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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