly, we imagine, compressed for time: "As for the denouement," Lane writes, "we have had too little room, in so cramped a space, to spend time with Tinker, Tailor, and the others, and to scrutinized each man in turn...."  The BBC series, on the other hand, Lane found "bovine of pace, often ugly to behold, and content to meander along by byways that petered out into open country or led inexorably to dead ends, yet I was tensed and transfixed by every minute, like a worshipper at a familiar Mass whose mystery will never abate."

I'm thinking about time in art, and mystery as Lane uses it in that striking simile; he gets all Flannery O'Connor on me.  He doesn't mean "mystery" as in spy story enigma, but as spiritual principle, and he is content, even "tensed and transfixed" by the muddled, slow-moving series: it appeared to have immersed itself in roving, like a kid looking down as he walks, stopping here and there for a stray leaf. It took its time along the way. It took a lot of time; broadcast, as so many of those series were, in one hour increments over six weeks, is seems Dickensian now, archaic in the light of online streaming, and also, like Dickens, published in serial installments. People waited a week each time, for each bit to air, and enjoyed the hour.  It took attention, a quietude, a focus, and a riveting immersion of the self in the moment. If texting existed, say, you wouldn't watch the series and check your phone at the same time. It was not to be multi-tasked.

Another grand, gone-baby-gone concept, single-tasking: time, and focus, the desire to take one's time with one single activity, has gong the way of the land line. I'm not above it.  As I write this I am checking one email account for follow-ups from students, and checking another account for correspondence from a contributor to my journal.  I'm googling and listening to WGBH Classical.

But I know my mind does not work the same when I'm doing all these things at once as it does when I'm focused on reading a chapter in a book, watching a good film or a play, drafting and writing seriously, thinking seriously—you name it, any act that asks something of me, that requires—if not the same kind of devotion and attention asked for in a house of worship—something essential, a surrender of those multi-tasks, a surrender of myself to a single act. O'Connor writes "I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts." That "something" demands (and rewards) the reader's entrance into the mystery, an attendance, that can't be faked or attempted without a fullness of focus. Her something isn't a tale to be extracted down, a piece to be distilled to information, skimmed for facts. That something has to be taken full on; to paraphrase Frost on poetry: it's lost in the adaptation. "Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself, the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction," writes O'Connor. Yet the mind that focuses on one thing—the person who wishes to only do one thing at a time, to not be distracted, who'd rather not text while having a f2f conversation, who might rather not live on email—looks as wrongheaded as one who is swimming against a current. Going the wrong way, and you won't last long.

Now is not the place for me to wonder what the seriously Christian writer Flannery O'Connor would think of a secular Jew appropriating her ideas to make a comment on how Luddite-like notions of time and attention have been devalued so that we can sell phones.  On one level, in any case, she speaks to me.

I've been thinking about adaptations and the shades of its definitions. In one sense, adapting means "The process of modifying a thing so as to suit new conditions" (OED); in the case of multi-tasking with your smartphone, for example: you adjust to what's around you, to keep up with the environment, to survive. In the case of literary adaptations, for example, something like the BBC adaptation of le Carré, the OED offers a slightly different definition: "a form or copy, a reproduction of anything modified to suit new uses."

Works like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury can't be adapted well, no matter what, because what they offer is there in the experience of reading, lost in any kind of translations. (I could use the extraordinarily awful, so-awful-it's-wonderfully-bad adaptation of The Sound and the Fury to try to make my point here, but that wouldn't be fair.  The adaptation's terrible because it's terrible. For one thing, Quentin Compson, the brother who narrates the whole, incredible, second chapter of the book, doesn't exist in the film version. Oh, and *spoiler alert* in the most astonishing and jaw-droppingly horrible misunderstanding and rewriting of any novel anywhere, the Jason character kisses girl Quentin.)


Perhaps it doesn't exceed, in awfulness, the 1957 adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's short story 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own," which starred Gene Kelly, about which O'Connor wrote, "The best I can say for it is that it conceivably could have been worse. Just conceivably." Adaptation is tricky business, whether it's one artist adapting an artwork into another medium, or a human creature adjusting to new products and new ways of existing. It sounds old-timey to hope that reading remain one of those activities that requires single tasking, that there will always be novels and poetry and short stories and plays and essays that demand focus and time, and that will always dazzle that part of the brain and spirit, to make the reader feel as if showered by aurora borealis.

Nearly everyone multi-tasks.  It's been sold as a way to adapt (note the subconscious propaganda in our clichés of acceptance: "fast-paced society" and "dead tree media"). Maybe a little skepticism about that adaptation is good. And maybe single tasking,—so individual! so outside the crowd!—is the new trend, the avant-garde. Adaptation is not always better, or the best way to become a human—evolution doesn't always mean one's evolving in the right direction.  But then I remind myself that the act of writing and of reading are also adaptations. 


Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Poem on the Floor

I found the piece of paper on the floor of the third floor, where the English Department offices were stationed.  It was bent and slightly trampled, though I don't remember it as having any of those sneaker tracks you'd expect to find on paper that had been left that way.  When I picked it up I saw it was a poem typed on an old Smith Corolla, mimeographed into that faded purple type.  We were first year M. A. students, and even though computers labs were being set up in the basement courtesy of Apple, we hadn't yet given up the old ways.   The poem had a title ("The Letter") and body, but no author name. It could have been written by someone in one of my workshops.  It could have been a poem re-typed from a published collection. 


If I remember right, his first letter.
Found where? My side-plate, perhaps,
or propped on the heavy brown tea-pot?


To me these opening lines were revelatory, because of their difference, what some might at first call their simplicity, and that tone, at once direct and restrained. They shook a little something.  At the time, I was writing what I was studying, so I was attempting to structure a tension and relieve a tension, to create ironic contrast, ambivalence, a pristine work that had some rhythm and metaphor, and a kind of internal locking system that created the perfect urn of integrity.  I hadn't yet come to absorb the groundbreaking poets who would teach me so much, and any attempt to write a list of those influences is going to be laughable.  We are influenced by everything.


But to get back to this sheet of paper, this marvel. It had voice and technique, and I was moved by the narrative, by meaning, and by the reflection of  the very real world (despite the "heresy of paraphrase" I had been warned against by the New Critics; now is perhaps not the time to delve into my theory that New Criticism made poetry an enemy to casual readers of poetry).  I was moved by the story and the telling, both (to quote Stevens) "the subject of the poem and the poetry of the subject."


To summarize the poem's setting: During WWII, a girl gets a love letter, and runs up the hill to read it.  She is engrossed in the letter, shares a bit of its intensity:


Now I am hardly breathing, gripping 
the thin paper and reading Write to me.
Write to me please. I miss you. My angel.


Both the speaker in the poem and the reader of the poem are completely absorbed by the letter writer's plea, by this afternoon on the green hill. So much so—and this was one of the poem's dazzling strengths—that neither the speaker nor the reader notices what's coming, the element in every good poem, the turn: here, the way (to quote Ruth Padel) violent death will intrude on the  pastoral moment, "panning out from individual vulnerability to wide-angle shots of the whole human landscape."


Almost shocked, but repeating him line 
by line, watching the words jitter 
under the pale spidery shadow of leaves.
How else did I leave the plane unheard
so long? But suddenly there it was—
A Messerschmidt low at the wood's edge.


The speaker recalls in flashback, "What I see today is the window open / the pilot's unguarded face somehow/ closer than possible.../...and his eyes/ fixed on my own...," goes on to imagine the German pilot now still on the ground, having parachuted out of the sky to his death. "I still /  imagine him there exactly" writes the speaker:


                                             His face pressed
close to the sweet-smelling grass. His legs
splayed wide in a candid unshameable V.


It was perhaps the "V" that shocked me the most. You may or may not recognize the poem, but you probably do if you read contemporary English poetry. Because this was before Internet, the author would remain a mystery to me for a long time. I carried the paper around.  When I got an office as a teaching assistant, I taped it to my door, and asked anyone who came to visit if they could identify the author. I saw it every day as I opened my door; I thought of its rhythms, of the way it built toward that cinematic vision without sentiment, apprehended depth without soppiness, with something that offered the words new grace. It's not the only poem I love, but it had dropped into my world on its own, and it looked so different from the poems I admired; why did it force its old ways on me? I felt I should study it for the lessons it might tell me, in addition to the mystery of its origin.  I, who never keep anything, still have that sheet of paper in my file downstairs.  





It was years before Andrew Motion became Poet Laureate in 1999.  In the coverage, of course, I read a mention of his poem "The Letter," and cracked that mystery.  But the real mystery is how a sheet of paper can fall on a floor in a building in southeast Ohio and open doors to rooms in your head that you didn't know were there. 


Banner image via Flickr Creative Commons



Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Abraham Lincoln and W. S. Merwin Tried to Tell Me

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time thumbing through encyclopedias and dictionaries (which sounds very geeky, but it didn't seem that way then). We had my mother's gigantic two-volume dictionary from her childhood, with dried flowers in various pages; I never asked, and I wish I had, but I imagined those flowers were keepsakes, from dates and dinners of her teenage years, pressed into the page on which that specific flower type was defined.  Or maybe it's better to say I started to think, I wandered into the afterimages of my imagination. I can spend hours there.


After-image was what I meant to write about anyway. In one volume of the encyclopedias shelved near those dictionaries, there was an entry on light's after-effect on the eye, with an illustration: a Lincoln-head penny in half-red, half-green.  The caption explained that if you were to stare at the image long enough—and that was important, you had to give it time—then move your eyes elsewhere, Lincoln's profile would magically appear anywhere you looked, and it did: on the wall, above the childhood pattern of faded lilac; on the window, transparent above the hills that sloped to the country cemetery. His profile stirred and invaded, even under my eyelids when I closed them.  This is after-image: an image that continues, even though you are finished looking at the original, or as the OED puts it: "A visual sensation which remains after the stimulus that gave rise to it ceases." Something that remains in your vision, even if you thought you were finished with it. 

 Stare at the yellow stripe in the middle of the fish for 20 seconds. Then move your gaze to the fish bowl. There he swims!


This after-image concept is delicious, and why not? The original stimulus was gone, but the image follows me and starts to bleed into whatever else, to color, to correlate with and perhaps even belong to whatever I saw next. How long would it last? Even when the visual finally disappeared, the effect remained in my thinking mind. Lincoln's head was a part of the next moment's narrative, and that he had now influenced my vision even after the book was closed and back on the shelf—that was part of it too.  Was this maybe the first time I blurred categories, reflected on how something in my mind's eye could be projected into the material world? Did it fascinate me, this metaphor about resonance,  that suggested that the persistence of memory has to do with more than the sentimental heart?


What does and doesn't belong in a moment? What does it mean to carry such a gathering of ghost images with you? So the the brain fibers twitch; so the mind ripples out, and meaning accumulates, shifts, focuses in or enlarges. It's similar to the delightful way the visual thesaurus rolls into a spindly butterfly shape when you look up the word "imagine." If you then click on the word "think" in the "imagine" butterfly, you'll see a floating, hovering dandelion of possibilities. 

 I didn't know it at the time, but after-image, how everything hovers, was part of an excellent lesson of  W. S. Merwin's, who was visiting our (very lucky) writing class.  In what seemed like a casual moment, he said: sometimes it's best to just go like this, and turned his head, about two inches to his right. We looked.  I'm pretty sure I didn't understand what he meant.  I was concentrating then on that beautiful, beautiful Merwin profile.  But now I know.  It's somehow useful to recognize that I possess more stimuli receptors than I'm aware of, and that I can't control everything, that the correspondences, the linkages, can surprise. The activity of writing may be a walk into the world of after-images, if you are open to the invitation. The stimulus is not always directly in front of you, but hovering, over there.


after-image of fish and bowl via Eric Chudler's Sight/Vision.




Thursday, November 24, 2011

Any Given Moment: On Reality

Escaping Criticism, Pere Borell del Caso
Trompe l'oeil is the technique, in painting, closely aligned with optical illusion: fool the eye. The painter uses a realistic image to convince the observer of a dimension that isn't really there. In this sense it's a kind of lie.  Or is it? 


That realism is in flux, depending on the artist's interior perception, is hardly a new observation; it essentially launched Modernism. Picasso claimed, "I paint things as I think of them, not as I see them"; Virginia Woolf laments the Georgian novels and their emphasis on exterior details, perfectly arranged: "Is life like this? Must novels be like this?" Life as she saw it was "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end," the artist's task "to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display."


The poem, the story, lives at least in part on the integrity of its reality, and this is one of the most interesting, contentious aspects of writing.  What's your reality? To what version of your experience do you owe your fidelity? Even while you are reading this, your mind has other things to ponder, is thinking about them as your eye gaze here. At that party, you stood in that lively crowd, laughing, telling stories, or listening to them, but you had dark, lonely thoughts; which of those realities is more real?  The imagination is not false; it exists, it has dimension and, sometimes, an intensity remarkable for its imaginary capacities. Fool the eye it can.  A cross section of any given moment, a diagram of a reality, has a geography the writer can only come close to representing.  Like a trompe l'oeil painter, the writer has to fool dimension to achieve dimension.  Trying is the ethical act.


Picasso said this: Everything you imagine is real.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pilato's Ribbon

Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with  the story of the Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, giving a speech in February, 1948; it's very cold, and he is not wearing a hat. His comrade Clementis stands beside him:
Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.       
     The propaganda department made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottswald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people.  On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew the photograph, from seeing it on posters, and in schoolbooks and museums.       
     Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottswald has been alone on the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.  Nothing remains of Clementis but the hat on Gottwald’s head.
I've been thinking of Kundera's book on memory and forgetting since I learned that the image of Jerry Sandusky  in a giant mural at scandal-plagued Penn State has been painted over. The artist Michael Pilato had been working on the mural (titled "Inspiration") for more than a decade, and when he was contacted by the mother of one of the victims, he painted Sandusky out and painted in an empty chair, with a blue ribbon to represent the victims of the abuse. What else could he have done, really? I try to imagine walking by the mural and seeing Jerry Sandusky there; I can't, and I'm not even distantly related to anyone involved, except that I am human, and like all of us, horrified by the whole thing. 


I recognize in the mural, and that ribbon, the potential for sentimentality, which has, really, no place in art.  If you haven't, you should read Image editor Gregory Wolfe's marvelous, brain-sparking essay on Thomas Kinkaide, "The Painter of Lite™."  Trying to define this notoriously difficult-to define word, Wolfe quotes R.H. Blyth: “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” According to Wolfe, the problem with sentimentality is "that of a misrepresentation of the world in order to indulge certain emotional states."  I might nominate the those characters on Pilato's mural for this misrepresentation, larger than life as they cliché-ly are, but then I remind myself that the his piece is called "Inspiration," so the rules for this particular mural may not be the rules I appreciate, necessarily, in art. Thomas Kinkade troubles Wolfe for "not so much the treacly emotion he seeks to evoke or his inveterate prettifying of nature, but the political subtext underlying his iconography.... the packaging of nostalgia."  


We who have just learned of it are yet at the beginning of the Penn State horror. The children, terribly, knew more than did we. Well, more than most of us; the adults who knew failed to act.  In his mural, now, Pilato acts. The blue ribbon, the ribbon symbol...yes, the ribbon as a symbol has the potential to be sentimental, but it is, at the very least, a response.  I would nominate him for his mural, responding as he did so quickly, when so many others in power did not. 


Pilato's act shifts the mural's focus from an exaltation and elevation of humans to a discussion about frailty and flaw.  Wolfe writes: "Perhaps, at its best, sentimentality strives for something approximating the theological virtues of hope and love. But in refusing to see the world as it is, sentimentality reduces hope to nostalgia. And in seeking to escape ambiguity and the consequences of the Fall, it denies the heart of love, which is compassion."  


Clementis' hat and Pilato's ribbon. Of course, the circumstances of the displacements are quite different, and it's got me thinking about the difference between art and propaganda, between censorship and revision. Kundera writes about the removal of Clementis with his typical grim grin, humor and tears at once, this shaping of history into something blank and full of forgetting. Propaganda is a matter of systematic manipulation of information delivered when necessary, revised when necessary. 


But Pilato's work isn't propaganda, right? And his challenge here is instructive. Art's ongoing-ness, art's process of revision, is fascinating. Revision isn't elimination, but seeing again (re-vision), and it requires the same attentive, thoughtful, focused consideration of the original motivation.  Pilato's mural is his version of documentary and to remove, eliminate, Sandusky's image, to simply paint him out would have been—though at least what the heart wants, what the ethical, pained, enraged heart wants—a violation in some ways of the mural's laws. The blue ribbon Pilato has painted in is, I think, the revolutionary act. It works against forgetting. 


Kundera writes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Unlike Clementis' hat that because it sits on Gottswald's head in all the photographs now seems to have always been Gottswald's, Pilato's ribbon becomes a part of our collective recognition of the importance of paying attention, of acting, of rescuing. 







Thursday, November 10, 2011

Context is Delicious




Somewhere in my head is the arcane knowledge that the word context is attributed, in mycology, to the fleshy part of the mushroom cap.  This particular  knowledge is not as useless as some might suspect.  It's even a little funny that I felt like I have to say that—like I have to soften the blow that I'm using a word in an unfamiliar way, that I'm interested in thinking about an unfamiliar word.  Why is it that knowledge we don't yet have, knowledge that we can get simply by seeking it, so irritates some of us?

On the other hand, this isn't always true.  If you don't know stuff about football, and you're in a room with people talking about football, you wouldn't consider those initiated in the game pretentious, or talking above you; if someone involved in a conversation about a basketball game uses a term you're not familiar with, say, a "triple double"  —we don't think that person is trying to impress us, we just either say we don't understand, or we study the game and learn the term, and then we do understand. 


It's specific to art and literature, this irritation we have with stuff we don't know.  Since it's so wonderful to learn, I'm not sure where or when the distinction between football and poetry begins. How come we let football and baseball get away with such elitist activity as using specific language we might not know—that we need only a minute to look up and then know—but not art, literature, poetry?  

Context is delicious. Look up the unfamiliar term, and/or read about the time period. Context—not "the fleshy fibrous body in the pileus of mushrooms" but the other kind—is wonderful. If it's history you have to learn, or a definition of a word—what could be better than that?  I love looking things up. I guess I love context. And I like what I think I just learned, that context, as it relates to the study of mushrooms—that which holds the other stuff in the mushroom cap, suspended and supported in its fiber-y togetherness—is somehow related to context in art and literature and, I guess, in everything. It's all about coherence, weaving together: to connect.




Image of mushroom via Martin LaBar 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Under the Influence of Light

When the fall season is almost over in the Midwest, there's a litany of activities that are both pretty and a  little bit mournful.  The geese gather in great conventions at the lakes, line up, take off, fly over the house all day long, and honk at intervals; it's different from their honk all summer. You start to hear it early in the morning, while you're still waking up. It's more purposeful and even a little complain-y. They're making formations for their exit south, and they seem to be saying: later for you, flightless sucker. The whole thing tells me that it's about to get much colder.  


The leaves change color.  That's a little cliché of them, but that's their thing, this change from green to the reds, scarlets, and soft yellows.  I don't take the whole green leaf concept for granted; it's all plant science from my grade-school years, plants taking water from the ground, and carbon dioxide from the air, and using the sun to turn that water and CO2 into oxygen and glucose. Who's not a fan of photosynthesis, using the sun to transform elements for a specific purpose, mainly survival? There's a formal definition in the OED:
The process (or series of processes) by which the energy of light absorbed by chlorophyll is utilized by plants for the synthesis of complex organic compounds from carbon dioxide, with the accompanying oxidation of water to form oxygen....
but an easier, prettier, compact definition is "putting together with light." Chlorophyll helps photosynthesis— it's what gives their leaves that green color—and as the season changes from summer to fall, the trees shut down this food-making process, and the chlorophyll fades. Then we see what we think are new colors, but in many cases, the colors were always there; it's just that  they'd been obscured by the chlorophyll. Glucose that was stuck in the leaves is affected by the cold weather, by the sun's diminishing returns, and it changes color too.  


Winter is coming, and maybe some see that as an end to productivity, but it's hard not to see the colors of fall's leaves as a epiphany for them--a discovery, as they use all they have— their artful moment, having worked steadily and quietly and without seeming to make any kind of change or progress all season long.  What appears as diminution, the degraded leaves, the lessening and collapse of spring and summer, can be understood, too, as a sustenance; sustenance can be extraordinary. So the season that brings with it a sense of things ending can be quite the opposite. 


This is you.  Get it?
I'm always taking lessons from the garden and the backyard, or maybe it's better to say I can't help seeing what's outside my window as instructive. Writing each day, drafting, and nothing much coming of it—and that's really the major process of writing, isn't it—is a lot like taking the elements of the world and "putting it together with light."  A steady activity of absorbing and generating, writing is a photosynthesis from the inside, and maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the steady, seemingly unchanging act of our drafting, which can feel stagnant (when we feel fixed and almost motionless, and heading into a cold spell, when we feel we are being deserted by our powers) will, either quietly, or with a great flourish, surprise us with what we have, for however long, stored in.  Drafting is never easy, and maybe patience is the point. It's not the end of things that is coming on, but that potential for a bright intensity, always.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Merwin Throws it Down

Here's a fascinating interview with poet W. S. Merwin in the Los Angeles Times:

But isn't technology supposed to be helpful?

Yes, but convenience seems to be the answer to why we do everything now. I can't believe it. That reminds me of something Czeslaw once said not to me but to [Milosz's wife] Carol. They were coming to stay with us on Maui, and our home isn't easy to find. It's a little remote, and you can't see it from the road. Czeslaw told Carol, "Wherever we go to see William, I know one thing. It's always going to be a little hard to get there, and there won't be many other places around it." It's true. All of the places I've ever loved in my life have been inconvenient, and that has been part of the beauty too, you know.

It's the same with poetry. What about the student who asks, "Why do we need to memorize a poem when we can find it on the Internet?" In other words, why should I have this experience when I can allow the computer to have it for me? That is one of the things that still makes me deeply suspicious.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ted Hughes, My Frankenstein


"We may be the last generation to write to each other," Philip Larkin wrote to Judy Egerton in 1981. He was probably correct, in the spirit of the thing. It was a popular topic for a while, that letters are distinctly different from email. Those little articles written about it were composed, usually, with a pinch of nostalgia, that dash of regret that suggests we should have tried harder but oh well, there it goes, like every other old-fashioned activity.

It should be mourned, such a loss, with more than that. Maybe it's too sentimental to say that writing a letter was like living in a personal universe, but it was, as far as activities go, a planet unto itself, an island unfixed, something to still need in a life already too full of noise. There is much to regret in its passing, because the discursiveness and privacy that go into writing a letter, the focus, the pleasure and the isolation (just you and your recipient, just you and your reader, just you and your correspondent) are energies that feed us in real way, and nourish a brainy happiness. There is in the act of composing a letter a kind of deep, drifting ability to dream and go on, to elaborate, to cross out—to rethink, to write a page and then go back to it the next day and keep writing. I never much like having to sit down to begin one but, once having started, am always surprised by how much I then have to say. Writing a letter permits thinking, a kind of excursion into dimensionality.

And then, when the letter is written, it is literally dimensional. It exists on paper, with the potential for archiving, for permanence. Here I'm thinking of a number of collections I have used as sources of information. I love collected letters, don't you? Letters—in my case, letters of writers and people involved in the production or consideration of poetry— are one of the great sources of scholarship, each note intriguing at the same time that it informs, by turns delightful, tragic, strained, intense. Because in writing a letter one confesses to the page, a letter creates a space in which one is forever open; though the letter itself concludes, it doesn't fade. It may be read again, as present tense, repeatedly, and while it does become a part of a time, it remains, somehow, alive. So in my letter-loving logic, I understand them an echo of survival, an artifact, a record--yet all the ways I try to define it sound like I, too, am filing the letter under "historical relic." It's quite the opposite, although I dislike the term living history. But it's something like that. What's the word for something that can revive, reanimate? Is a letter a zombie?

This maybe isn't what I had in mind. A great movie though.

It's no secret that I am attracted to letters. They're compelling. They open up the letter-writer, yes, but they offer a vista too, like keyholes in door hardware, pinhole views, allowing readers access, like passkeys. There are the standard, startling, examples: Ted Hughes writes a letter in February of 1963 (to Daniel and Helga Huws), which begins "Sylvia killed herself on Monday morning." A few brief sentences later: "A Nurse was to arrive at 9 a. m.—couldn't get in & it was 11 a. m. before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm." This note is short, but a few pages later in Letters of Ted Hughes we get a much longer missive to Plath's mother Aurelia, explaining in tender terms the reasons Hughes believes it's not best for her to come visit her grandchildren at this time. And a bit later, to Assia Wevill, he describes returning to the pond that, we can presume from this letter, inspired him to write "Pike" so much earlier. He describes the pond, once fantastic to a young boy, as a "ruin," and the experience sounds like the beginning of a Hughes poem:
The garden was a forest, We went down to the pond, and it had shrunk to an oily puddle ...with oil cans & rubbish. Nicky had bought the fishing rod and he made a few casts into the poisoned looking water among the rubbish. It was horribly depressing. My name carved on the trees..... Then I made one token cast—a ceremonial farewell—and there among the rubbish I hooked a huge perch. The biggest I ever caught. It was very weird, a complete dream.
There is so much to absorb in this passage, a letter to his mistress Assia, who had begun her tango with then-married Hughes the first time they met by recounting her dream of the night before, of a huge pike (a dream straight out of his "Pike" poem, a reference that made him belive they shared an interior world together). However you feel about Hughes—and my feelings are complicated—I'm struck by his authentic self, his eye entirely open here to a lowercase turbulence, that kind of underworld in this world. Alan Bold writes that Hughes seems, in his work, "more possessed by his material than in control of it," and the letters bear this out. Reading Hughes' letters, reading any really good collection, is something of a privilege--the closest I can get, now, to overhearing a writer and his raw materials.

Photo of Ted Hughes via The Telegraph

Friday, October 21, 2011

"Yet why not say what happened?"

Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme -
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
—Robert Lowell, "Epilogue"
~~
"The Innocent Eye Test," Mark Tansey, 1981

If, as Roy Liechtenstein says, "Organized perception is what art is all about," then the record of that organized perception is what we're after. It sounds possible—just paint the landscape exactly, or write that poem about the experience—but anyone who paints, write, sculpts, choreographs, etc., recognizes that distilling the subject into new materials includes some sense that the whole endeavour is a little squirrely. So what do we do with that recognition, which is also part of perception, also real? Do you include, in your project, that inkling you get that the whole endeavor will fail? "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never," wrote Wallace Stevens with such a stern Churchillian insistence that you know he meant what he said.

I've long been a fan of Mark Tansey's work. In his painting, the impossible is often possible: "The literal is the figurative, and the figurative is literal," according to his note at the Gagosian Gallery. The pieces pursue the implications of attempting meaning; they explore the folly or joy of documenting perception. Instead of old school representations of reality—That landscape looks so real!!—Tansey upends the process of translating the three dimensional world to the two dimensional canvas. For him it's not about making the flat plane appear to have depth and life, it's about using what is available via his tools to re-conceive, to re-perceive a real.

Mark Strand: "Time, that's the only problem."
In Mark Tansey: Visions and Revisions, by Arthur C. Danto, Tansey says, "In my work, I’m searching for pictorial functions that are based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. I’m not doing pictures of things that actually exist in the world. The narratives never actually occurred. In contrast to the assertion of one reality, my work investigates how different realities interact and abrade. And the understanding is that the abrasions start within the medium itself."

The painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformational, fictional. No way could those artists in Tansey's "Action Painting II," (1984) above, paint the space shuttle as it ignites, as it lifts. But that's the beauty of the thing: Tansey's recognition that the paint and the canvas, the fakery of it all, that which we've always understood to be the problem of representation, can actually contribute to its force, its gorgeousness.


Strand quote via Tess Gallagher's "The Poem as Time Machine" in Claims for Poetry (U Michigan P, 1982)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Yoga With Flannery O'Connor



Some years ago when I had a gig as a visiting writer at a university in a distant state, too far away from my home, I found myself waking up each morning at 5 into an empty, nondescript dawn in someone else's life and home. There was a television in the bedroom, a novelty for me, and after two weeks of springing up for no reason, I finally gave in and surfed the channels. Five in the morning is either the best or the worst time to watch television; there is some horrifying local content, depending on where you live—I remember a holy roller ventriloquist, complete with dummy and smiling-through-the experience wife, that was equal parts fascinating and terrifying—
Very much like these folks
but eventually I landed on a yoga show, some guy moving through poses to, incongruously, soul and roots music. I was awake, so I gave it a shot. I could barely do most of the poses, but I kept at it for the hour, just to keep my homesick brain occupied. Of course the next morning I was up again at 5, so again I rolled out of bed and flapped around again, trying to balance on one foot, trying to sit in a pigeon pose for the entire 2 minutes. This was all before coffee so on the bright side I didn't have the energy or bad attitude to talk myself out of it, either.


I didn't set the alarm. But it became a kind of agreement in my head: if I am going to keep springing awake at 5 in the morning, I may as well do yoga. I just turned on the television, stood in the hallway and tried it each day. It became a custom. I won't blah on and on about how yoga releases toxins or opens up channels or sends endorphins— I'll leave the preachifying to the ventriloquist—but I will say it helped me get through a difficult semester. Now I have what it commonly called a "home practice." There isn't any studio nearby that offers a class, and even if there were, I'm not sure I'd go. I've moved from that first television show to books and dvds, always seeking something to challenge me further, for example, the terrific core yoga of Sadie Nardini, though I am still trying to rock the crazy insanity of her matrix pose. A home practice sounds misleading: practice does mean "customary action" or "habitual performance," but that suggests a stagnancy rather than the kind of incremental growth that is a part of any attentive iteration. And of course I'm not only speaking of yoga.
Her Scorpion Pose is equally off the chain


Writing is a home practice. What's writing but entering, repeatedly, into an often unfamiliar stillness, an unrecognizable, potentially unfriendly dark, without much of anything but an agreement to try again? it's an unsteady beginning every time, moving from one position to another, trying something, wobbling over, and then seeking again, resolving. And not knowing what, if anything, will come of this attempt, or this move, but still leaning into an idea, or shifting your weight to this possibility, until you are excited, finding something new, exploring, taken up by what you are doing: opening. "Repetition is magic," the yogis say. Just by attending—just by showing up—by repeatedly trying, you can get somewhere amazing. To simply move into the first pose—putting on the favorite t-shirt/collecting those current research books/going over your notes/looking out the window/and bending down to the page—is to begin your home practice. Let me quote from that famous yogi, Flannery O'Connor: "I don't know if the muse is going to show up or not on any given day, but by golly, I'm going to be at my desk from 8 to 12 every morning in case she does." By golly is Sanskrit for hell yeah.


It's surprising how difficult it can be to take yourself seriously, to sit down to write, to simply begin. I don't spring brightly to drafting each day. Just as with my yoga practice, "a grudging decision to try again" is more how I'd define it. Grudging is an interesting word for that state of mind; its definitions include both "reluctance" and "a secret wish or desire."


Lotus Flower Ready to Bloom courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Patching Together a Content of Sorts



I've been watching a spider web for the past few weeks.  I first noticed it up in its full orb glory, nearly two feet across, and then, the next day, it was folded onto itself; I thought it was damaged by the wind and destroyed, and later I saw the spider neatly folding and accumulating the string stuff into a ball.  That evening, it was gone.  The next day, the whole web returned.

It turns out that spiders do this, web out and then pull the web in again, fix a damaged web, redo it, design and redesign, nearly infinitely, for as long as their season lasts. To build a web, the spider sends out one single, vague, thin strand across an emptiness that is too challenging for him to cross otherwise. In fact the spider doesn't even know how far the gap is, doesn't know if or where that first strand will fall.  But if that silk adheres, he'll  continue, reinforcing, trusting that first line, and building on, adding a Y shape for support, and then increasing the whole enterprise, using his own body for measurement. Then, when the spider takes down the web, he leaves those first, nearly invisible supports, those first bare lines, that he can build on again the next day. In the case of my personal spider, I've left those supports each time, and the web returns, is rebuilt, each time.



Whitman found in the spider's throw line a perfect metaphor for his "seeking" soul, and I get that, but it's the spider's double whammy of attempt and revision that slays me. I try to get my head around what functions as pure instinct, whatever it takes for him to spin that first line out of his own body into air across unseen amounts of space. How natural, that marvel, and how much I love that feeling, writing that first line, and maybe I'm equal parts heartened and frightened by the fact that it's also difficult, as it must be for the spider, to send out line after line into pure air.  It's nearly sentimental to think of that line of support he leaves overnight as a metaphor for revision, but I wouldn't be the first to look to the natural world for a parallel to my searches.  Plath's "wet black rook"  isn't just preening but "arranging and rearranging," and this attention and absorption of mind to its patterns is not lost on her. It's miraculous, she says, "If you care to call those spasmodic / Tricks of radiance miracles."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Auden's Bffs



Usually when I teach the British poetry of the 20th Century, my students respond wholeheartedly to Auden for a number of reasons. Coming as he does in the syllabus right after Eliot's "The Waste Land," Auden is a great alternative for those who took Eliot to be the harbinger of catastrophe, and a nice change, anyway, for those who couldn't even get through "The Fire Sermon." The class appreciates Auden's exploration of the artist's relationship to suffering, even though "Musée Des Beaux Arts," though moving, is in part a comment on our ability to avoid others' catastrophes if those catastrophes interfere with our own needs. The students appreciate the near-eviscerating truth-telling in the poem "Lullaby": Auden's mortal creatures, all of us, as simultaneously beautiful and guilty? None of the students can quite overlook the second line, in which the speaker calls for his lover, who's sleeping, to rest his head, "Human, on my faithless arm." It slays them. Students are fond of enchantment, usually, quite the opposite of Auden, who said the proper effect of art is "to disenchant." That would have bugged them earlier in the semester, yet they don't resist him; the students are ready for him, almost too ready. 

I wonder if they'd come to Auden differently if we moved in a random way through the poetry, and viewed his work after say, Wordsworth's daffodils. Would we be so prepared to see the uncertainty, the clarity of flaw in the world arranged in neat, unpanicked sheets of stressed and non-stressed lines, to hear such a dry illumination of the human condition? I think Eliot did something amazing to poetry when he wrote "The Waste Land," though perhaps not the something he set out to do.  James Merrill said, "All of Auden's poems were written on paper on which the tears had dried." My students are ready to move out of the abstract, out of what they appreciate as Eliot's real chaos, into attempting a shape—but with a kind of awareness that the poem has to survive. It was the middle of the twentieth century, after all, and mere consolation, already out of fashion, helps no one.



Image of paper via A Moment of Silence.

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