Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beethoven on how he wrote his music

     Then from the focus of enthusiasm I must discharge melody in all directions; I pursue it, capture it again passionately; I see it flying away and disappearing in the mass of varied agitation; now I seize upon it again with renewed passion; I cannot tear myself from it; I am impelled with hurried modulations to multiply it, and, at length I conquer it: behold, a symphony!  Music, verily, is the mediator between the life of the mind and the senses...
     The mind wants to expand into the limitless and universal where everything flows into a stream of feelings which spring from simple musical thoughts and which otherwise would die away unheeded. This is harmony, this is what speaks from my symphonies, the sweet blend of manifold forms flows along in a stream to its destination. There indeed one feels something eternal, infinite, something never wholly comprehensible is in all that is of the mind, and although in my works I always feel that I have succeeded, yet at the last kettle-drum with which I have driven home to my audience my pleasure, my musical conviction, like a child I feel starving once again in me an eternal hunger that but a moment before seemed to have been assuaged...

Friday, December 9, 2011

Structural Polyphony

In lyrical poetry, to be sure, we find numerous examples of a development suggesting a simple figure, a perceptible curve.  But the types are always very elementary.  When I speak of composition, I have in mind poems in which an attempt is made to equal the masterly complexity of music by introducing "harmonic" relationships, symmetries, contrasts, correspondences, etc., between their parts. - Paul Valéry

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dylan Thomas's love for the lives of words

I fell in love – that is the only expression I can think of – once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to heat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once. And, when I began to read the nursery rhymes for myself, and, later, to read other verses and ballads, I knew that I had discovered the most important things, to me, that could be ever. There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable. Out of them came the gusts and grunts and hiccups and heehaws of the common fun of the earth; and though what the words meant was, in its own way, often deliciously funny enough, so much funnier seemed to me, at that almost forgotten time, the shape and shade and size and noise of the words as they hummed, strummed, jugged, and galloped along.

That was the time of innocence; words burst upon me, unencumbered by trivial or portentous association; words were their springlike selves, fresh with Eden's dew, as they flew out of the air. They made their own original associations as they sprang and shone. The words "Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross," were as haunting to me, who did not know then what a cock-horse was nor cared a damn where Banbury Cross might be, as, much later, were such lines as John Donne's, "Go and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root," which also I could not understand when I first read them.

And as I read more and more, and it was not all verse, by any means, my love for the real life of words increased until I knew that I must live with them and in them always. - Dylan Thomas

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Possibility as the Great Good

If life were merely a habit, I should commit suicide; but even now, more or less desperate, I cannot but think, "Something wonderful may happen."  It is not optimism, it is a rejection of self-pity (I hope) which leaves a loophole for life. . .I merely choose to remain living out of respect for possibility.  And possibility is the great good. - Frank O'Hara

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Therapy

Marx believed that revolution would change social relations. Instead we prefer a status quo that widens the opportunity for entry into it, but cannot be challenged except at the edges. The challenge of a developing self is to be prepared to change. We can tinker with our own edges and make ourselves more inclusive, more open, and all that is good. But we made need more than that. The purpose of therapy as Freud knew, is to find a safe place for a revolution. That’s a contradiction in terms, but it is accurate. I never used to understand therapy. I thought everything could be done by effort and an act of will and on your own. Very stupid. - Jeanette Winterson

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The eternally present & fleeting fugitive prey of poetry

     [It is not] by absence of mind and dreaming that one can impose on speech such precious and rare arrangements.  The true condition of a true poet is as distinct as possible from the state of dreaming.  I see in it only willed inquiry, suppleness of thought, the soul's assent to exquisite constraints, and the perpetual triumph of sacrifice.
     It is the very one who wants to write down his dream who is obliged to be extremely wide awake. . .
     Whoever says exactness and style invokes the opposite of a dream; whoever meets these in a work must presuppose in its author all the labor and time he needed to resist the permanent dissipation of his thoughts. . . And the more restless and fugitive the prey one covets, the more presence of mind and power of will one needs to make it eternally present in its eternally fleeting aspect. - Paul Valéry

Monday, November 14, 2011

Frank O'Hara on Avoiding Monotony

If de Kooning says that what he really is interested in is Poussin; that's his way of not being bored with Kandinsky when all the world is looking at Kandinsky.  That attitude may only work for two years, but that doesn't matter in the life of the artist as long as it energizes him to produce more works that are beautiful. . .[the painting of Larry Rivers] has taught me to be more keenly interested while I'm still alive.  And perhaps this is the most important thing art can say.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Art vs Habit

Habit devours everything, objects, clothes, furniture, your wife and the fear of war. . . That which we call "art" exists in order to remedy our perception of life, to make things felt, to make the stone stony.  The purpose of art is to evoke in man a sensation of things, to make him perceive things rather than merely recognize them.  In order to do so art uses two devices: making things strange and complicating the form, so as to increase the duration and the difficulty of perception. - Victor Shklovsky

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The tectonic shift of visiting Paris

I come here to live another life, connected to but not identical to my own. I read different books. I speak (not well) a different language. I eat different food and change my usual habits. Consequently I think about things differently, and when that happens, I remember things differently too. This is striking and surprising, as though the layers and layers of time and mind and experience and capacity will re-order themselves if given the opportunity to do so. I felt relief this morning walking over the Pont Neuf with the dog. The relief was not just the happiness of a short break, though it was that too, but it was also a tectonic shift in my social relations with myself and my life. We are in relation to ourselves, and that can change, stretch, recolour, recode. - Jeanette Winterson

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Love of Art (for enhancing consciousness)

We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among "the children of this world," in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion - that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake. - Walter Pater

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Coltrane's Glorious Mistakes

Imperfections are not imperfect, they are indications of a song that is already there, differences, what makes matter matter.  There are no mistakes, there are only failures of recognition.  All problems can be solved musically.  On one of those umpteen Miles Davis box sets, there are three takes of a single song: in the first Coltrane hits an obviously off note, a clam it's called in the recording industry, in the second take he hits it again, at a different point, augments it, chooses it, this is Coltrane, man, so by the third time, it's not a wrong note, it's an integral part of the joyous soul-remaking power of his solo.  The intellect moves us too surely and easily to self-hating and the perfection of death. - Dean Young

Monday, October 31, 2011

Between silence and speech, silence is more dangerous: it's very safety endangers the self

For example, we say that one regrets ten times for having spoken to once for having kept silent - and why? Because the external fact of having spoken can involve one in difficulties, since it is an actuality.  But to have kept silent!  And yet this is the most dangerous of all . . . Not to venture is prudent.  And yet, precisely by not venturing it is so terribly easy to lose what would be hard to lose, however much one lost by risking, and in any case never this way, so easily, so completely, as if it were nothing at all - namely, oneself. - Kierkegaard

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oneness, Division & Hamlet

The idea of oneness is a bit odd. In the West we have interpreted this complexity as simplicity. Oneness does not mean no disagreements no paradoxes no contradictions no change. Oneness is not even some mystical state arrived at via gurus and meditation. Rather it is a way of allowing both contemplation and action. Take Hamlet, the hopelessly divided hero. When he can only contemplate he cannot act. When he acts he can no longer contemplate. Hamlet’s efforts to be his own man are undermined by the poisonous world of self-interest and intrigue that he inherits from his dead father. He is fatally flawed because he cannot end the family romance or remake the broken kingdom. He belongs to what has been not to what might be. If he could accept his own contradictions and those of everyone around him, he might gain in personal understanding as well as political power. But he can’t. Hamlet is an exercise in what happens when we believe that to be or not to be is the question. Nothing is that simple. - Jeanette Winterson

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Poem's Consolation

This process, one word leading to another, qualifying another, is what consoles [Primo] Levi.  For a moment, he is rescued from the narratives of utility that structure every second of his life: the poem's language creates an interior space where for a moment he may hide.  But at the end of the journey, Levi is plummeted back into a world in which utility is all, a world in which words cannot resist themselves because the German, French and Polish words for "cabbages and turnips" refer perfectly and interchangeably to things.  "For a moment I forget who I am and where I am," says Levi, and the phrase is powerful because it acknowledges that a poem's consolation is neither permanent nor complete. - James Longenbach

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wallace Stevens on Work

Early Stevens
"None of the great things in life have anything to do with making your living."

Late Stevens 1
"It gives a man character as a poet to have daily contact with a job.  I doubt whether I've lost a thing by leading an exceedingly regular and disciplined life."

Late Stevens 2
"A writer faces a point of honor that concerns him as a writer. He must apparently choose between starvation and that form of publishing (or being published) in which it is possible to make money. His problem is how to support himself while engaged in the most honorable capacity. There is only one answer. He must support himself in some other way."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fetching remote and precious metaphors through a figurative, metaphorical God

My God, my God. . .thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God. . .a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies. . .Neither art thou thus a figurative, a metaphorical God in thy word only, but in thy works too. The style of thy works, the phrase of thine actions, is metaphorical. . .Neither didst thou speak and work in this language only in the time of thy prophets; but since thou spokest in thy Son it is so too. How often, how much more often, doth thy Son call himself a way, and a light, and a gate, and a vine, and bread, than the Son of God, or of man? How much oftener doth he exhibit a metaphorical Christ, than a real, a literal? - John Donne, Devotions, #xix

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Kernel of Chekhov?

“He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth ­– all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy.” (from The Lady With the Dog)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Giacometti - a minimum of means to a stillness and dense inner life

He found a style in sculpture and stuck to it; he made skinny and elongated, attenuated figures, working a great deal with his wife Annette as a model, as well as his mother and brother Diego who was also an artist. In them, he managed to capture a sense of the human fate in the world as deeply tragic and maybe wondrous too.

Giacometti was a great modern artist partly because of his ability to create a strange and self-conscious iconography of the body. His figures were filled with iconic dignity, a stillness, a solitariness, a sense of a dense inner life, almost a spiritual life. Yet they were made using what seemed the minimum of means.

- Colm Tóibín


Thursday, September 29, 2011

The price and joy of the writer's vocation

I...would say with W.H. Auden, "writers are not passive recipients of good fortune, art is a vocation for which a price must be paid.  In being a writer one leaves the family hearth...Each must go his way alone, every step of it, learning for himself by painful trial and shaming error, never resting long, soon proceeding to risk total defeat in some new task." (Garbled by me, but what I feel - plus the fun and exhilaration of one's sundry experiments.) - Marianne Moore (from a letter to Wallace Stevens)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Emily Dickinson's faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity

Jonathan Edwards’ apocalyptic sermons voice human terror of obliteration in our lonely and inexplicable cosmos.  He exhorts us to turn from the world, to live ascetically, while actively striving to obtain the emotional peace that is grace.  Calvinist doctrine, as interpreted by this Neoplatonist inheritor of a lost cause in America, found no path to eternal life through material success.  It forbade retreat and monastic isolation, at the same time emphasizing “Justification by faith alone” – another contradiction.  Each person’s active participation was called for in the battle against sin.  To be in the world but avoid serving Mamon, I must renounce attachment to friends and worldly accomplishment.  Recognition by the world is not recognition by God, and is therefore a delusion.  Worry and regret over lack of recognition are empty and a snare.
To T.W. Higginson June 7, 1862
     I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin –
     If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her – if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase – and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me – then – My Barefoot-Rank is better – 
Emily Dickinson’s religion was Poetry.  As she went on through veils of connection to the secret alchemy of Deity, she was less and less interested in temporal blessing.  The decision not to publish her poems in her lifetime, to close up an extraordinary amount of work, is astonishing.  Far from being the misguided modesty of an oppressed female ego, it is a consummate Calvinist gesture of self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity.

Perry Miller said that Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of behavioral psychology, as evidenced by his careful documentation of the process of Conversion, anticipates American empiricism and William James.  I say that Emily Dickinson took both his legend and his learning, tore them free from his own humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism, then applied the freshness of his perception to the dead weight of American poetry as she knew it. – Susan Howe

Friday, September 16, 2011

Our predecessors more ourselves than we are?

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated, or more articulate, or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or who can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.” Reading the great writers, you may have the experience that Longinus associated with the sublime: You feel that you have actually created the text yourself. For somehow your predecessors are more yourself than you are. 
- Mark Edmundson

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hart Crane's "Logic of Metaphor"

As a poet, I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations...[A metaphor's] apparent illogic operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish its claim to another logic.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Emily Dickinson merging the minor and the vast

When Dickinson loses her housekeeper, who quit to get married, she writes that she really misses the maid—a common enough statement—but then writes, “To all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” This merging of the minor and the vast is a key trait of Dickinson in the poems and in the letters. The leaps of imagination are stunning. One needs privacy and silence, and flourishing genius, to live in such a realm. Otherwise, one stops at, “Gee, I miss Maggie the maid so much.” - Emily Fragos

Friday, September 2, 2011

In Praise of Absurdist Literature


     To use Vico's terminology, the metaphor is delightful because "it is more known by the hearer than presented by the speaker."
     Absurdist literature, which also contains high levels of cognitive dissonance, produces the same effect.  Psychologists asked a panel of undergraduates to read a modified version of Franz Kafka's short story "The Country Doctor," a mightmarish tale of a physician who makes a bizarre house call on a sick boy and his family.  One group read a version in which the narrative gradually broke down, ended abruptly with a series of non sequiturs, and was accompanied by bizarre and totally unrelated illustrations.  Another group read a parallel tale that made conventional sense, contained no non sequiturs, and was accompanied by illustrations related to the story.
     Researchers then gave both groups sixty different letter strings, each of which was made up of six to nine letters, and told them that half the strings contained a pattern.  Their task: identify the pattern and all the letter strings containing it.  Those who had read the more absurd version of "The Country Doctor" were almost twice as accurate in their answers as those who had read the conventional story.
     The researchers concluded that the incongruities in illogical stories, like the incongruities in jokes, spur the brain to look for patters it might not otherwise detect. - James Geary

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Picasso applying his hypotheses to the most unlikely places

Picasso is a born chef d’école. His is one of the most inventive minds in Europe. Invention is as clearly his supreme gift as sensibility is that of Matisse. His career has been a series of discoveries, each of which he has rapidly developed. A highly original and extremely happy conception enters his head, suggested, probably, by some odd thing he has seen. Forthwith he sets himself to analyze it and disentangle those principles that account for its peculiar happiness. He proceeds by experiment, applying his hypotheses in the most unlikely places. The significant elements of Negro sculpture are found to repeat their success in the drawing of a lemon. Before long he has established what looks like an infallible method for producing an effect of which, a few months earlier, no one had so much as dreamed. This is one reason why Picasso is a born chef d’école. And this is why of each new phase in his art the earlier examples are apt to be the more vital and well nourished. At the end he is approaching that formula towards which his intellectual effort tends inevitably. It is time for a new discovery. - Clive Bell, 1920

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two different faces of artists

Art has always two antithetical faces, a medal where one side, for example, would resemble Paul Rembrandt and the other side, Jacques Callot. Rembrandt is the philosopher with a white beard who holes himself up, absorbing himself in meditation and prayer, closing his eyes to better withdraw into himself, holding conversations with spirits of beauty, science, wisdom, and love, and burning himself out in order to penetrate the mysterious symbols of nature. Callot, on the contrary, is the braggart and salty footsoldier, strutting about the square, rowdy in the tavern and caressing the daughters of the bohemians, swearing only by his rapier and his blunderbuss, whose greatest concern is to wax his moustache. Now the author of this book has always considered art under this double personification. - Aloysius Bertrand

Monday, August 22, 2011

How art helps us to live our lives

If almost insensible changes in our moral sensibility take place over time, we perceive them only in the long run (as it is only in 1972 that Ashbery can transcribe the disseminated reflections and decisions generated in him over thirteen years).  For Ashbery, the artwork's union of aesthetic law and the illusion of intimacy, its integration of its symbolic parts into a perceived whole, works a significant ratification of inner selfhood and external possibility - although from it we cannot avoid awaking to the fresh demands of a changed moment.

What is the result of looking at a lyric such as Ashbery's for a reader who believes, with Stevens, that artworks help us to live our lives?  Because a poet wants above all to make, in each effort, something unique and irreplaceable, he would not like to have all his works collected together as conveyors of his ethical sense. It is precisely the individual drive of each artwork, capable of "distorting" the original moral urgency of the artist, that makes moral paraphrase so difficult.  Ashbery, writing on R.B. Kitaj, says that the graphic artist is "constantly scrutinizing all the chief indicators - poetry, pictures, politics, sex, the attitudes of people he sees, and the auras of situations they bring with them - in an effort to decode the cryptogram of the world" [Reported Sightings, 308].  

For the poet, who is no less observant than the graphic artist or the novelist, but for whom the social order has to be conveyed in words rather than through painted images, dramatic scenes, or the interaction of characters, poetry is a place for the decoding of the resistant semiotics of the contemporary.  As the poet's mental accumulation meets the compelling law of form, it is regularized from unintelligibility into a shape that seems "right."  The morality of this act, as Wallace Stevens said, consists in rejecting proposed forms that merely "console / Or sanctify."  Forms that "console" or "sanctify" are concessions to a nostalgic sentimentality.  Parmigianino - and Ashbery after him - refuses the consoling or sanctifying concession implicitly present in transcriptive mimesis, while nonetheless allowing recognizable figuration and emotional intimacy to play dominant roles in his art.

In praising Chardin, Ashbery once wrote of the "magnificent progress" possible as the artist "help[s] the spirit to take a new step":

If one takes the down-to-earth as point of departure and neither makes nor wastes any effort in trying to rise to an exalted or splendid level, every effort, every contribution of the artistic genius goes into transfiguring the manner of execution, changing the language, and helping the spirit to take a new step, thus constituting magnificent progress.  [Reported Sightings, 47]
Part of the "down-to-earth," for poets, is fostering within the lyric poem a climate of mutual trust between poet and reader.  Ashbery here stands between his predecessor in the past, the Francesco he both summons and dismisses, and the fictive reader of his own self-portrait in verse.  He addresses both of his invisible listeners in tones of intimate comprehension and sympathy.  Ashbery's invisible listeners - "Francesco" in fantasy and ourselves in reality - animate the poem from private meditation on an artwork into colloquy with a corresponding other, from the solitude of the lyric chamber to an imagination twinning us with someone more like us than we had imagined.  Poems constitute their invisible listeners as persons who understand, who will complete the expressive circuit of thought and language initiated by an artwork, and who will engage in the imagined ethical modeling of an ideal mutuality. - Helen Vendler

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A sometimes more desirable intimacy

I will be examining how the poet’s strange imagined relation with a listener who is invisible—either because he is divine, or because he exists only in the future, or because he is long dead—can be made psychologically credible, emotionally moving, and aesthetically powerful. But it is not only a neutral depiction of a relation that the poet has in mind: he aims to establish in the reader’s imagination a more admirable ethics of relation, one more desirable than can be found at present on the earth. Such is the Utopian will of these poets, as desire calls into being an image of possibility not yet realized in life, but—it is postulated—realizable. This possibility is brought to life on the page with a tenderness, wonder, and confidence that are borrowed from the closest moments of intimacy in life. Intimacy with the invisible is an intimacy with hope. Reading these poems, we take a step forward in conceiving a better intimacy—religious, sexual, or aesthetic—than we have hitherto known. - Helen Vendler (from intro to Invisible Listeners)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jacob as a model for Emily Dickinson

Jacob "fleeced" his brother Esau by pulling the wool over their father's eyes.  Jacob had followed his twin Esau into the world, and thus it seemed impossible for him to obtain the blessing of the firstborn.  But Jacob was unwilling to accept his fate passively: he purchased his brother's birthright for a mess of potage and deceived his blind father by throwing a goat's hide over his own smooth skin; thus did he master an apparently irrevocable loss.  The implications of this maneuver had a personal meaning for Emily Dickinson, who had been excluded from the family's quest for honor while her older brother was accepted as "natural" heir to the task of perpetuating the Dickinson family's reputation. - Cynthia Wolff

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lyric poetry

The kind of poems that manifest musical properties, but are intended to be read or spoken, not sung. They are by and large brief, rarely exceeding a page or two, and have about them a degree of emotional intensity that accounts for their having been written at all. At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. They not only fix in language what is most elusive about our experience, they convince us of its importance, even its truth. Of all literary genres the lyric is least changeable. Its themes are rooted in the continuity of human subjectivity and from antiquity have assumed a connection between privacy and universality. If this were not true, there would be no point in reading poems from the past. They speak to us with the immediacy that time has not diminished and gauge our humanness as accurately and as passionately as any poem written today. . .but I feel that I've somehow told a lie. Poetry never seems, at least to me, so clear-cut. Not that what I said was wrong—it was just too narrow. - Mark Strand

Monday, August 8, 2011

John Ashbery's version of "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood"


That's the way it goes. For many weeks you have been exploring what seemed to be a profitable way of doing. You discovered that there was a fork in the road, so first you followed what seemed to be the less promising, or at any rate the more obvious, of the two branches until you felt that you had a good idea of where it led. Then you returned to investigate the more tangled way, and for a time its intricacies seemed to promise a more complex and therefore a more practical goal for you, one that could be picked up in any number of ways so that all its faces or applications could be thoroughly scrutinized. And in so doing you began to realize that the two branches were joined together again, farther ahead; that this place of joining was indeed the end, and that it was the very place you set out from, whose intolerable mixture of reality and fantasy had started you on the road which has now come full circle. It has been an absorbing puzzle. (from Three Poems)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Writing as performance, inspiration as animus

It's just the same as when you feel a joke coming. You see somebody coming down the street that you're accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other. Coming over him in the same way...something does it to you. It's him coming toward you that gives you the animus you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it's mostly animus. - Robert Frost

Monday, August 1, 2011

Writers & Artists - lives of another structure

There is a moment in the life of Rimbaud when he comes to realize that he is a poet, but that it is not his fault. He writes: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One has to say, ‘I am thought.’ I is another. Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” For me, that tells all. I haven’t studied the lives of the mystics as closely as I have the lives of the artists but I do see the correspondences. The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, of vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing. We want, as much as we can, to be happy. Isn’t this true? Yet there are these strange, luminous creatures who recognize that there is something to which they must submit, in order to be fully realized. It is the wood finding itself a violin. Kafka is another. Another artist as mystic. Another who recognizes this affinity. In his journal he writes, “This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.” Again, the calling. Again the gift-slash-curse privileged. The whole life structured toward developing the necessary faculties, the necessary conditions. Rimbaud must be drunk and whoring all the time, Kafka has literally to abstain and deny himself everything. - Yahia Lababidi

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Poets creating a world of their own

You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were . . . thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral. But there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world. Wallace Stevens was the twentieth-century master of this. There’s no other poetry that sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem. But then, there’s nothing that sounds like a Frost poem, either. Or a Hardy poem. These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices. - Mark Strand

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beckett distancing himself further from definition, but endearing himself further to us

But, see above, have they not already bent over me till black and blue in the face, nay, have they ever done anything else, during the past - no, no dates for pity's sake, and another question, what am I doing in Mahood's story, and in Worm's, or rather what are they doing in mine, there are some irons in the fire to be going on with, let them melt. Oh I know, I know, attention please, this may mean something, I know, there's nothing new there, it's all part of the same old irresistible boloney, namely, but my dear man, come, be reasonable, look, this is you, look at the photograph, and here's your file, no convictions, I assure you, come now, make an effort, at your age, to have no identity, it's a scandal. (from The Unnamable)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Emily Dickinson abhorred boundaries

Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as One returned, I feel
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores – 
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by Eye – 

Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal – 
Slow tramp the Centuries,
And the Cycles wheel!
Dickinson dwelt in prolepsis.  Her 1844 Webster’s defines the word as “anticipation”; our own describes it as “a figurative device by which a future event is presumed to have already occurred.” As in I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –; as in And Finished knowing – then –.  From the beginning, her vision was trained on the other side.
Just lost—when I was saved is a glimpse of and a grasp at the proleptic. An early work, from 1860 (#132 in the Franklin numbering, which I’ll use throughout; #160 in Johnson’s) it anticipates—in its theme, its narrative, its lexicon, and its meter—the poetic terrain which Dickinson would fully stake out over the next couple of years. It conveys the calling, but doesn’t yet announce the election.
The reader can tarry a while in the old-hymn sway of those first lines, sussing out the figure/ground of lost and saved.  It’s a near-death narrative: at the point of crossing over, within view of Eternity, breath blows her back. The poem is charged with almost, with this close; her vision of what is beyond infuses what is caught betwixt-and-between the Just Now and the Next Time.  There are hints, too, of future poems here: those centuries will wheel again in #151, and there’s a hovering of #340 I felt a Funeral in my Brain in the tread of centuries, and in And Being, but an Ear.
If it’s a proleptic primer, it’s also a metrical sampler, stitched in dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and—that rarity for Dickinson—pentameter.  The method is unique and deliberate:  a metrical advancing, a kind of tacking leeward and then skirting—disappointing—the pentameter shore. Cynthia Griffin Wolff  has provided a useful historical context, citing the tales of seamen who had “sailed the line,” whose instruments had suddenly became unreliable along the equator (238).  Dickinson’s moored / unmoored calibrations similarly shift.  The first stanza of trimeter (I’ll count line 3 as trimeter twice; she wrote it as two lines in manuscript in fascicle 10) resolves into split and then full pentameter.  The second stanza’s Therefore anchors us in hymn meter, ‘long meter’—tetrameter— for three lines before sailing once again into a five-beat line:  Some pale Reporter, before the awful doors –) and closing with emphatic dimeter: Before the Seal! The third and fourth continue again in split pentameter, couplets cleaved in twos and threes.
Before the Seal:  Faced with that barrier, confined to before, anticipation subsumes the poem.  The bottom drops out in the simultaneous motion (steal, tramp, wheel) and suspension (to stay, to tarry) of that next-time.  Present tense turns into infinitives; the glimpsed and lost become the vast and boundary-less Imagined—the interior universe she would continue to explore for the next 26 years.
Therefore, as One returned, I feel  / Odd secrets of the line to tell.  The haunt and freight, the so-cold-no-fire-will-ever-warm-me of those lines (the isolation of One, indeterminate agency of returned, inchoate inarticulate feel, the expansive echoing interior of the entire next line)—that’s what returns me to this poem.  Here is where the poem’s spinning compass points true north; here is the plumb line.  It feels burdened and ignited both, disoriented and exhilarated. “One has to imagine that Emily Dickinson was inhabited,” Charles Wright has said. “How else could she know those things (31)?”
Dickinson abhorred a boundary.  Just as the seal as limit (closed door, barrier) will by poem #411 become the sign of her election (Mine – by the royal Seal! ), she rewrote the restrictions imposed by her time and her poetic inheritance, and anticipated something new.  In crossing the line between lost and saved, earthly existence and death, traditional verse or “spasmodic gait,” obscurity or immortality, she inhabited and subverted it, told it from within.  Sailor and Reporter, her line became circumference. – Debra Allbery

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The strangeness of the world refreshed

Sometimes poems aren’t literal representations of anything. Sometimes a poem just exists as something else in the universe that you haven’t encountered before. If you want a poem to say what it means, right away, clearly—and of course the poet who writes that kind of poem is usually talking about his or her own experiences—well, what happens when you read that kind of poem is that it puts you back in the world that you know. The poem makes that world seem a little more comfortable, because here is somebody else who has had an experience like yours. But you see, these little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted—we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. People like John Ashbery or Stevens do just the opposite—they try to explode those reductions. There’s a desire in Ashbery, for example, to create perfect non sequiturs, to continually take us off guard. He creates a world that is fractured. It doesn’t imitate reality. But, looking at it from another point of view, you could say that it’s simply a world that is as fractured and as unpredictable as the world in which we move every day. So there’s an element of delight in these people who rearrange reality. We usually hang on to the predictability of our experiences to such an extent . . . and there’s nowhere else where one can escape that as thoroughly as one can in certain poets’ work. When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive—not as routinely there. - Mark Strand

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The subversive character of prose poetry

I would have placed emphasis on the subversive character of prose poetry. For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. Most often it has an informal, playful air, like the rapid, unfinished caricatures left behind on café napkins. Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose, and it can either have a quiet meditative air or feel like a performance in a three-ring circus. It is savvy about the poetry of the past, but it thumbs its nose at verse that is too willed and too self-consciously significant. It mocks poetry by calling attention to the foolishness of its earnestness. Here in the United States, where poets speak with reverence of authentic experience and write poems about their dads taking them fishing when they were little, telling the reader even the name of the river and the kind of car they drove that day to make it sound more believable, one longs for poems in which imagination runs free and where tragedy and comedy can be shuffled as if they belonged in the same pack of cards.


Naturally, one of the main impulses for writing such a piece is to escape all labels.


Prose poetry is a monster-child of two incompatible impulses, one which wants to tell a story and another, equally powerful, which wants to freeze an image, or a bit of language, for our scrutiny. In prose, sentence follows sentence till they have had their say. Poetry, on the other hand, spins in place. The moment we come to the end of a poem, we want to go back to the beginning and reread it, suspecting more there than meets the eye. Prose poems call on our powers to make imaginative connections between seemingly disconnected fragments of language, as anyone who has ever read one of these little-understood, always original and often unforgettable creations knows. They look like prose and act like poems, because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination. - Charles Simic

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kafka's humor & pathos

I shall never get home like this; my flourishing practice is lost; a successor is robbing me, but to no purpose since he cannot replace me; in my house the loathsome groom wreaks his havoc; Rosy is his victim; I refuse to imagine it. Naked, exposed to the frost of this most wretched of times, with an earthly cart and unearthly horses, I roam about, an old man. My fur coat is hanging from the back of the cart but I cannot reach it, and no one from the agile rabble of patients lifts a finger. Duped! Decieved! One response to a mis-ring of the night-bell - and there's no making amends. - Kafka (from "A Country Doctor")

The country doctor ends up, as do other Kafkan protagonists - the bucket rider, the hunter Gracchus, most of all K. the land surveyor - neither alive nor dead, neither in true motion with a purpose nor in stasis. Expectations - theirs and ours - are thwarted by the literal, the realm of fact. We do not know whether Kafka is or is not allegorizing the Jewish condition in his time and place, or his own situation as a writer. Somehow we apprehend that Kafka gets away with his own mode of ngation: cognitively there is a release from repression, and the country doctor's fate is exemplary in a Jewish way, or has some relation to the experiential cost of Kafka's confirmation as an author. - Harold Bloom

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Monologue" by Eugene Jolas

I sleepwalk through the city and plunge into a golden smoke. What is my love for you, magical space and sinister time, when the dusk settles into marble and the owl is a categorical imperative? I left dream-staring puppets in a room, where the Ethiopian trembles at a blasphemy, and the sketch-book holds the contours of an atlas. The mother had a child in the dust and the lonely woman cried in a cafe. Then came a girl from out the autumnal solitude of her rooms, where she had stared at mirrors, and her silence was the dream of a midnight. Cool waters flowed under bridges and electric wires brought decay of flowers, tempests, portraits of mightmares, broken violins. Comrades walked tired into hurricanes. When the philosphies panted, and the symphonies ended in a shriek, stallions ground fire, and the bandits swilled brandy in an hallucinated den. The organ at the fair whimpered love-songs, but the funeral of the poor went past us with memories of loam. The trees became brass shining in sun. My waiting gulped bussed, tears, dust, drinks and sparrows.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hart Crane & Harriet Monroe debate the "logic" of poetry

In 1926, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem "At Melville's Tomb," Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force. The first stanza reads:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

"Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else)," Monroe wrote. Crane in his reply admitted that

as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.

In his next paragraph he emphasized, however, that there was nothing aleatory in his method. "This may sound," he wrote,

as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.

He then took Monroe through some lines of the poem, including "The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath/An embassy." "Dice bequeath an embassy," he wrote,

in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having "numbers" but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seems legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.

Monroe had commented as well on the opening of the last stanza:

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides....

"Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant," she wrote, "contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe."

"Hasn't it often occurred," Crane replied,

that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured?

In the same letter, he quoted from Blake and T.S. Eliot to show how the language of the poetry he wrote and admired did not simply ignore logic, it sought to find a logic deeply embedded in metaphor and suggestion. This poetry, he made clear, did not follow the lazy path dictated by the unconscious, or allow the outlandish or the merely associative to triumph, but was deliberate and exact, even though it belonged "to another order of experience than science." He worked toward both "great vividness and accuracy of statement," even if it might seem to some, including Monroe, that the vivid triumphed over the accurate. - Colm Tóibín

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Van Gogh - a psychological perspective

We cannot say with certainty what would have helped van Gogh. We do not know what combination of alcoholism, epilepsy, and madness brought him down. The usual clinical picture offered is of a hypersensitive soul who was rejected by his father and who consequently suffered profound self-attack seizures. There is no question that self-hatred was a crucial element of his nature. But so was a deep faith in himself and, above all, the power of creation. Something in him persisted tenaciously with minimal encouragement and acceptance. He had to paint - and he did. It is often pointed out that his self-attacks and self-doubts slowed him down. He painted best when he felt good, or at least during periods of remission. But his stubbornness was the other side of his attacks and doubts. A rigidity and fixedness persevered with the same blind force as his attacks. It was as if his self-hatred fueled as well as suffocated him. Perhaps he needed the challenge of doing something against great and impossible odds in order to do anything at all. He needed debility as a foil to radiance.

Over and over his attacks sought to cancel him out and he emerged with fresh vision. He lived the rebirth archetype in a deformed and quasi-aborted way. He needed to break himself down in order to begin freshly and nakedly. If he could have found the help he needed, his self-attack system might have achieved its cleansing function more wholesomely. But given his temperament, family, and social conditions, he made use of the tools he had available. In his case, a distorted self-hate had to assume the function of ripping his personality apart in order to keep tapping into the primordial ground of his being. - Michael Eigen

Monday, June 27, 2011

Experiencing a poem

I do feel that people's expectations are misdirected when all they want is to understand a poem. It is one of the exasperating things about the way poetry is taught. It is assumed that an understanding of the poem is the same as the experience of the poem. Often the experience of a poem—a good poem—will elude understanding. Not totally, of course, but enough, enough to have us be close to what lies just out of reach. I think that for most poets in the writing of their poems there is a point when language takes over and they follow it. Suddenly, it just sounds right. In my case—and I don't like to bring myself up in this way—I trust the implication of what I am saying, even though I am not absolutely sure of what it is that I am saying. I'm just willing to let it be. Because if I were sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and I could verify and check it out and feel, 'yes, I've said what I intended,' I don't think that poem would be smarter than I am. At any rate, to get back to what I was saying a moment ago: it is 'beyondness,' or that depth that you reach in a poem that keeps you returning to it. I suppose you have to like being mystified. That which can't be explained away or easily understood in a poem, that place which is unreachable or mysterious, is where the poem becomes ours, finally becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, of trying to characterize the experience of it, the reader is absorbing the poem; even though there's an absence there or something that doesn't quite match up with his experience, it becomes more and more his. And what becomes his is, of course, generated by language, language designed to make him feel connected to something that he doesn't understand. He comes into possession of a mystery, and instead of being frightened by it, he feels that he has some control over it. But does he? Or is it simply that language has permitted him the illusion of control? My own experience suggests that language allows me the feeling that it can go only as far as my consciousness will take it, even though I know the opposite is true, that I go where language leads. And it leads me again and again to the sense that it is holding something back, that it contains more than I can possibly grasp, that mysteries exist, and are encountered most seductively in poems. I even feel at times that poems are the protective shell of the seductiveness of language. What am I talking about? Even the meaning of the phrase I've just uttered suddenly eludes me. - Mark Strand

Joyce the prose poet

Jan Pieters Sweelink. The quaint name of the old Dutch musician makes all beauty seem quaint and far. I hear his variations for the clavichord on an old air: Youth has an end. In the vague mist of old sounds a faint point of light appears: the speech of the soul is about to be heard. Youth has an end: the end is here. It will never be. You know that well. What then? Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Error" by Mark Strand

We drifted downstream under a scattering of stars
and slept until the sun rose. When we got to the capital,
which lay in ruins, we built a large fire out of what chairs
and table we could find. The heat was so fierce that birds
overhead caught fire and fell flaming to earth.
These we ate, then continued on foot into regions
where the sea is frozen and the ground is strewn
with moonlike boulders. If only we had stopped,
turned, and gone back to the garden we started from,
with its broken urn, its pile of rotting leaves, and sat
gazing up at the house and seen only the passing
of sunlight over its windows, that would have been
enough, even if the wind cried and clouds scudded seaward
like the pages of a book on which nothing was written.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hart Crane's transformation

He came to New York at seventeen equipped with an hysterical and disorderly family, almost no formal education, and the cultural inheritance of a middle-western small town; his religious training had been in Christian Science. By the time he was twenty-five, before The Bridge had scarcely been conceived, he had written a body of lyric poetry which for originality, distinction, and power, remains the great poetic achievement of his generation. If he is not our twentieth-century poet as hero, I do not know where else to look for him.
- Allen Tate

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The life-enhancing tone of Hamlet

There is, however, more to be said about the tone of Hamlet than that its range of presented or represented experiences is great, vigorous, brilliant, and vital. As these qualities establish, the tone is also life-enhancing, if I may borrow a term from Berenson. That is, the quality of the sheer love of life, of being alive, is shared by all, including the melancholic Hamlet. Hamlet can gossip with the players, remind them of the rudiments of their craft, partake of the artist’s ecstasy over a good play well done; and he can jest with Polonius, the King, and the gravediggers. Of course it is true that he complains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has of late, he knows not why, lost his mirth; yet minutes before he has pulled off one of his delightful bits of bawdiness in his burlesque of Fortune as a strumpet in whose privates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enjoy her favors. Hamlet has lost his mirth, but clearly not quite all of it. He can still joke obscenely, yet harmlessly, with Ophelia later in the play. His wit, often expressed for the sheer love of it, is present throughout. Certainly he is bitter and depressed, but the natural delight in wit and humor shines through the darkness.

As artist, Shakespeare dramatizes the mystery; as philosophical artist, he also dramatizes the denial of any convincing solution to the mystery. In effect, in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows us that man lives, questions, affirms, doubts and dies. – Morris Weitz

Monday, June 13, 2011

Robert Frost on reading actively

(from a letter about his students and teaching at college)

They are too directly intent on their reading. They can't get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn't have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading...The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse - give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together!

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Emily Dickinson's "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—"

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

My love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry didn’t begin until I went to college. The woefully inadequate textbooks I had in high school seemed to favor poems like “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose.” I imagine the publishers found these poems to be ”safe“ and accessible for high school students, but at that time in my life, poems about nature and wildlife left me cold.

When I first encountered this poem, #670, I was absolutely floored. It spoke to me in a way that was powerful and immediate. I couldn’t believe that the quiet, frail, wide-eyed girl in the picture had written it. I looked back to that photograph, stared at it a long time, and wondered who she had really been.

When I began teaching high school English, it was a foregone conclusion that I would teach Dickinson—and not the poems that had been in my old textbook, but instead, the poems like this one that dared to speak “out loud” about the dark anxieties, even terrors, that haunt all of us—and perhaps teenagers, especially so.

There is a lot to “teach” in this poem. Dickinson breaks from her usual hymn meter here, writing the 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza in an almost-but-not-quite iambic pentameter, followed by 2nd and 4th lines in an abrupt dimeter and, ultimately, monometer.

“Why,” I ask my students, “might she have wanted to unsettle the rhythm of this poem? How do these techniques work toward the message she is trying to convey?” They always have a lot to say. We talk as well about diction, how Dickinson evokes the world of the Gothic with words like “chamber,” “haunted,” “midnight,” “ghost,” “abbey,” and “assassin.” She creates the landscape we know, the world of the intentionally frightening, to juxtapose it with the interior world that frightens us against our will.

The first year I taught this poem, it seemed to me that it had an impact on some of the kids—but, of course, there was no way I could be sure. That evening, a huge snowstorm was predicted, and snowflakes were already beginning to fall. Anticipating a day off from school, I went out to the local bookstore to get some fresh reading material. When I turned the corner into the poetry section, there on hands and knees, looking through books on a bottom shelf, was one of my students, Jessica. She was a girl who was not easy to know. She rarely spoke and her expression gave little clue as to what went on in her mind. Seeing her in her dance team uniform on game days, I had made some snap judgments about who she was, what she valued.

That evening, her mother was with her, tapping her foot and looking anxiously out at the swirling snow. Clearly, she wanted to get home before the roads got too slick. I watched as Jessica pulled out Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and opened the pages. It made my night. Truth be told, it made my whole year.

– Melanie McCabe

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Part of a poem by Anne Carson

Red bird on top of a dead pear tree kept singing three notes
and I sang back. Bird added a flourish (four notes) and I
tried that. Bird's notes were on pitch mine not, we learned
this and tried a few more, bird had turned on its branch to
(perhaps) me and there being no exact way to end I bent and
took the paper and went in. It left me with a part open.
Little part. But I did not get at myself. A human always
wants to.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excelling in the outer, failing on the inner

It's been said that a civilization or society has an outer and an inner life, and that when the society is flourishing, that's because the outer and the inner are working together in harmony.

The outer life is manifest in science, material artifacts, political economy. The inner life is that of its members - their human flourishing and spiritual wellbeing. What determines how the two are linked is the values or ethics of the day. When the values are right, both aspects thrive and the society has vitality. When the values are wrong, one aspect dominates the other.

So, the analysis would be that we live in a period that has excelled in the outer and has become detached from the inner, because the vitality of the age - growth, consumption, etc - precludes it. Hence, our outer lives - work, politics, economics - have become detached from our inner lives, and so life often feels dehumanizing and appears to be heading for some kind of destruction.

That said, you see all kinds of situations in which you see a desire to link the outer and the inner.

- It's the appeal of ecological philosophies that try to re-enchant nature and the material (funny how the materialist age is one that values the material less and less).
- It's why complementary therapies thrive, no matter how flaky they are, because they don't just promise welfare but wellbeing.
- It's why narratives, stories and myth-telling dominate entertainment - from novels and history books, to online games, to films - because they address the inner need for imaginative resources to tell us who and what we are.
- Conversely, you might say it's why politics has become so managerial, because it has no vision of what it is to be human.
- And, I suspect it's why the law based upon rights is becoming unhinged, and is undermining as much as promoting human flourishing, because it is gradually replacing human relationships with contractual relationships, mutual respect with solipsistic demands, sympathy with suing etc.

The focus on the outer also generates a culture that finds it hard to hear the harsher truths of our inner lives, that it's as much about pain as pleasure, limitation as freedom, commitment as choice, trauma as tranquility. But the paradox is that meaningfulness is only found when individuals can embrace both sides. There is no love without suffering, no beginning without ending, no life without death.

What to do? I'm not that sure! However, key and rather disparate questions are beginning to emerge for me.

- How can we construct a rhythm for the day/week/year that is not determined by work or consumption, and so allows our inner lives to shape the outer, not just the outer the inner?
- What virtues do we need to pay attention to the inner again - patience, attention, a tolerance of doubt/uncertainty, courage (I'm reminded of Pascal's, 'man's sole problem is his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.').
- Clearly education is crucial, as the virtue ethics approach, with which this inner/outer analysis chimes, is all about character formation, habits, practical intelligence.
- I'd say we need less fix-it politics and more one that might be a little like faith.

- Mark Vernon

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shakespeare keeping his head on his shoulders

One sight in particular would certainly have arrested Shakespeare’s attention; it was a major tourist attraction, always pointed out to new arrivals. Stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate, two arches from the Southwark side, were severed heads, some completely reduced to skulls, others parboiled and tanned, still identifiable. These were not the remains of common thieves, rapists, and murderers. Ordinary criminals were strung up by the hundreds on gibbets located around the margins of the city. The heads on the bridge, visitors were duly informed, were those of gentlemen and nobles who suffered the fate of traitors. A foreign visitor to London in 1592 counted thirty-four of them; another in 1598 said he counted more than thirty. When he first walked across the bridge, or very soon after, Shakespeare must have realized that among the heads were those of John Somerville and the man who bore his own mother’s name and may have been his distant kinsman, Edward Arden…the sight on the bridge was the most compelling instruction yet: keep control of yourself; do not fall into the hands of your enemies; be smart, tough, and realistic; master strategies of concealment and evasion; keep your head on your shoulders.

Hard lessons for a poet and an actor aspiring to be heard and seen by the world. But some such lessons may have caused Shakespeare to reach a decision that has since made it difficult to understand who he was. Where are his personal letters? Why have scholars, ferreting for centuries, failed to find the books he must have owned or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in those books. The way that Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did? Why, in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote—even in the sonnets—couched in way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts? Scholars have long thought that the answer must lie in indifference and accident: no contemporary thought that this play—wrights’ personal views were sufficiently important to record, no one bothered to save his casual letters, and the boxes of papers that may have been left to his daughter Susanna were eventually sold off and used to wrap fish or stiffen the spines of new books or were simply burned. Possibly. But the heads on the pikes may have spoken to him on the day he entered London—and he may well have needed their warning. – Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, May 27, 2011

Navigating between reverence and audacity

The funny thing about creative-writing courses is that they busily rush around teaching people how to express their banalities without teaching them how to source the things that they need to discover. If you go and study music or painting, you learn about the past. You learn where to look, you learn what to look at, how to look things up. You need creative-reading courses not creative-writing courses. Then people would have something that they could actually use in a positive way instead of rushing in thinking, How can I express myself?

You have to choose the best of the past—and the standards are very high in the English language—and ask yourself, Where do I figure in this, do I come anywhere near it? If not, you may as well stop. If you really think that you are nowhere compared with the people you admire—and that has to be a very ruthless and honest self-examination and not simply flattery—then really you should stop. It’s only by thoroughly knowing those other writers and daring to challenge them, even, that you would ever write. So there’s always this paradox of respect and challenge, of recognizing that work exists that you should always be striving towards, which you have to look up to, which is fantastic and which probably you will never reach. It is almost a balance—either you have got it or you haven’t. I don’t know how you really teach it to people who want to write, because there is always too much of the one or the other, too much reverence or too much audacity: either “I know I can do it all,” or “I’m so timid, I’m just going to copy.”

It is important, first of all, to be sure that you do have something to express, but also to show a care for language that suggests that it comes first, before you, before your personality, before your own ambitions. There is always that level of humility. Whenever we talk about writing, we start to talk about paradoxes. We’ve talked about respect and challenge. Now we are talking about chutzpah and humility. The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant. Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them. - Jeanette Winterson

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the growth of literature

The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed. He may turn up on the field of representation in any authorial pose, he may depict real moments from his own life or make allusions to them. . . . After all, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature, are not laid up in heaven. Every specific situation is historical. And the growth of literature is not merely development and change within the fixed boundaries of any given definition; the boundaries themselves are constantly changing. - Mikhail Bakhtin

What was it that Bakhtin said again? “The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing.” We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league. We don’t need critics obsessed with the real, or with whether the novel is alive or dead. We need critics willing to look at the novels that are already out there, going about their business, quietly making the future of literature, whether “we” like it or not. - Jess Row

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some of the great questions of how to live well, yet friction grips

- that an engagement with life begins with wonder;
- that there is a natural law which reveals a minimal amount required for our flourishing;
- that happiness is not a feeling but has to do with entering deeply into the relationships that surround us;
- that the passions need educating, not least passions like anger;
- that the stoic aim of becoming attuned with life is key - even or especially when it demands of us a noble response to suffering.


This is all rich wisdom. However, the risk is that, so seamlessly shared, it loses its edge and bite. When so easily agreed upon, it comes to seem obvious and easy too, and clearly it is not, or we'd be living wisely and well already. Listening [to an atheist and a priest agree on these questions] made me realize that disagreement, with at least a little emotional heat, is useful. It provides the listener with a sense of what's at stake. Friction grips. It's perhaps why…the Bible's many conflicts and arguments are not embarrassments, but are necessary as the substance that has brought the people of the book to where they are with God.


- Mark Vernon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Coleridge on Shakespeare

I think, I should have conjectured from these poems, that even then the great instinct, which impelled the poet to the drama, was secretly working in him, prompting him - by a series and never broken chain of imagery, always vivid and, because unbroken, often minute; by the highest effort of the picturesque in words, of which words are capable...to provide a substitute for that visual language, that constant intervention and running comment by tone, look and gesture, which in his dramatic works he was entitled to expect from the players. His Venus and Adonis seem at once the characters themselves, and the whole representation of those characters by the most consummate actors. You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Psychoanalysis does something altogether breathtaking

Psychoanalysis is still feared and attacked, not because it raises the spectre of the sex lives of children or suggests that we want to sleep with our fathers and mothers, but because it invites us into a world with more variables that we can cope with, while giving us very powerful demonstrations of why we should believe this world to be a truer representation of what’s going on than the world we are able to handle. But beyond this, psychoanalysis does something altogether breathtaking. Out of the unworkability of its own project, and as though to upbraid us with the comfortable dishonesty of our ordinary human bonds, it fashions an image of pure trust: not trust based on the appetitive deal-making of friendship and love, but a groundless, purposeless, unjustifiable trust between two human beings holding a conversation on the edge of the abyss.
- Nicholas Spice

Monday, May 9, 2011

A poem as a verbal earthly paradise and the painful truth

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly. - W.H. Auden

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life as a tenuous balance

between striving for transcendence and making an imprint on the physical world:

The chassidic masters explain that life—the retention of a spiritual soul within a physical body—entails a tenuous balance between two powerful forces in the soul: ratzo (striving, running away) and shov (return, settling). Ratzo is the soul’s striving for transcendence, its yearning to tear free of the entanglements of material life and achieve a self-nullifying reunion with its Creator and Source. At the same time, however, every human soul also possesses shov—a will for actualization, a commitment to live a physical life and make an imprint upon a physical world.

Thus the verse calls the soul of man “a lamp of G‑d.” The lamp’s flame surges upwards, as if to tear free from the wick and lose itself in the great expanses of energy that gird the heavens. But even as it strains heavenward, the flame is also pulling back, tightening its grip on the wick and drinking thirstily of the oil in the lamp that sustains its continued existence as an individual flame. And it is this tension of conflicting energies, this vacillation from being to dissolution and back again, that produces light.

So, too, with the soul of man. The striving to escape physical life is checked by the will to be and to achieve, which is in turn checked by the striving for spirituality and transcendence. When a person’s involvements with the world threaten to overwhelm him and make him their prisoner, the soul’s ratzo resists this by awakening his inherent desire to connect with his source in G‑d; and when a person’s spirituality threatens to carry him off to the sublime yonder, the soul’s shov kicks in, arousing a desire for physical life and worldly achievement. Together, the conflict and collision of these two drives produce a flame that illuminates its surroundings with a G‑dly light: a life that escapes the pull of earth even as it interacts with it and develops it in harmony with the soul’s spiritual vision

So life’s constant to-and-fro movement is more than a cycle that runs from existence to oblivion and back. It is, rather, an upward spiral: man escapes his finite self, but is driven back to make his transcendent achievements an integral part of his individual being; brought back to earth, his “escapist” nature now reasserts itself, compelling him to reach beyond the horizon of his new, expanded self as well; transcending his new self, his shov once again draws him back to reality.


Back and forth, upward and on, the flame of man dances, his two most basic drives conspiring to propel him to bridge ever wider gulfs between transcendence and immanence, between the ideal and the real.


- Simon Jacobson