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Monday, May 2, 2016

Still Life by Pierre Tal-Coat / Comment by Wallace Stevens


The picture came this morning in perfect condition. I had feared that it was going to be low in tone, having in mind your drawing and color indications. And I was happy therefore, to find that it is so much cooler, and richer, and fresher, than I had expected. It is young and new and full of vitality. The form and the arrangement of the objects are both full of contrariness, and sophistication. It is a fascinating picture. For all it's indoor light on indoor objects, the picture refreshes one, with an outdoor sense of things. The strong blue lines and the high blue point of the black line in the central foreground collect the group. The line in the glass on the righthand edge, warms without complicating the many cool blues and greens. This is going to give me a great deal of pleasure, and I am most grateful to you. - from a letter to Paule Vidal, September 30, 1949

Now that I have had the picture at home for a few days, it seems almost domesticated. Tal-Coat is supposed to be a man of violence, but one soon becomes accustomed to the present picture. I have even given it a title of my own: "Angel Surrounded by Peasants". The angel is the Venetian glass bowl on the left, with the little spray of leaves in it. The peasants are the terrines, bottles and the glasses that surround it. This title alone tames it, as a lump of sugar might tame a lion. - from a letter to Paule Vidal, October 5, 1949

Friday, April 1, 2016

Story About a Young Couple

A husband who had to go off to war, and he left his wife behind, pregnant. Three years later, when he was released from the army, he returned home. His wife came to the village gate to welcome him, and she brought along their little boy. When husband and wife saw each other, they could not hold back their tears of joy. They were so thankful to their ancestors for protecting them that the young man asked his wife to go to the marketplace to buy some fruit, flowers, and other offerings to place on the ancestors’ altar.

While she was shopping, the young father asked his son to call him “daddy,” but the little boy refused. “Sir, you are not my daddy! My daddy used to come every night, and my mother would talk to him and cry. When mother sat down, daddy also sat down. When mother lay down, he also lay down.” Hearing these words, the young father’s heart turned to stone.

When his wife came home, he couldn’t even look at her. The young man offered fruit, flowers, and incense to the ancestors, made prostrations, and then rolled up the bowing mat and did not allow his wife to do the same. He believed that she was not worthy to present herself in front of the ancestors. His wife was deeply hurt. She could not understand why he was acting like that. He did not stay home. He spent his days at the liquor shop in the village and did not come back until very late at night. Finally, after three days, she could no longer bear it, and she jumped into the river and drowned herself.

That evening after the funeral, when the young father lit the kerosene lamp, his little boy shouted, “There is my daddy.” He pointed to his father’s shadow projected on the wall and said, “My daddy used to come every night like that and my mother would talk to him and cry a lot. When my mother sat down, he sat down. When my mother lay down, he lay down.” “Darling, you have been away for too long. How can I raise our child alone?” She cried to her shadow. One night the child asked her who and where his father was. She pointed to her shadow on the wall and said, “This is your father.” She missed him so much. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Rembrandt looking for a way out of the darkness

The critic must understand the terms of the antagonism. Every exceptional work was the result of a prolonged successful struggle. Innumerable works involved no struggle. There were also prolonged yet unsuccessful struggles.

To be an exception, a painter whose vision had been formed by this tradition, and who has probably studied as an apprentice or student from the age of sixteen, needed to recognize his vision for what it was, and then to separate it from the usage for which it has been developed. Single-handed he had to contest himself as a painter in a way that denied the seeing of a painter. This meant that he saw himself doing something that nobody else could foresee. The degree of effort required is suggested in two self-portraits by Rembrandt.


The first was painted in 1634, when he was twenty-eight; the second thirty years later. But the difference between them amounts to something more than the fact that age has changed the painter’s appearance and character.

The first painting occupies a special place in, as it were, the film of Rembrandt’s life. He painted it in the first year of his marriage. In it he is showing off Saskia, his bride. Within six years she will be dead. The painting is cited to sum up the so-called happy period of the artist’s life. Yet if one approaches it now without sentimentality, one sees that it employs the traditional methods for their traditional purposes. His individual style may be becoming recognizable. But it is no more than the style of a new performer playing a traditional role. The painting as a whole remains an advertisement for this sitter’s good fortune, prestige, and wealth. (In this case Rembrandt’s own.) And like all such advertisements it is heartless.


In the later painting he has turned the tradition against itself. He has wrested its language away from it. He is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him who is both more and less than the old man has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.

At the age of sixty-three he died, looking, even by the standards of his time, very old. Drink, debts, and the death through the Plague of those nearest to him are amongst the explanations of the ravages done. But the self-portraits hint at something more. He grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference—not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human could no longer simply be copied (as in the Renaissance), the human was no longer self-evident: it had to be found in the darkness. Rembrandt himself was obstinate, dogmatic, cunning, capable of a kind of brutality. Do not let us turn him into a saint. Yet he was looking for a way out of the darkness.
- John Berger

Monday, February 1, 2016

Haiku, Zen & Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson has the self in her poetry dissolve in the paradoxes she creates beyond which she seeks enlightenment. The haiku, which often relies on the teachings of Zen-Buddhism, lives on contradicting the laws of logic. Logical rules limit the scope of human understanding. Breaking those rules allows the mind to penetrate further into the mysteries of the universe. In Zen-Buddhism this is most often achieved by means of the koan, a riddle that must be solved beyond the boundaries of logic. Dickinson takes similar steps into the spheres of contradiction, as for example in the poems “I’m Nobody” or “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.” By transcending dualistic logic, the self advances to a higher level of understanding him/herself and the world. It also succeeds in empathizing with other beings and in grasping the mystery of existence as such. Transcending its own sense of limited self it expands itself into a sense of oneness with the universe. In this context the I is not transcendental in the sense that it constitutes the world. Rather, the world is internalized by the I or, vice versa, the I is absorbed by the world. There is no more dualism between the subject and the object, between the I and the world. - Gudrun Grabher

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

David Bowie and “What if?”

What I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of “What if?” What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard? Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of the ideas did work out very well. - David Bowie

Monday, January 4, 2016

"The Happy Accidents of the Swing" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard / Comment by Robert Walser


A rococo beauty is being swung to and fro in a tastefully coiffed, as it were, charmingly frilly park, while her admirer occupies himself with gazing at her. After all, nothing can be more delightful to one who knows how to live than the pleasure enjoyed by a woman he finds beautiful.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Jordan (II)" by George Herbert / Comment by John Drury

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excel,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did run,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begun;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun,
Much less those joys which trample on his head.

As flames do work and wind, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might hear a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretense!
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d;
Copy out only that, and save expense.

The experience of writing has rarely been so exactly or succinctly presented as in "Jordan (II)". In the first verse the poet is brimming over with ideas and enjoying the expression of them in "quaint words and trim invention". A slight shadow falls in the last line, where he finds himself in the writer's trap of seeking his reader's approval, "Decking [adorning] the sense as if it were to sell" with ornaments...but the exhilaration of fertility carries over into the second verse, then turns into the business of correction and revision - even this in the same high spirits. One way and another he is carried away: and that is the trouble. The third verse surprises the reader. "So did I weave myself into the sense": surely this is positive, to wind self and sense, poet and his matter, into fusion? Yet it is the height of what he calls mere "bustling". Literary self-indulgence and self-preoccupation, however enjoyable, is precisely not, for him, the point of writing poetry. It should be objective, transitive, and deal with something other. That is what the "friend" indicates in a tactful whisper. And it was there all the time, "ready penn'd" in Holy Writ and particularly in the record there of Christ: yet again, love.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Poetry connecting to the material we're made from

When I said that poetry tries and wants to make contact with reality, that is, with uttermost-being (truth, God, whatness, somethingness-nothingness, chaos-order) -- to the Veda seers, the vibrating void; to the eighth-century Chinese poets, that-which-is-self-engendering; to mathematicians, a veil of numbers; to the Jewish mystics, the En-Sof; to Christian mystics, the indwelling of God and emanation of Christ in all things; to the animal kingdoms on earth, the starry night; to contemporary physicists, the excitation of superstrings; to cosmologists, the residue of an explosion of something to whose pre-explosion existence there is perhaps, as my friend Elaine Scarry once said to me, ‘no door’ -- I am referring very specifically and particularly to the material we are made from, this animated-in-us matter which we, in turn, express such a passionate drive to know (and which, in turn, has evolved a way to be known, through us, and is the source and object of our wonder and compulsion). - Gjertrude Schnackenberg

Monday, November 2, 2015

Freedom, Constraint & Emily Dickinson

Merely because poet and modern society are in conflict does not mean art necessarily gains by freedom. It is a sentimental error to think Emily Dickinson the victim of male obstructionism. Without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry. There are two reasons for this. First, Romanticism's overexpanded self requires artificial restraints. Dickinson finds these limitations in sadomasochistic nature and reproduces them in her dual style [Wordsworthian and Sadean]. Without such a discipline, the Romantic poet cannot take a single step, for the sterile vastness of modern freedom is like gravity-free outer space, in which one cannot walk or run. Second, women do not rise to supreme achievement unless they are under powerful internal compulsion. Dickinson was a woman of abnormal will. Her poetry profits from the enormous disparity between that will and the feminine social persona to which she fell heir at birth. But her sadism is not anger, the a posteriori response to social injustice. It is hostility, an a priori Achillean intolerance for the existence of the female version of Romantic solipsism. - Camille Paglia

Monday, October 5, 2015

Our executive ego vs our bodily instincts

By the time most of us have reached early adulthood, our executive ego has had a doctorate education while our bodily instincts may still be in kindergarten. We may have become accustomed to ignoring or overriding our inner instincts, mainly because they do no tally with the grand plan of our executive ego. Our mind may tell us that it's a good idea to stay at our job for exactly three more years, but our body may have other thoughts on the matter. The executive ego tells us to plow through our fatigue even if it's the first day of a difficult period, while the body cries out for an afternoon nap. We may become such experts at living outside the reach of our bodily instincts that we start to navigate our lives purely from our rational minds, leaving behind our gut instincts and our heartfelt desires. Our inner wisdom, which is guided by the body, does not take lightly to this dismissal. Navigating our lives with only one instrument of perception is like setting out on a journey across the ocean with a compass while ignoring the movement of the wind, water, and stars. - Donna Farhi

Friday, September 11, 2015

from "Ready-Made Bouquet" by Dean Young

... Loving someone who does not
love you may lead to writing impenetrable poems
and/or staying awake until dawn, drawn to airy,
azure rituals of space ships and birds.
Some despairs may be relieved by other despairs

as in not knowing how to pay for psychoanalysis,
as in wrecking your car as in this poem. Please
pass me another quart of kerosene. A cygnet
is a baby swan. Hat rack, cheese cake, mold.
The despair of wading through a river at night

towards a cruel lover is powerfully evoked
in Chekhov's story "Agafya." The heart seems
designed for despair especially if you study
embryology while being in love with your lab
partner who lets you kiss her under the charts
of organelles but doesn't respond yet

later you think she didn't not respond either
which fills you with idiotic hope very like
despair just as a cloud can be very like
a cannon, the way it starts out as a simple
tube then ties itself in a knot. The heart,
I mean.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Great Thinkers on Solitude

“In solitude, we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.” Explained Virginia Woolf.

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.” Professed Ingmar Bergman.

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Wrote Charlotte Brontë.

Jules Verne disagreed: “Solitude, isolation, are painful things and beyond human endurance.”

Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged: "Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.”

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.” According to Thomas Mann.

And according to Aldous Huxley: "The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”

The religion of Henry David Thoreau: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Laurence Sterne: “In solitude the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.”

"The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Albert Einstein believed.

“Great men are like eagles, and build their nest on some lofty solitude.” So sayeth Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Solitude is the place of purification.” Preached Martin Buber.

“Solitude is independence.” — Hermann Hesse.

“One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” Claimed Stendhal.

Rainer Maria Rilke, again on the topic: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Robert Louis Stevenson felt that: "There is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect.”

“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you.” Said Harold Bloom.

Perhaps he was reiterating Marcel Proust’s idea that: “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

“I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’—that wouldn’t be enough—but like a dead man.” Insisted Franz Kafka.

Mary Shelley explained: “Solitude was my only consolation—deep, dark, deathlike solitude.”

Guy de Maupassant countered: “Solitude is indeed dangerous for a working intelligence. We need to have around us people who think and speak. When we are alone for a long time we people the void with phantoms.”

Speaking of peopling the void with phantoms, Bohumil Hrabal once wrote: “I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”

"Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, where we are least alone.” Revealed Lord Byron.

“Solitude vivifies; isolation kills.” The words of Joseph Roux.

Paul Tillich: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”

Or, as May Sarton put it: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

“One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Solitude sometimes is best society.” Admitted John Milton.

“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” Thought Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.” Asserted Octavio Paz.

Aristotle explained: “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”

Jean-Paul Sartre: “God is absence. God is the solitude of man.”

via The Scofield, Issue 1.1, Summer, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

On Lyric Poetry

Lyric is still pre-eminently the non-social genre: though normative narrative and normative drama require at least two characters and are therefore ineluctably social, normative lyric requires not a character but a voice, one engaged in solitary meditation. Meditation may of course include direct address, so much so that some theorists have called apostrophe the defining trope of lyric; but the person addressed is, in the normative lyric, always silent and almost always absent. Only one consciousness, and that an abstract one, is present in the normative lyric.

No single description fits all lyrics, but I will proceed on the assumption that the purpose of lyric, as a genre, is to represent an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others. The inner life of anyone may of course have many aims and thoughts directed to social purposes; but the inner life is by definition one not engaged directly in social life. Rather, it is engaged in a reflective look at its own processes of thought and feeling. Of course it may, in that moment, urge social action on itself. But social transactions as such cannot take place in lyric as they do in narrative or drama.

Because the inner life is partly constructed through legitimating vehicles (myths, social positions, religious dogma, ritual practice, gender roles) which undergo historical and cultural change, paying attention to poetic strategies necessarily entails awareness of the existential possibilities available at a given historical moment. - Helen Vendler

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Redemption" by George Herbert / Comment by John Drury

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
    Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
    And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
    They told me there that he was lately gone
    About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
         
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

Bit by bit the momentous allegory, based on the two meanings of the title, emerges. The first four lines appear to be a matter-of-fact agricultural anecdote. That the landlord's manor house should be in heaven alerts the reader to some religious meta-narrative, but the realism of the poet's dealings with the people at the manor house restores the sense of the everyday. It carries through to the end of the poem. The poet/farmer seeks his landlord in the city. He hears the noise of a mugging, down some alley one imagines: "a ragged noise and mirth". With a shock he recognizes his landlord as its victim, whose dying words change his leasehold just as he wanted. The doubling of a nasty, all too common incident in urban life with the solution of the human predicament in the final, terse climax is astonishing and leaves the reader open-mouthed. The age-old contrast of simple country life with the vanities and squalor of the town was a well-established pastoral convention. As with all conventions, it is how it is used that counts. Herbert does it with a freshness born of sharp observation of both its aspects and the skill to turn them to urgent and deeply felt meaning. - John Drury

It's also likely where John Berryman, having read and admired Herbert, got the idea for the ending of Dream Song 26:

The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
if be you cares to say.
–Henry.  Henry became interested in women’s bodies,
his loins were & were the    scene of stupendous achievement.
Stupor. Knees, dear. Pray.

All the knobs & softness of, my god,
the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry,
at one time.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
you seems excited-like.
–Fell Henry back into   the original crime: art, rime

besides a sense of others, my God, my god,
and a jealousy for the honor (alive) of his country,
what can get more odd?
and discontent with the thriving gangs & pride.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
–I had a most marvelous   piece of luck. I died.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"We grow accustomed to the Dark" by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –

A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.