Friday, June 30, 2006

How Do You Write?

That was the question asked of me, in a recent roundtable discussion. It prompted some long thinking about how, indeed, I write, method and aesthetic and means and attitude. I expect my responses to the question are not typical or average, as every time I answer with the truth, I get confused looks. Some poets don't understand how I can do what I do, when I don't write at all the way they do. But herewith is the absolute truth of how I write:

I don't write every day. I write when I feel moved to. I question the practice of writing a poem a day, because I think a lot of what that ends up with is daily junk. I am a more dedicated journal-writer than poet, I guess. Writing a poem a day leaves me cold, although I acknowledge that it works for others.

I don't like poems that preach, that are too pedantic, or too smug and self-conscious of their own merits. Writing poetry is a process of discovery, not a sermon. Writing for me, is about listening to an inner voice, and transcribing what comes forward, when I listen.

I know a very good poet who is a disciplined daily writer: a couple hours a day for him, and he always writes on an electric typewriter. He produces good work, and has a workmanlike, craftsman's approach to writing. He tells me he can't understand how I write good poems when, compared to him, I am completely undisciplined. Which I am, by his standards.

I have no set rules, set practices, or set times and places to write, and no set modes of writing. Although I often do my best writing first thing in the morning, upon waking; and my other best time is late at night, jsut before bed. I write on the borders of sleep, and the Dreaming.

When I write, it often feels like it's not me that's writing. The poem chooses its own voice and mode, usually. Form emerges organically, usually part-way through the writing of the poem; when I get to the second stanza, or the second line of a haiku I know then what the form will be. I have learned not to try to force things, ever. Poems for me have almost always come to me, when they choose.

I almost never set out to write a poem. Instead, I listen, and get into beginner's mind, and wait. Usually a poem arrives in a flash, almost complete. Many need some revision, but not essential, structural revision. Some first drafts have been published; they emerged in finished form. The poems that I set out to write, or if I try to do a daily "morning poem," almost always suck, and read more like mental masturbation. I have an inner voice, that is not my conscious mind's voice, that is the poet. I'm not in charge of that voice (the ancient Greeks spoke of their "daimon" in this way; Kipling worked this way; Julian Jaynes wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind on this topic), and my discipline consists of meditation and being prepared to listen. Once or twice, I have actively felt like I was taking dictation. Usually, though, now, after years of this, I can sense if something's ready to emerge, and dip into that river more or less at will. And the river has become more accessible with practice. I've become, with practice, a good improvisor, in music, in art, and in poetry. But again, the discipline, for me, is in maintaining readiness, and being prepared.

What I write with depends on what's at hand. If the laptop (my life is in the laptop nowadays) is booted (it usually is), I type the poem into a word-processor text file. If I happen to be driving cross-country, miles from electricity, I pull over and write on whatever handy scrap of paper is available. (Kids, we're trained professionals. Don't you try writing and driving at the same time.) I keep a blank book in my backpack, or on the car seat. (My sister, who is also an artist, makes beautiful hand-bound books; I often use them as my journal books.) I've even written poems on the backs of grocery receipts, if I couldn't find anything else at hand, in the moment. Before becoming this computer-assisted nomadic artist that I've become, I kept a handwritten journal for 25 years. Not a diary. Not a reportage of daily events, intimate thoughts, and scraps of personal life. I just wrote in it when I felt like it, and never felt any more compelled than I do now to write with any daily discipline.

Almost all of my poems were first written down in that ongoing journal. I used to be a semi-pro calligrapher, and still suffer from "quality writing instrument lust." Take me into a store where they sell fine pens, and watch me drool. Wave a sumie ink writing set under my nose, and watch my eyes fill my desire. (I recently found a Japanese stationer's store in San Francisco, and restocked on some of my favorite writign materials, which you just can't get anywhere else; for example, refillable cartridge sumie-brush pens.) Thus, I used to write in my journal with good fountain pens only—I hate ballpoints, and won't use them except in a writing emergency—and thus many pages of my journal looked like calligraphy assignments.

Virtually all of my poems (prior to laptop nomadism) began in the journal, and were later transcribed into word-processor files, and often revised during transcription. Lately, though, as I said, if the laptop is booted, I write directly into a text file.

I have no set practice, in other words. I do own (it's on loan to a good friend for now) a beautiful replica 18th-century writer's desk, which I used to love to sit down at, lay out the journal book and some good pens, stare out the window, get centered and grounded, and begin to write. In my mind, even now, I occasionally visualize that "set-up routine" to calm and center the mind before writing.

I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime, because the set-up routine is a medtative practice, and one can come to center and ground wherever and whenever one is located. One carries the practice within, and doesn't require the external objects to achieve open, receptive poet's mind. (The reason I recommend poetry writing guides like Susan Woolridge's Poemcrazy and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is because they explicitly teach this practice; I recommend these books over the craft books, because they teach the mindset. The elements of craft can be acquired much more readily than can the mindset, and there are many more books about poetic form than there are about poet's mind. It's very easy to teach grammar, but none of those grammar guides even acknowlege the necessity of proper state of mind. And now that I've been keeping an online Road Journal on my website, I'm likely to post first drafts of poems there, just as I used to write them in my paper journal.

I do keep old versions of poems, but not obsessively, and I don't generally use them as tools for rewrite. I keep them more as notes towards the process. When I'm in the tent at night, camping, or on camping trips miles from electicity, I take the latest journal book along, and I actually find myself writing by candlelight, in the tent at night, a lot. I produce a lot of pretty good writing on those sorts of trips. I produce less back in Snivellization, generally, mostly because I tend to be focused on the art or music most days. When I was a teenager, recently gifted my with first typewriter, a Smith-Corona portable, I composed at the typewriter, sitting cross-legged on the bed, more often than not. But that was the apprenticeship of a future poet, and only one or two examples of that early juvenilia survive.

The three longest poems I have ever written, in the hundreds of lines, are poems about sex, my sexuality, fantasies, experiences, and memories, and the first of those I began writing by sitting there on my bed in front of that typewriter, at age 15 or 16, then put the poem away and came back to it off an on for 12 years, before determining the poem was complete, and declaring it done.

A poem almost always comes to me as a vision, a sequence of images: my job is to convert that into words. To transcibe, if you will, what I see. I usually fail, as words are completely inadequate, and betray the vision almost every time. Very rarely, a spoken phrase comes into my head, and I write it down, as though taking dictation. (Rilke started the Duino Elegies this way, so I know how he felt on that day.)

I have no set philosophy, other than to serve my daimon, which crosses over into all my creative modes, music, art, poetry, weaving, landscape art sculpture, whatever. I respond in the moment, at the moment, to a place and time and state of being. I produce my deepest, most archetypal work when I am in a meditative state of mind. "When in deep water, become a diver." I have learned over time that when I'm all caffeined up and feeling chatty and convivial with friends, not to even try to write a poem, because it will suck. (Maybe a humorous senryu, but such poems are throwaway ephemera, and not intended to be anything more than that.)

I have no set aesthetic, because "all roads are good roads." I really believe that. I know that I work best in certain modes, on certain topics, and I could enumerate those, but then that would be my list, and useless to anyone else, who rather than emulating my list would be better served to list their own.

If I do have an aesthetic, it's fractal geometry. I am aware constantly of more than one level of being, of life, of the layers of consciousness of the Universe itself. I am Patterner, and more. Fractal mathematics, and chaos theory in general, are the closest i've come to a Western representation of the "floating cloud" lifestyle described by many Taoists and Zen masters in the East. As Benoit Mandelbrot said when he introduced fractal geometry to the world: "Clouds are not spheres."

There is one particular form of poem that I invented that has been described as fractal poetry; as far as I know, it's the first genuinely fractal form: self-similar across different scales, so that when you "zoom in" or "zoom out" it retains its character; descriptive rather than didactic, even imagistic, in that each individual line can be read as a haiku; which is also a fractal characteristic: complexity thickens and releases chaotically.

(For those of you unfamiliar with chaos theory, it's not about randomness or disorder or genuine chaos, as there really are no such things; what is discovered are higher levels of order within apparently chaotic systems. Life is very much a strange attractor; had Jung lived another ten years to witness the birth of fractal theory, I believe he would have embraced it as descriptive of the operation of the collective unconscious, and the archetypes.)

Anything I say on this topic will be inadequate, because my "method" is always changing, always evolving, and I might have a poetic "voice" I explored ten years ago that makes me wince now. If a writer doesn't keep evolving and changing, they stagnate and kill their art. I've seen that happen far too often, with poets who publish a great first and second book, then start repeating themselves and lose all energy and interest; the "workshop" poets, and the MFA poets, are particularly susceptible to this trend. But I digress. I do find it useful to answer the question at hand, if only to formulate for myself my own writing practices and needs. Good pens. Nice paper. A fast keyboard. Anywhere, anytime. No rules, no habits. Zen mind, beginner's mind.

I respect those poets who feel that "How do you write?" is too personal a question, because it is a very personal question; yet I find myself unafraid of standing naked under the spotlight like this. If only so I can get clear for myself what and how it is that I bother to write at all. As I've said before, poetry is only a distant third in my modes of creativity, after music and art. And I've also written here before of the irony of intention vs. history. I note that chaos theory plays a role here, too, as does the law of unintended consequences. Because it's chaotic, I choose to not to try to impose false order onto it, but let it be what it is.

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I just stumbled across a poem I'd improvised a few years ago, by request, on the topic of Gallup, New Mexico. Slightly cleaned up, here it is:

Gallup, NM

The skies are never cloudy there.
Lost men play with their knives there.
Badger hides in the canyon there,
and won't be found, not by suits.

Everyone has a mine there. Nothing ventured,
everything mined. The malpais skirts the edges there.
Rugs are mailed to Crownpoint from there.
The sun sets east of there.

Monsoons settle in, there, and wait.
Something tickles the feet there.
Mysterious beetles, black-tongued, questing.
Strong men with narrow waists move cattle there.

Don't ask who that is, coming over the ridge.
It's Dawn Boy, and it's you. Badger at your shins.
Coming down the ridge, past the old black land,
out of the sky and into the plaza.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Visionary Poetry 6: Dreams


Dreams are central and pivotal to visionary poetry. Dreams are a rich field of images to mine, and a source of great wisdom and guidance, both in art and in life. I have been keeping a journal since 1981, and a large part of what I write down is dreams. First thing in the morning, upon awakening, before I forget. (The first thing in the morning is often my most inspired writing time, as well.)

There are some kinds of dreams that are more vivid, more present, more liminal, than your average dream that simply recycles daily images, feelings, and events from past experience. In these other kind of dreams, which have been called lucid dreams, you feel completely awake while you know you are dreaming, and you become more aware and alert. Every image and event takes on a symbolic power. This is the unconscious mind talking to us directly, because when we dream we dream with the whole mind, not the conscious mind, which is the interface between us and the waking world, and the thing that goes to sleep when we do. The psychological literature is rich with dream interpretations, but I think it's relevant to make the point that, while some archetypal dream-forms are universal to the human experience, we all still have a personal unconscious, laden with our own personal symbols and imagery, as well as the collective unconscious. Both are in play when we dream; often, the archetypes emerge for us through the personal images, or take them over, as it were, and speak through them.

Another kind of vision is of course the waking-vision. These occur as visions, or experiences of the liminal and numinous while the conscious mind is still present, if not engaged, when we are "awake." Of course, one of the key aspects of many of these visions has always been to point out that we are still asleep, not awake, in our daily lives; we go through life as sleepwlakers, barely awake to the Real, most of the time. That's a common theme to many visionary experiences: waking up to another level of reality (higher or lower is sort of a red herring, and irrelevant—suffice to say, other level of reality, without judging it as higher or lower), in which the Unity of the Divine and the individual person is demonstrated as being One, as present, as actual, as eternal, as unbreakable. Rumi is a great source for poetry along these lines. Rilke is also, if from a very different direction than Rumi comes from.

Dreams have also been shown to lead some visionary scientists to conclusions that later proved to be accurate. I think of the story of the scientist who saw the benzene carbon-ring in a dream, which solved his problem in trying to identify its structure. Einstein said some interesting things about dreams, too, and highly valued the imagination.

Along the lines of shamanic poetry, and of Gary Snyder's idea about his poetry having paleolothic rather than Modern origins, here's a quote or two from Jung about dreams:

The dream has for the primitive an incomparably higher value than it has for the civilized man. The primitive is usually a good deal take up with his dreams; he talks much about them and attributes an extraordinary importance to them. When he talks of his dreams he is frequenlty unable to discriminate between them and actual facts. They are quite real to him. . . . To the civilized man dreams as a rule appear valueless; yet there are some individuals who attribute a high importance to them, at least to paticularly weird or impressive dreams. Such impressive dreams make one understand why the primitive should conceive them as inspirations.

Dreams contain images and thought-associations that we cannot create with conscious intention. They develop spontaneoously without our assistance; hence they represent a mental activity that is withdrawn from voluntary direction. Essentially therefore the dream is a highly objective and, in a sense, natural product of the psyche. Accordingly we might with reason expect form it some indications, or suggestions at least, about the fundamental tendencies of the psychic process. Now, since the psyche is a vital process, hence not merely a final orientation, we might expect that the dream (which presents a kind of self-portrait of the total psychic process) would give us indications about objective causality as well as about objective tendencies.

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Visionary Poetry 5: the Bardic tradition

A poet-critic states: "All the other art forms draw on poetry for the visionary." This comes back to the argument that poetry is the highest artform, which I have already stated my opinion on.

Nonetheless, it's an interesting idea: the shaman-poet, the bard, the teller of tales, the skald, inspiring the other arts.

I think it probably does happen, but no more than any of the other arts inspire poetry back, on this visionary, shamanic level. I'm thinking of some great ekphrastic poems over the centuries. The track of visionary poetry, music, and artwork through the centuries has several threads, which sometimes separate for awhile, before weaving together again. There are threads that go back to the Paleolithic era.

I think you might make a case for some of these inspiring, visionary shaman-poets of the past being Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Coleridge, Longfellow, possibly Browning. Each of these has inspired other artists. it's a short list, though.

In the modern era, I think the direction of influence is harder to support. Pollack, brilliant as he was as a painter who innovated, was pretty much an illiterate lout. van Gogh wasn't much better, and despite the record of his letters, he was remarkably inarticulate at times. Gaugain you might be able to make a case for; he was a reader of literature, and a writer, too; his diaries of Tahiti are interesting reading. I'm a big fan of Andy Goldsworthy, he's influenced my own art directly, but in all the books of his I've read, seen, or interviews and videos I've seen of him working, poetry doesn't seem to be in there anywhere, except for when Goldsworthy puts in his own pithy aphorisms.

If anything, Rilke was more influenced by artists, such as Cezanne and Rodin, and the Picasso of the "Saltimbanques" era, for the Fifth Duino Elegy, then he ever influenced visual artists in return.

I think one might be able to make a case for the visionary modern lyric to be present in pop music writing, which has been suggested; but even there, I think it's a limited case. I do not place Bob Dylan in as high esteem as many others do; nor do I think he's a visionary poet, in any realm other than the political/social. Granted, there's a bardic/skaldic thing going on with Dylan, and some real smarts, which he often seems to want to hide, but visionary poetry is only rarely social or political. (Neruda is occasionally visionary; but mostly late in life, and not so much in the political poems.) Except that they are both engaged with social justice, Dylan and Eckhart and Merton are all very, very far apart, poetically. Neither do I place Leonard Cohen in this category. I can see putting in Joni Mitchell there, and Bruce Cockburn. I might nominate Johnny Cash, for fulfilling a bardic function in society. But this might all be personal taste, on everyone's parts.

As for rock & roll, there's ekstasis and eros there aplenty, but a lot of it never rises above the level of the crotch, and a lot never achieves the sublime level that includes the crotch and more than the crotch. R&R is usually content to "be bad," to act out, and rebel, and very little of it ever achieves genuine emotional depth and maturity. Like atheism, rebelling against something only affirms the thing one is rebelling against, and rather than tearing it down, it serves to entrench it deeper. The rock artists who do get there, on occasion, all seem to come from the singer/songwriter direction, such as Cockburn or Paul Simon, or Robbie Robertson. Within "pure" rock, if there is such a thing, I might nominate Jimi Hendrix.

Frankly, I think there's a much stronger bardic/skaldic thread running through contemporary folk music, now and 50 years ago, then there ever was running through crotch-oriented R&R. But again, all that folkie protest music is mostly limited, and by its own choice, to the social justice arena. The genuinely visionary needs to be about more than social justice, although it includes it. It also needs to include the via negativa, the dark night of the soul, and the via positiva, the exaltation of all Creation, what Rilke means when he says that "A poet muct praise."

I know of a folk musician who's a genuine visionary: Gordon Bok. His "tellings" are directly in the bardic lineage, and each and every one of them is compelling, mysterious, visionary, even downright otherworldly.  

Now, some people say they remember the songs of their rebellious youths as the anthems of their lives. I do remember the music of my youth. But, because I am who I am, I admit it's usually the tune I can recall, not the lyrics. Perhaps that's why I remain a musician first, and poet third.  Actually, that's not accurate. More accurate to say would be that a song is music-and-lyrics; in a great song, you can't divorce the two into separate arenas. (Many a great song lyric doesn't hold up as a poem on the page, and is not as alive in that presentation as it is sung.) When pop or folk songs appear in my memory, they indelibly appear as words-and-music combined.

i think you might make a case for all the other arts being influenced by poetry, with poetry as the paramount visionary art, but it's a case that's limited to the far distant past. If you're talking the Paleolithic dawn of civilization, or even ancient Egypt and Greece, I think a case can be made for it; even more so for pre-Christian Europe, the Celtic shamanic ancestry which became subsumed into, for example, Irish religious practices, as Christianity spread across Europe after the 4th century A.D. But even in those ancient cultures, poetry was never divorced from music: lyrics were sung, songs were chanted, poetry was a living vehicle of expression, not words on a page. Even some of the Pharoahs were themselves illiterate; after all, they had as many scribes as they needed.

I don't think you can limit intuition to just the poets. Intuition is a universal, human birthright. It's a trainable skill; this is a pragmatic truth that has become quite evident in the past few decades, with the release of formerly-hidden threads of mysticism into the wider mainstream, a process which began in the 1950s. There are plenty of artists and musicians whose intuition is directly tied to the source, so to speak, without the mediation of poetry.

So, it's a very interesting idea, but I think it has many limits in application. I'm more likely to subscribe to a multi-valent, multi-dimensional schema, in which everybody influences everybody, everyone is influenced and influences in return. Both/and rather than either/or, as has been said, is a key paradigm for mysticism, visioary work, and shamanism.

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Visionary Poetry 4: some tactics

What is the proper tactic, the proper subject matter, the proper aesthetic stance, for the visionary artist? It's tempting to say something sweeping and cliched, such as: "Everything." While this is true, let's look at it in more detail, from a more openly mystical and visionary viewpoint.

Some traditional religious would have us maintain the split between mind and body, soul and flesh, spirit and matter. I think this is a mistake, because if you exalt the enlightened parts of the Self without also exalting the darker Shadow parts of the Self, you risk great danger, for what is suppressed or ignored will re-appear in a different form. The Shadow will continue to trip you up until you face it directly, and work with it. If a poet can only write about the light, and never embrace their own darknesses, they cannot become a mature poet, but will stay trapped in a superficial realm with no resonance in their poems. Similarly, if a poet dwells only on the dark aspects of life and existence, and does not praise, they will remain similaryl incomplete.

So, I feel that visionary poetry must also be somatic, bodily, enfleshed, not only transcendant and ecstatic. I do not exclude love-making or death from the mystical or visionary experience. I submit that they are both fundamentally human (mystical) experiences, at their best, and that is how I set out to practice them in my own life. There is a long literature about both subjects, eros and thanatos, that reinforces my inclusion of them in this discussion.

I think evocation is a better tactic for the artist, than description. This goes even beyond the common critical position about poetry, "showing vs. telling," which we've all talked about in poetry at one time or another. Evocation is beyond showing, or describing: it is embodying, it is making it actual, an avatar of the experience. It is immanent experience, both personal and transcendant.

In many of the world's shamanic traditions, the Bard, the poet, the musician, the artist, the creative person, is the dweller on the threshold. The shaman is able to pass back and forth between worlds, seeking inspiration and healing (for self and others) in the other worlds, and return mentally unscathed. Art can be shamanic art, and serve this function as well, evoking and awakening its audience to new realms and ways of beings.

Many do not come back unscathed. Some do not come back at all; the asylums are, in my opinion, filled with diagnosed schizophrenics who are failed visionaries, failed mystics, shaman who didn't make it. (cf. Arhnold Mindell, City Shadows) These are all terms, along with mythopoetic, and archetypal, that people have used to describe my visual artwork, my music, and my poetry—which is why I am interested in looking into this topic.

If a poet makes the shamanic journey, like anyone who makes the journey and returns, they can come back forever changed. Yet, there are also little visions, ordinary satori. Not every vision is a Red-Sea-parting-vision in scale. I personally know a couple of really gifted visionaries who never have Big Visions, they're just incredibly, accurately intuitive. Those who make it back bring with them gifts. And those gifts can be visions. And those visions can become poems, or paintings, or music, or tellings. Often enough, the artwork is marked by a sense of ecstatic linging for Union, once felt, now sought again.

With practice and experience—which are the roots of spiritual technology—those doors of perception become easier to open, again. In fact, according to some mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, they open at the touch of a mere breath: it is we who keep them locked tight, because they so disturb our everyday reality, and upset our notion of what is real. There is an element of grace in this process, too, of course, when a visionary experience just simply happens, as a gift, without preparation, and without formal training. It is not exactly "involuntary," that is too strong a word; but it often happens in its own time, by its own will.

And to return briefly to the interconnectedness of the arts, I don't tend to view one art medium as superior to another (although, again, I have other poet friends who would claim that poetry is the ultimate artform), but rather as complementary. Some of the most interesting effects, to me, are when different artforms are combined. This is why certain kinds of performance art and music theatre work well, and take you places that just listening, or just viewing, alone, cannot by themselves.

Which leads me to consider another aspect of visionary poetry: synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia. n.
1.   A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
2.   A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
3.   The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.
synes·thetic. adj.

Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Artaud talked about "the derangement of the senses," and they were influenced to some extent in this by Poe. Now, whether one uses a chemical intoxicant, such as alcohol or drugs, to achieve that derangement, or not, the poetry that results can be beyond metaphor and cross over into synaesthesia. It's not a question so much of the confusion of the senses, as in their simultaneous extreme activation, in a way where everything blends together. The neurobiologists reductionistically consider this to be neurological short-circuiting, but I find a pathological explanation to be less than satisfactory in the face of the evidence that many great visionary artists experienced synaesthesia. (It can, in fact, according to Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, be actively cultivated and developed, and he sets out a program for doing so.)

Much of the mystical literature, and much visionary writing, can be viewed as depicting synaesthesia, or evoking it. We use sense descriptors from one sensory realm to evoke experiences in another. The blue taste of the sun. That yellow color smells just like parked cars.

One of the things that occurs in visionary poetry is an experience of the Oneness of things: and so, senses cross over and it all happens at the same time. Timelessness is another characteristic of visionary states. The challenge is to get a non-linear, timeless experience into linear, timebound writing. Odysseas Elytis' long poem The Little Mariner contains a section where sense-words are laid out in a grid or matrix on the page, and one can move through the matrix in any direction. This has the effect of both layering simultaneous expressions, and breaking up linear, singular readings of the poem. Acoustically, it's as though several voices were all saying the same and different things all at the same time, a cluster of voices in a space filled with light. I've worked with this principal in text-sound poetry musical pieces; t's also reminiscent of collage, or Rauschenberg's assemblages.

So, the visionary moment often contains the simultaneity experience of, everything all happening at once, at the same time, in unity. How we depict that in poetry, well, that's the challenge.

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Visionary Poetry 3: the heirarchy of media

Some literary critics have argued that poetry is a minor artform compared to the novel. I find that as absurd as saying that poetry is the most exalted of all artforms, but let's look into it. A novel, the argument goes, can build and build towards an enlightening catharsis; it can immerse the reader in an entire universe of imagination and invention; it can reveal sublime, detailed emotion, evoked by the actions of its characters; it can present complex truthes so thoroughly, with such illumination, that a reader might be changed forever. Prose style be exalted, and it can be sublime.

But, a great visionary poem can do all that, too. Matthew Arnold accomplished just that with his poem Dover Beach. (This is a poem that, the first time I encountered it, as a teenager, did change my life, because it showed me how a poet could both share and articulate the same feelings about existence, that I myself was having, at that time.) Compression can be as powerful a tool as expansiveness. (And the list of novels that are overwritten, and could have been much compressed, is a long one.) A moment of complete, engaged insight can be as powerful as hundreds of pages of stream-of-consciousness fragments. Basho's shortest haibun are just as profound as Proust's long discursions. A novel keeps us in the thrall of the author's vision; poetry engages us somatically, physically, such that we re-experience what the poet felt, for ourselves, in ourselves.

Furthermore, poetry, in rhythm and style, harnesses the power of music. A poem can be multi-layered in meaning, and thus can reveal deep resonances behind the words themselves (the actual words of the poem lie on the surface of these waters), and the transcendance and immanence beyond the veil of rationality.

I also feel that the argument in favor of novels fails to take into account narrative poets such as Robert Browning, john Milton, and others, whose longer works could be considered "novels in verse." Prose style can indeed be sublime—at which point it crosses over into poetic prose, elicits a response akin to poetry. This is that numinous realm where prose-poetry dwells, as well.

Not too long ago, I discovered at a thrift store an anthology of The Major Poets: English and American, second edition, ed. by Charles M. Coffin and Gerritt Hubbard Roelofs. Rather than one poem by many poets, this anthology contains several poems by twenty-five or so poets. John Donne is in there, too, with his religious poetry, and Hopkins, of course. The anthology takes us from Chaucer to Auden via the lake Poets, Whitman, Dickinson, etc., all the way to Frost, Eliot, and Lowell. Reading through this anthology one realizes how many of the poems considered great, now, fall at least partly into this category of visionary poetry—or could. If I read this anthology with the attitude of looking for visionary poems, I find them often in here. And yes, Dover Beach is also anthologized herein.

Now, having said all this, since we are in some way outlining a hierarchy of creativity here, I am not one who claims that poetry is the highest artform of all. As irritating as it seems to be to some poets of my acquaintance, I don't find poetry to be the highest artform of all. Then again, the hierarchical placement of media can quickly become a subjective assessment, all too quickly. So, I merely state what is true for me, realizing full well that others will choose differently.

I feel that music is the highest artform, because it is the medium that, despite a lack of programmatic or textual presentation, can nonetheless communicate profound, emotional, visionary, personal experience to the listener. Music is abstract and ephemeral relative to the other arts. Along with dance, music leaves no trace: once the live performance is over, it cannot be repeated. (Recording technology changes all this, of course; but that's a discussion for another essay.) The musical score is the notation of performance: but it is not, in itself, the music, it is only a representation of the sounds that the composer intended. It is a good way of getting performers to work together, in synchronization, to produce an aural experience. It's relation to music, however, is that of trapping a fly in amber. Notation is transcription.

The visionary experience, the inutitive insight, is a human birthright experience, that is available to all who seek it out. It can be described, transcribed (notated), recorded, and told about, in all the various creative media we have available. Poets do not have a lock on intuition, and for many, intuition is a completely non-verbal or pre-verbal process. Where is the poem when you don't actually need words to share the experience? The arts are very interconneceted, and feed each other, to generate an actual hierarchy of creativity that is anything more than a personal hierarchy, rather than a universal one. Exalting one medium over another quickly degenerates into opinion and personal taste. The fact that so many different coexist alongside one another is, in fact, evidence that different people get the same story in different ways, and that this is not a bad thing.

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Visionary Poetry 2: some working definitions

Poet friend Ed Wickliffe provides some useful definitions for this discussion, with regards to poetry, that I herewith paraphrase as:

Religious poems are not necessarily visionary, or spiritual; rather, most are mundane, in terms of poetic style and content. For example, your average religious poem in a greeting card often suffers from sentimentality and cliche.

Visionary poems are often not religious, in any traditional sense. For example, the shamanic traditions, their songs and chants and poems (eg. the source materials for Rothenberg's Shaking the Pumpkin); these sources are worldwide, and predate all the known organized, institutional religions, including Hinduism, which is possibly the world's oldest extant institutionalized religious path. Ed says: Visionary thought includes all possibilities, not just religious ones, I believe.

Finally, spiritual poems. Religious and visionary poems may be spiritual, but are not necessarily so. For example, an atheist's anti-religion poem is "religious" in the sense that it is the misère side of traditional faith, its opposite and its antagonist. But this is not necessarily spiritual, And not all visionary poems, which can be about the most ordinary moments that become sublime, are about religious themes, nor are they necessarily spiritual at core.

So if the words "religious", "visionary", and "spiritual" are not synonyms, we must acknowledge their differences, or risk getting into trouble.

I am interested here mostly in visionary or spiritual poetry, and not interested in religious poetry per se. I view most religious poetry to be statements of faith (credo), in the same way that most political poetry is a statement of faith and/or belief. Often religious poetry repeats dogma and doctrine, in an attempt to state institutional beliefs in a fresh, personal, individual manner; this is what Hopkins does, essentially, and also the Metaphysical Poets, and John Donne, for example.

I am much more interested in records of visionary experience, shamanic experience—transpersonal, archetypal, mythopoetic, immanent and transdendent. Perhaps not coincidentally, these appellations have been applied at various times to my own poems, artwork, and music.

Zen enlightenment poems are a whole genre dedicated to recording and recognizing spiritual states of being; the Upanishads; the lineage of the Medieval Christian mystics, with their sermons and chants and artworks; the Taoist sages. There are many commonalities here, with perhaps more in common then there are differences; and it's interesting to observe both difference and samenesses in play, in the trail of creative work they leave in their wake.

Because what's really interesting is that visionary experiences tend to be recorded by their experiencers in poetic writings, in poetry itself, in manuscripts that some say pass a taste of the experience—rather than in, say, reportorial or analytic or academic non-fiction prose. Perhaps the visionary experience itself requires an artistic response, a form of heightened expression, beyond the ordinary, mundane ways of saying things. One definition of poetry is that it is ordinary speech made exalted, everyday language heightened and condensed; poetry thus may be the best medium for communicating the vision to others.

I'm thinking of Hildegard of Bingen's illuminated manuscripts of her recorded visions; I'm thinking of some of Whitman's poems; I'm thinking of Rumi, Rilke, and Meister Eckhart, and of Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra; I'm thinking of Carl Jung's own hand-painted and hand-written Red Book, where he kept a record of his own visions, drew his own mandalas, and which often guided him towards areas to study in his psychological work; to name only a few.

One of the things I'm interested in, as it turns up in creative work, is what some have called spiritual technology. Mircea Eliade, in his seminal academic work Shamanism, termed such tools "archaic techniques of ecstasy." But other tools are the turning dance of the Sufis (the Remembrance of God, or zhikr), the practice of meditation (which turns up everywhere, in rather similar forms), walking the Labyrinth, chanting in groups, ritual, and so on. Much of what I have read in Tibetan Buddhism treats sprituality in this technical way; part of their appeal is that they have carefully enumerated psychological principles and habits that are universally human. Some of these many spiritual technologies have been described as tools that help the person make a change in themselves, which thereafter makes a change in their world. I'm interested in how that manifests in poetry—not in a prescriptive manner, or as a recipe—that would be simple spell-casting or superstition—but as a paper trail fhat may inspire others to follow similar trails, if not the same trail.

There is a whole literature along these lines, extant and alive, but it is rarely discussed in creative writing and literary circles. In our culture dominated by the rational-scientific worldview, there is a shyness about being painted with the brush of the "irrational." It is also possible that, in creative writing seminars at least, no one wants to talk about it because it's not teachable—in opposition to the way craft and technique are teachable. Or so most believe. Actually, vision is teachable; and that is what the whole tradition of spiritual technology is all about. One has to open that door for oneself, however.

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Visionary Poetry 1

(The first in a series of essays I originally wrote a year ago, as a long thread on a poetry critique site. I intend to edit and compile them here, into one long multi-part essay. Many thoughtful comments were made on the original thread, which I don't have full permission to quote here; so, some paraphrasing will no doubt ensue, as I reword some of those insights into my own words, so that I can comment on them directly.)

I've been seeing a lot of religious poems on the forums lately, explicitly labeled as religious. Comments have been made, wondering why more people don't comment on these poems; perhaps the commentators are unaware what firestorms have happened in the past whenever religious poems have shown up, and the crit and response gets personal, purely on the grounds of personal belief and faith, rather than on the merits of the poem at hand, as a poem. It's hard sometimes to comment on a poem's form and elements, without also commenting on the contents and subject matter; it's perhaps too easy to misperceive a comment on one's faith as a comment on one's self.

So, it can be a very touchy subject.

But, from the very origins of poetic verse in shamanic chant, poetry has often been about nothing but belief, faith, the religious experience, the mystical experience, and the way these things work into everyday life experience. The gods appear throughout Homer. I would hardly turn my back on the glorious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, simply because I don't share his particular Jesuit Catholic beliefs. (Although the comment has been made, with some merit, that Hopkins' religious beliefs were fairly commonplace, and that it was his technical innovations in poetry, that make him stand out.) I read with absorption, in my early twenties, Jerome Rothenberg's seminal anthology Shaking the Pumpkin. I was a composition major in music school at the time, and exploring text/sound poetry, with live performance coupled with voices-on-tape, and this anthology had a profound impact on my music, my poetry, and my visual artwork, at the time.

What I see underlying the impulse to write visionary, spiritual poetry—its origin and root—is not organized religion, not sectarian ideas—which are what folks fight over, in religious arguments—but a personal impulse towards something sacred. Sometimes it's impossible to name or label what that Something is; sometimes one must simply leave it unnamed, as a Mystery.

I think about all this, lately, as I see a number of poems appear on the scene that seem to have a spiritual, even mystical experience at their root, but are not conveniently religious. (I confess that I find these poems far more interesting than the conventionally sectarian ones that also appear.) Maybe I'm reading more into it than is really there; this is, after all, one of my own principal interests and directions for my writing. Pretty much everything I write is a record of such an exalted experience, charmed into words the best I am able.

I find visionary creativity a topic of ultimate fascination. It's always on my mind. Without intending to provoke anything or anybody, and with no intention of igniting yet another tedious flame war, I risk this dangerous territory in the full knowledge of the benefits it offers to each of us, as artists.

So, herewith I offer a few quotes and thoughts designed to elicit thought about the topic of the spiritual, visionary, and transpersonal aspects of experience that feed into our creative work, including poetry. Quotes and links follow:

C.G. Jung: Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.

C.G. Jung: People use concepts to avoid experience.

Helen Keller: The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.

Angeles Arrien: The visionary is the one who brings his or her voice into the world and who refuses to edit, rehearse, perform, or hide. It is the visionary who knows that the power of creativity is aligned with authenticity

Paul Klee: Art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.

Betty LaDuke: A successful artist is able to pursue a vision and let that vision take that person places where they would never expect to go.

Rollo May: Receptivity requires a nimbleness, a fine-honed sensitivity in order to let one's self be the vehicle of whatever vision may emerge.

Catherine Nash: A beginning artist naturally focuses on the work of others, finding a rhythm to match her own. At a certain point however, you have to stop doing that, internalize the search, and find your own visual poetry. What is your inner vision? It's vital to make that shift.

Jonathon Swift: Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.

Leonardo da Vinci: The poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things, and far below the musician in that of invisible things.

Meister Eckhart: When I was in my first cause, I had no God, and I was cause of myself. I lacked nothing and I desired nothing, for I was an empty being and a knower of myself, rejoicing in the truth. I wanted myself and wanted no other thing. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I was empty of God and of all things. But when I went out, by my own free will, and received my created being, then I had a God; for before there were creatures, God was not 'God': he was simply what he was. But when creatures came to be and received their created being, then God was not 'God' in himself, but he was 'God' in the creatures. Now God, insofar as he is only 'God,' is not the ultimate goal of creatures. For the least of creatures IN God has just as great a position. And if it were possible that a fly had intelligence and could with its mind search the eternal abyss of divine being out of which it came, we would have to say that God, with everything he is as 'God,' would be unable to fulfill or satisfy that fly. Therefore let us pray to God that we may be empty of 'God,' and that we may grasp the truth and eternally rejoice in it, there where the highest angels and the fly and the soul are equal, where I was pure being, and wanted what I was, and was what I wanted. In that very being of God where God is above being and above distinctions, I was myself, I wanted myself and understood myself in order to make this man that I am. That is why I am my own cause according to my being, which is eternal, and not according to my becoming, which is temporal. And therefore I am unborn, and according to my unbornness I can never die. When I flowed out of God, all things said: God exists. But this can't make me blessed, for by this I understand that I am a creature. But when I break through and return where I am empty of my own will and of God's will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all creatures and am neither 'God' nor creature; but I am what I was and what I will remain now and forever. Then I receive an impulse that will carry me above all the angels. In this impulse I receive such vast wealth that I can't be satisfied with God as he is 'God,' or with all his divine works; for in this return, what I receive is that I and God are one.

A comparative view of creativity theories

A Jungian look at John Keats' poetry

The Metaphysical Perspective in the Work of C.G. Jung

Works by Meister Eckhart

Fire in sacred poetry

Poems by Goethe

There's a poetry anthology I also recommend along these lines: Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, ed. Daniel Halpern. It's an anthology of nine poets, with discussion by Halpern: Rumi, Lalla, Mirabai, Blake, Rimbaud, Rilke, Yeats, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg.

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A haibun on nomadics

Homeless. My hermitage the road itself, and the box one travels in. That shelter of air and refined metals, that bubble of silent consciousness in which you can feel the road but the air whistling by is not loud enough to deafen. Unless you let it in. This cell on wheels. I bargain for lightning, whenever I stop at a waystation. It's too cheap to buy, you have to give something up for it. Feathers on the wind, perhaps, or a root buried in the sun. I go within, where there are echoes lingering from the last wave of memory that washed in here last decade and has been rippling ever since. Waves don't die, they just degrade into brown noise. After all, you mount up and ride off, and the road moves under you, but it's the earth spinning, not you moving; you stay still. Inside, that inner stillness, you stay still in there, while the world vibrates past you, untouched.

roses at the window
my lonely companions—
dreams of travel

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Green Man (a haibun)

Finally the evening wore down to nothing. The day's heat faded into blue, and I began the postponed yardwork. I found my old lungs in the tall grasses, where I'd thrown them that bitter morning last winter. They still had a few coughs in them. I left my lemonade nearby, to dessicate and water vivid lemon thoughts. I electrified the grass in that part of the lawn with the new twirly-bladed whacker; it stood to attention before fainting dead away. I covered myself with flung tailings from that green mind, lacing seed-fronds into my long hair, a dandelion pair for earrings, and coal-black eyes made from fallen walnuts. Gradually I left myself behind; gradually I felt the greening rise, bursting through my feet as the shoe-soles wore away, climbing vine-like shins and calves and under loose jean-shorts, up under shirt, clothes gone, vine skin, green skin green muscle turn to follow sun, sex sprung vine dry nut shrivel copse, twist, turn, morning-glory rising through breast, turn, tendrils awhirl, cup behind corn-ear, shoots, wheat-teeth, grass-stem eyelash, peat-eye, green brow, vegetable gaze, all, mind knoll tree slow thought growing slow stone-slow sun turn sun follow mind gone all green white husk.

druids cursed to stone
burst forth spring life-force issue—
bloom of summer skin

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A haibun for Robinson Jeffers

Near Big Sur

So moon turns to summer. The hills are veiled with shallow fog, the shrouds of restless sea-winds. Yellow fields of flowering mustard, flowing monk’s-robes in the saffron afternoon, conceal the tracks of slugs and lizards. Over the mustard-tops, warm breath steams from a burrow, flagging the circling hawk, a prayerful target. A silent multitude. Farms of the living.

We descend these hills as runoff creeks fed by sulfur springs mixed with fogfall. Mist covers everything, morning ice on the glade, even in late spring. The crisp air rises towards the stars.

an hour into twilight,
silver stars revealed—
fog rolls away on wolf feet

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thoreau on Pedantry

Stumbled across while surfing poetry blogs, a quote from Thoreau:

When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs, -- Mr. Webster, perhaps, not having spoken according to Mr. Kirkham's rule, -- I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially, your truest poetical sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb's bleat. The grammarian is often one who can neither cry nor laugh, yet thinks that he can express human emotions. So the posture-masters tell you how you shall walk, -- turning your toes out, perhaps, excessively, -- but so the beautiful walkers are not made.

—Henry David Thoreau, Journals (January 2, 1859)

Right on, Hank.

Most pedants in this realm tend to equate the dropping of even one comma, or the use of even one moment of irregular syntax, with the "abandonment of all grammar." They frame it as an either/or: either you're strictly and totally following the rules of prose grammar, or you're a hack. Ignoring for the moment the irrelevance of prose grammar rules applied to poetry—they are different realms, with different rules, and the most common mistake on this topic is to state categorically that poetry must use prose grammar—which on the other hand might explain why so much contemporary poetry sounds like prose arranged oddly on the page. The problem with grammatical pedantry is that it is a closed-loop, self-referential universe.

No one ever said that one is free to abandon all grammar, although in the cases of even some successful poems, that has been approached in a close orbit. Thoreau's points reamin valid, in that he is discussing openness, the willingness to let the world in, unruly and chaotic as it is, and to let go of the illusion of total control.

The argument that "you have to know the rules to break the rules" is the same argument, stated more or less exactly, of both the grammatical pedants and the formalist zealots. It's usually presented as a Fact, or an Absolute Truth, which tends to close minds, close mouths, and shut down discussion. The fact that there may be exceptions to the rule, or an alternative style/means, or even an alternative syntax which remains internally logical, is usually dismissed out of hand, with no entertainment of the possibility. And since "you have to know the rules to break the rules" is such a hoary cliche, itself, it seems reasonable to reply to that with yet another hoary cliche: "minds are like parachutes, they only function when open."

The argument is then made that it's difficult accept a claim for innovation when the poem presents evidence that the poet has only a shaky understanding of the poetic form they are trying to depart from, or innovate away from.

The problem with this argument has always been that it assumes guilt rather than innocence. A skeptic's viewpoint may serve one well, a priori, in scientific and rational endeavours. The problem is, in less rational realms, such as art and literature—which despite all attempts by some to rationalize them remain unruly—skepticism can quickly harden into prejudice; thus, we get (neo-)conservative, even reactionary, criticism, which dismisses all experiments out of hand as ignorant failures. That hardly seems to serve us well, any more than does wimpy "accept anything" criticism. A little more insight is often useful, along with a little more balance.

In some cases, of course, it's certainly true that ignorance is at play. The evidence is usually fairly clear, in the case of ignorance, especially willful ignorance. However, if one does not treat each piece on a case-by-case basis, one is indeed likely to  (since we're using critical cliches today, here's another:) throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Encounters with Nature

The question is posed: Have you ever had any memorable encounters with nature?

Last fall (to pick one memorable road trip) in the space of a few days, driving down the Pacific coast from Portland to San Francisco, and camping along the way, I had encounters with gulls, sea lions, otters, great horned owl, ravens, numerous finches, crabs, humans and their children and pets, giant redwood trees, Monterey cypresses draped with moss, mushrooms glowing brightly in the dusk, songbirds, jays, sugar maples (just beginning to turn fall colors, so that they are green on the bottom, yellow in the middle, and fire red on top), the overpowering scent of white pine from a logpile at a sawmill, kelp, mussels, bivalve clams, minnows, half-feral cats, deer, more deer (they're always on the move at dusk), redtailed hawk, turkey vulture, brown eagle, koi, willows, spiders the size of thumbnails, banana slugs, pampas grass, and much much more, an incredible richness of encounters.

The question, have I had any memorable encounters with nature?, sort of boggles my mind, as it seems to assume that "nature" is something separate from "me," which is completely wrong. We are immersed in nature continuously. We are part of nature. Not even "city" is separate from "nature." There are two primary sources of inspiration in my life and writing: nature, and the inward life. These are not separable either, especially if you have encountered Jung's concept of synchronicity. The inner and outer worlds reflect each other. It's always there, perceivable, if we just slow down and pay attention to our surroundings, we come into animal presence.

I can't possibly pick one "encounter with nature," because (for me anyway) they are continuous, daily, absorbing, ordinary parts of everyday life and events. Nothing special, everything special.

If you hold yourself still, the fox will always come to you.

A great natural science writer was poet and naturalist Loren Eiseley. I find myself reading and re-reading his essays and poems, with deepening appreciation, as time marches on.

Dan Schneider in appreciation of Loren Eiseley

The American Spirituality of Loren Eiseley

I think we always have to let the fox go, so that she might come and go as she wills. Clinging to an idea, a style, a vision, even clinging to life itself, can choke it, make it mannered, make it stiff. Let the fox remain wild, and she will come back to us. Put her in a cage, and she might die.

I think poetic inspiration is the same way: Let something wild in us remain wild, untamed, "natural" by which we could mean unmannered, unrefined, unfettered, and most importantly uncontrolled, and the wildness will remain in our poetry. It's a wildness we need, even in our cities, if we want to stay in touch with that essential aliveness, that breathes us, the very life-force itself, perhaps.

If you hold yourself still, the fox

If you hold yourself still, the fox
will always come to you. She moves
silent through dusk, across sudden lawn,
a natural gap between bush and cliff.
She is wary, ears up, nose alert. She skips
lightly, pauses to flick her tail, then
disappears, streak of red and black.
There’s a waterfall, bitter, cold, she sips
when night pauses; a deep water seep
from between rocks that remember dinosaurs
and birth-cries of lost volcanoes, gone
before this beach, this river were here.
An owl calls, very close overhead, between
meadow and shore, moving towards beach;
fox freezes, her tail and belly low-slung to soil,
red blur blending into dusk-toned fireweed,
and waits for owl to pass. If you can shape
yourself into stone, slow-breathing juniper,
your palm cupped to hold rain, and be silent
for endless days, the fox will come to you, sip
cold water, lap your lifeline. Don’t look at her
direct, be a peripheral vision of your own self,
flicker of red and black in lung, heart, artery;
and she will come, tentative, hesitant, but
curious. Become moss, become invisible,
become as ancient as the dreams of cliffs.
If you hold yourself still, the fox will come.

{This poem of mine was published in Panhandler, March 2006.)

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Poet Beth Vieira poses the question:

It seems as though it is an odd topic to mention in light of poetry, but I have been reading Thoreau on walking.  And I wondered if people take walking seriously, so seriously that it becomes part of poetic practice.

In Zen there is the practice of kinhin, or meditative walking, done at a maddeningly slow pace. In haiku there is a practice called ginko, which is a haiku walk in which you just notice and then write immediately after. Many poets (and thinkers and writers) have used walking as part of their creative pursuits. Do you walk?  Does inspiration come?  Do you do something else akin to walking that stirs you?

I respond, thusly:

"Like a long-legged fly, his mind moves upon silence."  —Yeats

This is very much at the heart of my creative practice, and not just for poetry.

I wrote, some years ago, in connection to photography:

This is my own practice: I have developed the habit over the years of taking what I call camera walks. I do this periodically, or any time I feel particularly un-centered and un-balanced by the difficulties of living. At those times, I grab a camera and walk out of the house, and start taking pictures. Almost randomly, whatever catches my attention, with no goal in mind, and no destination for the walk. Very soon, viewing the world through the lens–the camera’s monoptic eye–I come back to myself and regain my center, letting go of whatever was bothering me. The photographs taken on these camera walks are occasionally exquisite, and usually quite ordinary. However, my own eye–the ability to see what is–has always gained clarity.

The process takes one out of oneself, out of the daily worries and chronic concerns. As they say in Zen, “Lose the self to gain the self.” Robert Leverant writes, in Zen and the Art of Photography, “We have allowed the picture and the picturetaker and the picturetaking to become one. Inseparable in a moment of no time.” Exactly! After many years of this practice, I find that I take fewer pictures overall, and that the “hit rate” of good pictures has increased. I don’t take credit for this: it is just part of the process.

As to kinhin and ginko, I practice these, also; but I do always have a camera of some kind with me, as well as a notebook and pen. Meditation first, photo side-product. (The nice about digital is no processing time or cost, and that nice Delete button.)

For direct walking meditation, I am a veteran Labyrinth walker of several years' experience. I walk them all the time; I seek them out wherever i travel. There's an annual gathering in June, which I have yet to get to, but someday. Designers, builders, teachers, walkers, all converge for a long weekend of walking and talking about walking, etc.

Any walk can be a Zen walk, all it takes is getting into the mindset. The purpose of a camera walk is to get into the no-mind, the Zen mindset, the emptiness, the quiet; any photos that come of the walk are gravy. Still, I find, when I get into that mindset, the creativity is a bottomless well full of frothy black water just waiting to come out via whatever handy creative channel it can find. The Well of the Dark Goddess; the salmon of knowledge.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The limitations of words

I read a poet chastising another group of poets for saying that words have limitations, and they were feeling at the limits of what they could say. The chastising poet was responding to a comment that words divide us as much as they join us together.

Ah, but the first person to admit to the limitations of words is the bard who uses words well, and knows from personal experience how much they leave out or cannot say. I run up against that wall continuously, and so there are times when music can express what words cannot.

I recorded an hour of new piano improvs in the studio last night, and at least two of those pieces say things, on playback, that I can't put into words, unless perhaps with the layered density of a haiku. Even then, there would be layers left out, and although I would compress as much nuance and subtlety into the poem as is humanly possible, it would still need to be completed, as haiku are, by the reader filling in the rest from his or her own experience. We touch at points of shared experience, but we also diverge where there are none.

The battle then becomes to wrest words into better expressing and evoking what one does experiece, as a human artist making human art, so that whatever can be conveyed, failings and all, is. We just know that there are some things we have to really struggle to say.

But it's also true: most poets do say it better than they think they do.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

More heyokaku

must all neo-haiku forms
be angry candy?
dandruff fslls on white papers

stone, sea, wind, light, water, wood—
elements conjured
to make this tide-pool sacred

ham-steak, orange juice, fresh-made bread
that I baked myself—
Chicago summer breakfast!

sunny urban afternoon,
shirtless soccer jocks—
ice cream at the corner store

vanilla chips dribble down
his perspiring chest—
white petals fall from dogwoods

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Creative Nonfiction Resources

It's a catch-all genre that most definitions seem to think is mostly literary reporting, yet has room for more sorts of non-fiction-based literary pursuits, such as memoirs, or even blogs. It's not just Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, it's a lot more than that.

Two of my favorite writers are Barry Lopez and John McPhee, both of whom are "nature writers" who blur those lines between factual reporting and literary achievement. Annie Dillard is considered another. Loren Eiseley is a poet who did this brilliantly; even his essays are contemplative, poetical, and his memoirs, All the Strange Hours, is a terrific book. Gretel Ehrlich is another writer I recommend along these lines.

Some links, stumbled across, literarily reported herewith:

Annie Dillard
creatrive nonfiction
Reading Nonfiction
contemporary lit
creative nonfiction again
and again
and yet again

Some great creative nonfiction books to read:

John Berger: The Sense of Sight
Thomas Merton & Robert Lax: A Catch of Anti-Letters
John McPhee: Assembling California; Oranges; Basin & Range
Loren Eiseley: The Star Thrower
Barry Lopez: Arctic Dreams
Andre Malraux: Anti-Memoirs
Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines
Peter Matthiesen: The Snow Leopard

Just for starters.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

C.G. Jung on Art

I've been reading Psychological Reflections: Selections by Jung, a book of quotations arranged thematically, and gathered from his Collected Works. I ran across a few comments by Jung that I think are relevant to my work, which I am quoting below. Jung had a lot to say about art and artists, and was himself a visionary artist—it's one reason I find his psychological work so interesting, in that he sought to include the numinous and transpersonal, and rebelled against reductionism and the tyranny of rationalism über alles.

One insight I find very useful is the recognition that everybody's experience and awareness of the universe is valid, for them. This is not solipsism—there are many overlaps between all our experiences, and we all have to deal with some very similar human experiences: death, love, grief, joy, suffering, eros, pain, etc. Where I think we get stuck is when any of us says: my way is more real than anyone else's.

The artist is the mouthpiece of the secrets of the psyche of his time—involuntarily, like every true prophet, and unconsciously, like a sleep-walker. He believes himself to be speaking out of himself; but the spirit of the age speaks through him, and what it says is so, for it works.

Whether the poet knows that his work is generated in him and grows and ripens there, or whether he imagines that he creates out of his own will and from nothingness, it changes in no way the curious fact that his work grows beyond him. It is, in relation to him, like a child to its mother.

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So, what do you do for money?

Following the spirit road, wherever you are led. It’s a job without a portfolio, resume, or job description. Don’t bother mentioning it to most people, who simply don’t get it.

Scenario: Somebody asks a group of poets: So, what do you do for money?

For me, the most interesting part of this question is not the list of jobs and careers I've had, which is an extensive one—I seem to collect skills and experiences the way some people collect books—but that through it all, nothing has been able to keep me from being creative. Most of the "wrong" decisions I've made in life, from the viewpoint of livelihood, social and family expectations, and cultural attitudes, have been because I felt I had no choice: I had to make the decisions I made, because the alternative was to sell my soul, and die inside. This took no innate courage; it seemed plainly necessary, no more. The choices I've stumbled into have led me towards mostly not making a living, or at least not in any coherent, consistent, stabilized manner. I have the perfect "writer's resume," from the era when you used to read about all the odd jobs that writers would do to collect experience, before publishing their award-winning novels, plays, or poetry. Pfah. Whatever. That and a slice of bread will give you an open-faced sandwich. There's no question that all the "wrong" decisions I've made have had their consequences, mostly negative, with regard to having a stable career, regular promotion or advancement, or any other form of normative social expectations, not excluding familial incomprehension and occasional estrangement. All through this, a process of learning to keep my word and live in integrity with my spiritual callings and my creative daimons, I have steered a manageable if occasionally obscure path; but the truth is, I have no clear idea where I'm going, or what to do next, only where I've been and what I've recorded.

But all along, the real job has been one that's never fit comfortably on a resume, a job description, or an answer to that perennial cocktail-party question, "So, what do you do to make a living?" I attend few cocktail parties, although I'm comfortable traveling in many social circles. Are you a gentleman of leisure? a gentleman of poverty? living in a cave, monk-like, ne'er-do-well, adrift on the winds of change? a monk or a bum, and is there a difference? Was the difference between Merton and Kerouac merely the locus of monastery grounds? The difficulty is that "What do you do for a living?" is a question that most people equate with "Who are you?" Here, meet my friend—who are you?—I'm a doctor. No, really, who are you?

Every artist knows those are differing answers, and lives within the double-tension of that difference between lives and callings, work and soul, job and necessity—price enough to pay for following one's calling, perhaps. That tension between questions and answers leads me to ignore the question, most of the time, as simply the wrong question to ask. Far more interesting questions are, where have you compromised? where have you prostituted yourself? where been an ungrown child? where have you sabotaged your own excellence? where felt the victim? and where, if at all, incorporated and integrated these into yourself, the unfinished person? There are expected answers to the question, which I cannot give, because they don't matter; they're the fictions of a lifetime. The unexpected answers are far more alive.

What is the real work, then, if it’s not some job that you do to support your art and just pay the bills?

Let's try a re-phrase of an earlier statement another poet somewhere made, which was "every poem comes at a price," or something close to that in meaning. The meaning that that poet was going for was a Romantic idea of suffering for the sake of your art; which I objected to, and still do. Let's think about it this way, because I see this emerging from many of the personal stories of artists who work various odd jobs, and skip college or grad school, to pursue the art of living and gathering experience. I re-phrase the statement as:

It is not a price one pays. It is, rather, a sacrifice one chooses to make.

Some might pay a higher cost, in their given sacrifice, than others; but who is to say which cost is more dear, to the soul of an artist? And the element of choosing to follow one's muse, to follow one's path, which is in itself no determinant of ultimate success or failure, is a common enough thread that it's noteworthy. As is the element of not-choosing, in the same way. You cannot be a victim of circumstance as long as you retain choice in these matters.

The element of sacrfice herein is the choice an artist makes to pursue their art, regardless of other costs. And if there are other responsibilities, such as to family or children or other long-time companions, than there is a balance to be found, in life, between living and Making. Where the choices fall is what I think is interesting. There are also some choices that we accede to, rather than setting out to follow: choices that time and happenstance lay onto us, that we might or might not have deliberately chosen for our lives; in which case, choice lies in the arena of how we respond to those situations and events. Choices that we have to face because of, for lack of a better word, fate. But we still have a choice in how we respond to circumstances, and what we do with what has been given to us.

I have lived both sides of that choice, at various times in my life: making big bucks in the corporate design, marketing and advertising worlds—and not miserable while doing so. I may have lacked full time attention for art-making, but I still somehow managed to make art, survive as an artist. Occasionally I ran headlong into the conflict around selling my talents while trying to maintain my personal integrity, but I was usually able to find a balance I could live with; and there were a few occasions where I had to choose my integrity over the job, and move on. At other times, such as now, I have lived a very monk-like existence, and have to deal with both the anxieties and freedoms of being destitute and impoverished financially. As an old samurai saying goes, When you know you're about to die, you can do anything. There is a freedom to having nothing, even while there are limits to what you can do, in other ways. But again, finding one's place along that continuum can be a matter of choice, and what we choose to sacrifice, in order to follow our path.

But I can say, heretical and misunderstood for a poet to say, as it often is: the path I chose which led me to where I am, was ultimately a spiritual path. It was not in service to poetry, or music, or even creativity as a whole—although all of those are manifestations of the path. Those are both tools and products of the spiritual path. But my compass is Spirit, rather than Art, although Art is sure way of expressing Spirit. Perhaps they are not really distinguishable.

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Fallow periods & crop rotation

I haven’t felt like seriously writing poetry in over a month. (Although I have written two haibun in that period, both of which were highly praised and nominated for this or that.) I feel rather fallow with poetry, after a big surge of poem-making in February and March, earlier this year. For now, I am concentrating, out of choice and necessity, on making music, and authoring DVD films. At the moment, my creative push is into music and visual art. I needed to take a break; step away for awhile; regain some detachment. I find myself checking in at a couple of poetry boards lately, and feeling like none of the poems I read had any depth or interest; all seemed shallow and stale, or pretentious and insular and precious; even poems from people whose work I’d probably like at other times. At any rate, there was very little I felt I could connect with. So, I don’t like or feel attracted to anything I’m reading now, I’m not going to force myself to try to like something I don’t, just to please others. There’s no utility or necessity in wallowing in where I have no attention or interest at the moment.

I’ll get back to poetry, as I usually do, when the music needs less of my attention. A lot of poet friends don’t understand this, or don’t seem to believe that I can really work this way; but then, only one or two of them that I know do any other creativity activity but write, whereas I have always operated in multiple media. (Their lack of understanding is also not my problem.) If I can compose or assemble a piece a day for the next few days, I will feel back on schedule.

I'm still being creative every day, in some way, if not always in the same medium. It can look like burps and skips to an outside observer, and with poetry I definitely do seem to do it in clumps with long periods in between (which is why the poem-a-day exercise doesn't work for me), but in fact I'm doing something creative every single day, just not every day in poetry.

I am always amused when poet friends insist their artform is the highest calling, the highest artform: I find that to be pretty much dust and bull. Music is far higher up the chain of sublimity, in principle and execution, for me. There's so much music can do and say that other artforms can’t touch. It’s the closest to the original language, the original sounds. The first sounds any of us hear are our mother’s heartbeat, when still in the womb. (The ear develops weeks before the eye.) We are conceived and born in rhythm. Music is pure sound, without linguistic content or meaning. Poetry, with all its graces and strengths, remains bound by its requirement to communicate sense and meaning; a poetry devolved into pure sound for its own sake becomes indistinguishable from music, as it no longer carries linguistic meaning, and can’t be called poetry anymore. (I except so-called Language Poetry from this approach towards musicality, because it’s mostly just crap.) Music is far more abstract, and can contain emotional content, emotional sense, but be totally devoid of linguistic sense. Which, then, is the more primal, more rooted, most universal art? Of course, there is a zone of transition there, between those realms, so it’s not cut and dried—there is, for example, text/sound poetry, which dwells right on that borderline. It is also true that all artforms can contain emotional narrative, if not logical narrative, which is one way in which art connects with us, and has the power to change us. Sound is immersive, though, in a somatic way that sight is not; sound completely envelops us in a total-direction field; sight tends to remain directional and focused.

So, I'm in a fallow period with poetry right now, but am working over inanother field, too.

And, you know, there's no problem with "down time." If you need a day off, to recharge, take a day off. I give myself permission to take days off when I need to. They often don't coincide with weekends or other traditional "vacation" times, though; for me, they happen when they happen. Usually because I'm tired out after doing something strenuous. I might have just returned from a photo and camping trip, or a family reunion, or might just performed a major concert series. So, when feeling exhausted by life, I might watch a movie, or read, or nap.

Quiet time is a Very Good Thing, and it's part of the cycle. There's always room for silence.

And then you get back to making things. Because you have to: because you must.

The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating. —Pearl S. Buck

I cannot divide life, cannot divide what is within and what is without; I must give all of you the whole, if I am to live with you and with myself.  I have always written just what I felt, just what I thought; and thus, my dear friends, I split myself up and remain always the same. —Goethe

All my life, people have been telling me "just pick one artform, settle down, and get to be great at that." All my life, I've been fighting the battle against that, which to me seems like a real narrowness of mind, and pointing to artists, musicians, and writers who have all done more than one thing well. I point to a group of people who I view in many ways as mentors and role models, who set a standard that I aspire to, even if I fail to achieve: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, John Cage, Gordon Parks, a few others.

Because I know it's possible to do more than one thing well, and since I do more than one thing well, this sometimes feels like a battle against prejudicial expectations. The prejudgment lies in the assumption that people can only ever be good at doing (only) one thing. That's simply not true. Even among "ordinary people," like your average farmer or salaryman, I have met numerous individuals who excel at their hobbies as well as their professions. I think you can do well whatever you feel passionately about, whatever you care about. Perhaps the key is passionate engagement, and deep interest.

Now, listening to and watching a documentary on Joni Mitchell, titled Woman of Heart and Mind, I hear a terrific quote that says it all for me, that describes exactly how I feel about the process of creativity, and says it as succinctly as anyone has ever put it:

Anytime I make a record, it’s followed by a painting period. It’s good crop rotation. I keep the creative juices going by switching from one to the other, so that when the music or the writing dries up, I paint. You rest the ear awhile, and you rest the inner mind, because poetry takes a lot of plumbing the inner depths. I mean, the way I write anyway, it takes a lot of meditation. Without the painting to clear the head, I don’t think I could do it. —Joni Mitchell

A similar quote from another mentor, John Cage:

As I get older my interests multiply rather than lessen in number.  I'm interested in indoor gardening and I'm interested in macrobiotic  cooking. My latest interest is the collection of rocks. Now in all my travels I collect either small rocks or, if I have the facility, big ones. I'm not only interested in collecting them to have them in my garden, but I've turned them into the makings of etchings and of drawings and now even into the composition of music, so that my songs are simply made by drawing parts of the rocks.

I think that growing old in a happy way derives from self-employment. If you are self-employed, you will see each day as useful, no matter how old you are. Most people accept jobs that are not interesting in order to make money. In other words, they think that money is important and life is not. What we need to do is to be willing to die for what gives us life. I knew that I loved music and that I was willing to die for it, so I didn't approach music as something that would make me money. If I needed money, I would take a job that would make money, such as washing dishes or distributing  fliers or something like that. I wasn't well-to-do until after I was fifty.

For people who were employed all their lives at a job they did for money, retirement is actually a good thing, but they will have to adjust to the self-employment mentality. Better yet, prepare for it before you retire. Everyone who went to school learned how to read and write, therefore I have the idea that everyone could work at being a poet. Now, that would be a good job in retirement. You could spend your life writing poetry, and you could begin while you were employed as a secretary or as a computer programmer. You could put aside a little time each day in which you employed yourself to be a poet. Then when you lost your job or were retired, you would know that you could go on writing poetry. And if you didn't like to write poetry or didn't like to write music, you could  make a drawing. My drawings are made by drawing around the stones I collect. I don't have to know how to draw. The rock teaches me where to put the pencil.
—John Cage, quoted in The Ageless Spirit, ed. Philip L. Berman and Connie Goldman

My crop rotation is: music, visual art (photography, collage, Photoshop painting), poetry & essay (creative non-fcition) writing; also, land art sculpture, weaving, typography, a few other things.

What's your crop rotation?

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Insularity in reading and writing

I am gradually rewriting some older and newer essays on poetry, and posting them here. it takes time, so I won't be blogging every day. I'm creating a Collected Essays out of this, perhaps, in the long run; compiling and editing to be undertaken later. Encouragement and brickbats will be listened to equally, although I reserve the right to be silent in response.

Poets reading only poetry, gay writers reading only gay writing, feminist thinkers reading only feminist thinking, neocons reading only other neocons—all of those lead only to insularity, and the very ghettoization of literature (and ideas), especially poetry, that so many poets and writers are complaining about these days.

The literary complainers don’t seem to see how they contribute to their own dilemma, by spending most of their energy in their own literary circles, and not reading outside their main interests. Ultimately they end up preaching to the choir, because of the very insularity they have created for themselves. It's hard to have a genuine discourse when you only read people you already agree with.

It’s potentially even worse for writers whose financial careers are made at universities and other academic institutions: because, too often, the culture within the Academy fosters insularity via the publish-or-perish pressure on professors to write contributions to basic knowledge within their fields, and also by containing the dialogue within their own walls and couching it in hermetic language few outsiders can comprehend. If you’re not of the high priesthood, you can’t get in. Hence, the accusations of the elitism of academic discourse and thinking. The danger is in losing touch with real life, with people different from yourself, and ultimately, losing touch with yourself, in the end. Perhaps every English professor should be required to take a sabbatical tending bar in a rougher part of town. Exposure to different kinds of people, different kinds of discourse, and different worldviews, if one is open to it, is inevitably broadening and enriching. So is travel, as the saying goes.

In my experience, it’s often the exact same way online, on the writers' boards. Of course, it’s easier to connect with a community of people who share one’s own specialized interests online: far easier than in realspace. But that very democratizing of the level playing field on the internet also leads to a different kind of insularity: anti-intellectual mob-rule being the extreme example of the lowest-common-denominator impulse. In the opposite direction from the English teacher tending bar, it’s the barflies going to visit the English department, and moving in. Smart people are frequently shouted down online, especially when they make comments in contradiction to the normative, or present alternative viewpoints.

I can’t imagine living my life in so insular a way. I read too much, and too eclectically, to ever be accused of insularity—on the other hand, people more comfortable in insular settings, such as professors I have known, have criticized me precisely for reading outside my discipline or field. Some people end up in insular settings because their minds are fundamentally geared towards insular thinking; such are the zealots among us. I note too a growing wave in recent months of neoformalist zealots on the poetry boards attempting to regularly disparage non-formalist poetry.

I think its a great idea to totally absorb oneself in an area of study—do a seminar, as it were, of self-study and total immersion in one’s current research. You find a writer who moves you or turns you on, or makes lightbulbs go off in your head with every line.

But later on, go back to eclectic reading. The seminar over, the priests must return to the bazaar, or be lost in their own insular universes, and lose touch. I love a good seminar. I love total immersion in reading something I’m interested in. I love doing research, and discovering new thoughts, angles, and ideas. And I also like a good hike in the forest, mind turned off, feet leading me forward wherever the path leads, destinationless and inanalytical.

So, I think it's a bad idea for poets to read only poetry, or mostly poetry. I think it's always better to read eclectically, omnivorously, and let the writer within be fed from many conjoining streams.

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