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)


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