Thursday, July 24, 2014

The intimacy of art leaves us breathless ex. O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"

In O'Hara's signature poem, "The Day Lady Died," the almost breathless last four lines give the illusion that the reader and writer arrive at the closure at the same time. The poem ends with a flashback, though, so the present tense, insisted on from the first line, just like time itself, is a willful fiction. The speaker's passionate connection with Billie Holiday is ecstatic, transforming time and space while altering the self and the speaker's sense of identity. Art leaves us breathless: its intimate connections prove to be simultaneously exciting and dangerous: they not only bring us closer to feeling but also expose us to the danger of contingency and loss, expressed in the poem in terms of destabilizing time, space, and identity: intimacy touches and breaks the heart. The experience is both communal and isolating (consciousness attenuates and abstracts). All of these matters are foreshadowed in the speaker's restlessness: he thrives because of his friendships, his feeling for art and other artists. But the world of feeling is at odds with the counter desire of the poem: the speaker's attempts to thwart and defer uncertainty and contingency keep him dislocated and existentially alone. His anxiety is expressed in his exactitude about time and date, in specificity of book titles, and names. Every stanza begins with an assertion of these certainties (as it turns out, an evasion), and ends with those qualities effaced, diminished or dissolved. The stanzas end in strangeness and isolation because, in O'Hara's view, temporal experience by nature is always shifting, constantly moving. O'Hara, in his typically anti-effete fashion, talked about his "I do this I do that" poems because he was interested in action and gesture, but also, as a Modernist, he was keenly aware of movement. He was drawn to painters like Pollock, Klee and de Kooning because of their movement, color and composition. In most poems he embraced that movement as energetic and vitalizing, but in "The Day Lady Died," the loss of love and art takes away his capacity for sheer lightness and acceptance.

        "The Day Lady Died"

  It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
  three days after Bastille day, yes
  it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
  because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
  at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
  and I don't know the people who will feed me

  I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
  and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
  an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
  in Ghana are doing these days
                                                        I go on to the bank
  and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
  doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
  and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
  for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
  think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
  Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
  of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
  after practically going to sleep with quandariness

  and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
  Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
  then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
  and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
  casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
  of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

  and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
  leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
  while she whispered a song along the keyboard
  to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Later in the poem...distance is transformed by art, art as gift and celebration and sign of friendship. Once again, though, when the speaker wants to turn away, the stiff and formal Miss Stillwagon suddenly trusts the speaker--miracle of miracles, a person momentarily supplants the pecuniary. So with the poets of Ghana on his mind, with the possibility of a human connection, the speaker chooses gifts to show friends his care for them, and in some way to suggest his alienation at this moment from American culture. He chooses foreign artwork for his friends (Genet and Verlaine and Behan--all proponents of the passionate and the irrational) and he chooses foreign pleasures for smoking and drinking. But, as in the closure of other stanzas, these strategies also fail both to enliven and to distance. So he "practically go(es) to sleep with quandariness," an odd and elevated choice of diction. He's perplexed, uncertain, he seems almost paralyzed and depressed by so many choices: he's alienated and helpless. O'Hara intensifies this helplessness during the present tense climax of the poem, when the speaker sees the headlines about Billie Holiday's death. She becomes the emblem in the poem for the ecstatic: his love, his passion, the heart in art, in song...the speaker's been all avoidance, preoccupied with errands: he's aimless until he sees the headline and is cast back into the past, where the immediacy of art crowds out everything else. - Ira Sadoff

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Happy first anniversary (in anticipation of your thirty ninth)" by Bob Hicok

I don’t have much time. I’m an important person
to chickadees and mourning doves, whose feeder
was smashed last night by a raccoon. Soon
I’ll be wielding duct tape, noticing the dew,
wanting to bathe in it, hoping the awkwardness
of yesterday (three instances of people talking
with bear traps for mouths) never repeats itself
and we all go forward as if to a party
for a five year old who refuses to smash candy
out of a burro. It’s too cute, the burro, too real
for him not to ask his mother, can I keep it,
and when the other children cry, they’re given
lake front property, it works out, this
is what I see for you, the working out. Think of the year
behind you as a root or think of going to Spain
and feeling sorry for bulls or don’t think,
this isn’t the SATs, don’t think but stay.
Stay happy, honest, stay as tall as you are
as long as you can using giraffes if you need to
to see each other above the crowd. I have these moments
when I realize I’m not breathing, my wife
is never why I’m not breathing and always why
I want to lick a human heart, remember that each of you
is half of why your bed will sag toward the middle
of being a boat and that you both will sag
if you’re lucky together, be lucky together
and acquire in sagging more square footage
to kiss and to hold. And always remember
that I hate you for being so much closer
than I am to where none of us ever get to go
again - first look, first touch, first
inadvertent brush of breath or hair, first time
you turned over and looked at who was surprising
you by how fully she was there.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Serenity and Vitality of Proust

My great adventure is really Proust...I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped - and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical - like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. - Virginia Woolf

The eruption of [Proust's] work - distinguished by its huge proportions, its complexity, and a difficulty caused by the unparalleled extravagance of its web of language - into the world was so sudden and so thorough that it is difficult not to see it as a result of some kind of spell that had been cast. For how else might we explain the way that in those restless times, hundreds of thousands, all across Europe, gladly made their way through thirteen densely printed volumes, enjoying page after page devoted to conversations with no identifiable theme, to a few trees, to an act of waking up in the morning, and to the inner development of a jelaous feeling, so that they might take pleasure in the variety of an individual’s emotions that lay hidden in every sentence? All the more astonishing is the fact that a great number of Proust’s admirers are not French. - Erich Auerbach

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Vulnerability Study" by Solmaz Sharif

your face turning from mine
to keep from cumming

8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl

baba holding his pants
up at the checkpoint

a newlywed securing her updo
with grenade pins

a wall cleared of nails
for the ghosts to walk through

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How Emily Dickinson wrote her best poems

What she needed before she could do her finest work was a situation, a figure, that would set out most of the structure for her. She was in trouble whenever some little thing had to be amplified, developed, teased. In the great poems she seizes her theme, normally, not as an idea but as an image or, better still, a relation. And, best of all, the relation has domestic analogies or can be translated directly into domestic or social terms. And then there is a new relation, often a marvelous counterpoint between the intimate relation and the new domestic figure that it has annexed. And the most conclusive example of these felicities is "Because I could not stop for Death":

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring – 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

In this poem all the civilities meet. If we think of it as an achievement of language, we should say at the same time that it has nothing at all to do with a fussy search for the mot juste. Once Emily Dickinson had come to the point of imagining the social image - the afternoon visit, the drive into the country - and had perceived its justice, half the battle was won. She would still have to win the rest of it, but she would do that largely by attending to the "facts" as directly as possible. The style is at once dry and noble; but this is a bonus, a grace, given to her because of the fine confidence with which she entrusted the whole affair to the determination of its leading figure. - Denis Donoghue

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Yes, in Michelet the signifier is sumptuous. - Barthes

[The insects are] charming creatures, bizarre creatures, admirable monsters, with wings of fire, encased in emerald, dressed in enamel of a hundred varieties, armed with strange devices, as brilliant as they are threatening, some in burnished steel frosted with gold, others with silky tassels, lined with black velvet; some with delicate pincers of russet silk against a deep mahogany ground; this one in garnet velvet dotted with gold; then certain rare metallic blues, heightened with velvety spots; elsewhere metallic stripes, alternating with matte velvet. - French historian Jules Michelet

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dickinson's God vs Herbert's God

Did Our Best Moment last—
'Twould supersede the Heaven—
A few—and they by Risk—procure—
So this Sort—are not given—

Except as stimulants—in
Cases of Despair—
Or Stupor—The Reserve—
These Heavenly Moments are—

A Grant of the Divine—
That Certain as it Comes—
Withdraws—and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms

- Emily Dickinson

This is an extremely daring version of a topic, a line of feeling, common enough in poets like Herbert and Vaughan, with this difference: that Herbert especially goes out of his way to make God's case sound reasonable if not generous. Emily Dickinson's God is a shrewd doctor with a certain interest vested in illness. He plays life and illness against one another, adjusting the proportions of each with a view to keeping himself in business, prolonging life only to the extent of ensuring a constant supply of bodies susceptible to illness. And the dazzled soul after each session of stimulation finds herself back in a "deep but dazzling darkness." And her room is bare. Emily Dickinson merely "gives the facts" without any comment except that implied by their choice and disposition. But by placing them halfway between the particular and the general, she makes it impossible for us to shrug them off either as loose generalizations or as exceptions to a divinely benign rule. - Denis Donoghue

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fish Magic by Paul Klee


Fish Magic is inspired by the theatre, or more probably the puppet theatre. Curiously, Klee has pasted a separate piece of canvas to the left center. The resemblance between a fish tank and a stage did not escape Klee, who has fostered it by a hint of curtain at the top left corner, and by the odd little figures who look out from inside the proscenium opening. But this is no ordinary aquarium, nor stage, inhabited as it is by fish, plants and celestial bodies all together. Their timeless world is observed by two ‘representatives’ of the human race, and is invaded by time in the shape of two hour-glasses and a steeple clock lowered into the scene in a net or fish trap…the additional piece of canvas represents a zone of time, through which fish pass indifferently but which alters the character of the principal human figure, whose head it divides into halves. This little person with two faces looks solemn on the left within the human time-scale, joyous on the right within the time-scale of the natural world. Klee’s work shows many such analogues of divided humanity, contrasted with the unitary laws of nature. - Douglas Hall

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Truth and Repose

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, - you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, - most likely his father's. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, May 2, 2014

Constantly vigilant technique and the foretaste of discovery

     Inspiration, art, artist–so many words, hazy at least, that keep us from seeing clearly in a field where everything is balance and calculation through which the breath of the speculative spirit blows. It is afterwards, and only afterwards, that the emotive disturbance which is at the root of inspiration may arise. . . Is it not clear that this emotion is merely a reaction on the part of the creator grappling with that unknown entity which is still only the object of his creating and which is to become a work of art?
     Step by step, link by link, it will be granted him to discover the work. It is this chain of discoveries, as well as each individual discovery, that give rise to the emotion . . . which invariably follows closely the phases of the creative process.
     All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take a definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique. - Igor Stravinsky

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Keats and Lacarrière on Stripping Conditioning

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself - it has no self - it is everything and nothing - It has no character - it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor. . . . It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the cameleon Poet. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body. . . . I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of maturer years - in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer. . . . All I hope is that I may not lose all interest in human affairs - that the solitary indifference I feel for applause even from the finest Spirits, will not blunt any acuteness of vision I may have. I do not think it will - I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night's labours should be burnt every morning, and no eye ever shine upon them. But even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself: but from some character in whose soul I now live. - John Keats

No knowledge, no serious contemplation, no valid choice is possible until man has shaken himself free of everything that affects his conditioning, at every level of his existence. And these techniques which so scandalize the uninitiated, whether they be licentious or ascetic, this consumption and consummation of organic and psychic fires...these violations of all the rules and social conventions exist for one single, solitary purpose: to be the brutal and radical means of stripping man of his mental and bodily habits, awakening in him his sleeping being and shaking off the alienating torpor of the soul. - Jacques Lacarrière

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why publish poetry?

Poetry is the oldest established form for the written word, and it is a necessary embodiment of language, a vehicle by which we are able to express and explore even the most complex concepts and emotions. Poetry is a mode of expansion and play, a mode of questioning and affirming. It allows for discovery and meditation. The quiet and most intimate act of holding and reading a collection of poems - especially these days when our brains are overworked and we are inundated with noise - should be protected and kept sacred. - Carey Salerno

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Emily Dickinson’s Ars Poetica

Shall I take thee, the Poet said
To the propounded word?
Be stationed with the Candidates
Till I have finer tried -

The Poet searched Philology
And was about to ring
For the suspended Candidate
There came unsummoned in -
That portion of the Vision
The Word applied to fill
Not unto nomination
The Cherubim reveal -

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The adherents of the central are mystics to begin with. - Wallace Stevens

The poet is constantly concerned with two theories. One relates to the imagination as a power within him not so much to destroy reality at will as to put it to his own uses. He comes to feel that his imagination is not wholly his own but that it may be part of a much larger, much more potent imagination, which is his affair to try to get at. For this reason, he pushes on and lives, or tries to live, as Paul Valéry did, on the verge of consciousness. This often results in poetry that is imagination as a power within him to have such insights into reality as will make it possible for him to be sufficient as a poet in the very center of consciousness. - Wallace Stevens

Thursday, March 6, 2014

“The Reluntant Kabbalist’s Sonnet” by Peter Cole

It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, . . .“the essence of speech.”
—Avraham Abulafia,“The Treasures of the Hidden Eden”

It’s hard to explain   What was inside came
through what had been between, although it seems
that what had been within remained the same
Is that so hard to explain     It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now … apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being    For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped    across the lips of a dream