Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Art is a mixture of moral urgency and technical expertise

Poems are hypothetical sites of speculation, not position papers. They do not exist on the same plane as actual life; they are not votes, they are not uttered from a podium or a pulpit, they are not essays. They are products of reverie. They are expert experiments in imagining symbols for a state of affairs, and of arranging language to suit; they are not propositions to be agreed or disagreed with. Each poem is a new personal venture made functional by technical expertise; the poet's moral urgency in writing is as real, needless to say, as his technical skill, but moral urgency alone never made a poem. On the other hand, technical expertise alone does not suffice, either. Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet's moral urgency, the poet's method of self-revelation. - Helen Vendler

Monday, September 27, 2010

Judith Farr on Emily Dickinson

Her poetry is great in one way because it attempts to envision the most inchoate, unspeakable, structureless conceptions, such as immortality, in the practical, specific details of every day. Such a "convex-concave witness" to the miracle of poetic consciousness can be seen as evidence of her knowledge of and kinship to the metaphysical poets...her phrases evince not decadence...but her consistent effort to explain the enormity of the aesthetic experience as it was known by the artist.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Better duped through hope than through fear

Religious beliefs are the quintessential case for which there's not enough evidence to decide. The sceptical mind of [Bertrand] Russell looks at the evidence for belief in God and, while seeing it's not conclusive, decides that he does not want to believe in God for fear of believing in an error. [William] James, though, has a different thought. He looks at the evidence for belief in God and, while seeing it's not conclusive, feels the force of the duty to believe what's true as well as the duty to avoid error. The sceptic ignores the first part of that duty, which James also called the "will to believe". He noted that while both believer and nonbeliever run the risk of being duped, he thought it was better to be duped "through hope" than "through fear". - Mark Vernon

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Collage: the antirational and semi-intentional

Collage is really the practice of a theory of knowledge: antirational and semi-intentional, it takes coincidence and chance materials as part of its method and inspiration. By eliminating transition, it embraces ambiguity, improvisation, speed, and multiplicity of meaning. It is expressive, but not primarily self-expressive. It does not place priority on closure, nor on conventional notions of completeness. In the constant conversation between unity and disunity, juxtaposition plays with omission and collision. It loves the energy of disruption and dislocation. Apollinaire, his contemporaries and their aesthetic heirs were more interested in creating inventive disorientations than in delivering packaged unities. - Tony Hoagland

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Freedom is a process

Freedom is not a given of the human situation. Like the other distinctive achievements of the spirit - art, literature, music, poetry - it needs training, discipline, apprenticeship, the most demanding routines and the most painstaking attention to detail. No one composed a great novel or symphony without years of preparation. That is why most theories of human behavior are simply false. They claim that we are either free or not; either we have choice or our behavior is causally determined. Freedom is not an either/or. It is a process. It begins with dependence and only slowly, gradually, does it become liberty, the ability to stand back from the pressures and influences upon us and act in response to educated conscience, judgment, wisdom, moral literacy. It is, in short, a journey: Abraham's journey...leave behind all external influences that turn into a victim of circumstances beyond your control, and travel inward to the self. It is there - only there - that freedom is born, practiced and sustained. - Jonathan Sachs

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meaning and form in poetry

The communication of meaning is, along with the manipulation of form, one of the natural bounds of poetry. It is in the negotiation of these two demands, meaning and form, sense and rhythm, that poetic beauty is created. The need to communicate, the pressure of urgent speech, is what drives a poem forward into the open region of art, even when the difficulty of communication makes it dilate and digress. Without that forward pressure, poetry becomes merely a private language. - Adam Kirsch

Monday, September 20, 2010

Boxing provides practice with fear

Boxing provides practice with fear and with the right, attentive supervision, in quite manageable increments. In their first sparring session, boxers usually erupt in “fight or flight” mode. When the bell rings, novices forget everything they have learned and simply flail away. If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his [or her] way. - Gordon Marino

Friday, September 17, 2010

The task of art

The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. Your are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward. - Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Auden on the philosophers of particular force, but...

Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality . . . and by the sharpness of their insights. . . . But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn to an equally exaggerated aversion. Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life; . . . it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The poet is a perpetual amateur

Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be "professional." The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet - one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem. - Tony Hoagland

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writers, want a social life with friends, a passionate love life as well?

You Want a Social Life, with Friends

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What's true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn't time enough, my friends--
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends--
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day's end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

- Kenneth Koch

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rothko on the need for silence

When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing, no galleries no collectors, no critics, no money, yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose, and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those that are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them. - Mark Rothko

Friday, September 10, 2010

Only those who forgive can be free - Hannah Arendt

"...he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes 'guilty' of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous the consequences of his deed, he can never undo it...all this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom." - Hannah Arendt

But the possibility of forgiveness transforms the situation from tragedy to hope:

"Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover...forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven." - Hannah Arendt

So atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expressions of freedom, the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happiness is the by-product of a life

John Stuart Mill wrote: happiness is the by-product of a life, not something that can be pursued head on. ‘The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.’ He advised giving up the habit of scrutinising your life to see whether your enjoyment of it is rising or falling, for only then might you have the chance to ‘inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.’ ...happiness becomes a primarily concern in a society that can't cope with being frustrated, though frustration should be a right prior to the right to pursue happiness, since without frustration there is no passion, and passion is beyond mere happiness. - Mark Vernon

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where tragedy resides in Shakespeare

"That it should come to this." (Hamlet 1.2.137) That, in other words, a young idealistic student should become, even against his will, an intriguer and killer, as Hamlet does. Or that a great king should be reduced to beggary and madness, and by his own daughters, as Lear is. Or that a man gifted with a moral imagination so intense that even the anticipation of murder can make his hair stand on end should reach a condition so benumbed, so supped full with horrors, that to go back is as tedious as "go o'er," as happens to Macbeth. Or that the greatest soldier of the ancient world, once the king of courtesy, should be reduced to having his rival's emissary whipped, as in the case of Antony. Or that an earlier famous soldier should be so mastered by self-will and pride as to defect to the national enemy and war against his kin - the story of Coriolanus. Here is where tragedy normally resides in Shakespeare's mature work. - Maynard Mack

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shame vs Guilt Cultures

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free. - Jonathan Sachs

Thursday, September 2, 2010

William Logan on Billy Collins

Collins has been called a philistine…he’s something much worse, a poet who doesn’t respect his art enough to take it seriously…yet readers adore Billy Collins, and it feels almost un-American not to like him. Try to explain to his readers what ‘The Steeple-Jack’ or ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’ or ‘The Snow Man’ is up to, and they’ll look at you as if you’d asked them to hand-pump a ship through the locks of the Panama Canal. Most contemporary poetry isn’t any more difficult to understand than Collins—it’s written in prose, good oaken American prose, and then chopped into secure in his tendencies he can’t remember when he didn’t have tendencies at all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Van Gogh & God

"To follow what Jesus taught mankind will be the purpose of my life." - Vincent

"When Sunday came, Van Gogh would go to church three times, either to the Roman Catholic Church, or to the Protestant or Old Episcopal Church, which was commonly called the Jansenist Church. When once we made the remark, 'But my dear Van Gogh, how is it possible that you can go to three different churches of such divergent creeds?' He said, 'Well, in every church I see God, and it's all the same to me whether a Protestant pastor or a Roman Catholic priest preaches; it is not a matter of dogma, but of the spirit of the Gospel, and I find this spirit in all churches.'"

"God perhaps really begins when we say the word with which Multatuli finishes the 'Prayer of an Unbeliever: O god, there is no God!' For me, that God of the clergymen is dead as a doornail. But am I atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me so - so be it - but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live and others did not live; and then if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call it God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically, though it is very real, and see that as God, or as good as God." - Vincent

"I think that everything which is really good and beautiful - of inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works - comes from God, and that which is bad and wrong in men and in their works is not of God, and God does not approve of it. But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something - whatever you like - you will be on the way to knowing more about him." - Vincent