Poetry

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Dolice1v2
Dolice 1, 12 x 12″ on wood panel

Nigrassa
Nigrassa, 40 x 40″ on canvas

Both paintings are from the upcoming show, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances”, at Chautauqua Institution, June 16 – August 19, 2014

For us, honey is a gift; for the bee, it is labor.
–Jane Hirschfield

The poet Jane Hirschfield is a constant source of wisdom about making in all its many forms, and this line speaks clearly to what every writer/painter/musician/dancer/performer knows intimately. There’s honey to be had, but it comes after hours and hours of work.

In the same essay, The Circular Path, from the collection, A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, Hirschfield includes a few more resonant insights:

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Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. And if I’m lucky, I may write something that helps expand the life and attention of others as well.

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Whatever people find in my poems of radiance or grace comes out of the struggle to turn away from disappearance and toward presence.

The hope—and the quiet sense of surrender—in these words is aligned with my own thoughts as I head out to Chautauqua for the opening of my show this week: On the Surface: Outward Appearances.

I’ll be back to Slow Muse next week.

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Mar Jee 3
Mar Jee 3, from a recent series

I have been spending some time contemplating where working and mystery coalesce. Here are a few thoughts about that by way of some wise practitioners…

Shaking the Tree

Vine and branch we’re connected in this world
of sound and echo, figure and shadow, the leaves
contingent, roots pushing against earth. An apple

belongs to itself, to stem and tree, to air
that claims it, then ground. Connections
balance, each motion changes another. Precarious,

hanging together, we don’t know what our lives
support, and we touch in the least shift of breathing.
Each holy thing is borrowed. Everything depends.

–Jeanne Lohmann

Jeanne Lohmann is a Quaker poet in her 90s. Her deep respect for the mysterious parts of life is evident in this poem. But she also speaks to the fundamental nature of making art itself day in and out: “What is the spiritual practice of poetry? I think we fool ourselves with such divisions, separations. Practice is practice is practice, and requires us whole, body and breath that animates.”

“Practice is practice is practice.” Reading that line reminded me of yet another quote about the need to do the yeoman thing, this one by David Rakoff:

The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.

There is a tacit invitation to hold that taut point between the ineffable and the day-to-day necessity of practice, practice, practice. That pull is an ancient and essential tension, one that has been explored in every spiritual tradition both East and West. That is a pivot point many artists know about as well, one that defines their own very personal and often private wisdom path.

And yes, everything DOES depend.

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Boli (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Bolis are abstract figures that are from the Bamana culture. The basic form, a bit like a simplified cow, is made from mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, honey, beer, vegetable fiber, and cow dung.

The role of the boli is to regulate energy, whatever is moving from the universe into this world. In Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book of essays, Wonderful Investigations, he sees the significance of the boli beyond its singular cultural context:

It is an object that keeps in balance a force, a spiritual energy, which unbalanced, could damage the world. Its likeness to a cow belongs to this world, this earth; its unlikeness to the cow belongs to the other world, the universe. It shares in both, and the oddity of its form is a result of the accuracy with which it performs its work. The boli is a form that attends to its own formlessness. It shows the body at the point of pivot between two kinds of existence. It shows the cost of belonging to two worlds simultaneously while being able to fully exist in neither. It is the object as threshold, a door which is open only by being closed. It is a symbol. It’s life is a symbolic life and brings us who believe in its power to our own symbolic nature.

Beachy-Quick is a poet, and he draws a provocative comparison between the boli and a poem (which, for me, is a reasonable stand in for many different types of works of art):

The poem on the page is no principality. It does not make a distinct place in the world, not does it make a distinct place of the world. It is not a site to travel to, not a place of destination. Rather, the poem denies location because it acts—as the boli figure acts—as a nexus between worlds, taking part in both worlds but belonging to neither, a threshold in which one must learn to uncomfortably dwell.

Given this view of things, it is not the reading a poem for understanding that is difficult, says Beachy-Quick. The harder task is to learn to read so that you can enter the environment that the poem opens up. “To think of poetry as an environment, as a space of initiation, is to learn to read so as to lose a sense of meaning, to become bereft of what it is we thought we knew, to lose direction, to become bewildered.”

We enter into a work of art to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess beforehand. We enter to be asked “a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.”

These are such apt descriptions of what happens when we engage with a finished work of art as well as what we hope can happen in the making itself. Stepping beyond our certainty is what’s necessary for admission into that mysterious non-place between worlds.

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sultan
Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line—which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary—that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

–Dan Beachy-Quick

Poet Dan Beachy-Quick‘s book, Wonderful Investigations: Essays, Meditations, Tales is full of explorations around edges, boundaries and the invitation to cross over and into. Referencing Plato’s definition of a line as a point that flows, Beachy-Quick hopes that the reader of his book may find that point and “follow it as it flows toward that edge where the margin becomes a center, and the end of the book the hazy border to the wonder-world.”

How eloquent a description, and one that describes just what I hope happens when people invest the time to look at and be with my work. Once again I bow in appreciation to a poet’s ability to penetrate an experience I can feel but find difficult to articulate with words.

This concept also reminded me of one of my favorite posts by friend and artist Altoon Sultan on her always excellent blog, Studio and Garden, called The Burden of Content (which I recommend reading in its entirety.) She begins the post with this description of her own evolution as an artist:

Someone recently asked me why I’d stopped doing complex landscape paintings; I answered that I wanted to get closer to 20th century reductive abstraction, which I love. But that’s only part of the story: I also wanted to get out from under the heavy burden of content, the meaning––environmental, sociological––of those paintings. So this post is meant to tell the story of my journey, and it is related to my recent posts on William Carlos Williams, “no idea but in things”, and John Singleton Copley, “The Primacy of the Object”.

Altoon shares how her intentions and style of art making have moved over time. Starting with her early “‘portraits’ of domestic architecture” that expanded into an interest in larger agricultural landscapes, her focus just keeps morphing. Her eye moved in closer, and she became compelled by the very stuff of agriculture—the machinery, the implements, the silage. “I began to feel hemmed in by my content; what had motivated me before—the difficult environmental and social issues around farming—became extraneous to my concerns, which were formalist,” she writes.

And her final paragraph:

In 2010 I began to paint very small works on parchment; their compositions have become quite simple and direct….”no ideas but in things”….and the things are in themselves enough. I still find my subjects in agricultural implements; they have such variety of shape and color that they are of continual interest to me. But I don’t expect any story beneath them, any social/historical/environmental content; there is enough meaning and feeling and mystery in color/shape/form/light/composition.

Meaning and content are usually such loaded issues in the visual arts. Altoon’s ability to speak with such directness and honesty about her own experience of working through these issues is so refreshing, particularly with a topic that is usually fraught with equivocation and complexity. And where her work has taken her continues to be a wonder-world for me.

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A Truing of Vision

drum

The round object above is a Moroccan hand made drum given to me by my friend John Wyrick. It had one slight tear near the edge when I brought it into my studio several years ago. With time two fissures began to make their way slowly across the taut animal hide, following no pattern I would have expected. This self manifested morphing drum has become a talisman and reminder for me to let things choose their own direction. (The small painting next to the drum had such an unexpected resonance with the surface marks that I hung them next to each other for several months.)

They say it better than I can, those poets who who are willing to write or speak about the creative process. These quotes are from an interview with Jane Hirschfield* in Psychology Today:

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It may be that some other writer is quite unlike me: reckless, feckless, undefended, fearless before joy and grief, pain and incertitude. For this writer I am now imagining, words come easily, perhaps to the point of glibness. For her or him, poetry will serve in other ways. Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful. The increase of density and saturation that poetry requires may be what is useful.

What we want from art is whatever is missing from the lives we are already living and making. Something is always missing, and so art-making is endless.

***
I’m not saying that art is a matter of beauty, solace, or calmness, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I’m not saying that art is about rectification of character or making visible the existence of injustice, though it can be, and that can be welcome. I suppose I’m saying that good art is a truing of vision, in the way that a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. And that anything that lessens our astigmatisms of being or makes more magnificent the eye, ear, tongue, and heart cannot help but help a person better meet the larger decisions that we, as individuals and in aggregate, ponder.

That the rearrangement of words can re-open the fate of both inner and outer worlds—I cannot say why I feel this to be true, except that I feel it so in my pulses, when I read good poems.

These words are earnest, vulnerable and ring so true for me. My time in the studio is silent time, but the conversations going on inside mirror Hirschfield’s words. Her “truing of vision” is a phrase that describes the many tiny steps, the hours of looking, the need to just be with a work as it evolves. “Art’s marrow-request for shapeliness, particularity of experience, arc, may be what is useful.”

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*More from Jane Hirschfield on Slow Muse:

Your Own Way of Looking at Things

A Silky Attention Brought to Bear

Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons

Spirit and Body

(Thank you Maureen Doallas for flagging this interview.)

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Sumi2
Detail of a sumi brushstroke, ink on rice paper

Twigs (excerpt)

Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end…

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

–Taha Muhammad Ali
(From So What: New and Selected Poems, translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin)

Two thoughts from this poem are very present for me right now. One is the inconsolable brevity of life, a particularly poignant reminder at a time when someone I love is faced with the stark possibility of life’s end.

The other is the phrase, “a measure of splendor.”

What is splendid is personal and specific to every individual. But it is also a concept that is wide, expansive and limitless. As an artist I revel in those moments when my work brings a measure of something like splendor to someone else. And at the very same time, I long for that transcendent pleasure of splendor coming to me by way of other artists, writers, musicians, performers.

Existence comes with limits. It also comes with experiences that suggest things might be otherwise, those moments that expand us past the boundaries—whatever they may be.

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Note: Taha Muhammad Ali (1931–2011) was a Palestinian poet and short story writer. Self taught, he ran a souvenir shop in Nazareth.

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yellow-porch.jpg!Blog
Yellow Porch, Richard Diebenkorn

Today’s post is from the me with my head under the hood. Here are a few thoughts about what happens in the making and the molding. Sometimes that part of the process takes precedence, when it is helpful to step back a bit to see if you can see a larger arc, a better sense of where you’ve been and where you seem to be heading. These three quotes speak to much of what I’ve been mulling over lately.

Element 1:
This list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Element 2:
The great question now is how to preserve and even honor the age-old stability of painting without falling into the trap of a frozen academicism. Richard Diebenkorn, in his figure and landscape paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s, suggests a provocative balance, one worth reinvestigating. The bottom line is that each artist must now begin pretty much from scratch, obliged to develop both a personal conservatism and a personal radicalism. This is the painter’s predicament.

–Jed Perl

Element 3:
What matters is the shape-making impulse, the emergence and convergence of an excitement into a wholeness.

–Seamus Heaney

studio

I have written about Mary Ruefle’s book of essays, Madness, Rack and Honey so many times here that I thought it would be apropos to share one of her poetic ventures as well. I keep my copy of the slight but beguiling A Little White Shadow nearby. It is a visual and poetic pleasure to open it to a random page and see what shows up.

Ruefle-Mary-page2

Mary Ruefle, excerpt from A Little White Shadow. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ruefle. Photo: Wave Books/Verse Press

Meanwhile on a more personal note…I am off to Utah for the wedding of my niece, the one and only Trina Ricks, who will wed Quinn Peterson. Back here next week.

TrinaandQuinn

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George Saunders
George Saunders (Photo: The Guardian)

Is it just my bias or is it truly hard to find an artist who is a gifted creator and also wise? Another personal bias (since we’re divulging these proclivities): It is my experience that wisdom comes from those who have figured out how to get out beyond the distracting lights of egocentricity, careerism, competition, self promotion. They take on a sense of humility as part of their wisdoming. Their way of looking at the world feels slowed down. Stripped to the essentials. Primal.

Case in point, the spectacularly inventive writer George Saunders. His commencement address at Syracuse this year was published in the New York Times this week. Commencement speeches are a form of sermonizing—they typically aim for the concise and the pithy, with a message that is relevant to the young and the old. And like a homily, the best ones leave you with a kernel idea to pull up later. For Saunders’ speech, the word is kindness.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE…

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

I have thought about this speech for days (and thank you to my alert niece Rebecca Ricks for flagging it for me.) I have also been wisdomed by a gloriously protracted read of the poet Mary Ruefle‘s terrific collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey. In her introduction she self-effacingly says:

I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sounds, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve—if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush…but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come. “Fret not after knowledge, I have none,” is what the thrush says. Perhaps we can use our knowledge to preserve a bit of space where his lack of knowledge can survive.

Later, in a chapter entitled “On Sentimentality” she waxes wise when addressing a scholar’s disapproval of the use of the “vague you” pronoun in American poetry. She is straightforward in getting past what seems like a pointless discussion:

Mr. Sterling asserts we don’t participate in such poems, but become “a passive observer, an eavesdropper”—as if it were of the utmost importance that we always, always, participate, participate, participate. When was the last time you participated in a poem by Emily Dickinson, no matter what pronoun she was using? Sometimes I feel enormously privileged to be a mere eavesdropper.

Her simple defense of privileged eavesdropping rather than participation parallels tendencies in the visual arts regarding the dominance of installations focused on social practice, politics, conceptual constructs. The mystery in seeing, looking and experiencing a work retinally has been put aside as unimportant. In that tension between content and appearance, the pendulum is swinging heavily into the former. As is often the case, what beleaguers poetry and poetry making is relevant to what beleaguers the visual arts. As Ruefle suggests, there is—and ought to be—room for both/and.

Kindness, and the privilege of being an eavesdropper. There is a welcome in those words, almost a soul’s sigh, that comes up in me when I think about embracing those two states of mind.

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Mary Ruefle (Photo: Matt Valentine)
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Other Slow Muse posts on:

George Saunders

Lovell’s Quiet Portrait of George Saunders

Zadie Smith

Mary Ruefle

Safekeeping the Not Knowing

Unhitching

Images, Ideas and Tension

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The first part of the Return from Parnassus, by Cy Twombly

The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness, which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.

This quote from poet John Crowe Ransom was referenced by the late painter Cy Twombly who, interestingly enough, employed a lot of text, often from Dante, in his effusive and expressive canvases. It’s a powerful set of sentences. As a visual artist, I was caught by its boldness.

In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle references this quote as well in her essay, “On Beginnings.” This piece pokes and prods at just how a poem actually starts as well as how it finds its way to its end, into closure.

This essay, like the rest in Ruefle’s book, is compelling, playful, wide ranging and smart.

From a review by David Kirby in the New York Times:

Ruefle’s mission is not to—yawn—remind everybody how precious poetry is; rather, it’s to give pleasure by showing how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably.

In this she succeeds. Typically, she begins a thought with a quotation from a sage (“Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), then develops the thought to give it her own spin (concluding, in the case of Bachelard, that we can at least dignify our dashed hopes “by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it”). Now this sounds like poetry to me, but it also sounds like my thoughts on the last overpriced restaurant meal I ate, as well as the American political system. And that’s the point: we begin in one place, then we’re all over the map, but we’ve been up a time or two before, so now we’re bringing that thought in for a nice soft landing.

Poets continue to speak most saliently to me about the process I experience in the studio. They are wordsmiths after all, and they are better at calling forth the furtive and the fragile.

Here’s another theorist referenced by Ruefle in a passage that every painter can identify with (from Poetic Closure: A Study in How Poems End by Barbara Herrnstein Smith):

Perhaps all we can say, and even this may be too much, is that varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released. Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations that are aroused are also fulfilled.

That’s a set of issues I work on just about every day.

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