Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sometimes the Futility of Poetry is a Weight

I feel less and less like posting any of my poems anywhere on the online boards, for critique and/or criticism. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that I feel more confident as a writer about the direction my creative writing is going in; I feel less need to explain it or justify it to anyone, and more to simply practice it. I do get tired of having to explain myself artistically all the time. This is not something I care about; it’s just something you run into, if you are an artist who posts your art in public, where any idiot can pipe up with their opinion or comment about it. (That’s why the Road Journal is a journal, not a weblog; it doesn’t solicit opinions, or feedback, or comments. It just is.)

Another reason I am not posting as much is that I’m not writing as much, and much of what I’m writing has no home in the critical/critique sphere. I’m doing ever more haiku, haibun, and prose-poems, and those forms are still not generally accepted or understood by most American poets; neither in terms of history nor of practice.

A third reason is that I’m focusing on compiling essays, and haven’t felt a lot like focusing on poetry lately. I remain astounded by the ways people play at creativity, and don't take it seriously, rather than viewing it as a way of life.

Poetry comes and goes for me, I’ve said that often enough; this is a period where I mostly find words totally inadequate to express what I’m experiencing. After my father’s death, it might take me a long time to write about it in any way but factual or reporterial; which is strong enough writing, for now.

And so I return to the issue of self-esteem and self-confidence in my writing, wherein I don’t feel the need to seek approval, or even feedback. I know what I’m doing right now is good, important work: I’m exploring some things that are new to me, and I am immersed in those writings in ways that don’t require critical feedback. Which has its uses, but also has severe limitations. One of the worst of those being that you often don’t get readers who understand you, when you’re pursuing these new roads. Very few get it. Even fewer can follow along the entire journey. Still fewer want to go along with you, down that new road; those are the ones you keep close at hand, but you don’t necessarily need them to offer you critiques on your writings, so much as you need them to hang around just to know you’re not alone.

Writing about my father’s death in some kind of false and artificial, cheap and sentimental “poetic” fashion is anathema, sickening to contemplate, and not likely to ever emerge from my pen. I’d rather keep silent than commit that kind of writerly sin. If I never write about it—if I never write anything worth publishing again—at the moment, I don’t care. It’s not where I’m at, and it’s not what writing is all about.

Too many poets focus on the public aspects of poetry, which amount to little more than popularity contests; far too few poets continue to quietly go about their work, even if no one notices, pursuing the roads they feel have opened before them, that they must travel down, privately rather than publicly. Maybe something will emerge later that the public will hear about; but that’s not why the journey is taken. It has nothing to do with applause, approval, or even conviviality. It has everything to do with following the personal vision, and following one’s bliss. If anyone catches up later, and likes what they see, that’s gravy; but it’s not why I do this, and never has been.

This ventures into that territory where artforms other than poetry—non-verbal, non-linguistic artforms—have the edge over poetry, which after all remains tied to the word. So I have been turning back to music, and to sound design. I spent a few hours editing audio files on the studio computer. It becomes far more emotionally satisfying for me to work in artforms that are non-verbal, for now, because words can’t contain what I want to put out, and words lie and cheapen the depths of it all. They are inadequate containers. Maybe someday that will change, and I’ll write again, as I said; but I don’t mind waiting a long time for that day to come, and I don’t mind, right now, if it never came.

It always has cycled back around before; it has always come back. But it does go in cycles, big loops where the creative force moves between mediums, and right now the cycle moves me away from the inadequate vessel of the word, and towards the more expansive vessels of music and photography.

I realize, too, in reading a lot of poetry and dialoguing about poetry lately, that I mostly an unmoved by what I have been reading. I realize, further, that I see a huge amount of striving behind the poetry I see online, and in print. Striving to impress. Striving to excel. Striving to exceed, in some cases. A lot of people dedicate a lot of their energy to employing a medium of expression that ultimately can never fit it all in, and which betrays genuine experience by being too small to encapsulate it. They work really hard at being writers. They write a poem a day. They write in new forms they’ve discovered or invented. They spend huge amounts of energy defending what they do. And nobody pays attention, or cares.

The grand futility of it all is both alarming and soothing. After all, if no one really cares, you can do whatever you want to do, and work to better yourself via poetry as a vehicle of self-expression, and if you never produce a great poem, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to justify. At the same time, the sheer volume of mediocre poetry being produced these days is staggering. There’s never been more poetry available, in print and online, and most of it sucks, relatively speaking. I find myself indifferent to most of it simply because the quantity vs. quality ratio is so very skewed. I’m not claiming to be a great poet; yet I do feel confident about the avenues I’ve been exploring in my own poetry, and I do think I’ve done some good things. It’s my corner of the world. You're welcome to visit, but treat my home as your inn, not your house.

I realize too how very seriously so many of these poets take what they’re doing—all without realizing that most of what they’re putting out there is unpolished and unfinished: études, sketches, studies, not finalized work. Sometimes that seems to dominate. Despite Paul Valery’s famous comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned—a comment which does contain real insight—far too many poets seem to me to be lazy about pursuing quality and excellence, while at the same time far too zealous about pursuing technique and craft for its own sake; and also far too zealous about writing practice itself. The poetic world is tilted out of balance. It feels like these poets are putting their energy into the wrong aspects of writing poetry, and neglecting the more essential, core aspects of the practice. Most poets over-produce, never realizing, again, that most of what they’re producing is not final polished work, but largely throwaway. I don’t claim to be innocent of this error, myself. Nonetheless it seems like misplaced striving, rather than genuinely productive striving.

My opinions on these matters are unpopular amongst the poetic mainstream. Sometimes you feel like a prophet, speaking truths no-one wants to hear, which is guaranteed to reduce one’s popularity in many quarters. No-one likes to be told they’re naked emperors.

The bottom line is that there is so much effort being put into all this, that you’d expect the end results to be so much better than they are, based on sheer effort alone. Unfortunately, creative work never functions that way: there is no direct and predictable correlation between effort and quality. If there were, all polished and technically perfect poems would be great, and all poems achieved by riding the lightning of random inspiration would be crap; yet the truth is demonstrably the opposite.

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Monday, August 27, 2007


At the end of that dark day, near sunset, I pulled into a rest stop to stretch my legs. A group of monks and nuns in pale gray robes clustered at a picnic table. Flying in ecstatic circles, over lawn and concrete, a thousand giant dragonflies, four inches long and a half inch in diameter, feeding or mating, being a manifestation of beauty. The monks were all speaking French; and I felt the old language take life in me, as I contemplated chatting with them. I would say, Bonjour, ca va? And once introductions were complete, we would discuss obscure theologies in multiple languages. Leaving the bathroom, though, they all spoke English. The dragonflies still danced in waves and ripples and spirals. I stood in their midst, encircled and surrounded by flying bolts of light. It was a summoning. The monks and nuns, it was easy to believe, were not human, but emanations or emissaries. They ignored me as I stood, hands out, to touch those whirling and diving wings, power throbbing my palms, the threshold between worlds very near, in the shadow of that dark tree near the edge of the woods. A tent caterpillar nest overhanging the sidewalk, looming, intimate shadows within. The monks and nuns got into their cars and drove away. It was a meeting of overlapping worlds; strangers at the crossroads.

Thus I came to an insight about the true nature of God: the whole theology of the Trinity is wrong. It’s actually a four-in-one, not a three-in-one; four is a much more sacred number. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Godhead, which is called Mystery: that deep silent Unknowing behind the imago dei; that one can only arrive at by sinking and cooling into release; a still small voice one can never quite shoehorn into image or word. That dark day I had gotten lost, been waylaid, found deep pools of reasonless waters; I had driven myself hard, and gotten nowhere. Now I return to the unknown and silent. I knew this once, and lost it. Now I must re-learn it. Like starting over, maps are useless, the territory uncharted. Every structure stripped away, in order for the voice of Mystery to re-enter, rebuild, again.

I am too tired to resist, to fight. The day empties me. I am dying, and just want the powers that be to take me now, and get it over with. I am willing to die to the old life, to be void. That emptiness that is what used to be; that hole in the air that used to be shaped like a body. So the dragonflies might dance through, and catch light in the indigo twilight.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nikolai Miaskovsky: An Appreciation

I have a soft spot in my heart for a certain period in Russian classical music: that transition from late Romanticism to early Modernism, when new languages and themes were beginning to emerge, but the old concepts, in their uniquely Slav tones, still had a powerful voice. Much of this music was written during the first half of the 20th Century, and is overtly tonal rather than avant-garde; of course, during the Stalin years, approved musical styles were often limited, with experimentation and innovation often frowned upon. Still, much early Modern Russian and eastern European music composed around this time has qualities of angularity and inwardness that I am attracted to; tendencies which only become more overtly developed, later in the century, in the Polish and Russian musical avant-gardes.

I recently rediscovered a piece I had loved and listened to often in my teens: Nikolai Miaskovsky's Cello Concerto, Op. 66. This is a late work for this composer, from 1944; it has been recorded numerous times, not least by Rostropovich. It's an unusual concerto in that it is in two movements, with an overall slow-fast-slow form, emphasizing lyrical melodicism over virtuoso technical display. Your typical concerto is in three movements, usually fast-slow-fast; Miaskovsky reverses those expectations to great effect, even as the conclusion of the second movement is a capsule reiteration of the first movement, a return to mood and theme.

The emphasis on melody does not mean this is an easy work to play, however, either interpretatively or technically; there are two extensive passages, for example, which require the soloist to play continuous double-stops in solo counterpoint. And sustaining an even voice throughout, in a piece that requires one to play with passionate intensity in every register of the intsrument, can leave a soloist wrung out and limp, afterwards.

Miaskovsky has been compared by some music critics to Tschaikovsky. I resist this comparison, in part because I think it's lazy and superficial, but also because it doesn't give Miaskovsky enough credit for having his own voice and style. There are many ways the two composers differ, to my ears, not least of which is that Piotr Illyich was a late Romantic, while Nikolai was an early Modern. Piotr was a populist, a crowd-pleaser; Nikolai was more of a classicist, occasionally astringent, often darker. He was also a professional teacher of music composition; among his students were Kabalevsky, several of whose piano pieces I played in my youth, and Khachaturian. One thing that Miaskovsky does share with his more famous predecessor is a love of dramatic climax; there are several points of dramatic tension and crescendo within Miaskovsky compositions that reach satisfying high points and resolutions.

The Cello Concerto is not a "happy peasant" work, or a folksy work, but a "dark and brooding Slav" work. The melodic themes often twist and turn in unexpected directions, and there is a great deal of unpredictable chromaticism. It is sometimes hard to pin down a tonal center, as the music can be modal and almost atonal; yet without ever losing its emotional charge. Miaskovsky was a composer whose music is always passionate and emotional, even at its most non-tonal, but eschews the overt necessity of a narrative-dramatic "program," or scenario. It's not about a story, it is a story. Following where Miaskovsky leads, during the Cello Concerto, you go on a long journey through several moods and tempi; arriving, at the last, having been through almost 40 minutes of compelling melody, at the last two chords of the piece. They are delicately soft, almost silent, the cello having risen in its last melodic line, growing ever softer, to hold a sustained final note in the violin register. Then, while the soloist holds that final note, the full orchestra very gently plays two final chords, separated by a silent pause.

Those last two chords, after all you have been through to get there, are themselves a compressed journey of tension-and-release, summing up all the strictures of tonal music with a precise, sure touch. And they are sublime and tragic enough to make one weep, they are so soft, so beautiful.

Perhaps it is the Slav soul, that dark soul, that sense of relentless tragedy despite everything, expressed in music, that is so affecting about this concerto, and other music from this period. Perhaps it is that fatalistic Russian sense of life and its shortness—no matter what else happens, the wolves are always and forever chasing the sleigh—or perhaps it simply that the history of Russia, in the first few decades of the 20th Century, brought out so much horror and shock, that it marked all the arts, for decades to come.

I don't know. All I have to show for it all is those last two chords in this Cello Concerto, that, every time I hear them, make me become still, and silent, and inward, and on the verge of tears. That is an honesty, a mature emotional honesty, that is all too rare in contemporary music; so we must treasure it, wherever we may find it.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Northwoods Haiga & Haiku

From my recent camping trip in northern Minnesota, some calligraphies and poems.

floating high above
the fire's circle of light:
river of heaven

he wears a compass
on a chain around his throat—
the direction home

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poems Published, Summer 2007

I just back from two weeks camping in the northwoods of Superior National Forest in Minnesota. I sought rest and rejuvenation, and partially accomplished my goal. I wrote a great deal each morning in my tent, including some new poems.

In the meantime, I've had six more poems published. One poem was just published by The Externalist. I have also had five poems published this past month, in two installments, over at Monsters & Critics, for which I'm very grateful. Most recently posted at M&C is a prose-poem about my father, his cancer, and my being with him this past year as his principal caregiver. I moved back to his home in the Midwest to be his caregiver in July 2006; he died in June 2007, after one good/difficult last year. The last few months were particularly good, as he was feeling strong and fit, until his final illness caught up with him. We had traveled to Michigan so he could show me ancestral and family gravesites, and visit several relatives. I've written extensively about that trip, with photos, here.

Below is the prose-poem that was just published, repeated here as a memorial to my father.


A blue afternoon. A clear blue sky, paling to white at the horizon, cloudless; a March sky, though it's still December. No more snow since that first big storm after Thanksgiving. If we don't get more snow soon, it's mean drought come summer. Dust in the air will mean topsoil blowing away before rain or young shoots can hold it down. It's easy to feel hopeless. The light coming through the bare branches of the oaks seems to filter to brown as it passes through the ghosts of acorns and turning leaves. Come sunset, everything will seem gold and amber and brass, painted mellow by the sun's tilting lantern.

We stagger into the radiation treatment center at the hospital; my father is going to get shot five more times with fast protons, and high-energy hadrons. They take more x-rays, to center the targeted region, a little lump that grew on that spur that sticks out to the side of the spine, the lump that grew larger all through months of chemo. They call that a mixed result. Blue crosshairs are painted on his torso, alignments for the accelerator's aim. The radiation oncologist says to my father, after today's session, Our goal is to make sure you die of something other than cancer. That's a successful treatment, nowadays, for an old man who's dying anyway. It doesn't keep from us from sleepless nights and worry, but it's the most hopeful thing any doctor has said to us in months. We can try to choose our deaths, our times to die. We can still struggle to try to control our fates: our liberations.

I drive home while Dad naps. The light is getting that gold tinge. The sun skates through bare orchards on the horizon. The land here is flat and gently rolling, with lines of trees along the roads, at the edges of fields. Tall machineries mark territory and home boundaries, insectlike. Crows fly from silo to silo, searching for loose grain, fossil corn, something the barn-dwellers missed. We are silent. Perhaps I can sleep, tonight; finally. Near the rim of a bowl-shaped sink, not really a valley, deer move slowly from out of the trees, turning blue with final dusk.

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