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

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Los and Orc" by William Blake / Comment by T.J. Clark‏


Let us agree to call Los the figure of imaginative and political energy in human history as Blake conceived it, and Orc that same energy taking revolutionary form, often with blood on its hands. It is not clear what Blake thought about the blood at precisely the time he painted the watercolour, probably in the early 1790s, and even less clear what Los (here or in general) thinks. If the French Revolution was in question – and how could it not be? – then the year or month the painting was done would make a difference. Orc in the picture is manacled, somewhat weakly, four times to the earth (perhaps one of the manacles is hammered into a boulder). Orc may in Blake’s view be essentially Los’s doing, Los’s emanation, but Los may also in some sense – literal or mental – have forged the manacles. The bloody form of revolution may be a product of the imprisonment. The marvellous attentiveness and horror of Los’s body – it puts most other ‘neoclassical’ dumb shows utterly to shame, I think – tells the story. The yellow of the earth is Los’s openness and electricity, the black smudge on the hillside their repression. The yellow in particular – and its second appearance as a ghost on the hilltop next to the oily sea – is a stroke of genius. Los’s hands are a similar triumph. The way they catch the light and shade, and the way they touch the top edge of the paper, further electrifying the pictorial field – these reach back to Marcantonio’s engravings after Raphael and outdo them.

It is not clear in the watercolour whether Los is recoiling guiltily from Orc’s agony or is afraid the manacles will tear from their sockets.

[But] The image is great not by reason of what it may mean but by reason of its distinctness, its emptiness, the ferocious boundedness of its imagining of a (non-)meeting of bodies.

The right edge of Los’s body has many possible positions in space: ‘movements’ overtake it. Orc’s torsion and compression come out of – are an expression of – the darkness pressing down on him. The darkness is as ‘indeterminate’ as watercolour can be.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Or," by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice  
of category

            or  
            Color

or any color  
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”
        
            or  
            Other

or theory or discourse
or oral territory.
Oregon or Georgia
or Florida Zora

            or
            Opportunity

or born poor  
or Corporate. Or Moor.
Or a Noir Orpheus
or Senghor

            or  
            Diaspora

or a horrendous  
and tore-up journey.
Or performance. Or allegory’s armor
of ignorant comfort

            or
            Worship

or reform or a sore chorus.
Or Electoral Corruption
or important ports
of Yoruba or worry

            or
            Neighbor

or fear of . . .
of terror or border.
Or all organized
minorities.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just as the body is shaped for movement, the mind is shaped for poetry.

Poetry is pleasure.

Sometimes people say to me, “why should I read a poem?” There are plenty of answers, from the profound – a poem is such an ancient means of communication that it feels like an evolutionary necessity – to the practical; a poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy.

We could talk about poetry as a rope in a storm. Poetry as one continuous mantra of mental health. Poetry as the world’s biggest, longest-running workshop on how to love. Poetry as a conversation across time. Poetry as the acid-scrub of cliche.

We could say that the poem is a lie detector. That the poem is a way of thinking without losing the feeling. That a poem is a way of feeling without being too overwhelmed by feeling to think straight. That the poem is “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge). That the poem “keeps the heart awake to truth and beauty” (Coleridge again – who can resist those Romantics?). That the poem is an intervention: “The capacity to make change in existing conditions” (Muriel Rukeyser). That poetry, said Seamus Heaney, is “strong enough to help”.

Yes.

And pleasure.

Just as the body is shaped for movement, the mind is shaped for poetry.

- Jeanette Winterson

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Unbounded connection through the paradox of practice

One day I was riding around a track that my horse and I know very well. We've done it a thousand times. Suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks. I could feel his heart beating a hundred miles an hour and he wasn't going to move. His whole body went rigid. I thought "I can't see a darn thing." I looked and looked and looked and I thought "This is ridiculous." I urged him on. He took a few more steps and went rigid again.

Then I could see what he had noticed: A tree had fallen. There was no way he could really have seen it. He had to have felt that that tree had fallen. The trees around it were clearly at risk of falling as well, and I'm sure he could feel that also. I thought: "How distanced we are from the universe that we don't feel those things too – that a tree's fallen." Maybe if I stick around this guru long enough, I will develop that unbounded connection with everything, so that I'll know too when a tree is about to fall or has just fallen.

I think this is a paradox of yoga practice: Why don't we seem to integrate practice by becoming chaotic and disorganized and wild and chronically spontaneous? After all, this practice breaks through into our animal nature, doesn't it? The paradox seems to be that through this very ordered, inner tempering we get strong enough, steely enough that we can let go.

There is a metaphor for that in my work with horses. I study horsemanship every day. I go to clinics. It's taken all of that preparation to be able to get on my horse and say, "Go, gallop," and not to hold on. One doesn't start with, "Oh, I'll just get on this horse and go at a flat-out gallop without a saddle or bridle." It might take ten years of training to get to that place. That seems to be the paradox of practice. It takes a simplified, ordered, reliable, ingrained patterning of trust and skillfulness in order to let go, and to ride that level of spiritedness and power within ones' life.

- Donna Farhi