Poetry

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Nigrassa
Nigrassa, one of the pieces included in the show at Chautauqua Institution this summer, “On the Surface: Outward Appearances,” that has been sold and taken up residence elsewhere.

Ann Lauterbach, poet and educator, is the author of The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. As is usually the case, her insights about poetry and poetry writing apply to other forms of expression as well. (I regularly rely on poets to articulate what I find so hard to verbalize.)

I don’t know if this is a technique that works for you, but the right book somehow rises to the top of my stack or falls off the shelf at an opportune moment. Open it up, and there is something that speaks to life at that particular moment. My erudite and book loving niece Rebecca Ricks recommended Night Sky to me several years ago, so I read the collection and left my markings on its pages before putting it on the shelf. This morning I was thinking about the show at Chautauqua that came down this week and about the paintings that have found new homes, and there was Lauterbach’s book sitting there ready to be re-engaged. A few phrases immediately jumped out at me, like the difference between seeing from the periphery rather than the center, and how the whole fragment (what a great term!) can be embraced.

These were the passages that spoke to me this morning which I hope find resonance with you too.

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To write poetry in America is in itself a subversive act, a refutation of, and resistance to, certain assumptions about what constitutes “the public” and its interests.

Poetry protects language from serving any master.

One can see better from the periphery than from the center.

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My fear is that my fragments of knowledge are just bits and pieces with too many unbridgeable gaps between them.

And so, in defense, I have come to celebrate the whole fragment.

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Linear argument, where one thing leads ineluctably to another, is of profound practical and rhetorical value, but necessarily it discourages vicissitude and ephemera, ambivalence and dead ends, ruminations that suggest a different mental economy, one that could affect conclusions beyond the restraint of reasoning logic.

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The crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects, and so to initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection.

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Art serves no practical purpose, but to engage with it fully is to acknowledge the (pleasurable, if often difficult) consequences of choice at the crux of human agency.
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desert1
Somewhere in New Mexico

A Muslim prayer expresses this extraordinary request: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.”

In poet Fanny Howe‘s essay, “Bewilderment”, from her essay collection, The Wedding Dress, she describes bewilderment as more than an attitude. It is an actual approach she says, a way to “settle with the unresolvable.”

And this:

A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden…

Weakness, fluidity, concealment, and solitude assume their place in a kind of dream world, where the sleeping witness finally feels safe to lie down in mystery.

Those are wise words, especially as I head to the Southwest desert for a few weeks. A bit of a walkabout, time alone in the open expanses. And Fanny has advice about that as well:

The wilderness as metaphor is in this case evocative enough because causing a complete failure in the magnet, the compass, the scale, the stars, and the movement of the rivers is more catastrophic than getting lost in the woods. Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.

I’ll be back, hopefully with stories to tell.

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Veriddyi 2
“Veriddyi 2″, a recent painting (and one that speaks to my ongoing longing to envision that first day of creation)

One of my favorite quotes comes by way of W. S. Piero from his book of essays, Out of Eden: “Certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation.”

The longing for this primeval envisioning speaks to many of the aspects of art making that resemble a monastic practice (which I wrote about here). For those of us who are in search for that primordial sense of things, that usually means that voyaging there alone.

By pronouncing his credo as “truth is a pathless land,” Krishnamurti disavowed his alliance with the Theosophists (who were grooming him carefully) as well as with any religion, nationality or philosophy. That essential tension between going it alone and doing it with a group has been a recurring theme in my life. I was raised in a very structured religious setting where rules, obedience and participation in the community are core values. Whether in the domain of spiritual practice or of art making, I’m very clear about one thing: I am not designed for joining.

From the poet Kazim Ali:

You can search alongside others, but I don’t think others can help you understand your own nature…I’ve always been on my own, a single person in the field of physical matter, on his back looking up into oblivion…

To join with others in a gesture of similitude—I can’t draw anything from that, or at least at the moment have not been able to do so. I’d rather be wandering in a trance through the streets of a busy city, peeling an orange and whispering to the universe than sitting in a pew listening to a sermon or kneeling on a rug reciting chapters.

In the introduction to their book, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler give poetry (or more broadly art making) a memorable positioning:

In the end, what poetry and faith share, perhaps more than anything else, is a sense of awe. In awe is the beginning of a life of wonder. Or, as the poet Jack Spicer put it, in an American idiom: “Poets think they are pitchers, when they are actually catchers.”

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trichy
Tiruchchirappalli, India

This year we celebrated Easter with friends from Athens. While a whole lamb turned slowly on a spit, the table was loaded up with fresh bread, olives from the family vineyards back home, and copious bowls of salads and vegetables. It was sumptuous and unforgettable, rendered with the mastery that comes with having been repeated over and over for years.

I have consciously shed most of the rituals that were part of my upbringing, but I am moved and drawn to the rituals of others. During a month long visit to Southern India a few years ago, we spent much of our time at ancient Hindu sites. Most temples welcome non-Hindus, so we were able to watch and sometimes participate in the ablutions, the music and the blessings that have been carried out in just that way for hundreds of years. The meaning for me as an outsider will always be different than it is for a believer, but it is still meaning, it is still a connection with something powerful and moving.

Some consider interest in other religious traditions to be a kind of spiritual consumerism, a superficial supermarket approach to seeking and meaning. But that isn’t the way I see it. When we walk through a museum, objects call to us. Regardless of their origin or history, they draw us to them. They are still speaking, with or without the context that produced them. No one tradition owns them.

The poet Carolyn Forché spent a good deal of time in her life exploring many religious traditions. In her essay, “Infinite Obligation to the Other”, (in A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler) she describes herself as a syncretist, someone who “does not attempt to resolve contradictions between spheres of faith and belief.”

There is a difference, I hope, between syncretism and dilettantism. I would just play around; I would splash and play in the fields of spiritual thought—read the Zen sutras, and then jump off a cliff into the arms of something about the Dharma, and then go back to reading the Bible, and then have a certain dalliance with Judaic thought. I was always enchanted. I was always in awe of these texts. If I did this as a practice of lectio divina, I could experience these different fruits of human experience of God, without feeling there was a contradiction between them. We all get to be many people, because everything is very protean. Spiritual life is protean, too. That’s why you can’t ever really feel accomplished spiritually, because in a second, you know–you’re not. Everything is changing so rapidly.

In our culture, says Forché, spirituality is as misunderstood as poetry. “It goes unrecognized.” But the connection between the two is real for her. Forché speaks to how that connection happens in poetry (and for many of us who are in artistic endeavors as well):

The thing about writing poetry is that the more you’re there working, the more you’re there writing, the more you realize you are not writing it. The little threads and weavings that come into the poem—one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language.

At the end of her essay, Forché quotes Emanuel Levinas: “Artistic activity makes the artist aware that he is not the author of his works.” Which is, in my view, an exquisite truth.

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planetary
An angled view of a new piece, “Mangalat”

Kathleen Kirk’s post, “Persistence and Patience”, is a thoughtful description of how she ended up, after several career explorations, being a poet. In her graceful telling, she describes her many forays into other creative fields—music, art, theater, teaching—but none of them evoked the necessary persistence and patience in her that is needed to keep the passion fed and fueled when the work is hard and the way is difficult. Once you find your métier, something shifts. When you are wired for sound, you just have to let go.

I found Kirk’s point of view resonant with my own experience:

I get rejected, accepted, and published all because I am patient and persistent. I have lived through various “trends” in writing, waiting patiently until the thing I do can be appreciated and accepted once again. Beauty has gone out of fashion, and come back. “Nature poems” have been despised, but now everyone is “going green.” Some people equate simplicity of language with simplistic thought, and thus ignore me, while I have always found that the most complex thinking usually requires the greatest clarity of statement. I am not a flashy poet, nor a trendy or political poet. I write about what goes on around me, and inside me.

Paul Auster has said, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.” I am committed to walking this long, hard road and have been on it, in my meandering way, for quite a lovely while.

[The text in this post is from the Slow Muse archives, originally published in 2012.]

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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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The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

[Note: I had surgery on my right hand this week so my ability to type has been compromised while it heals. I am reposting from a few years ago since Jane Hirschfield continues to be a guiding force for me. And what a phrase--"honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life." I am so touched by that.]

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.’”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

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Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

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Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

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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.

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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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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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