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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Emily Dickinson on her Calling

The Province of the Saved
Should be the Art – To save –
Through Skill obtained in Themselves –
The Science of the Grave

No Man can understand
But He that has endured
The Dissolution – in Himself –
That Man – be qualified

To qualify Despair
To Those who failing new –
Mistake Defeat for Death – Each time –
Till acclimated – to –

To me, this poem describes the poet who has suffered trauma, found "salvation" in writing, and then recognized her calling as the writing of poems, the giving of testimony that will help others to cope with trauma. She and her poems are proof that people can survive extreme physical and psychological states. Her poems help the sufferer to make the crucial distinction between suffering as setback and suffering as utter annihilation. Dickinson may claim, as she does in a letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, Mrs. J. G. Holland, that “there are depths in every Consciousness, from which we cannot rescue ourselves – to which none can go with us – which represent to us Mortally – the Adventure of Death” (L555), but in fact, many of her poems do just that: they accompany us to depths within us that we could not bear alone, and they invite us to ascend to heights with her, through her poems, that we could not dare alone. - Gregory Orr

Monday, August 1, 2016

“In a House Besieged” by Lydia Davis

In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Walt Whitman the interrelated energy-changing Buddhist

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;  
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.  
  
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.  
  
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,  
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, Whose?
  
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.  
  
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic;  
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,  
Growing among black folks as among white;
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
  
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.  
  
Tenderly will I use you, curling grass;  
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men;  
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people, and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps;  
And here you are the mothers’ laps.  
  
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers;  
Darker than the colorless beards of old men;  
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
  
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!  
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.  
  
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,  
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.  
  
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?  
  
They are alive and well somewhere;  
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;  
And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,  
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
  
All goes onward and outward - nothing collapses;  
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

from section 6 of "Leaves of Grass"

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dante in the Divine Comedy: Everyman and a specific man, full of complex feelings


Dante in the Divine Comedy may be Everyman, but he is also credibly a specific man, full of complex feelings. In the course of the poem, we see him experience not only love and joy but also fear, pity, hesitation, anger, remorse, curiosity, and bewilderment.

For example, at the end of Canto 17 of the Inferno, Virgil commands Dante to ride with him on the back of the monster Geryon. In just eight lines Dante describes the terror he felt at this prospect, then his shame at the thought that Virgil would consider him a coward, then his request to Virgil that the poet hold him tight as they ride—but, as in a nightmare, he is so afraid he cannot even really get these words out. Once on the back of the monster, he is momentarily reassured, only to feel even greater fright as the beast plunges into the abyss.

Botticelli beautifully captures the intensity of Dante’s response by drawing this sequence as a series of four scenes arranged in a continuous narrative. First we see Dante, hesitant and afraid, with his head down, eyes closed, and hands crossed guardedly on his chest, as Virgil beckons to him from the beast. Next we see Geryon take off with Virgil clasping Dante, whose shoulders are hunched high in fearful self-protection. Then as the beast plummets we see Dante staring in nauseous horror; and finally as Virgil and Dante disappear below the rim of the seventh circle of Hell, almost all we can make out of Dante’s face is one eye glaring further into the frightful depths. I do not know of any other early Renaissance work of art that so convincingly portrays the experience of sickening terror.

Following Dante’s lead, Botticelli depicts many other states of thought and feeling as well. For instance, Dante repeatedly describes how on his journey he had to pause in confusion as he reached his limit of understanding before, with the help of Virgil or Beatrice, he learned to perceive more clearly and to pass on to a higher level of wisdom. We can see how Botticelli illustrates such a scene in his drawing for Canto 2 of the Paradiso. Here the painter shows Dante floating with Beatrice inside the sphere of the moon as she begins to explain to him the nature of the heavens. Lost in concentration, Dante’s head is back, with his mouth open, and his eyes peering far into the distance. Although Botticelli has drawn his face with just a few quick strokes, instantly you can recognize the great effort the poet is making to comprehend what Beatrice is telling him. In Botticelli’s picture, thinking is an action, a movement of the mind and soul, made visible by pose and expression.


The Divine Comedy is a love story, most famously of the love that moves the heavens, and the love of Dante and Beatrice. But it also recounts the love between Dante and Virgil. The relationship of a mentor and a protégé is a unique one in the drama of human life: a teacher and pupil are bound together with close ties of affection, but this affiliation is fundamentally different from those between lovers, family members, or friends. As perhaps no earlier writer, Dante celebrates such a relationship in the Divine Comedy. He calls Virgil not only master, guide, and teacher, but also “dearest father,” and at least once compares Virgil’s concern for him to that of a mother for her child.

Botticelli responded powerfully to this portrayal and depicts the affection of the two men with great imagination and sensitivity. In sheet after sheet, we see Virgil exhorting, encouraging, instructing, and correcting Dante; the Roman poet points out to him where to look and tells him what lesson to learn from what he sees. Their bond is especially visible in the way they gracefully move together across the drawings, almost like two dancers on a stage. Botticelli illustrates Virgil’s care and Dante’s trust with such authority that they seem drawn from life, not just literature, as if the artist were calling upon his own experiences as a pupil and teacher. - Andrew Butterfield

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.