Every artist has her own way of working. For me there are a few fundamentals that anchor my art making: Daily practice is one, and a willingness to surrender to the process is another. Following that thread will take you where it will, often down surprising and unexpected side roads. Interfering with logic or willful cerebralism is rarely successful. As a result I have learned to shut down the mental chatter and just get out of the way.
Working in a manner that is personal and intuitive is a counterstance to the contemporary trends. But there are others who have spoken strongly to this way of working. One of them is the poet William Stafford (1914-1993) whose writing about his poetic practice resonates with me. His is an art making terrain that draws on references to the soul and spirit, and these transcendent aspects are referenced freely and frequently. “Art has its sacramental aspect,” he boldly asserted.
His poem The Way It Is expresses some of that sacramental sense that I feel as well:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Stafford was well known for his commitment to write every day. He got up early, went for a run and then wrote at least one poem before going off to teach. His discipline was legendary. He was something of an outsider in poetic circles and aware that many people didn’t cotton to his “artist as mystic” views. In spite of being out of step with the prevalent postmodern mindset, he still had the generosity of spirit to not take offense. “There are so many things admirable people do not understand,” he offered.
This Stafford excerpt also speaks to the distance between his approach and current cultural trends:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and you don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our
Stafford’s predispositions about creativity were neither fashionable nor easily defended in his métier of poetry, and those predilections are increasingly an outsider position in the world of current art commentary today. The majority of influencers and commentariats value a different approach that leans into irony, spectacle, objectivity, scientism, measurability and that suite of non-personal concerns such as the politics of identity, social commentary, edge seeking and shock.
Stafford’s approach operates on the other end of the spectrum of concerns:
I must be willing to fail…Thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc., I resolutely disregard these. Something better, greater, is happening! I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before.
After years as a painter it has become increasingly easier for me to see what fits and what does not. Stafford’s words on this are memorable: “The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear/the darkness around us is deep.”
This passage from Stafford also speaks to that alternate view in another way:
At the time, the writer is responsible for everything, and at the same time he is simply lost. He has to be willing to stay lost until what he finds—or what finds him—has the validity that the instant (with him as its sole representative) can recognize—at that moment he is transported, not because he wants to be, but because he can’t help it. Out of the wilderness of possibility comes a vine without a name, and his poem is growing with it.
Threads. Vines without names. Patterns that others have made that distract rather than enrich. The value of being lost. Art’s sacramental nature. He’s talking my language.