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Friday, October 29, 2010

Yeats' strategy in old age

In 1938, the year before he died, he wrote "The Spur," whose speaker accuses the reader of thinking it "horrible" that an old man should be filled with "lust and rage" and retorts, "They were not such a plague when I was young. / What else have I to spur me into song?" The continuity Yeats asserts here is both genuine and false. If we turn from this poem to the early poetry expecting to see the young Yeats lusting and raging, we will be disappointed. The explicit embrace of lust and rage is a feature of Yeats's later years, when he cast himself as the wild, wicked old man to avoid settling into any of the more comfortable poses available to him: the venerable sage, the elder statesman, or the famous poet. All these roles appealed to him, and he adopted each of them at times, but he also drove himself beyond them, towards more risky personae. - Marjorie Howes

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The flow of life vs the poison of suppression

There is only one real deprivation...and that is not to be able to give one's gift to [others]...The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. - May Sarton

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Experiencing Othello is an act of self-creation

Othello is not an attack on love...It is, rather, a condensed focus on the violence inherent in the very idea of deep erotic attachments. This, on its own, does not mean that such bonds should be avoided, and so here the play is not read as a dismissal of love but as a mode of distancing from its idealization...Nussbaum and Diamond have urged that there are acts of thought that take place while reading literature that are themselves morally worthy and so constitute moral activity. They have said this regarding empathy to characters, but there are other acts of this kind. When in The Relevance of the Beautiful Gadamer identified art with symbol, he explained the phenomenology of symbolic thought through a process of participation and self-completion that the symbol offers to the temporally limited self. Choosing to relate to something as symbolic is thus choosing a completion of one's identity (which also explains why attacks on symbols can hurt as they do; selves, rather than objects, are being offended). Literary works can thereby turn into more than aesthetic objects to be comtemplated at one time or another: they become invitations for a completion of one's identity. Choosing to relate to Othello as a love-as-death spectacle, entering and reentering the closing scene where a direct act of violence reciprocates indirect violence, is thus not merely an operation of thought but an act of self-creating that is itself the taking of a moral stance in relation to erotic ideology, a stance in which the very idea of loving violence can meaninglully resonate. We thereby allow Othello to enter much more than a bedchamber with his light. - Tzachi Zamir

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Limits help us expand

Everything that we are in a positive sense is by virtue of some limitation. And this being limited, this being crippled, is what is called destiny, life. That which is missing in life, that which oppresses us, forms the fabric of life and maintains us within it. - Emily Dickinson

Monday, October 25, 2010

Awareness of death gives life

The confrontation with death - and the reprieve from it - makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful...Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we know we'd never die. - Abrahan Maslow, from a letter written as he was recuperating from a heart attack

Thursday, October 21, 2010

We need more Ghosts

"If you have ghosts, then you have everything." Those are the words of a tender and demented rock legend of Austin, and they have stood me in good stead for years. Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to. I mean about the old themes, if one believes that they are still the right themes. Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete. It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present. I have the best ghosts. My revenants will never utter the words “Mark Zuckerberg.” In their company I may continue the conversation that was begun long before me and will last (since I will not shirk my own ghost-service!) long after me. And the ghosts have a public role to play, too. They possess a certain shaming force. They spoil the adoration of the new with the suggestion of a decline, or at least with an unflattering comparison. I do not mean to exaggerate their authority: in the recurring quarrels between the ancients (who, by our velocity, lived just the other day) and the moderns, there are no clear winners. But the triumphalism of our moment, and its e-millenialism; its idiotic belief in the complete transfiguration of human life in our time, in the final banishment of opacity and obscurity, by means of data and the quantification of inwardness, or by the expansion of genetic and evolutionary necessities—all this is not supportable. Is it conservatism to say so? Perhaps. I think of it more as a custodial feeling about the many attainments that made it, quite improbably, all the way across time to me, and for whose fate I am, whether I like it or not, responsible. (I like it.) Too much is slipping away too easily. - Leon Wieseltier

Monday, October 18, 2010

Three necessary qualities for poems (Yeats)

Expression...depends entirely on the adequacy of the poet's technique: about that Yeats was very clear. In addressing technique he emphasized, in his maturity, three necessary qualities: that the poet's sentences should sound like speech, that words must be put into their "natural order," and that an emotional unity should connect the parts of a work of art. "I always try for the most natural order possible, largely to make thought which being poetical always is difficult to modern people as plain as I can." The lack of one or more of these qualities was what he generally criticized in the work of others. "I cannot say" (he wrote to one would-be poet who had sent Yeats some of his verses) "that any of these poems have the perfection of form, the emotional unity, that is lasting poetry." - Helen Vendler

Friday, October 15, 2010

An imagined version of Love

Terrified and alone one turns to others, not out of love, just out of the desperate and self-centered need for comfort. Those are the shabby beginnings of our love. Yet gradually a transformation occurs. He who knows how to grant comfort becomes the guarantor of hope, the keeper of one's image of oneself...no ideals of self-scrifice or courage are now at work. Just the inner necessity to defend what has become too precious to be destroyed. - Ilona Karmel

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The most exciting movement

The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains. The breathless swing is between subject matter and form. - Robert Frost

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Art is the great stimulant to life

L’art pour l’art.— The fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralizing tendency in art, against its subordination to morality. L’art pour l’art means: “The devil take morality!”— But even this hostility still betrays the overpowering force of the prejudice. When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless—in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!”—that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations … Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability…? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?— Art is the great stimulant to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?— One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life,—does it not thereby spoil life for us?— And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.”— But this—as I have already suggested—is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye”: one must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing?— This state itself is a great desideratum [Wünschbarkeit]; whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it, he must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread—this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. - Nietzsche

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Prospero Poet by way of three epitaphs

Hardy, Yeats, and Frost have all written epitaphs for themselves.

Hardy
I never cared for life, life cared for me.
And hence I owed it some fidelity...

Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life and death
Horseman pass by.

Frost
I would have it written of me on my stone
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.

Of the three, Frost surely comes off the best. Hardy seems to be stating the Pessimist's Case rather than his real feelings. "I never cared..." Never? Now, Mr. Hardy, really. Yeats's horseman is a stage prop; the passer-by is much more likely to be a motorist. But Frost convinces me that he is telling neither more nor less than the truth about himself. And when it comes to wisdom, is not having a lover's quarrel with life more worthy of Prospero than not caring or looking coldly? - W.H. Auden

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Poetics of Cooperation

When Keats wrote poetry, he told Woodhouse, "thoughts come about him in troops," from which "he culls...the best"; his poems could seem even "to come by chance or magic - to be...something given to him." The result is a poetry that does not so much pre-resolve thematic issues as represent them in ways that invite resolution, and completion, by the reader. In Susan Wolfson's apt phrase, this is a "poetics of cooperation," which predicates its art on the reciprocal activity of an imagining, desiring reader, and which ideally embodies an ethic of openness and generosity toward both reader and subject. In the Great Odes, we see the paradoxical but fruitful encounter between a form that fostered self-display and a poet who frequently deplored it: "Poetry," Keats wrote to Reynolds early in 1818, "should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject." - Paul Sheats

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Poetry’s Uselessness

It’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. Its hopelessness. All this talk of usefulness makes me feel I’ve suddenly been shanghaied into the helping professions. Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath. - Kay Ryan

Monday, October 4, 2010

The artistic life

The artistic life begins in instinct and moves toward calculation; or maybe, it begins in blind obsession and ends in self-possession. Or does it begin in play and end in ambition? Or, some say, it begins in inspiration and moves toward repetition. Whichever version you subscribe to, the loss of innocence is inevitable, and it is indeed a loss - but one that has its compensations. Some of the names for that compensation are skill, perspective, and choice. - Tony Hoagland

Friday, October 1, 2010

Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony

Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including even what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt. Ecstasy is ready to accept the entire world; irony, following in the steps of thought, questions everything, asks tendentious questions, doubts the meaning of poetry and even of itself. Irony knows that the world is tragic and sad. - Adam Zagajewski