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.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Not a Leg to Stand On" by Brenda Goodman‏


As with so many of my paintings I started with marks all over the surface such as those on top and the right sides. The smaller figure emerged first and the painting just evolved from there. What was amazing about this painting was that while looking at it when it was done I said: "Wow, this was my childhood." My mother was very dominating and overwhelming and throughout my life I have often felt that if i didn't have a leg to stand on she would devour me (emotionally) and there it was in front of me with only one leg and my mother demanding the whole space. A meaning as strong and clear as that doesn't always reveal itself but it did in this painting, and when that happens it's so fulfilling and significant. - Brenda Goodman

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Teaching on behalf of, rather than in scorn of, humanity

The business of teachers is to discover and then to demand all the authority that flows from their obligations as teachers. That is their given style of exemplary engagement. An understanding of that authority will arise when the self-interest, mutual but not identical, of teacher and student in the civilization transmitted is known. To foster consciousness in this sense is one business of radical research. Vastly more courage must be exhibited by all of us in our purely pedagogic roles. Teachers must seek authority as members of an academic community, whether to stop teaching, to teach this and not that, to protect students from destructive grids of requirements and moronic sanctions, to foster self-possession without preempting criticism, and above all to understand and say clearly what they are about – so that they do not commit the final pedagogic crime of conferring the problem unsolved upon those who have come for something else. Teachers, radical or otherwise, exercise their role among their peers and toward their students no by abdicating their role, but by defining it. Above all, I am suggesting that the business of the literary teacher is to understand her civilization as it is the life-space of the person: consoling, redemptive, but also treacherous, abhorrent, arbitrary, absurd. To administer civilization on behalf of rather than in scorn of humanity now appears to be the hardest problem that has ever confronted mind. - Allen Grossman

Friday, June 19, 2015

Nietzsche’s three stages of the spirit to reach original creation

Part of any good artist's work is to find a right balance between the independence born of willing solitude and the ability to speak for and to others. Nietzsche’s “Three Metamorphoses” offers some insight into how this is done. The philosopher describes three stages through which the spirit must pass before it can truly serve. First it must become a camel, then the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child. The camel, who feeds on acorns and grasses and the hunger for truth, is a being who has agreed to bear the weight of the world, to carry the difficult forward by her own obstinate strength. For a writer, this stage represents the willingness to be instructed by things as they are, to enter into tradition and culture and be affected by the issues and hardships of common human life. Having accomplished this task, Nietzsche writes, the spirit needs to turn lion-like and say the dragon of external values, whose every scale is a golden plaque reading “Thou shalt.” Here, a writer steps outside received opinion and enters creative freedom, beginning to find his resources within. It is a stage described also in a saying from Zen: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” But rebellion and independence are still not enough. The lion too must give way, and become a child: only in a child’s forgetting and innocence can a truly new spirit come into the world. This is the beginning of genuinely original creation, the moment in which the writer can turn at last toward the work without preconception, without any motive beyond knowing the taste of what is. - Jane Hirshfield

Friday, June 5, 2015

“I would not paint—a picture” by Emily Dickinson / Comment by Adrienne Rich

I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endured Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It’s finer—own the Ear—
Enamored—impotent—content—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

This poem is about choosing an orthodox “feminine” role: the receptive rather than the creative; viewer rather than painter, listener rather than musician; acted-upon rather than active. Yet even while ostensibly choosing this role she wonders “how the fingers feel/ whose rare-celestial—stir—/ Evokes so sweet a Torment—“ and the “feminine” role is praised in a curious sequence of adjectives: “Enamored—impotent—content.” The strange paradox of this poem—its exquisite irony—is that it is about choosing not to be a poet, a poem which is gainsaid by no fewer than one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five poems made during the writer’s life, including itself. Moreover, the images of the poem rise to a climax (like the Balloon she evokes) but the climax happens as she describes, not what it is to be the receiver, but the maker and receiver at once “A privilege so awful / What would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!” —a climax which recalls the poem: “He fumbles at your soul / As Players at the Keys / Before they drop the Music on—” And of course, in writing those lines she possesses herself of that privilege and that “Dower.” I have said that this is a poem of exquisite ironies. It is, indeed, though in a very different mode, related to Dickinson’s “little-girl” strategy. The woman who feels herself to be Vesuvius at home has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.

Friday, May 29, 2015

On Sylvia Plath’s Development

Of all the paths hinted at in her juvenilia, this is the one [magical figures] that Plath initially followed. In the mid-1950's, her poetry returns again and again to the notion that she must reconcile herself to a disenchanted world. Not until several years had passed did Plath discover that, in fact, her true gifts lay in the opposite direction: not objective description of the world, but an overpowering subjectivity that turns the entire world into a myth. Not until she embraced the recklessness of her imagination would she become a great poet.



Plath clearly experiences this disenchantment as a painful loss; if it weren’t so difficult to accept, she wouldn’t need to remind herself of it in poem after poem. As a result, she is compelled to find some other source of pleasure and significance, both in her life and in her writing, which will not depend on the childish visions she has abandoned. Her only hope, Plath proposes, is to submit to reality, but with an awareness so heightened that the ordinary becomes strange.



Whenever she writes about love and desire, Plath finds that she must violate her self-imposed ban on fictions. When the subjects closest to her must be treated in poetry, she turns, not to the kind of objective vision praised in “On the Plethora of Dryads,” but to the vocabulary of fairy tale and myth: queen and giant, panther and Persephone. And these fictions are, paradoxically, more true to Plath’s actual experience than the naturalism she attempts in descriptive poems like “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor.” Truth, Plath discovers, is not the same as fact.



By embracing the notion of poetry as a “sea change,” Plath takes a decisive step away from life and nature, toward art and symbol. This is the crucial evolution that separates Plath’s pedestrian poetry of the mid-1950s from the mythic intensity of her late work.



To put her myths into action, to inhabit them instead of just proposing them, would be the decisive next step in Plath’s work, marking the beginning of her major poetry.

- Adam Kirsch

Friday, May 22, 2015

To lose cheerfully

Moreover, it is time in any case to oppose this mendacious world with the resources of an irony, a shrewdness, a serenity without illusions. For, supposing we were to lose, we would be able to lose cheerfully, without condemning, without prophesying. We are not looking for a rest. If the world insists on blowing up, we may be the only ones to grant it the right to do so, while giving ourselves the right to have spoken in vain. - George Bataille

Friday, May 15, 2015

I thought I would be becoming spiritually enlightened?!

The student asked: I feel that since I have started walking the spiritual path I am facing many more trials and tribulations and even mental conflicts than ever before. Yet, I thought that [insert your spiritual practice here] was supposed to produce peacefulness and mental serenity. Can you tell me what is happening to me? Swamiji replied: You are simply becoming more sensitive and paying the price for that sensitivity. Everything that is happening to you now was also happening to you before, but you were so undeveloped, so coarse in your awareness, that you were not as acutely conscious of it as you are now. Since you are becoming sensitised, you also are becoming more critical of your own life. Mistakes and failures and character flaws which you have carried all your life without caring much about them suddenly loom up clear and ugly before you, exposing themselves in the light of your newly developed awareness. - Swami Gitananda Giri

Friday, May 8, 2015

Shakespeare's Sonnet 65 & a note by Allen Grossman

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

This exchange is the basis of literary civilization and is in direct conflict with communalism, secular humanity, immanent instinctual absolutism. Sonnet 65 is meaningful only if mankind collectively has a future, if that future is social and literate, and that literate sociality is valued. None of these three conditions is any longer necessarily assured. Further, we may note that the symbol-instinct exchange in Sonnet 65 requires an interior space, a dimensional subjectivity, in which to inscribe itself. But interior space, the most elite of traditional aesthetic possessions, bears with it the marks of its origins in a disabled self. It is the servile strategy of the Christian slave and invites all persons, slaves of time, to become the captives also of a social future of a given sort in which some kinds of action are preempted and instinctual completion in particular "traded off" against the mimetic bright star. In other words, Sonnet 65, which stands here in my brief  remarks for the tradition, defines the person in a specific sense, and the terms of that definition are neither inevitable nor beyond question. Poetry is an irreplaceable mode of the visibility of person to person, but it is impatient of action, communalism, and instinctual humanity, all of which may be as necessary as life itself. You cannot have it all ways. The antinomic character of our civilization (instinct or symbol but not both; agency or communion but not both, etc.) is now as always being administered as a weapon against the young (order or feeling, but not both). Fate is being used as an argument against life. Even Pity, as Blake reminds us "would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor." There is a justifiable system of counter-refusals to be opposed both to the refusals and to the consolations of art. It is not the business of the teacher to conspire with fate.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Edge of Town" by Philip Guston / Comment by R.C. Baker


Philip Guston's cartoon paintings...retain a startling freshness allied to abiding classicism...with stolid scenes of Klansmen that combined Piero della Francesca's Renaissance modeling with the social conscience of Mexico's radical muralists. Then came the lush abstractions that made Guston famous, and finally the late figures, which harked back to the Sunday comics he'd loved in his youth. The first exhibition showcasing his mature style, in 1970, was generally panned; Guston's newfound crudity was compared to the work of R. Crumb, a cartoonist the painter claimed he'd never heard of, but who shared the same big-foot comic-strip influences. Willem de Kooning, however, understood Guston's breakthrough [Guston: "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."], telling the younger artist: "Well, now you are on your own! You've paid off all your debts!" Indeed, the gorgeous Edge of Town (1969) blends the absurdity of Guston's newfound characters with classical monumentality and the wet-into-wet cross-hatching of his elegant abstractions, creating a sui generis amalgam of image, mood, and materials. The beefy pink flesh of dangerous buffoons in white hoods, waving clubs and fat cigars as they cruise about in a pathetic black jalopy, is set against a sky of smoggy blue and rose leavened with the dark flecks of an earlier, painted-over composition - an imperfect foundation as flawed and dynamic as America itself. This is a transitional painting filled with struggle and conviction, the kind of work that leaps over everything else in its time to become timeless.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What’s poetry for Stevens?

A short sampling: “Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death,” a poem is “a meteor,” “a pheasant,” “a cafe,” “the disengaging of (a) reality,” “a health,” “the body,” “a cure of the mind,” “a renovation of experience,” “a pheasant disappearing into the brush,” “a search for the inexplicable,” “a revelation of the elements of appearance,” “the scholar’s art,” “a nature created by the poet.” “The poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.” “In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.” And of course, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully”

Friday, April 3, 2015

On impersonality, meter and repetition

First, as for the coming-and-going presence of impersonality…probably I consider these things - the personal and the impersonal - to be facets rather than paradoxes, or a Möbius strip more than a duality. Poetry is primarily emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, but it has to alternate between, to interleave, the personal and the impersonal, subjective and objective - partly out of respect for sheer common sense; and partly because in most of us there is an inner necessity to seek perspective, connection, objectivity in tragic circumstances; and partly because it’s when passion has hurt us most that we learn the meaning of dispassion, and learn to pray for detachment. But there is also an always present moral principle that cuts poetry into facets both personal and impersonal, depending upon which way we turn it and which angle we hold to the light, this principle being - to paraphrase a sentence of the sixteenth-century mystic Moses Cordovero - that one’s self has something of all other selves within it, and that other selves have something of one’s self within them. This could be poetry’s motto. And again it reminds me of Gershom Scholem’s comment about the spiritual universe, that “the sparks of the Shekinah are everywhere, scattered among all the spheres of metaphysical and physical existence . . .”

Second, as for the insistence of meter in the lines…meter is pure emotion (technique, for artists, is an emotion, a passion - technique means only the way a thing is done, and the way a thing is done is one of the most passionate preoccupations an artist can have - not separable, despite critical habits of discussion, from what is being expressed). Meter’s energy and urgency, its redoubling emphasis of the way thoughts feel, is like a wordless vow underlying the words, perhaps translatable into words as: So help me God (four stresses in a row there, and no pause). And this trait of insistence you mention, the tenacity, relentlessness, is personal; I don’t give up.

And last, as for use of repetition: repetition can be a prodigious, last-ditch effort to remember what happened, in circumstances of pain or panic, here on earth in “the scene of the soul’s exile,” among the cliffs of fall; or an effort to find, or to establish, a pulse; or to try to create a pattern - as if to arrange a chain of molecules which, if lightning strikes, could become animated. Or it can be a magic spell, when all else fails. Or repetition can be a way of saying: I will keep telling this until I get it right; or until I have made this thing that must happen, happen; or until this prayer is answered; or until the tale I am telling has come to its own end, or has come true; or if nothing can come of this tale, then at least I will keep saying it until I know that the tale has been heard, whether here on earth or in the upper spheres - so help me God.

- Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Parable of the ill-fitting suit

A man went to a tailor and tried on a suit. As he stood before the mirror, he noticed the vest was a little uneven at the bottom. “Oh,” said the tailor, “don’t worry about that. Just hold the shorter end down with your left hand and no one will ever notice.” When the customer proceeded to do this, he noticed that the lapel of the jacket curled up instead of lying flat. “Oh that?” said the tailor. “That’s nothing. Just turn your head a little and hold it down with your chin.” The customer complied, and as he did, he noticed that the inseam of the pants was a little short and he felt that the rise was a bit too tight. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the tailor. “Just pull the inseam down with your right hand, and everything will be perfect.” The customer agreed and purchased the suit.

The next day he wore his new suit with all the accompanying hand and chin “alterations.” As he limped through the park with his chin holding down his lapel, one hand tugging at the vest, the other hand grasping his crotch, two old men stopped playing checkers to watch him stagger by. “George, oh, my God!” said the first man. “Look at that poor crippled man!” The second man reflected for a moment, then murmured, “Yes, George, indeed he has been terribly crippled, but I wonder, where did he get such a nice suit?”

- via Clarissa Pinkola Estés