Poetry

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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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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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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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birds-Thrush-Varied

As most of my readers know, I rely on poets to describe—as much as it can be described—what takes place in the isolation of my painting studio day after day, month after month, year after year. There are so many who can wield the word wand so much better than I can, many of whom I have quoted previously such as Jane Hirschfield, William Stafford, Robert Haas, Christian Wiman, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Dean Young, among many others.

But I now have another to add to my list of “dealers”—those suppliers of words that I desperately, deeply, undeniably cannot live without—Mary Ruefle. Her recent collection of lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey is full of worthy descriptions (as well as warnings) of that hairy cliff’s edge where many of us have chosen to set up shop. Her tone is attuned to my high regard for anyone who admits that they do not have the answers and do not pretend to have it all figured out. I don’t, and I don’t mind saying so. In fact a steady willingness to be with the Buddhist concept of beginner’s mind has served me well all these many years.

Here’s an example of Ruefle’s self effacing stance:

I always looked askance at writing on writing, but I’m intelligent enough to see that writing is writing. Still, my allegiance to poetry, to art, is greater than my allegiance to knowledge and intelligence, and that stance is harder and harder to maintain in today’s world, because knowledge and intelligence form the corporate umbrella (the academy) that shelters and protects poetry in a culture that cares about other things. On the other hand, the evening news tells us a corporation is not interested in protecting anything other than itself. This is best contemplated by the younger generation, on whom it will have the greatest impact.

I see this book as my having learned, step by step, how to think and talk about poetry in ways and terms that are my own, and when these ways become boring to me, I began to break down my methods; anyone can see the lectures become increasingly fragmentary and turn, who knows, even against themselves.

Ruefle goes on to equate poetry with a “wandering little drift of unidentified sound” and a bit like following a thrush into the woods. If you persist, she points out, the thrush just goes deeper into the woods and you will never actually see it. “‘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.”

Sweet.

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(Painting detail with a cosmic flair)

Star Birth of the Word ULASSA

Just now, May 23, 2013, I have in my conceit
created a brand new word, Ulassa,
at 8:05 AM: as I write,
Ulassa is an infant star that burns white hot hydrogen and
Joins—who knows—988,000 English words or more,

As a new birthed star joins our known universe of—who knows—
22 septillion other stars,
give or take a few quadrillion,

150 billion galaxies
150 billion stars
Do the math humbly,

Ulassa—
The Oxford English Dictionary will say it means
“the short sense of escape we can experience,
when something really bad has happened”,

Like, a childsister has gone missing or
we hear we may lose a foot from frostbite,
so in those short escapes from ongoing pain,

We get will get ulassa,
From meditation or the bottom of
a rum cola—

Or the red coals
of a summer campfire,
the molecules of carbon
drinking oxygen,

Ulassa in the dictionaries,
will have no real etymology
for a while,

Having first breathed air only
on the morning of
May 23, 2013,

Ulassa will enter poems
and maybe yoga classes,
will become a cocktail and

An expensive perfume, eventually
A breed of cat, or surely the
Name of a racehorse
Even a minor crater on
The surface of the moon,

Ulassa will live for four hundred years
73 languages, give or take,
will borrow and ingest it,

Before it burns out like a star or “odd bodkin”
from Shakespeare, just remember,
It started Here, on this day

You will see.

–Frederick Shiels

Rick Shiels is a relatively new friend. After a life of extensive book learning, professoring and expertizing about the American Presidency, Japan, nuclear weapons control, the Baltic States and Latvia, he has now turned his sights on poetry making. When he sent me this poem this week I sat up in my seat. What a gamely blend of the cosmic and the comic! I had to share it here (with Rick’s permission of course.)

For more about Rick’s many interests, visit his (relatively) new blog, Progressive Future USA.

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William Stafford (Photo by Kim Stafford)

Early Morning is a memoir of William Stafford written by his son Kim Stafford. This book is so singularly satisfying, so full of wisdom I can’t put it down. Is there another case of a larger-than-life writer whose story has been told by his or her child who just happens to also be a masterful writer? I don’t know of any. It was sagacity in Bill to identify Kim as his literary executor.

It is hard to know how to begin sharing what is so memorable and moving about this book. I have been a passionate fan of Stafford’s poetry for years, and learning more about his life is intoxicating. There is just so much to share! But maybe I will take a cue from Kim’s approach: His telling of his father’s story is neither chronological nor predictable. The chapters unfold on their own terms, without the imposition of forced structure or inhibiting lineage. It feels organic and intimate.

In the spirit of that kind of quiet listening, here is just one passage of many that I long to have others read with me:

He said at one point, “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems—to write the things I will write, given who I am.” Again, I am reminded of the Tao Te Ching: “Seeing into darkness is clarity. / Knowing how to yield is strength. / Use your own light / and return to the source of light. / This is called practicing eternity…”

This way of acknowledging the quiet voice is in keeping with his practice as a writer—accepting the beginning line, the glimmer of an idea, the clumsy opening as a way of honoring “what the world is trying to be.” Someone asked him once what his favorite poem was, out of all he had written. “I love all my children,” he said, “but I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.”

As a writer, he was a mother to beginnings. The “next thing” may be a kind of latent epiphany ready to be born. A friend told me my father’s “imagination was tuned to the moment when epiphanies were just about to come into being.” At such a moment, ambition could be fatal to what we seek. Take a deep breath and wait. What seeks you may then appear.

This is in keeping with the way Stafford worked, his well known habit of getting up early to do his writing before the obligations of the day set in.

He said once the field of writing will never be crowded—not because people can’t do important work, but because they don’t think they can. This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze…”There’s a thread you follow,” my father wrote.

Apropos, it is this poem by his father that Kim chose as the book’s epigram.

The Way It Is

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.

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