Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Jordan (II)" by George Herbert / Comment by John Drury

When first my lines of heav’nly joys made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excel,
That I sought out quaint words and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did run,
Off’ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begun;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sun,
Much less those joys which trample on his head.

As flames do work and wind, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might hear a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretense!
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d;
Copy out only that, and save expense.

The experience of writing has rarely been so exactly or succinctly presented as in "Jordan (II)". In the first verse the poet is brimming over with ideas and enjoying the expression of them in "quaint words and trim invention". A slight shadow falls in the last line, where he finds himself in the writer's trap of seeking his reader's approval, "Decking [adorning] the sense as if it were to sell" with ornaments...but the exhilaration of fertility carries over into the second verse, then turns into the business of correction and revision - even this in the same high spirits. One way and another he is carried away: and that is the trouble. The third verse surprises the reader. "So did I weave myself into the sense": surely this is positive, to wind self and sense, poet and his matter, into fusion? Yet it is the height of what he calls mere "bustling". Literary self-indulgence and self-preoccupation, however enjoyable, is precisely not, for him, the point of writing poetry. It should be objective, transitive, and deal with something other. That is what the "friend" indicates in a tactful whisper. And it was there all the time, "ready penn'd" in Holy Writ and particularly in the record there of Christ: yet again, love.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Poetry connecting to the material we're made from

When I said that poetry tries and wants to make contact with reality, that is, with uttermost-being (truth, God, whatness, somethingness-nothingness, chaos-order) -- to the Veda seers, the vibrating void; to the eighth-century Chinese poets, that-which-is-self-engendering; to mathematicians, a veil of numbers; to the Jewish mystics, the En-Sof; to Christian mystics, the indwelling of God and emanation of Christ in all things; to the animal kingdoms on earth, the starry night; to contemporary physicists, the excitation of superstrings; to cosmologists, the residue of an explosion of something to whose pre-explosion existence there is perhaps, as my friend Elaine Scarry once said to me, ‘no door’ -- I am referring very specifically and particularly to the material we are made from, this animated-in-us matter which we, in turn, express such a passionate drive to know (and which, in turn, has evolved a way to be known, through us, and is the source and object of our wonder and compulsion). - Gjertrude Schnackenberg

Monday, November 2, 2015

Freedom, Constraint & Emily Dickinson

Merely because poet and modern society are in conflict does not mean art necessarily gains by freedom. It is a sentimental error to think Emily Dickinson the victim of male obstructionism. Without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry. There are two reasons for this. First, Romanticism's overexpanded self requires artificial restraints. Dickinson finds these limitations in sadomasochistic nature and reproduces them in her dual style [Wordsworthian and Sadean]. Without such a discipline, the Romantic poet cannot take a single step, for the sterile vastness of modern freedom is like gravity-free outer space, in which one cannot walk or run. Second, women do not rise to supreme achievement unless they are under powerful internal compulsion. Dickinson was a woman of abnormal will. Her poetry profits from the enormous disparity between that will and the feminine social persona to which she fell heir at birth. But her sadism is not anger, the a posteriori response to social injustice. It is hostility, an a priori Achillean intolerance for the existence of the female version of Romantic solipsism. - Camille Paglia

Monday, October 5, 2015

Our executive ego vs our bodily instincts

By the time most of us have reached early adulthood, our executive ego has had a doctorate education while our bodily instincts may still be in kindergarten. We may have become accustomed to ignoring or overriding our inner instincts, mainly because they do no tally with the grand plan of our executive ego. Our mind may tell us that it's a good idea to stay at our job for exactly three more years, but our body may have other thoughts on the matter. The executive ego tells us to plow through our fatigue even if it's the first day of a difficult period, while the body cries out for an afternoon nap. We may become such experts at living outside the reach of our bodily instincts that we start to navigate our lives purely from our rational minds, leaving behind our gut instincts and our heartfelt desires. Our inner wisdom, which is guided by the body, does not take lightly to this dismissal. Navigating our lives with only one instrument of perception is like setting out on a journey across the ocean with a compass while ignoring the movement of the wind, water, and stars. - Donna Farhi

Friday, September 11, 2015

from "Ready-Made Bouquet" by Dean Young

... Loving someone who does not
love you may lead to writing impenetrable poems
and/or staying awake until dawn, drawn to airy,
azure rituals of space ships and birds.
Some despairs may be relieved by other despairs

as in not knowing how to pay for psychoanalysis,
as in wrecking your car as in this poem. Please
pass me another quart of kerosene. A cygnet
is a baby swan. Hat rack, cheese cake, mold.
The despair of wading through a river at night

towards a cruel lover is powerfully evoked
in Chekhov's story "Agafya." The heart seems
designed for despair especially if you study
embryology while being in love with your lab
partner who lets you kiss her under the charts
of organelles but doesn't respond yet

later you think she didn't not respond either
which fills you with idiotic hope very like
despair just as a cloud can be very like
a cannon, the way it starts out as a simple
tube then ties itself in a knot. The heart,
I mean.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Great Thinkers on Solitude

“In solitude, we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us.” Explained Virginia Woolf.

“Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.” Professed Ingmar Bergman.

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Wrote Charlotte Brontë.

Jules Verne disagreed: “Solitude, isolation, are painful things and beyond human endurance.”

Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged: "Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.”

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.” According to Thomas Mann.

And according to Aldous Huxley: "The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”

The religion of Henry David Thoreau: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Laurence Sterne: “In solitude the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.”

"The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” Albert Einstein believed.

“Great men are like eagles, and build their nest on some lofty solitude.” So sayeth Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Solitude is the place of purification.” Preached Martin Buber.

“Solitude is independence.” — Hermann Hesse.

“One can acquire everything in solitude except character.” Claimed Stendhal.

Rainer Maria Rilke, again on the topic: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Robert Louis Stevenson felt that: "There is a fellowship more quiet even than solitude, and which, rightly understood, is solitude made perfect.”

“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you.” Said Harold Bloom.

Perhaps he was reiterating Marcel Proust’s idea that: “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

“I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’—that wouldn’t be enough—but like a dead man.” Insisted Franz Kafka.

Mary Shelley explained: “Solitude was my only consolation—deep, dark, deathlike solitude.”

Guy de Maupassant countered: “Solitude is indeed dangerous for a working intelligence. We need to have around us people who think and speak. When we are alone for a long time we people the void with phantoms.”

Speaking of peopling the void with phantoms, Bohumil Hrabal once wrote: “I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”

"Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, where we are least alone.” Revealed Lord Byron.

“Solitude vivifies; isolation kills.” The words of Joseph Roux.

Paul Tillich: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”

Or, as May Sarton put it: “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”

“One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Solitude sometimes is best society.” Admitted John Milton.

“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” Thought Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.” Asserted Octavio Paz.

Aristotle explained: “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”

Jean-Paul Sartre: “God is absence. God is the solitude of man.”

via The Scofield, Issue 1.1, Summer, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

On Lyric Poetry

Lyric is still pre-eminently the non-social genre: though normative narrative and normative drama require at least two characters and are therefore ineluctably social, normative lyric requires not a character but a voice, one engaged in solitary meditation. Meditation may of course include direct address, so much so that some theorists have called apostrophe the defining trope of lyric; but the person addressed is, in the normative lyric, always silent and almost always absent. Only one consciousness, and that an abstract one, is present in the normative lyric.

No single description fits all lyrics, but I will proceed on the assumption that the purpose of lyric, as a genre, is to represent an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others. The inner life of anyone may of course have many aims and thoughts directed to social purposes; but the inner life is by definition one not engaged directly in social life. Rather, it is engaged in a reflective look at its own processes of thought and feeling. Of course it may, in that moment, urge social action on itself. But social transactions as such cannot take place in lyric as they do in narrative or drama.

Because the inner life is partly constructed through legitimating vehicles (myths, social positions, religious dogma, ritual practice, gender roles) which undergo historical and cultural change, paying attention to poetic strategies necessarily entails awareness of the existential possibilities available at a given historical moment. - Helen Vendler

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Redemption" by George Herbert / Comment by John Drury

Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
    Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
    And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;
    They told me there that he was lately gone
    About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

Bit by bit the momentous allegory, based on the two meanings of the title, emerges. The first four lines appear to be a matter-of-fact agricultural anecdote. That the landlord's manor house should be in heaven alerts the reader to some religious meta-narrative, but the realism of the poet's dealings with the people at the manor house restores the sense of the everyday. It carries through to the end of the poem. The poet/farmer seeks his landlord in the city. He hears the noise of a mugging, down some alley one imagines: "a ragged noise and mirth". With a shock he recognizes his landlord as its victim, whose dying words change his leasehold just as he wanted. The doubling of a nasty, all too common incident in urban life with the solution of the human predicament in the final, terse climax is astonishing and leaves the reader open-mouthed. The age-old contrast of simple country life with the vanities and squalor of the town was a well-established pastoral convention. As with all conventions, it is how it is used that counts. Herbert does it with a freshness born of sharp observation of both its aspects and the skill to turn them to urgent and deeply felt meaning. - John Drury

It's also likely where John Berryman, having read and admired Herbert, got the idea for the ending of Dream Song 26:

The glories of the world struck me, made me aria, once.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
if be you cares to say.
–Henry.  Henry became interested in women’s bodies,
his loins were & were the    scene of stupendous achievement.
Stupor. Knees, dear. Pray.

All the knobs & softness of, my god,
the ducking & trouble it swarm on Henry,
at one time.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
you seems excited-like.
–Fell Henry back into   the original crime: art, rime

besides a sense of others, my God, my god,
and a jealousy for the honor (alive) of his country,
what can get more odd?
and discontent with the thriving gangs & pride.
–What happen then, Mr Bones?
–I had a most marvelous   piece of luck. I died.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"We grow accustomed to the Dark" by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye –

A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darkness –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Not a Leg to Stand On" by Brenda Goodman‏

As with so many of my paintings I started with marks all over the surface such as those on top and the right sides. The smaller figure emerged first and the painting just evolved from there. What was amazing about this painting was that while looking at it when it was done I said: "Wow, this was my childhood." My mother was very dominating and overwhelming and throughout my life I have often felt that if i didn't have a leg to stand on she would devour me (emotionally) and there it was in front of me with only one leg and my mother demanding the whole space. A meaning as strong and clear as that doesn't always reveal itself but it did in this painting, and when that happens it's so fulfilling and significant. - Brenda Goodman

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Teaching on behalf of, rather than in scorn of, humanity

The business of teachers is to discover and then to demand all the authority that flows from their obligations as teachers. That is their given style of exemplary engagement. An understanding of that authority will arise when the self-interest, mutual but not identical, of teacher and student in the civilization transmitted is known. To foster consciousness in this sense is one business of radical research. Vastly more courage must be exhibited by all of us in our purely pedagogic roles. Teachers must seek authority as members of an academic community, whether to stop teaching, to teach this and not that, to protect students from destructive grids of requirements and moronic sanctions, to foster self-possession without preempting criticism, and above all to understand and say clearly what they are about – so that they do not commit the final pedagogic crime of conferring the problem unsolved upon those who have come for something else. Teachers, radical or otherwise, exercise their role among their peers and toward their students no by abdicating their role, but by defining it. Above all, I am suggesting that the business of the literary teacher is to understand her civilization as it is the life-space of the person: consoling, redemptive, but also treacherous, abhorrent, arbitrary, absurd. To administer civilization on behalf of rather than in scorn of humanity now appears to be the hardest problem that has ever confronted mind. - Allen Grossman

Friday, June 19, 2015

Nietzsche’s three stages of the spirit to reach original creation

Part of any good artist's work is to find a right balance between the independence born of willing solitude and the ability to speak for and to others. Nietzsche’s “Three Metamorphoses” offers some insight into how this is done. The philosopher describes three stages through which the spirit must pass before it can truly serve. First it must become a camel, then the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child. The camel, who feeds on acorns and grasses and the hunger for truth, is a being who has agreed to bear the weight of the world, to carry the difficult forward by her own obstinate strength. For a writer, this stage represents the willingness to be instructed by things as they are, to enter into tradition and culture and be affected by the issues and hardships of common human life. Having accomplished this task, Nietzsche writes, the spirit needs to turn lion-like and say the dragon of external values, whose every scale is a golden plaque reading “Thou shalt.” Here, a writer steps outside received opinion and enters creative freedom, beginning to find his resources within. It is a stage described also in a saying from Zen: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” But rebellion and independence are still not enough. The lion too must give way, and become a child: only in a child’s forgetting and innocence can a truly new spirit come into the world. This is the beginning of genuinely original creation, the moment in which the writer can turn at last toward the work without preconception, without any motive beyond knowing the taste of what is. - Jane Hirshfield

Friday, June 5, 2015

“I would not paint—a picture” by Emily Dickinson / Comment by Adrienne Rich

I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell—delicious—on—
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare—celestial—stir—
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
Such sumptuous—Despair—

I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endured Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—

Nor would I be a Poet—
It’s finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

This poem is about choosing an orthodox “feminine” role: the receptive rather than the creative; viewer rather than painter, listener rather than musician; acted-upon rather than active. Yet even while ostensibly choosing this role she wonders “how the fingers feel/ whose rare-celestial—stir—/ Evokes so sweet a Torment—“ and the “feminine” role is praised in a curious sequence of adjectives: “Enamored—impotent—content.” The strange paradox of this poem—its exquisite irony—is that it is about choosing not to be a poet, a poem which is gainsaid by no fewer than one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five poems made during the writer’s life, including itself. Moreover, the images of the poem rise to a climax (like the Balloon she evokes) but the climax happens as she describes, not what it is to be the receiver, but the maker and receiver at once “A privilege so awful / What would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!” —a climax which recalls the poem: “He fumbles at your soul / As Players at the Keys / Before they drop the Music on—” And of course, in writing those lines she possesses herself of that privilege and that “Dower.” I have said that this is a poem of exquisite ironies. It is, indeed, though in a very different mode, related to Dickinson’s “little-girl” strategy. The woman who feels herself to be Vesuvius at home has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.

Friday, May 29, 2015

On Sylvia Plath’s Development

Of all the paths hinted at in her juvenilia, this is the one [magical figures] that Plath initially followed. In the mid-1950's, her poetry returns again and again to the notion that she must reconcile herself to a disenchanted world. Not until several years had passed did Plath discover that, in fact, her true gifts lay in the opposite direction: not objective description of the world, but an overpowering subjectivity that turns the entire world into a myth. Not until she embraced the recklessness of her imagination would she become a great poet.

Plath clearly experiences this disenchantment as a painful loss; if it weren’t so difficult to accept, she wouldn’t need to remind herself of it in poem after poem. As a result, she is compelled to find some other source of pleasure and significance, both in her life and in her writing, which will not depend on the childish visions she has abandoned. Her only hope, Plath proposes, is to submit to reality, but with an awareness so heightened that the ordinary becomes strange.

Whenever she writes about love and desire, Plath finds that she must violate her self-imposed ban on fictions. When the subjects closest to her must be treated in poetry, she turns, not to the kind of objective vision praised in “On the Plethora of Dryads,” but to the vocabulary of fairy tale and myth: queen and giant, panther and Persephone. And these fictions are, paradoxically, more true to Plath’s actual experience than the naturalism she attempts in descriptive poems like “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor.” Truth, Plath discovers, is not the same as fact.

By embracing the notion of poetry as a “sea change,” Plath takes a decisive step away from life and nature, toward art and symbol. This is the crucial evolution that separates Plath’s pedestrian poetry of the mid-1950s from the mythic intensity of her late work.

To put her myths into action, to inhabit them instead of just proposing them, would be the decisive next step in Plath’s work, marking the beginning of her major poetry.

- Adam Kirsch

Friday, May 22, 2015

To lose cheerfully

Moreover, it is time in any case to oppose this mendacious world with the resources of an irony, a shrewdness, a serenity without illusions. For, supposing we were to lose, we would be able to lose cheerfully, without condemning, without prophesying. We are not looking for a rest. If the world insists on blowing up, we may be the only ones to grant it the right to do so, while giving ourselves the right to have spoken in vain. - George Bataille

Friday, May 15, 2015

I thought I would be becoming spiritually enlightened?!

The student asked: I feel that since I have started walking the spiritual path I am facing many more trials and tribulations and even mental conflicts than ever before. Yet, I thought that [insert your spiritual practice here] was supposed to produce peacefulness and mental serenity. Can you tell me what is happening to me? Swamiji replied: You are simply becoming more sensitive and paying the price for that sensitivity. Everything that is happening to you now was also happening to you before, but you were so undeveloped, so coarse in your awareness, that you were not as acutely conscious of it as you are now. Since you are becoming sensitised, you also are becoming more critical of your own life. Mistakes and failures and character flaws which you have carried all your life without caring much about them suddenly loom up clear and ugly before you, exposing themselves in the light of your newly developed awareness. - Swami Gitananda Giri

Friday, May 8, 2015

Shakespeare's Sonnet 65 & a note by Allen Grossman

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

This exchange is the basis of literary civilization and is in direct conflict with communalism, secular humanity, immanent instinctual absolutism. Sonnet 65 is meaningful only if mankind collectively has a future, if that future is social and literate, and that literate sociality is valued. None of these three conditions is any longer necessarily assured. Further, we may note that the symbol-instinct exchange in Sonnet 65 requires an interior space, a dimensional subjectivity, in which to inscribe itself. But interior space, the most elite of traditional aesthetic possessions, bears with it the marks of its origins in a disabled self. It is the servile strategy of the Christian slave and invites all persons, slaves of time, to become the captives also of a social future of a given sort in which some kinds of action are preempted and instinctual completion in particular "traded off" against the mimetic bright star. In other words, Sonnet 65, which stands here in my brief  remarks for the tradition, defines the person in a specific sense, and the terms of that definition are neither inevitable nor beyond question. Poetry is an irreplaceable mode of the visibility of person to person, but it is impatient of action, communalism, and instinctual humanity, all of which may be as necessary as life itself. You cannot have it all ways. The antinomic character of our civilization (instinct or symbol but not both; agency or communion but not both, etc.) is now as always being administered as a weapon against the young (order or feeling, but not both). Fate is being used as an argument against life. Even Pity, as Blake reminds us "would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor." There is a justifiable system of counter-refusals to be opposed both to the refusals and to the consolations of art. It is not the business of the teacher to conspire with fate.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Edge of Town" by Philip Guston / Comment by R.C. Baker

Philip Guston's cartoon paintings...retain a startling freshness allied to abiding classicism...with stolid scenes of Klansmen that combined Piero della Francesca's Renaissance modeling with the social conscience of Mexico's radical muralists. Then came the lush abstractions that made Guston famous, and finally the late figures, which harked back to the Sunday comics he'd loved in his youth. The first exhibition showcasing his mature style, in 1970, was generally panned; Guston's newfound crudity was compared to the work of R. Crumb, a cartoonist the painter claimed he'd never heard of, but who shared the same big-foot comic-strip influences. Willem de Kooning, however, understood Guston's breakthrough [Guston: "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."], telling the younger artist: "Well, now you are on your own! You've paid off all your debts!" Indeed, the gorgeous Edge of Town (1969) blends the absurdity of Guston's newfound characters with classical monumentality and the wet-into-wet cross-hatching of his elegant abstractions, creating a sui generis amalgam of image, mood, and materials. The beefy pink flesh of dangerous buffoons in white hoods, waving clubs and fat cigars as they cruise about in a pathetic black jalopy, is set against a sky of smoggy blue and rose leavened with the dark flecks of an earlier, painted-over composition - an imperfect foundation as flawed and dynamic as America itself. This is a transitional painting filled with struggle and conviction, the kind of work that leaps over everything else in its time to become timeless.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What’s poetry for Stevens?

A short sampling: “Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death,” a poem is “a meteor,” “a pheasant,” “a cafe,” “the disengaging of (a) reality,” “a health,” “the body,” “a cure of the mind,” “a renovation of experience,” “a pheasant disappearing into the brush,” “a search for the inexplicable,” “a revelation of the elements of appearance,” “the scholar’s art,” “a nature created by the poet.” “The poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.” “In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.” And of course, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully”

Friday, April 3, 2015

On impersonality, meter and repetition

First, as for the coming-and-going presence of impersonality…probably I consider these things - the personal and the impersonal - to be facets rather than paradoxes, or a Möbius strip more than a duality. Poetry is primarily emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, but it has to alternate between, to interleave, the personal and the impersonal, subjective and objective - partly out of respect for sheer common sense; and partly because in most of us there is an inner necessity to seek perspective, connection, objectivity in tragic circumstances; and partly because it’s when passion has hurt us most that we learn the meaning of dispassion, and learn to pray for detachment. But there is also an always present moral principle that cuts poetry into facets both personal and impersonal, depending upon which way we turn it and which angle we hold to the light, this principle being - to paraphrase a sentence of the sixteenth-century mystic Moses Cordovero - that one’s self has something of all other selves within it, and that other selves have something of one’s self within them. This could be poetry’s motto. And again it reminds me of Gershom Scholem’s comment about the spiritual universe, that “the sparks of the Shekinah are everywhere, scattered among all the spheres of metaphysical and physical existence . . .”

Second, as for the insistence of meter in the lines…meter is pure emotion (technique, for artists, is an emotion, a passion - technique means only the way a thing is done, and the way a thing is done is one of the most passionate preoccupations an artist can have - not separable, despite critical habits of discussion, from what is being expressed). Meter’s energy and urgency, its redoubling emphasis of the way thoughts feel, is like a wordless vow underlying the words, perhaps translatable into words as: So help me God (four stresses in a row there, and no pause). And this trait of insistence you mention, the tenacity, relentlessness, is personal; I don’t give up.

And last, as for use of repetition: repetition can be a prodigious, last-ditch effort to remember what happened, in circumstances of pain or panic, here on earth in “the scene of the soul’s exile,” among the cliffs of fall; or an effort to find, or to establish, a pulse; or to try to create a pattern - as if to arrange a chain of molecules which, if lightning strikes, could become animated. Or it can be a magic spell, when all else fails. Or repetition can be a way of saying: I will keep telling this until I get it right; or until I have made this thing that must happen, happen; or until this prayer is answered; or until the tale I am telling has come to its own end, or has come true; or if nothing can come of this tale, then at least I will keep saying it until I know that the tale has been heard, whether here on earth or in the upper spheres - so help me God.

- Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Parable of the ill-fitting suit

A man went to a tailor and tried on a suit. As he stood before the mirror, he noticed the vest was a little uneven at the bottom. “Oh,” said the tailor, “don’t worry about that. Just hold the shorter end down with your left hand and no one will ever notice.” When the customer proceeded to do this, he noticed that the lapel of the jacket curled up instead of lying flat. “Oh that?” said the tailor. “That’s nothing. Just turn your head a little and hold it down with your chin.” The customer complied, and as he did, he noticed that the inseam of the pants was a little short and he felt that the rise was a bit too tight. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the tailor. “Just pull the inseam down with your right hand, and everything will be perfect.” The customer agreed and purchased the suit.

The next day he wore his new suit with all the accompanying hand and chin “alterations.” As he limped through the park with his chin holding down his lapel, one hand tugging at the vest, the other hand grasping his crotch, two old men stopped playing checkers to watch him stagger by. “George, oh, my God!” said the first man. “Look at that poor crippled man!” The second man reflected for a moment, then murmured, “Yes, George, indeed he has been terribly crippled, but I wonder, where did he get such a nice suit?”

- via Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Friday, March 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Or," by Thomas Sayers Ellis

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

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

Poetry is pleasure.

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

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

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


And pleasure.

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

- Jeanette Winterson

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Unbounded connection through the paradox of practice

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

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

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

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

- Donna Farhi

Friday, February 6, 2015

"Brotherhood of the Traveling Armor" by Maura Barry-Garland

The Iliad as told by Ann Brashares

“Agamemnon expects me to sacrifice my life for the cause,” Achilles pouted, “when he won’t even sacrifice his sex life.” His best friend Patroclus nodded sympathetically from where he sat, legs splayed apart, on the floor of Achilles’s tent.

“I can’t believe this is going to be our first battle apart,” Patroclus sighed. He stared at the floor in hopes that his long, sandy-brown bangs would obscure the budding tears in his mahogany-colored eyes.

“A few days on your own won’t kill you,” Achilles said, flicking his own dark hair out of his eyes, “but could you stop using that word?”

“What word?” Patroclus replied. “Going? Believe?”

Battle,” Achilles sighed. “I really wish I could help, but I need to show Agamemnon that he can’t get away with being a lame-o.”

“Well, there’s a way you can help the cause without giving in to Agamemnon,” Patroclus insisted. “If you let me wear your armor into battle, Hector will be so scared that he’ll turn his army around and go right back through the gates!”

“I guess it won’t hurt if I let you try it on,” Achilles said, working his powerful jaw as he contemplated his options. “After all, it’s probably too heavy for you.”

He gathered his armor from where it lay heaped across the top of his dresser. The breastplate was heavy bronze and the giant shield was decorated with patches, like the heart he’d sewn on after meeting Briseis and the gold star Thetis had given him the time he went a full week without throwing a temper tantrum. A few scribbles in Sharpie also marked the gleaming expanse of metal, including “Momma’s Boy” and “P+A=BFF.” 

“If the armor hugs your butt, it’s just going to look baggy on mine,” Patroclus complained as he slipped the cuirass on. It slid over his head softly and came to rest at his sides, fitting like a glove. 

“It’s like it was made for you!” Achilles exclaimed. The breastplate hugged his friend’s slim, toned torso and brought out the metallic glint in his dark eyes.

Patroclus admired himself in the mirror and smiled even wider. At first, the shield had looked too busy for his taste and the breastplate too old, but on him they both came alive.

“Don’t be silly,” he grinned as he removed the armor, “It was made for you, Achy. You should try it on, too!”

“Sure,” Achilles said, and he pulled the cuirass on. Miraculously, the armor fit him just as perfectly as it had fit his taller, thinner friend. The gleaming bronze offset his glowing tan and cast highlights on the contours of his muscles.

“We can take turns wearing it into battle!” Achilles said as he stripped the armor off and handed it to Patroclus.

“It’ll be like you’re right there with me, even when you’re not!” Patroclus squealed, and the two embraced.

“We’re always going to be besties, Pattie,” Achilles said as he wrapped his arms around his friend. 

“Always,” Patroclus said, voice slightly muffled because his face was buried in the mighty pecs of Achilles.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Jung on the second half of life

Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem  in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church.

- - -

Are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world? No, thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

- Carl Jung

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Guidance Counseling" by Dean Young / Comment by Tony Hoagland

             Guidance Counseling

When the woman, her shoulders on the bed,
lifts her pelvis into the standing man,
it is called Dentist Office. When the man,
after an hour hiding in the closet, couples
with she of the silk flowered dress, snug
in the bodice, it is called Representational
Democracy. When the woman licks her burnt
finger, Tiny Garden Hose. Often as we grow
old, life becomes a page obscured with
too many words, like the sea with too many
flashes. Like my screaming may obscure
my love for you. How will we ever understand
each other? When the woman sits on the ladder
and the man churns like a lizard, stiff
in melting ice cream, it is called Many Dews.

     “How will we ever understand / each other?" Young’s poem is not obviously about the failure of speech, but tells a tale of comical disjointedness. Language is seen as a king of slippery impediment between people. Poetic attention has been shifted from the realm of nature (perception) to the realm of language, naming. The poem could be said to be celebratory, even erotic, in its playfulness – but it emphasizes the disturbing, nutty arbitrariness of the act of naming: Tiny Garden Hose; Representational Democracy; Dentist Office. If we listen closely, we can recognize that these coinages are in fact a parody, an echo, of commercial brand names, such as might be used to name perfumes, sell ice cream flavors, or catalogue paint chips.
     Young's poem celebrates the cornucopia of phenomena. It playfully suggests that there is a rich universe of experience to be encountered. But...our wonder has acquired a wry self-consciousness, and is directed not toward nature but toward the radical elasticity of language, and the stylistic dexterity of artifice.

Friday, January 9, 2015

from "Dies: A Sentence" by Vanessa Place

The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl, we can go naked, I suppose, there’s nothing to stop us and everything points in that direction, do you think there will be much music later and of what variety, we’ve that, at least, now that there’s plenty of pieces to be gathered by the wool-coated orphans and their musty mums, they’ll put us in warm wicker baskets, cover us with a cozy blanket of snow, and carry us home, walking carefully through the rubble and around the landmines, or visa versa...