Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Practicalities of Critique & Criticism

First rule: take nothing personally.

Second rule: even a personal attack doesn't have to be taken personally, because it says more about the attacker than anything else, and says nothing about the poem.

Third rule: be honest and impeccable with your word. You think that no one believes in honor anymore? Then act as if they did, because your own word should matter to you, even if it doesn't matter to anyone else.

My critiquing skills were honed at the Uptown Poetry Group, when I lived in the Twin Cities, a twice-monthly poetry crit group that was training in the trenches. (Some of the group's archived poems can be found here.) We had the right combination of personalities and dedicated writers, all of whom were able to rip a poem to shreds or praise it to the skies without it ever becoming personal. This was the best sort of training in how to be a critiquer, and radically improved my poetry writing. I learned what works in my own poems, and what doesn't. I learned to formulate and articulate how and why I write poems, and then to leave it alone, and let it develop without trying to impose an ideology on it. I regularly break most of the rules they teach you in academic workshops about how you're supposed to write poems. I have no daily poetry-writing discipline, and those times I have tried to force it, the results have invariably sucked.

My critique style, if I have one, if there is such a thing, which I question, is simple honesty. Honest response to the poem, honest comments about what works and what doesn't, on all levels of the poem, technical and aesthetic. I can be very blunt about what I like and don't like, what I think works, and what I think could be improved on.

My critique style, if there is one, is to not focus so much on the nuts and bolts of meter, rhyme, syntax, grammar, etc., but on a first pass to take in the whole gestalt of the poem. To see if the poem works as a whole, before I bend down to examine the moss on the trees of the forest. I look at overall tone and style: does the style and tone match and support the topic and content of the poem?

For example, as a songwriter, unless you're deliberately making an ironic statement by making a musical style opposite of what the words are saying, the music of the song sets the tone, and enhances and supports the words. In the case of a great songwirter like Kate Bush, the actual words she uses do not stand on their own—they're occasionally borderline clichés—but the whole gestalt of melody, rhythm, arrangement, and her gift of performance make the song a synergized whole.

So, first pass, look at the gestalt, the whole.

Then, I start to look at what supports the poem, and what doesn't. I look for cliches (which can work, if done right), I look for flab and padding, I look for congruence between poetic form and poetic content. (Would a samurai write his death-poem as a haiku or as a sonnet? A haiku.) I look for things that seem arbitrary, or not directly in support of the poem's journey. Those incongruences stick out to my eyes like a sore thumb.

So, second pass, look for what does and does not support the poem's story.

Then, I might look again at whether a revised version might clarify a point, better support a point, etc. One very common mistake that even advanced poets make is to become too didactic, too pedantic, and to pound an idea into the ground so fiercely that the poem thuds and blunders to a conclusion with no delicacy or elegance. In other words: morals are for fairy tales, not poems.

Then, I might look again at the aspect of style that I can only call music: rhythm, sound, prosody, melody. To do this, you have to read a poem out loud. Too many poets never read poems out loud, their own or anyone else's. You really want to learn how Shakespeare made his sonnets work? The best way to hear that is to read them out loud. Follow the punctuation of his sentences, which are marvelous. The music in poetry is the music of speech.

I am able to give fairly objective critiques even of a poem whose topic and central idea is one I disagree with strongly. In this cases, I again look at whether or not the elements of the poem such as style, tone, prosody, word-choice, are supporting the poem. You learn in doing this to view each poem as its own universe, its own worldview. (Whether or not you might agree with that worldview in another setting.) The goal is to see if the poem creates a convincing, self-contained, self-consistent, internally-logical experience, irregardless of whether or not I happen to agree with whatever the poem is ultimately saying.

I see a lot of critique falter on this last point: an inability to be objective about something you dislike. One has to step back and analyze the medium without slamming the message.

However, in some cases, I will point out that a poem fails because it's message is a cliché, and/or because it is presented in inherently clichéd ways. All too often, poets think their poems should get a free pass from being critiqued because they are: statements of faith (credos); raw journal entries about personal woundologies; therapy-poems; political statements (which the reader is expected to agree with). This unhappy tendency is the result of too much political correctness being applied to poetry, wherein ideology supplants artistry. I will pass such poems only if they succeed as poems. I will not pass such poems if they fail as poems, as literature.

As one might imagine, this level of honesty is not always well-received. So, since I am not interested in creating drama, I simply will no longer critique certain poets or certain poem topics, because you will get a predictable response if you bother; so why waste the energy on it?

In terms of critique style, I think it's always possible to pan or praise without making it personal. I think it's always possible to be blunt without being rude, or self-righteous. I think it's always possible to respond with expansion, if a poem really lights your fire, without being condescending, or patronizing, or arrogant in one's erudition.

Does that happen every time? I wish.

Finally, in a public critique forum, be it face-to-face or online, you will also face the choice of whether to be open to all comers, or to have a semi-closed group of friends, who know each others' work well, and can help guide each other mutually. In other words: the critiquing process is never a one-way street. If you participate in the critiquing process, you can expect other people to critique your poems, as well. In the best settings, this becomes a dialogue. Even better, when you get to know a poet's typical style and voice, you can help them develop. Familiarity and experience allow a critique to get at the root of what works, for this poet's voice, and what doesn't; what is internally consistent for their voice and style, and what isn't.

If you want to leave the door open for honest critique, you also have to leave the door open for stupid critique, ridiculously inane, beside the point critique, etc. I have no problem with someone objecting to a critique as it is given, although I prefer that civility be maintained while doing so. I would rather there be genuinely free speech than no speech at all. That is a fine balance, of course. But it is a balance that can be maintained, if there is an agreement amongst all parties to strive for civil discourse, and do their best to achieve that. Some slippage will doubtless occur, as everyone has an off day sometimes, and gets prickly. But that can be balanced, too. For a long time now, I have found it useful to live by a wise saying that goes, Never ascribe to maliciousness that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, or ignorance.

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The Problem(s) of Criticism

If you are a real critic, you are going to annoy, even anger, someone. Like a prophet, often unloved in his own village, a critic must speak the truth of what he perceives.

The dearth of real poetry criticism nowadays is caused by the cooptation of poetry criticism by the professionals: professional poets, a class never seen before a century ago, who make their living teaching and writing, usually in the academy. The problem with bad criticism is that it is dishonest: it pretends to propose the truth, while obfuscating it. It's hard to find a good critical take on a poetry anthology nowadays, because most of those poets who dominate the publishing world are peers, and afraid of offending one another. It's the vicious backbiting of academic competitiveness, which I witnessed all too well in my several years in grad school. So, it's hard to get someone to write a negative review, even when it's deserved, because they fear retaliation. If you give my poetry textbook, which I edited, a good review, I'll give yours a good review in return, when you publish it. It's the dishonesty of marketing (a field in which I worked for two decades), where everything is shiny and bright, and blurbs stand in for actual criticism.

it is similarly difficult to take seriously criticism that relies too much on theoretical concerns placed before the word at hand. Criticism, like theory, must follow praxis, and not attempt to dictate it. Reviewing at its best is reportorial, interpretative, and illuminating. Critical theory at its worst has a visible axe to grind.

I like talking about art as much as the next person, and I even enjoy reading critical theory, and good critiques. But I do wonder how much about making art one can learn from critical theory, which is essentially talking about art but not making art. Theory follows praxis, it doesn't dictate it. It cannot. It describes it. It explains it. (Or attempts to.)

The point of being a poet is to make art. The problem with artists is they're unruly. They think outside the box, they explode the envelope, they keep coming up with things no one else has done before. The reason why there are so many nifty new critical theories all the time is because the critics are always trying to catch up with the artists—the wisest of whom generally ignore the critics and everything they have to say.

Is it possible to be a good, honest, fair critic, and still maintain civility? I believe so.

I have recently been re-reading Conrad Aiken's Collected Criticism (originally published as A Reviewer's ABC). The selections in Aiken's collection span the range of writers we now consider to be among the greatest of the 20th Century—or at least the most influential—from T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and many others, some of whom are now rarely read outside the halls of academe. The book spans Aiken's published reviews from 1915 through 1955. I find Aiken a model of critical writing: even when he is quite negative, even harsh, he manages to pull it off in a tone that is respectful of what is good and bracingly clear about what could be improved. He can be severe, but he manages to do it with civilized discourse. Any modern poet who wishes to learn how it's done might wish to read this book.

Throughout, I find Aiken insightful and provocative: he makes me rethink some of my own assessments, or at least consider my defense of my own judgments; at other times, he clarifies my own ideas by clearly stating something that I was always on the edge of, but could never quite articulate. His assessment of Lorca validates my own view that the epitome of Surrealism occured not with that movements French originators, but in the hands of Spanish-language poets: Lorca, Machado, Neruda, Paz, Villaruttia, and others. But Lorca was not a "Surrealist" in the French sense, that weaker sense of "over-reality" that never quite achieved transcendence. As Aiken writes about Lorca: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made.

So, why do criticism at all? Isn't it all a matter of subjective taste?

The total subjectivity argument doesn't wash. That way lies solipsism, and the ultimate shrug: why bother, then, to write a critique at all, if there is only subjectivity? I mean, that implies that nothing anyone can do is ever communicable to anyone else, and it really is all masturbation. I disagree.

There are elements of poetry that can be looked at objectively, starting with those elements that commonly fall under the rubric of craft. There are also elements beyond that, in terms of affect, style, tone, musicality. A great poem has more in common with other great poems than it does with lesser poems, and one can discern that a great poem has an impact of a special type on the reader.

The argument is then made that learning the academic theories—say, from Freud to structuralism to post-modernism—might help one become a better poet. I agree that it can make one become a better critic, but I disagree that it can make one into a better poet. All the -isms in the world cannot substitute for inspiration.

Perhaps it's useful to know about the history of theory, but it's also useful to know where the theories fail. I agree that the New Criticism made a good point about looking at the poem from the inside, on its own terms: getting into the text itself seems obvious. But it is not true that the Text is all that matters, and the Author can be entirely ignored. Texts don't magically appear out of nothing: authors write them. While I completely agree that an author's biography is not necessarily determinative of the text—the autobiographical fallacy, as if all author's were utterly unaware of what they are revealing (some are, of course)—at the same time, the text is not written in a vacuum, and the artist's biography, mood, and context does have some input. Yet even the clichéd writerly dictum to "write what you know" cannot account for fiction, science fiction, poetry, or essay, all of which present stellar examples of writers writing well about what they "don't know."

So, I'm not at all clear that knowing theory can make one a sharper poet. I think it's just as likely to get in the way, or, even worse, turn poetry-writing into a purely intellectual exercise. Literary theory is a purely intellectual exercise; poetry, especially great poetry, is embodied, visceral, multi-valent, and contains factors that are not purely intellectual, such as emotion, surprise, etc. There are non-rational elements to all artistic processes, including where the heck the impulse comes from to begin with. So much theory ignores all of that.

The idea that Theory can help me work my way into a poem, so that I can look at it from the inside out, on its own terms, has severe limits, because as long as I'm thinking about the theory, I'm not actually inside the poem, thinking the poem's own thoughts. I'm thinking about the poem, not inhabiting the poem. It is a filter between self and experience: a filter of mind, persona, intellect. It is a veil, however permeable, between what is and what we think is.

The removal of thought-filters is the whole purpose and point of meditation practices, contemplative practices, yoga, Zen, even Western monastic contemplation. It is in fact quite possible to remove a maximum of filters from one's perceptions. It is practical, and technical, a skill that can be learned, and a viewpoint that can be attained with practice. Nothing magical about it. So, when one removes thought-filters in life, one notices they also get removed in one's critical life, and writing.

Poetry itself is a way of contemplation. Creative work can be done with mindfulness, attention, concentration, envelopment. I think that a reader can often sense the difference between a poem that is lived, inhabited, which has enveloped the poet, and a poem which was more of an intellectual exercise. There is something Other present, then. I may not be able to define it, in all cases, yet it seems an essential component of great poetry, that is often absent in lesser poems.

My fundamental point is this: writing poetry is not intellectual play. Intellect is of course part of it all, but not the primary part, or even the most important part—except as intellect is the directive force behind poetic craft. Saying that intellectual play is the most important part of poetry is the same thing as saying that craft and/or form are the most important parts, which I also disagree with.

The strength of my reaction comes from the fact that I feel that modern poetry and poetry criticism is heavily overbalanced in the theoretical direction—just look at many of the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets, or the faux brilliance of a James Tate or a John Ashbery. I desire to keep the balance between craft and the ineffable source of creativity centered, so that they work together in harness, in alliance, supporting each other.

I notice that some literary critics unconsciously reveal their personal biases about poetry (etc.) when they adhere to one school of thought or another. I think the proper first response to a poem is visceral, personal. When a critique seems off the wall or unconnected to the poem at hand, underlying assumptions and ideological agendas are exposed. In my experience, most critical theories are created in reaction to something, usually a prior theory, or in an often covert attempt to propose an ideological paradigm. I don't think people realize how much they reveal of themselves, their inner workings and prejudices, when they put forth certain theories as gospel truthes or Big Pronouncements. Similarly, I find art that is produced in line with a manifesto or theory to be usually pedantic and only intellectually interesting. Surrealism sold itself out in this matter, eventually. Dada did not, only because its root assumptions remain shocking and radical, and most critics would rather ignore it, and pretend it never happened. (The only two writers who have said anything really profound and accurate about Marcel Duchamp's art are Octavio Paz and John Cage.)

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On Style (self-reflection, self-awareness)

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year. —Vita Sackville-West, in a letter to Virginia Woolf

To cultivate one's thought - to learn to shape and handle it - is to cultivate one's style. Looked at from any other point of view, style merely makes for obscurity and acts as a drag. —Jean Cocteau, Professional Secrets

His poetry went on living, changing, developing unabatedly for sixty years or more; and being always a part of himself, growing as he grew, it remained 'original' even when it was most imitative. Originality is after all not absence of models, but what one can make of one's models; it is the recognition of kinship and the capacity to transform; above all it is the refusal to imitate oneself. Goethe wrote in the style of (and here everything is mentioned from north-European folksongs, to Italian verse-forms, to the Homeric hexameters, to classic lyric Persian forms, to ancient Chinese poetic forms); and when he had done what it was his to do with these idioms, he would drop them and turn to something else.... He worked his models first into his system, then out of it. He was resiliant, able to forget, willing to leave things behind, deep enough to be inconsistent, big enough to be both personal and universal, alive enough for his life to be art and for his art to be life. —editor David Luke on Goethe

This quote about Goethe very nicely sums up how I feel about it.

I look in the artistic mirror as an artist, writer, musician, etc., and I see myself. I'm not comparing myself to Goethe in some arrogant way, but I do strongly identify with Luke's comments about Goethe, as they might possibly also apply to other artists, myself included, and those artists who I feel have been mentors to me, over the years, whether or not I ever knew them in person. Mentorship is essential for finding oneself: mentors provide a mirror in which one can see oneself, and provide examples to point, if you wish to explain yourself to others.

I seek to develop my personal style. But I don't want to be a stylist. I write in a lot of different styles, poetry, prose, prose-poem, haibun, my own new forms, etc., and I can see a thread that runs through all of them, unifying them as mine—but I wonder if anyone else can? Do others look at my various bodies of work and see only diversity? Is a personal style only a matter of personal interests?

All my life, since I was a small boy, people have been telling me to settle down and just devote myself to one art, to become expert at one medium, to just do one thing well. I've never understood that. I've always been capable of doing better-than-average at more than one medium; my creative repertoire crosses genres and media, and I've never felt that was a problem. My artistic mentors, since I was that small boy, have all been polymaths along the lines of Goethe, and have all done good work in more than one artistic (and/or scientific) medium: John Cage, Ben Franklin, Gordon Parks, Leonardo da Vinci. Add Goethe to the list.

What does this say about style? Can one work in multiple arts and still have a recognizable style? (Yes.) Does personal style have to be eternally consistent? (Hell no!) Can one say that the artist's work in one medium has more of a coherent style than the same artist's work in other media? (Perhaps so. I think sometimes my visual artwork has the most coherent sense of style, but even there, there are two artistic poles to the style: stark wabi-sabi simplicity, and cluttered fractal chaos.) My work has always contained a diversity of styles and tones.

I strongly question the insistence on consistency, unification, unitary style, etc., within any artist's body of work. I think that Goethe's inconsistency and constant growth and change is precisely the mark of a living, working, gorwing artist. I can't honestly imagine an artist being any other way—perhaps because I'm that way myself, and thus find it no easier to wrap my own head around unitary consistency, than it is for one of my critics to wrap their own heads around my inconsistent diversity of styles and media.

I identify with Goethe's refusal to imitate himself, or repeat himself: repeating myself is the most boring thing I can imagine doing, artistically. The next project is always the most interesting project. An artist who only repeats earlier work is creatively stuck, or creatively dead. (Or, perhaps, attempting to capitalize on previous work to have a stable income.) So, I've ended up as an artist with several internally-consistent yet externally-diverse bodies of work.

Certainly consistency makes it easier to categorize (and market) an artist's style. Art galleries expect you to present yourself to them, when you present a portfolio for review, in exactly this way: as having an enduring, unified style to your work. This usually means leaving out some of your best work, because it's off in another style-zone. But galleries are there to sell art, not to appreciate it: they are profit-making businesses. Many good artists go overlooked by the gallery scene simply because their work is less marketable. Consequently, I usually can only market one body of work at a time; which of course means having lots of eggs in the air all at once, which I admit can be a struggle to balance. Sometimes I just want to crawl in a hole, and give it all up, be a monk, ignore the world.

But the final word on consistency lies perhaps with Emerson, a quote I carried around with me all through music school and after: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Punctuation & Pedantry

I've been called on the carpet two or three times this past week, for not using "proper rules" of punctuation and capitalization in some recent poems, including the one just posted here, on the topic of Samhain. Once or twice the objection has been made on the grounds of purism: the purist adherence to grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules. But, as I've said before: Poetry is not prose, and does not need to strictly follow rules of prose construction.

Another objection to my use of full punctuation without capital letters in the poem for Samhain, is that "it doesn't look right." But this devolves to a matter of taste, as using capital letters in this form I have developed, the five-line fractal poem, looks wrong to my eye. This style now seems natural to this form.

Punctuation is another tool of style, and can be used artfully and with internal logic in support of the poem. (Like all tools of craft, which are in service to the poem.) There are lots of poems I like that use only minimal punctuation: to indicate breaths, or breaks, or pauses, or shifts and turns, as in musical notation. There are plenty of successful poems that use punctuation quite experimentally. If you end with a period, the poem can come to full stop; but if you end with something else, or with no punctuation, sometimes that's how you can get the poem to lift off into flight. It's a way of indicating the story continues, and life goes on, even after the poem is done being read.

I have little use for totally traditional, gramattically-correct punctuation usage—unless the poem seems to call for it. I have little use for a complete lack of punctuation—unless the poem's style calls for it. I write employing both extremes of the punctuation spectrum, depending on what the poem seems to want, and in all variations in between. For me, it's all about matching the poem's form and style to its contents, tone of voice, mood, length of breath. I like to play with punctuation, and see what's appropriate to the poem.

I think the idea that there is one hard and fast rule about punctuation (or other elements of craft) is misleading, and probably harmful as well as false. Again: poetry is not required to follow all the rules of prose grammar. Why? Because is not prose.

Punctuation may be used to indicate pauses in reading a poem out loud. Sam Hamill, poet and co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, has described a sequence of duration of pauses in poetry performance, using punctuation. Essentially this is musical notation. Hamill describes punctuation as marking the duration of breath-pauses, from short to long: comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipse, period, line end, stanza break, strophe. This is a potentially useful system, and since it exists in parallel to the traditional rules of grammar, it is complementary rather than contradictory.

The argument is then made: You have to know the rules in order to break them. You have to know what you're doing!

The problem I have with this argument is the constant harping on formal grammatical and syntactical rules that many poet-critics insist that poetry must use. Without excusing sloppiness in craft, I frequently feel as if this insistence on "correct" punctuation is like focusing on the moss on the trees, and ignoring the forest. It seems as if this attitude forgets that poetry is a different, perhaps looser medium, than prose: condensed language; heightened speech; intensified reportage.

This opinion on my part is reinforced by the critiques I get, correcting me as if I was ignorant, whenever I do something unusual with punctuation. I am not a beginner-poet, although I do my best to retain "beginner's mind" when undertaking creative acts. Experimentation is often mistaken for error, even by those who one might nobly expect to know better. For example, I recently posted a poem that ends in a colon, with a specific, intended effect; although one critique seemed to get what I was doing, many other comments focused on that one (innovative?) punctuation element to the point of obsessiveness, ignoring everything else about the poem.

Hence, I restate my original position on this point: how you employ craft elements such as punctuation depends entirely on what you're trying to do with the poem, in the poem, for the poem. Every case is different, so it's hard for me to subscribe to general rules when I see so many valid exceptions. While I agree in principle that it's wise to know the rules before you set about breaking them, I would also point out (an opinion based on experience and observation) that so much emphasis on knowing the rules before one breaks them, almost guarantees that no-one will think to break them. Such over-emphasis can build a barrier in the poet's mind against imagining the very possibility of exploration. I'm all for internalizing the rule-sets that go with various skill-sets, but after they're internalized, I'm all for going for that level of mastery where one doesn't have to think about them all the time, either. The great haiku master Basho said: Abide by the rules, then throw them out!—only then may you achieve true freedom. A wise dictum.

At this point, I find myself thinking again of Thoreau's comments on pedantry. I mislike pedantry about the rules of language, and I mislike the rules themselves whenever they are used as a bludgeon rather than in support of the work. It is all too common to use the rules as a bludgeon on beginnners, who in some cases may choose to rebel out of some anti-authoritarian backlash. I still think it will come down to what the poet wants to do with the language, and to what is appropriate and necessary for any given poem. All languages continue to change and evolve, as long as humans still speak them. Only dead languages are completely fixed. So, the rules will continue to change, possibly even in your own lifetime. To demand that all poems be in the same punctuational style, even from the same poet, would be an example of taking a good idea to an extreme.

I realize that I am spiraling around arguments I've already made, and I risk repeating myself verbatim. The truth is, it keeps coming up, for the reasons I already mentioned: critiques of poetry that assume that experimentation is error, rather than intentional. As long as the pedants argue for purist formalism, the counter-argument needs to be made for exploratory freedom. The tools of writing are themselves neutral: it is what we do with them that matters.

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I hear poets say things like this all the time: One might think, as poets, we would be far more comfortable with abstracts, anonymity, the process of thinking and describing.

I suppose that's true—if poetry were entirely a mental process: of the mind, not of the body, as though we had no embodiment below the neck, but were just naked brains floating in space. I've never understood this viewpoint, although I recognize it's existence.

You see, I think, as poets, we would be far more comfortable with the opposite. I think poetry is rooted not in abstracts but in lived experience, in living, in the body, in the breath. It is also rooted in the detailed awareness of the experience of daily life: like Zen, poetry is a process of paying close attention to whatever one is doing at the moment.

I think poetry can end up abstract, although I would question if that is necessary, inevitable or a good thing. I question why some poets think that is poetry's inevitable outcome. Poetry is as tangible as music, as visual art, as living—or it is not, itself, alive. If in reading a poem, I don't feel the experience of the poem from the inside, then the poem doesn't fully work for me. It might be an interesting intellectual exercise, but I want to experience it in my whole being, not only my head.

As for the terror of losing the self, well, that's also the purpose of art: going beyond the self. The part of the self that feels terror at the prospect of its own loss is the smallest, most fearful part of the self, anyway. And losing it is no loss.

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Friday, October 27, 2006


Over at The Inner Minx there's a contest going on for poems about Samhain. I contributed the following:

come see: how quietly they move through the stones.
parchment fingers rustling their leaf tambourines.
the dew is on the grass. their feet, in all their wanderings, do not touch.
they float above the earth, or dissolve near to it, into it.
their compass rose is of the greater earth: these leaves fall through them.

we rise up out of the very fields we tilled: these cemeteries, plowed anew.
every year, the miracle of wheat. sweep the garden for next year’s roses.
snow falls around us, whitens our scalps: no summer’s day outruns us.
shake the leaves off the headstone: a million butterflies take wing.
the ash tree whispers: home: we’ve come home.

Now that I'm back in the Upper Midwest, after being in the Southwest and California the past few years, I'm appreciating the changing of the seasons: the color of the sky in October (when it's clear, not raining, which is all it's been doing lately), the rustle of fallen leaves on the lawn, the colors of autumn trees, the crisp air on the morning after the first hard frost. A fairy ring of mushrooms appeared in the woods just north of our house, a few weeks ago.

Samhain is a favorite festival of mine, and a favorite time of year. There is always mystery in the air. (Susan Howatch in her Starbridge series of novels formulates the dynamic balance of tensions in modern religion, namely, the Church of England, as having three poles: liberal; conservative; and the Middle Way of mysticism. I find this a congenial model, although I am not a member of the Church of England. I am most definitely of the mystic path, more than the other two, however.) The smell of burning leaves, and decaying vegetable matter. The walls between the worlds thin, and one can hear the voices of the ancestors more readily than usual. It's the Day of the Dead. All Hallow's. Hallowe'en. Samhain. All Saint's Eve.

This time of year always bring a poem out of me. The above poem is a revision of two earlier fragments, which suddenly seemed to fit together, just now. Many of the older poems on this topic are not very good. Here's one more poem, which to me feels related to this time of year, implicitly, if not explicitly.

darkness prayer

I want to live
in the welcoming darkness—
to cook and eat by firelight,
to write by the full moon’s beacon,
to read the shape of the road in its shadows,
to keep fireflies in a jar as my bedside lamp.

I want to dream
at sunset of starlight
and firelight and noonlight—
pine boughs wrapping the tombs of kings
under their biers of logs,
tapestries of ravens filling the air like nightfall

take me to the silence,
that place beyond names,
beyond the cold light of dawn—
there, shadows will flick their cloaks
free of the wet leaves of autumn
and pin jeweled fireflies to their collars,
and walk out into the road, unafraid,
the insignia of the light
worn by the heart of darkness

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Artist & Poet Pat Jones

A sample of her recent work is here. A longtime friend, I find her work always mythopoetic and evocative. She'll claim she's no good as a poet, she'll say she's an artist who occasionally writes poems—but don't take her word for it: she's excellent. She makes it work.

Browse away, and enjoy.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 6: Showing versus telling

I was scanning Ron Silliman's blog some weeks ago, as I occasionally do, and he had a review of a movie by Bhutanese monk and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu, Travellers and Magicians. (To read Mr. Silliman's review, click here and scroll down to the August 11, 2006, entry.) There's a comment that Mr. Silliman makes, down the page, that I think is pertinent to each and every poet, at one time or another:

Balancing the two narrative lines [of the film under review] is difficult enough, but the real challenge for Khyentse Norbu is how to create a film that is deeply & openly spiritual without, by that fact alone, becoming preachy. It’s a distinction that Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes in the title essay of her new book, Blue Studios, between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it, “thinking hard for all of us”) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process (DuPlessis herself is a great example of the latter, as are, say, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & Barrett Watten).

The key phrase here that I want to discuss, in the context of these notes towards an egoless poetry, is this: the distinction between poems that tell you what to think (or that model it . . .) & poems that are themselves demonstrations of thinking as an active, ongoing, indeterminate process. Poems that think for you, and poems that model what thinking is actually like (by demonstration), and thus encourage you to think for yourself, and also teach you how to do it. Poems that hand you their conclusions on a sliver platter, and poems that encourage you to make your own conclusions, as a reader. Poems that preach at you, and poems that pull you in by resonating with your own experience. Poems wherein the poet tells you what ot think, and poems that are open-minded and indeterminate of interpretation.

This is not limited to purely surface poetic details, experiences from daily life that readers might be expected to share with the poet. If we assume that that is all that poetry can convey, then all we have left is confessional poetry, journal-poetry. All we can write about is our cats, our children, and our sex lives. (Thank you, Robert Lowell and the other "confessional poets," for opening wide this door, that may ultimately leads us to collections of journal-based pseudo-poems such as Hal Sirowitz' My Therapist Said.)

If on the other hand poetic resonance goes beyond the superficial and mundane, which I think it does, it can also include poems that embody deep spiritual, philosophical, and even religious truths (as opposed to truisms), such as what might be the key phrase of dialogue in Khyentse Norbu's film: "the Buddha says hope causes suffering." The film demonstrates this truth not by baldly stating it as a truism, but by demonstrating it again and again through narrative events, fable, and thoughtful character moments. One of my all-time favorite films, which achieves this level of demonstration, is Ron Fricke's Baraka. (Fricke was also the cinematographer for Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of films beginning with Koyaanisqatsi.)

If cinema can do this, then so can poetry.

Perhaps we can develop a style of what we might call cinematic poetry, which presents imagery without (surface) explanation, in sequential presentation out of which meaning arises organically. This is in fact something I've been working at for some years now, with occasionally successful individual poems, although my attempts towards this type of poetry have often been dismissed a priori as experimental.

Even though it has become a cliche in poetry-critique circles, this distinction between "showing" and "telling" does get at the very root of a common problem with many contemporary poems, in that many poets tell you what's going on, rather than showing you. The distinction is also expressed as abstract/philosophical vs. concrete/imagistic. (Haiku poets take note.) The problem is that telling the reader what's going on is perilously close to telling the reader what to think, and what to conclude (the chief reason why most political poetry becomes preachy rather than engaging).

Without making any value judgments about which route is superior as a style of "pure poetry"—if there is such a thing, which I question—I will nevertheless make a personal (philosophical? moral? ethical?) judgment about which is more fun for me to read, and about which I strive to write: namely, the showing rather than the telling poem.

I prefer poetry that engages not only the mind but also the body: the gut emotions, the somatic sense of kinesthetic prioperception, poems that pull the reader inside the experience of the poem (rather than simply describing that experience to you, or telling you what it was). Poems that are experiential rather than reportorial.  Poems of the manifest world, rather than poems that exist only in the mind, or only on the page. Poems that can be simply a presentation of images and events, out of which meaning arises on its own, without pedantic aide. Poems that make you feel them from the inside, rather than leaving you as a detached, outside, bodyless observer. From the cinematic perspective, the point-of-view-without-a-body that is the camera lens is capable of evoking a visceral response in the viewer—emotional, somatic, kinesthetic—on a level that written text, by itself, is not.

In terms of cinema itself, I'm often drawn towards shorter, imagistic, low-dialogue, non-narrative films. Cinema is narrative and non-narrative, of course, sometimes simultaneously. I think poetry can be, too. This does verge on that terrain where words fail, and other, non-verbal artforms, really may have an edge over poetry. I'd hardly call dance more abstract than poetry, because dance is kinesthetic, whereas poetry can be (literally) all in the mind. I'm using the word "abstract" to refer to disembodiment, I realize that, but that's intentional, because that's the usage of "abstract" as it arises from historical Western philosophy, religious thought including theology, and, therfore, its parallel usage in Western art criticism. If that wasn't explicit before, let it be so now.

If it seems as though I keep returning to this topic in various essays (embodiment rather than disembodiment) it's because I think it's so very very important, and because it's no very very inevident in much of contemporary poetry. I see very little showing, and very much more raw telling, in contemporary poetry, especially in poetry that attempts to divorce thought from soma. (I think it might be a problem on the level of getting fish to see that they're breathing water: overlooked because inherent; unseen because taken for normal.)

I admit to being drawn to haiku and its related forms, in part, because the classical Japanese tradition emphasizes concreteness and imagery over overt philosophical statement: letting the meaning arise from the images and the described moment, rather than telling the reader what the meaning is, explicitly and directly. There is a certain obliqueness to this approach, relative to much other poetic literature, that I appreciate: even while the poem itself is direct, concrete, and physical, it contains layers and depths of resonant meaning. (In haiku much of that is generated by allusion rather than metaphor, which is possible within a shared literary tradition, if most readers have read the same sets of classic texts: the advantage of a shared tradition.)

It's possible, I believe, although I'm not always sure what it would look like, to have a poetry of embodiment out of which also arises engagement, empathy, and shared experience, and even spritual and philosophical truth (again, demonstrated by example, rather than simply restating a truism). I suspect this was the original appeal of much Zen-inspired Beat poetry, no matter how quickly the original impulse devolved into mannerism and imitated trope (which is very much how I view many post-Beat poets of lesser gifts, not excluding McClure). Of that group, I tend to view Gary Snyder as having had the longest string of successful examples of embodied philosophy in his poems. I confess to a possible bias, there, as my own concerns and experience and interests are closer to Snyder's than many others of that group. (Though, as a gay poet/artist myself, I have always found fellow-feeling in much of Ginsberg's explicitly homoerotic poems, even though many of them may be of overall lesser artistic merit.)

So, it's nice to encounter artistic products, be they film or poem, that seem to move in this direction, of embodied philosophy, enacted truth, demonstrated-by-example thinking, rather than telling and preaching and pedantry. Examples of what is artistically possible, along these lines, are always welcome.

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What of the Mind?

Poet Mike Todd poses three inter-related questions:

• what role does the subconscious mind play in the creative act?
• how does the subconscious mind differ from the conscious mind in respect to its cognition of language?
• how valid is the statement "the conscious mind thinks at the speed of speech"?

Okay, you just knew some C.G. Jung was going to get quoted here, didn't you?

Until recently psychological empiricism was fond of explaining the "unconscious" (as indeed the term itself implies) as the mere absence of consciousness, as shade in absence of light. But it is recognized not only by all the ages before us but also by present-day exact observation of unconscious processes that the unconscious has a certain creative autonomy which could never belong to a mere shadow nature. (Collected Works XLVI, 152 ff.)

We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features. It is not a question of mere optical reflection but of an autonomous answer which reveals the self-sufficing nature of that which answers. (CW LVIII, 44)

The unconscious is not a demonic monster but a thing of nature that is perfectly neutral as far as moral sense, aesthetic taste, and intellectual judgment go. It is dangerous only when our conscious attitude towards it becomes hopelessly false. And this danger grows in the measure that we practice repressions. (CW XXVII, 89 ff.)

As for the unconscious mind being a source of creativity, it is perhaps the source of creativity. It is the voice the gods, and perhaps the muses, speak through. It is the "voice of the gods" speaking to us from the compartmentalized mind, that pulls the hero into vision and gives the oracle the words to say what needs to happen next. (cf. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which is all about this process.)

Audrey Flack writes in Art and Soul: Notes on Creating:

Sometimes the artist is not the final control. She absorbs the basic tenets of the age in whic she lives, creating an assemblage. This subconscious assimilation of the flavor of the age, combined with archetypal concepts, is poured out in the form of art. (p. 25)

A shaman is someone who has been through the fire, who has been ill and healed himself. The shaman can then return and heal others. Jackson Pollack was a lost shaman.

He committed a public suicide. But it wasn't art that killed him.

Had Pollack retained a joy for painting, it could have saved him. Because of his inner personal turmoil, combined with the tearing and wrenching of the "art world," it became more and more difficult for him to paint. He would wait for hte very last moment to complete a show, staying up all night drinking, abusing himself. Art could have saved him. He lost his way.
(p. 98)

Janet O. Dallett writes in her book When the Spirits Come Back as both an artist and a trained Jungian analyst, from the chapter entitled Shaman, Artist, Lunatic, Thief:

... Now, seeing what I can only describe as an inductive effect of [my paintings hung on the walls of the cafe/gallery] on others' psyches, I became aware that it made an opening into another world for people from all walks of life, people who would not ordinarily be motivated to discuss their dreams or to give conscious attention to the spirit world in any way.

As I sat in the cafe that day I fell deep into deja vu. A few years earlier, when I began reading my poetry in public, many people had seemed puzzled by the work and some had expressed strong feelings of discomfort with it, just as some did now with my paintings. Simultaneously, then as now, others had reported that their creativity was remarkably stimulated by mine. Reflecting upon these events, I understood for the first time that a certain kind of work, resembling what Jung calls "visionary art," functions in much the same way as the shaman in tribal societies. That is, some art is shamanic in function. Formed from collective unconscious material, it activates the unconscious of its audience and mobilizes the psyche's self-healing capacities. It opens the door to a different reality, the world of dreams and imagination, and "spirits" silently pass into the world of every day, affecting people in unexpected ways.

Shamanic art undermines unexamined cultural assumptions. For this reason it disturbs some people and may even arouse rage. Those who are open to it, however, often find that it sets their own creativity in motion.

Such art tends to be prophetic. It asks, even insists, on being heard, just as shamans are compelled to tell about their inner experiences when they begin to apply what they have learned about healing themselves to the healing of others. The visionary creative act is not complete until it finds an audience, coming out into the world and disturbing the complacent surface of collective consciousnes. If the process is blocked, one outcome may be psychosis. Cancer may be another.

Shamanic art brings *eros* values to the healing of the psyche. That is, unlike traditional clinical psychology and psychiatry, it is more concerned with connecting and making whole than with the *logos* values of dissecting and understanding. It is related to a form of psychotherapy that interprets rarely, seeking instead to set in motion a symbolic process that has its own unforeseeable healing goal. Understanding of behavior is important only to the extent that it serves a living relationship to deep levels of the psyche. Since it is fundamentally creative, this approach to psychotherapy sacrifices the claim to clarity, undermines unexamined asumptions and is more disturbing to than supportive of conformity. The soul of the shaman lies equally behind the visionary artist and the therapist who works in this way. If the shamanic type of therapist ceases to live her own creative life, the capacity to function in healing ways becomes lost and may even turn destructive.
When the Spirits Come Back, pp. 36-37

And Jung again, this time directly on art and creativity:

Every creative man is a duality or synthesis of paradoxical qualities. On the one hand he is human-personal, on the other hand an impersonal-creative process. As a human being he may be healthy or morbid; his personal psychology can and should be explained, therefore, in a perosnal way. But as an artist he can only be understood through his creative act. (CW XVI, 327)

The artist is the mouthpiece of the secrets of the psyche of his time—involuntarily, like every true prophet, and often unconsciously, liek a sleepwalker. 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. (CW XXVII, 150)

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.

Well, those were the oblique, indirect answers to the questions at hand. I often find taking an oblique approach to be very useful.

For myself, I would have this to say:

1. the role the subconscious plays in the creative act is essential, seminal, and huge; the Muses live there, and the gods, as well as the Dragons; the act of being creative, when it feels like dictation, is driven from there. I have once or twice been the receiver of poems that felt like they were being dictated to me; and whence else do they arise? But "subconscious" is the wrong word, for the truth is that the conscious mind is the smallest part of the whole system that is the Self; and "sub" implies beneath, which is only true for part of that whole Self, as there are other parts that are trans-conscious rather than sub-conscious.

2. language is very much the realm of the conscious mind; the unconscious mind uses language in a completely different way, if indeed it uses words at all; mostly, it uses images, and is often pre-verbal. it uses a symbolic, resonant picture-language. The language of dreams is this language. The conscious mind, with its tendency towards rational logic systems, tends to over-value language and words; but each night, we dream, and when we dream we are sometimes bereft of words entirely—yet it is no loss, as we still go on, and experience all of dream-life in other languages than just the verbal.

3. "the conscious mind thinks at the speed of speech"—I think that is usually true, but even the conscious mind, if the intuition is trained, can skip steps and arrive at the proper conclusion without having to parse through all the intervening steps. Call it intuitive logic, call it interval thinking—it's a valid and trainable skill, involving training both the conscious mind and the intuitive mind in harness, to work together, in tandem.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 5: the paradox of removal

The DaDa paper game, the cut-up technique as developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, other chance operations and literary games: these are all relevant methodologies of removing the "I."

I would say, though, that many of the developers of these methods only took them so far, and didn't often pursue them to their fullest potential. I think Cage went further because his use of chance operations went further, and was used to determine more decisions during creation about the elements of the finished piece.

In many ways, these are not new ideas. None of what I am presenting here may be entirely new. It is entirely possible that I am merely recycling, in my own manner of speaking, very old ideas. (Precursors to this discourse lie in Taoism and Zen Buddhism, as well as in avant-garde literature, music, and poetry.) I freely admit that my basic approach is musical, as my artistic origins are in music composition (an artform in which the term "experimental" means something perhaps both more practical and more ephemeral than it does in literature).

Gertrude Stein also explored this non-normative syntactical egolessness in Tender Buttons (1921), predating Cage's later development of textual egolessness by some decades; Cage readily admitted that he came to poetry late, and he did acknowledge his precursors as influential on his thinking. The reason we keep inventing Stein's wheel is the same reason we keep re-inventing Cage's wheel, or Charles Ives' wheel, for that matter: most artists react against this level of experimentation, and reject it, rather than embrace it. (I can name poets who still hate Woolf, Borges, and dadism, too.) Most artists prefer to repeat the familiar rather than embrace the Unknown. (This is, after all, what sells.) Most artists are not avant-garde and don't want to be. We keep re-discovering Stein simply because most people keep forgetting about her. The same for Ives: he's still so far ahead of the curve, musically, that he still rarely gets performed. Cage still isn't performed all that often, either, if you really look at the facts; his notoriety far exceeds the actual number of performances of his works—which should tell us he's on the right track, as an inventor and explorer. None of this is unique to Stein or the rest. It's true of most of the genuinely avant-garde. (As opposed to the pseudo-avant-garde, most of whom are mere shock-artists, who take tropes and ideas and apply them as window-dressing without actually pushing the artistic envelope. Simulations rather than actual explorations.)

A discussion of egoless poetry is eventually going to overlap with discussion of spiritual/visionary poetry, as the goal of the Surrealists and DaDaists both was to surprise themselves as well as each other, and to directly tap into the then-stilll-new theories of psychology about the unconscious mind. Freud was just becoming publicly well-known and internationally discussed at about the same time as the Surrealists and Dadaists were breaking things up; Jung was already working at this time, but had not yet broken away from Freud to pursue his even more fertile explorations of synchronicity and the archetypes. It was an explosive time of great explorations on many fronts of human life (and that's one big reason there was a vital avant-garde during that period). The overlap comes of course because once one starts to remove and/or diminish the "I" which is the persona and personality-ego, the other aspects of consciousness will come forward, not excluding the transpersonal (spiritual) and pre-conscious (autochthonous) aspects of the Self.

But here's the paradox: if you try really, really hard to get rid of the "I" you tend to make it stronger. That's the paradox that has to be worked with (and is one area the Surrealists, I believe, failed to account for). If you strive to write an egoless poetry, you might end up with something that is in fact very self-conscious, very mannered, in the sense that no-one wants to talk about the elephant in the middle of the room. You might wind up inflating your own ego. (Frankly, I think much of the 1920s and 30s avant-garde suffered from this, as did the Surrealists. A lot of them were their own best cheerleaders.) I'm not interested in that.

I think my personal methodology to remove the "I" would be more what Meister Eckhart called "sinking and cooling," and what some writers about haiku have called the abandonment of self into the poem, to be replaced by fuga, the poetic spirit (which is made up of the characters for "wind" and "elegance"). In meditation practice we gradually silence the mind's ceaseless chatter of ideation and judgment. This is a very practical way to remove the "I:" basically, it runs down when it runs out of steam, after no one is paying attention to it for awhile. In writing from that place one arrives at when the mind (ego) is silent, what comes forward is from something other than the persona/ego, and not from the "I" but from the Self, or from something else. Perhaps from the materials themselves.

In other words, rather than striving hard to write an egoless poetry, which paradoxically can make one very self-conscious, we might simply let it all go, including the ego, and see what sort of poetry comes forward. Effortless effort.

This is obviously only one methodology among many, and I know some poets will run screaming from it, for fear of losing themselves entirely. Such a poetry might still contain traditional or radical syntax, familiar words used in unusual ways (another good definition of some kinds of poetry), yet the absence of the writer's "I" will be notable—or, rather, the absence will go unnoticed rather than bringing attention to itself. I know this is tricky stuff; I didn't say it would be easy to pull off, or even possible, just that it's something I think is a worthwhile goal.

Another paradox that can sometimes happen, as it does with John Cage, is that the more the composer removes himself from the piece, the more present his personality may be felt to be, by the listener. Cage's paradox was that his egoless pieces still sound like "Cage pieces." This might be unavoidable. I wouldn't worry about it too much, I'd just acknowledge the issue and let it go. (Worry promotes self-consciousness.)

I've been accused, in all this, of wanting to start a new poetic movement. I don't want to start a new poetic movement, because in many ways I feel than none of this is new. But I do feel like I'm trying to restore to balance a kind of poetry that already exists but has been subsumed under the guise of scientific-rational (intellectual) discourse. The very idea that poets and musicians make it all up "out of their heads" exemplifies the problem. Just like the fish might be the last to realize that fish breath water, it's hard to get poets, immersed in language as they are, to see that there are both other ways of using language, and that language might not be the ultimate tool that some tout it to be.

We can start by weaning ourselves of the (addictive) (ego-inflating) belief that art is all about personal expression and psychological revelation, and restoring equal value to art that isn't necessarily about personal psychological revelation.

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Notes towards an egoless poetry 4: the removal of the "I"

In reading through Marjorie Perloff's essay on John Cage's poetry, which is largely not recognized as poetry) on Ubuweb, several thoughts occur:

• What is considered normative in contemporary poetry nowadays is self-expression, figuration, psychological revelation. Even prior to the Confessional poets—notably Lowell and his followers, and to some extent Plath and her imitators—poetry has been assumed to be about artistic self-expression. This is of course a legacy from the Romantic era, with its mythology of the tortured artist standing alone against the bitter world. (What is often misunderstood is that Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther not to promote this idea but to vilify it, via negative example.) Think of the Myth of Beethoven as the typical example of Romantic angst, sturm und drang. (It is notable that many of our terms for these Romantic tropes come from German.) Think also of the post-Romantic myth of the tortured genius painter striving alone to achieve something new and memorable: from van Gogh to Pollack, this is a continuous thread in the history of 19th and 20th Century painting.

Thus, we get poetry and artwork and music that promote the artist's ego as special, as derived from genius (or at least from talent beyond the norm), and we get the idea that The Artist must stand apart from The Masses, and be in opposition to or conflict with them; via misunderstanding and rejection, if for no other reason. Thus, we get the archetype of the Starving Artist, whose works will never be appreciated in his or her own lifetime—which is a particularly pernicious and damaging archetype, not just for artists but for those same masses, who fear "the madness of art" for themselves, and thus segregate art into a specialized activity. (In contrast to several Asian cultures, such as the Balinese, where it is normative for everyone to be an artist, musician, sculptor, or otherwise creative, and not in opposition to their daily work lives, but in complementarity with them. After a day driving cab, you play with the local gamelan group, for example.)

As long as art remains a specialized activity practiced mostly by professionals, it will remain the domain of the exalted and exaggerated personal ego. As long as we continue to believe that art is practiced mostly by professionals, even as we scatter our creativity across the globe via the internet (ignoring that in fact, everyone is capable of being an artist), the dominance of psychological revelation in art will continue.

• Here's how Cage defines poetry, in the Foreword to Silence:

As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.

This is a musical definition of poetry. Despite many arguments about language, prosody (meter and rhythm are both aural and musical elements), or other arguments for poetry being heightened prose, I find Cage's musical definition of poetry to be irrefutable. (Of course, my background, like Cage's, is originally as a composer of music.) Poetry is musical elements applied to the world of words. Poetry is meant to be heard as well as read on the page; therefore, every reading of a poem is a musical performance, involving the music and rhythm of speech. Like music, a poem does not exist until it's performed (notation is not performance; the score represents how to re-create the sound, but is not itself the sound).

Therefore, we can regard arrangement of the words on the page—line-breaks and enjambment, stanza-breaks, punctuation—as musical notation giving us indications for performance. Each of these typographic arrangements presents a notation of performance: breath, timing, pause, silence, spacing. The placement on the page represents the timing of reading: space-time are inextricably combined. (This is how Cage came to regard performing his poems, and to writing them, as Perloff discusses.) So, punctuation and line-spacing and line-breaks are not prose, and do not have to follow prose rules of grammar and syntax, because the word-speech is a sonic performance. This allows us, as poets, to break away from the (normative) "rules of grammar and syntax" in our poetry, and opens the door to new possibilties of both presentation on the page, and of performance in aural space.

So, words can be come purely sounds, removing syntactical meaning and content from their essence. Words become elements, like meter and rhythm, of a musical space-time. We remove the "I" from the experience of writing and reading a poem, and from its performance, by removing specific syntactical meaning. (Cage's use of typography as performance indication is explicit in his vocal piece 62 Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham.)

• Syntax is the regimentation that shapes a group of words into meaning. Cage writes in M:

Syntax, like government, can only be obeyed. It is therefore of no use except when you have something particular to command such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.

Of course, syntax can be deliberately disobeyed, as well, but this is, like the atheist's arguments against the theist's, merely a negative proof: the fundamental assumptions are agreed upon, and the argument becomes only an either/or assertion and denial.

An alternative approach is to ignore syntax entirely. How does one do that? (Other than simply not paying it any attention, of course.)

Syntax creates context: the parts of speech are arranged in orderly, related fashion. James Joyce, for all his punning and allusive imagination in Finnegan's Wake, did not in fact alter syntax. He used ordinary structural parts of speech and subsituted neologisms and puns. (Except for the ten Thunder Words, which are onomatopoeic.)

If we ignore syntax, we ignore context, and words can become pure sounds. Another definition of music I've heard, post-Cage, is: Music is organized sounds in time. That's a very broad, inclusive definition, and has room in it for both standard poetry performance, and text-sound poetry. The most interesting poetry presentation, however, then becomes a score's performance, rather than reading an arrangement of words on the page.

(Some of the Language Poets claim that this is what they are doing, but I disagree on the grounds that their approach to the removal of meaning from language is a misère argument in the same way that negative proofs support those things one is arguing against, as mentioned above. Most Language Poets are not in fact removing self-expression and psychological revelation from their poetry, they are simply making it harder to find, more obscure, and, arguably, less interesting and relevant to the reader. Neither are the Language Poets using chance operations, in the way that Jackson MacLow and some others pioneered, to create their texts.)

Chance operations bypass personal taste, and remove the ego's choice from the decisions made about the composition and performance of poetry and music. This is why many artists began to use chance operations in the 1950s, partly as a response to what was going on in the world at the time: the extreme forms of egotism exemplified by dictatorial fascist and authoritarian regimes on the national stage. What is a dictator but an individual with a magnified ego, and the power to back up his every whim?

Remember, in all this, that language structures the way we think about reality, as much as how we think about reality structures language. There is interplay and interaction, it's a feedback loop process. But, for those normative situations in which the ordinary person usually functions, language is often a dominating paradigm: it becomes very difficult to conceive of something that our language cannot already express.

• So, normative syntax helps maintain the foreground of the artist's "I." Normative linear syntax leads us to structure reality in a linear, progressive manner; and our language reinforces this. (Which is one reason many people find quantum mechanics difficult to understand, because its results contradict ordinary linear syntax.) Alternative syntax, or its abandonment, can be a door towards opening the poem out into the egolessness of actual existence. (It is one option, even if not the only option, or an ultimate possibility.)

But this doesn't mean that an egoless poetry must be a descent into meaningless or random chaos. "Organized sounds in time" still retain semantic import, meaningful content. The distinction is that one is free to invent one's own meaning, in response to the performed (or read) text, rather than to have a fixed meaning imposed on the poem by its author. The removal of the "I" means that the poet is not necessarily the arbiter of the poem's meaning; the poet can be as surprised as the reader (the pleasant surprise of the revelation of meaning in the world's presentation of events, read as images and/or as symbols). This leaves the door open to the unconscious, to the possibility of synchronicity (meaningful non-coincidence), and to the surprise of revelation itself. For no revelation was ever predictable, all arise from Mystery, and all change the way one perceives and structures the world, temporarily or permanently. We have to get the "I" out of the way, in order for this to happen.

This conception is supported by chaos theory and fractal geometry, which show that even apparently random, chaotic systems contain higher levels of order. (What keeps us locked into normative grammar and syntax may be fear of the unknown, fear of the chaotic, more than anything else.) Chaos contains order. Fractal boundaries show us how much chaos and organization interpenetrate—very much like the ancient Taoist symbol of the yin/yang, wherein the seeds of light and dark and to be found in each other, always whirling around in dynamic symmetry. Semantic meaning emerges from egoless space, just as fractal forms emerge with stunning beauty from apparently random recursion.

From the existential viewpoint, as described by Camus (rather than Sartre, who got stuck on nausea and never got past it), meaning is something we create for ourselves. Meaning is something we find as an emergent principle. At its most shallow level, meaning is something we impose on the world, on events, on each other. (The problem with this, when it's done shallowly, is that our unconscious is also projecting its contents onto the world, and thus what we mostly see are mirror-reflections of our own shadow-fears and repressed desires.) At a deeper level, meaning is something that is revealed by observation of the world's patterns, as an emergent property.

• So, removing the "I" from poetry allows the world to come through. Even when we avoid saying something, by abandoning syntax and/or using chance operations, meaning still comes through. The removal of the "I," again, is about letting the meaning come through. Rather than me as the poet telling you what the poem is about, what you can find in the poem, its threads and turns, is something you, the reader, can discover for yourself.

This is not the same as puzzle-box poetry: that poetry still has a poet-determined meaning, but the poet has deliberately concealed it, as a game strategy. This is not the same as much Language Poetry, which often just deliberately obscures meaning for the sake of being obscure. (There are plenty of puzzle-box makers among the Language Poets.) These are tactics that strongly retain the poet's ego, in that they are intentional and, even if only barely so, self-expressive and psychologically revelatory.

I propose an (alternative) poetry that is not psychologically self-expressive of the poet's intentions and desires. (I am not saying this is a poetry one can practice all the time, but is a possible goal to work towards.) Such a poetry would allow meaning to be an emergent property of each poem of this type, rather than something specifically intended by the poet. (Yes, I am repeating myself: circling in towards the center, because this way of thinking about poetry is apparently so far outside the usual thinking of many poets that it will immediately draw fire as "experimental" and other basically derogatory critical dismissals.)

Such a poetry might, for example, be purely descriptive, purely imagistic, purely cinematic, purely sequential and yet non-narrative. (Semantic content arises from its sequential presentation; in which case, if the sequence of presentation were indeterminate, different meanings will arise from different performances.) Such a poetry, for another example, might be more like the Cage pieces described by Perloff in her article. Such a poetry might be "purposeless play," which is about waking up to being in the present moment, once we get the usual mental chatter out of the way. Such a poetry might lead us to the truth that there is no inherent purpose to art-making, no essential truth of what the artist is or does. And therefore, ultimately forgiving our definitions or art, music, and poetry from having any essential meaning. So, we become free to stop worrying about poetry, poetic intention, and The Artist, and become free to just do it.

Such a poetry already exists. We have only to discover it.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Experimentation is:

• things that change the shape of your mind, and how you think about the universe, and experience;

• things that are new to you, the artist, and to you, the audience;

• things that don't repeat what you already knew, but take you to a place you've never been before; this could be a view from a hill, a new restaurant, a town you've never been to, something erotic, something relational;

• things you knew about but never tried before; reporting is not the same as experiencing;

• things already known but described in a new way; dove-voiced acronyms of exaltation spill across fertile ears, and turn keys in locks of air; this is the realm of new shapes for old thoughts; the place where old stories are told anew, in new ways, and even though everyone already knows the old stories, and how they will end, the shape of the telling is so new that the excitement of our first hearing, like a memory of the first bedtime story ever told, is present in us, and echoes;

• things you have never thought of, things maybe no-one else has thought of, things unknown to your experience and your imagination; astronomer J.B.S. Haldane once wrote: The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine.

• all of the above.

• none of the above.

• something we haven't described yet.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What is "experimentation?"

In reading some recent discussions about experimental fiction, what comes to mind is, first of all, how nebulous a term "experimental" has become, and how it is often used as a bludgeon rather than a scalpel.

I think it's an error to assume that "experiment" in literature means remotely what it means in science: an empirical testing of hypothesis pursuant to uncovering natural law. Experiment in science is a process, a tool towards gathering knowledge. Experiment in literature, on the other hand, is more often variations on a theme: playing with form, playing with content, playing with effect. (I use the word "play" intentionally.) It often is little more than innovation in form.

I am inclined towards categorical inclusion, rather than categorical exclusion, in creative ventures. I dislike cenorship, and I believe that the worst, most insidious, form of censorship is self-censorship. I think that creative art must retain the right to offend, annoy, diatribe, argue, disturb, and dismay. That doesn't mean I like all such artistic products; it does mean that I value their existence, regardless of whatever I personally might like or dislike about them. Freedom of speech has to be an absolute: the freedom to say what you mean, what you think, what you believe—even if (or perhaps especially if) what you say is offensive to some. The most democratic right involved in the freedom of speech is the freedom to ignore the speaker. We don't need to have the right to shut the speaker up, and prevent them from speaking out; we do need to have the right to speak up in disagreement to their ideas.

Yet I often find myself accused of being an experimental writer. I certainly don't feel that way: I just write what I am interested in writing. It's true that I do play with innovative forms: I have invented (or discovered) several poetic forms; I am a creative explorer, constantly trying out new things; I push existing forms as far as I can, to see what happens (although, even when I have labeled non-haiku as such, they often get dismissed; if I had labelled them as haiku, of course, they would have been dismissed as non-haiku: with some critics, you just can't win), or because I want to try to say something new within the existing form; I push the contents of the few forms I work in in non-traditional directions. I think new thoughts, and I express them. Sometimes I spend a great deal of time and energy in educating the audience, rather than continuing to make new work. (Explanation and justification get old rather more quickly than they used to, I admit.) My criteria for a successful work of art remains basically the same, though: did it move me? did it make me see the world in a new way? did it expand my experience, while also bringing me inside its world, to experience things from the inside?

So, is experimentation everything that is non-traditional? When a critic uses the word "experimental" in a dismisive or perjorative manner, that is exactly what they mean: this doesn't fit into the existing boxes. But "thinking outside the box" is something I would be proud of, rather than dismiss out of hand. The literary box can be confining and stifling; that's often exactly what formal innovators are rebelling against.

What of metafiction? I am generally interested in metafiction, although much of it does suffer from the tendency towards playing games, rather than providing a deep experience. Metafiction can indeed be wordplay and head-games, although at its best, it is genuinely expansive.

I am generally in disagreement with critics who dismiss metafiction out of hand, simply because it does not conform to their ideas of what fiction ought to be, or is. Borges did not write short stories, and judging Borges' short fictional pieces by the standards of "short stories," even formally innovative ones, simply misses the point. It's apples and oranges, folks.

I am even more in disagreement with critics who equate "experimental" with non-mainstream—which usually means non-marketable. The only way the mainstream expands is to incorporate the non-mainstream that creeps into view from the shadows. Most of the works of the past we view as essential classics, after all, were originally panned by the critics as useless, wrong-headed, or just plain bad.

Innovators will always have to educate their audience. It's the price you pay for reguarly thinking outside the box.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 3: the hermit hut

There are attractions to the monastic lifestyle: silence, solitude, simplicity. The opportunity to go within oneself. The quiet life. It's often enough that it might seem attractive, to a poet, to drop everything, take only writing implements and a few things to read, and check out for awhile. There are numerous retreat centers that offer hermitage experiences: isolated desert and mountain locations, quiet retreats overlooking lake or sea. It's a long tradition that goes back millenia, in both Western and Eastern cultures. There is a grand literary tradition of writing about one's stay in such places. From Po Chu-i to Basho, from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton, from the Mahabharata to May Sarton, the urge to take hermitage has always been there, and has been considered, contemplated, and written about.

There is an apparently universal human instinct towards hermitage, retreat, seclusion, monasticism, meditation, and contemplation, that turns up in various versions in most cultures. In shamanic cultures such as the Plains Indians, there is the sweat-lodge and vision-quest. In African tribal cultures, there are similar tropes. In Australian Aboriginal tribes, there is the tradition of the Walkabout. I think the thing that ties it all together is solitude in a natural setting, whether it's a hut or a pilgrimage. There is always danger involved, often both psychological and physical. There is always risk. The non-risking, mall-going, socially-conforming, mundane, ordinary life of urban snivellization offers little support for pilgrimage or hermitage, if it even acknnowledges their existence. Thus, undertaking such a path can be a radical disruption, a breaking away, and a major change, depending on who you are and where you start from. It can also be An Awfully Big Adventure, and tons of fun.

I sometimes wonder if the Beats didn't stumble on to this idea simply because they were looking for an escape, a rebellion, any escape, any rebellion, and found what would serve in the literary traditions of East Asia and Zen Buddhism. I also sometimes think that Gary Snyder was the one who opened that door for the rest of the Beats, as he was already a scholarly grad student in these topics when the rest of the Beats met him. Asian poetry, the hermit hut literary tradition was one avenue of rebellion and exploration; the Baudelaire-Rimbaud-Artaud tradition of the derangement of the senses (drugs and synaesthesia) was the Beats' other principal route of escape and exploration. As such, the Beats obviously influenced and prefigured a lot of what happened in the Sixties, and in many ways they were the pioneers, along with some others such as Leary, et al.

The romantic notion of a hermitage is that one is going to retreat from the world, get away from the hustle and bustle, withdraw into silence. But what dabblers (and this could include many of the Beats) don't know, because they haven't experienced it, is the tough reality rather than the romantic ideal: you bring all of that with you, to your hermit hut. The world does not just drop away: it has to be actively let go of.

The same goes for your sense of self, for your personality-ego. Lots of people don't get very far into the hermitage experience, because they get fidgety or restless when deprived of the usual cultural stimulations. With only limited social interactions, with no one to chat with, with no one to project one's self onto, the inner noise gets suddenly louder, and some are not up to the challenge of waiting for it to fall away.

So, if you are expecting a hermitage retreat experience to help you get away from your own ego, your own self, and your own shadows within—the opposite is true. Be warned: The monastic life is the hardest life you will ever live: you will experience, first hand, your own darker nature, and be unable to run away from it. You will be confronted with every mistake you've ever made, every horrible thing you've ever done to yourself, or to others. Your life will be in jeopardy.

Because the monastic life is a pressure-cooker: it brings you face to face with yourself. If you are a successful monastic, you will go through a lot of hell to get to heaven. If at some point you don't have a profound faith crisis in the monastic setting, I would worry about your progress. It's like Meister Eckhart said: I pray God to rid me of God. Every illusion, every assumption, every easy ritual, even all the ones you have valued to date, will drop away—so that you can encounter, directly, the Face of God. (We'll use the word "God" here out of convenience, not in any conventional religious sense, but simply as a ready label for Mysteries that are unnameable.) After awhile, the darkness does all fall away: as the world falls away. But it's not an easy process. It's a kind of death. Sometimes all you are left with is endurance. Sometimes you come face to face with the void, the abyss, the death of all meaning, even the death of the faith you once had held so firmly. If you are not strong in seeking, and cannot endure this separation from God, you can get lost for real, and be damaged. The separation from God is itself an illusion, in the end, but while you are in that part of the process, it is very very real, indeed. If you come past it, you come to realize that you are not, nor have you ever been, separate from the Divine. And that is the mystics' knowledge in a nutshell: as Eckhart says, God remains present. It is we who have gone out for a walk.

Total seclusion means that every interaction you have ever had with another person comes to you in memory, and you cannot escape. This takes courage. You will review your life, and it is necessary to do so. After a point, you realize that interaction with other people is a precious experience, and at the same time you can survive without it. You don't have to go looking for characters; they will all come to you, any of them you are ever supposed to meet; they will all appear to you. If you haven't seen any person, for even a week, the first person you encounter will be so intensely memorable, so eccentric, so much a character, so much fully themselves, that it will be almost overwhelming, and you might want to flee back to your retreat rather than to have to spend a lot of time with people again. Your perceptual sensitivity will be heightened beyond measure.

If any of this speaks to you or you own experience, you may be a hermit already, in spirit, whether you live in a cabin in the woods or an apartment in the city. Not all people who carry the hermit archetype live traditional monastic lives; many seem quite ordinary on the surface.

Living out of a truck cab may count as hermitage, albeit a rolling one. There is time for contemplation and inner work in such circumstances, certainly, which are part of the hermit's lot. A hermitage is not always a permanent residence, but sometimes a waystation; a place you spend some time alone, to get your head together, and get your heart woken up. It's not a life that suits everyone, and yet it also seems to have universal benefit to those who try the life out, even if only for short periods of time. Being a hermit has nothing to do with religious monasticism, necessarily; it's a way of looking at the world, and can be practiced even in the midt of a crowded city. The best introductory book I have read on the topic is Marsha Sinetar's Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics.

Another book that is essential reading for hermits is Thomas Merton's Day of a Stranger. In poetic prose and photos, he describes his typical day in his hermitage near Gethsemane Monastery in central Kentucky, in the 1960s. Japanese Buddhist poets Ryokan and Ikkyu both are good reading on this front, too.

When I abandoned the settled life in 2004, and became semi-nomadic, Four Huts: Asian Writing on the Simple Life, translated by Burton Watson, was one of the few books I took with me, as my truck pulled the little Scamp trailer westwards. Merton's Day of a Stranger and Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior were two other books I viewed, and still view, as essential hermitage reading, and brought with me. I lived in the New Mexico desert near Taos all that fall, and into winter, when it became apparent I could no longer survive in the trailer. And then the trailer was taken away from me, leaving me with just the truck and what remained of my belongings. I was reduced to near-nothing again.

At other times, in previous years, I have camped under the stars in northern Minnesota, in Wisconsin, and other parts of the Midwest, in all seasons, for weeks at a time. Nothing is as healing as the silence of the night sky in the far north, under the Northern Lights and so many stars you have to work to pick out the familiar constellations; the sound of coyotes or wolves in the distance only adds to the silence. I have spent time in a single-room cabin with a wood-burning stove to cook on. (Food always tastes better cooked over a wood fire. Always.) I have slept in the truck on long drives. I have tent-camped in all seasons, from the Midwest to the central south, Kentucky and Tennessee, and in all but two of the Lower 48 states that lie west of the Mississippi. All times of the year, all season, all conditions. I'm in my late 40s now, and still more comfortable alone in a tent in the woods than I am in most large social situations. I have always been an introvert, and suited to a semi-monastic life. The best place I ever lived was in an apartment that was the upper-half of a house in a small town 20 miles from the larger city where I worked. I had the best of all worlds, and the commute was across two-lane state and county roads, not freeway driving, so it was only occasionally tense. I like people, and I like interacting with them. and I need large amounts of time alone, in silence, in solitude. The time spent alone also wakes you up to the world, when you go back to the towns; you observe people more closely at the truckstops, you notice more details, you see what people do that's unique, and strange, and perfectly them. "Normal" is a town in Illinois, and has nothing whatsoever to do with a state of consciousness or a pattern of socialized behavior. England relishes its eccentrics and characters; in post-Puritanical America, we lock them up or shun them.

I have mostly lived alone. I can live with other people, and I can compromise and communicate and work things out. The usual problem is that most of the people I've lived with can't reciprocate. I get tired of other peoples' drama, when my only contribution to it seems to be my mere presence. So, sometimes it's just easier to live alone.

As a species, humans tend to be species-centric. Like other primates, we are statistically a social species, even though we have a wide range of tolerance within those basic statistics. I've heard more than one writer say: writers depend primarily on their interactions with other people to feed their inspirations. I strongly disagree. While it can be argued that all writing is about relationship, not all writing is about human relationship(s).

While I agree that anything can be done to excess, I would argue that many great writers have been introverts who brought whole worlds into being through imagination. To discount the role of daydreaming, and inner journeying, to the life of solitary writing, is to do it a huge disservice. (It is also a typically left-brained Western-rationalist idea, to place higher value on "empirical experience" than on inner experience.) In fact, many great writers do "make it all up in their heads." They have indeed spent years observing and absorbing what people do; a writer will call on memory going back as far as they can remember, to bring forth characters, situations, and inspirations. A lifetime's worth of fuel for this fire has already been gathered; all you have to do is sit down, get quiet, and tap into it.

Even primarily solitary writers have human contact. Rilke practiced an extensive correspondence. Here was a man who lived in solitude and isolation, and went within for his inspiration, and found worlds upon worlds within—thereby disproving the theory that inspiration must come from sources outside oneself—and at the same time wrote thousands of letters to his many correspondents. Letters to a Young Poet contains ten letters that he wrote that go deeply into his method of solitude as a source for inspiration; but these ten letters are only famous as a collection now because their recipient, the young poet Kappus, gathered them together as a group; they are in no way atypical of the rest of his correspondence, but rather quite of a whole. Reading Rilke's Selected Letters is a good guidebook for living the solitary writer's life, and thus for being a hermit in the modern world. Similarly, Thomas Merton's extensive correspondence contains many of the same tropes, clues, and guidances.

I think that more writers are introverts than extraverts, overall. It's a job that pushes one in that direction, anyway. Writing is a mostly solitary activity. The real balance, as Jung said, is when one works to integrate all aspects oneself into a whole being, and finds a balance that way, in oneself. One becomes a compensated introvert, then, perhaps fundamentally shy but able to handle group situations; or a compensated extravert, fundamentally boisterous but now capable of self-reflection.

It has also been said that introverted writers will "lack the wisdom balance of having observed and lived life fully." Again, I strongly disagree. In order to be that unbalanced, you would have to have never lived, never gone to school, never had a family that you grew up with; you woulkd have to have been raised in isolation, in a box. There's no other way to avoid input; the world always rushes in. Even some autistic people have been writers and artists. While I agree that anything can be taken to an extreme, there's no way to be that introverted short of having grown up alone in a fairy castle, taught to read by the winds, seeing the world only through distant, high windows. It might work in a fairy tale, but it won't happen in real life.

Towards a reading list on the hermit life:

Marsha Sinetar: Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Jane English: Fingers Pointing to the Moon: Words and Images of Paradox-Common Sense-Whimsy-Transcendence

Thomas Merton: Day of a Stranger; also, Woods, Shore, Desert; The Wisdom of the Desert

Sherry Ruth Anderson & Patricia Hopkins: The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women

Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums. The character of Japhy Ryder was based on Gary Snyder. A version of a piece of the novel appeared in the Summer 1958 edition of the Chicago Review under the title “Meditation in the Woods” along with essays by Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki, poems by Philip Whalen, and a piece on sesshin by Gary Snyder.

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, translated by David Hinton (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002).

Alan J. Berkowitz, Patterns of Disengagement: The Practice and Portrayal of Reclusion in Early Medieval China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Four Huts: Asian Writing on the Simple Life, translated by Burton Watson (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).

John Suiter, Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002).

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (New York: Orion Press, 1964), 31.

C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

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