Monday, April 30, 2007

Lava, Lava, Lava

How to make a lava lamp, at one of the best-named websites ever.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Multi-(Tasking, Media, Directional)

Peter Greenaway is a film-maker trained as a painter. He has long been skeptical about the restricted boundaries of cinema and you could not say that his films were obsessive about the traditional characteristics of cinema—the cinema that we have arrived at after a hundred years based on plot, narrative, story-telling, the demands for an emotional involvement between audience and screen, psychologically drawn characters, and a cinema that can justifiably be described for the most part as illustrated text. Some commentators have said that his films are anti-cinema, and that he is not a film-maker at all. He might not disagree with that. He is disquieted by the inability of the cinema that we now have to give us all the rich possibilities and make all the innumerable connections and engender all the potential excitements of the of the late twentieth century world.

No touch, no smell, no temperature, short duration, passive, sedentary audiences, no real audience dialogue, overloaded technical specifications in set-piece High Street architecture, limited to a single frame at a time visible from only one direction, excessive desire for reality, temporary sets, actors trained to pretend, flat illusions, little comprehension of the screen as a screen, omnipotent vested financial interests, and the tyrannies of the frame, the actor and text, and most disturbing of all, subject to the tyranny of the camera.

The list of disenchantments is long. He is far from being alone in holding these views. His present particular strategy to investigate and change these shortcomings, as he sees them, is to invest much time in extra-cinema activities if only in the hope of bringing these activities back into cinema to find ways to re-invent it—for reinvention of the cinema is surely long overdue and very very necessary. A medium without constant reinventio9n is doomed to perish. Many say now that there are no great inventors working in cinema any more. They have gone elsewhere. Perhaps they are right.

—from Preface to exhibition catalog, Peter Greenaway: Flying Over Water (1997)

I have on my bookshelves three books by and about Peter Greenaway, and also numerous books of writings by and about film-maker Derek Jarman. Both of these film-makers have lessons for me to incorporate, as I proceed along my own film-making career. Oh yes, I am starting such a career. I have made close to a dozen short films, ranging in length from 4 to 20 minutes. All have been made digitally (because the new technology makes it feasible for anyone to make a film nowadays) and none of them conform to conventional cinema ideas of narrative, structure, or content. I also have books by Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke, about the films they have done together, such as Kronos and Baraka, in addition to working on Godfrey Reggio's films such as Koyaanisqatsi, and its companion films. (I want to discuss cinema, and its transformation, at greater length, but I'll leave that for another day.)

Being myself an artist who works in more than one artistic medium, I am always interested in other artist who also work in many media. That’s one reason I collect and read books of essays by poets and novelists, especially when they write about the arts. I appreciate artists whose creativity is always present, no matter they are doing.

I am fascinated by artists’ books—by which I mean, fine art books by artists that are themselves works of art. Beautifully designed, typeset, illustrated: all the arts that go into a book manifest, and beautifully integrated. I love hand-made books made of hand-made paper. I have made a few hand-made books, and bound them by hand, in small editions. My sister, who is also an artist, has been making hand-sewn blank books for a decade; I have several, which I use as journals for my poetry and calligraphy. We have collaborated on two books of my poems and her illustrations.

I also like books like Matisse’s Jazz, which is a multi-media presentation of an artist’s conception, hand-written and illustrated by the artist. I like Frederick Franck’s books on creativity such as The Zen of Seeing because they are hand-written and illustrated by the author. There is something very personal in a hand-written book, even if it is mass-reproduced.

When I was young, I was frequently told, pick one artform and become expert in it, if you want to be real artist. When I was in college, I was told the same thing: get to be really good at one artform, and don’t spend so much time on the rest.

I was always suspicious of that advice. I always thought it was a lie. It didn’t represent my personal reality, and made no sense to me. How could anyone not work in more than one creative medium? Was their vision so narrow? That artists should only do one thing, or could only do one thing well, is a conventional wisdom that I have always resisted. I was lucky in my mentors in college, too: my principal advisor in music school was Prof. William Albright, who always told me to do what I wanted to do, and he’d help me through it.

And the boundaries between artistic media always seemed artificial and arbitrary to me. Why couldn’t a composer write words to songs? The divisions between the arts always seemed like mental blinders with no basis in experience: concepts that limited what one should do, rather than assisting one towards what one could do. Why couldn’t a painter also be a good poet? Why not? What’s stopping them but the idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t?

I’ve always worked in more than one artistic medium. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. Even as a young boy, who was mostly dedicated to music, I also drew, and played with type, and made little collages to illustrate poems. To this day, I still keep trying new media regularly, and also regularly return to ones I’ve practiced before.

I am too productive and prolific for my own good. There is one area where the “choose one” advice has been useful, and it’s specifically an area where I have to deal with the keepers of the sacred keys to artistic success: the gallery owners, the marketers, the professional graphic designers, and so forth. I always have so many different bodies of work, in any one medium, that presenting them becomes a challenge, and I have to focus on one body of work at a time, to present it as a coherent stylistic body to the arbiters of taste. I feel like I'm lying, every time I do it, leaving so much out, but I recognize it as a harsh necessity, to the attention of patrons in the art world.

They often label me as scattered, incoherent, a dabbler, and they are wrong. I am devoted to nothing in my life so much as my creative work, no matter what form it takes.

It’s just that I seem to have a knack, which I can’t take credit for, but is just there, something I’ve always have, and have lived with: no matter what medium I put my hands to, I seem to be able to work with it. Everything from linoleum block printing, to quilting, to film-making, to composing a piano quartet, to writing poetry and essays, to cooking, to web design, to photography. Some come more naturally and fluently than others, and I have to work harder at some. I like short forms, in all my media, as writing a symphony, or a novel, is just tedious. Some media I do focus on more than others. If I suffer from a vice, it’s the vice of impatience: two of my favorite four-letter words are DONE and NEXT.

Again, it’s just a knack, a fluke, a natural fluency, that I don’t feel I own, that I don’t feel I deserve credit for. That’s not false modesty: I feel humble to have been given the gifts I have, and I feel I keep them in stewardship, not in ownership. I use the knack, because it allows me to make art, but even if I had no knack, and had to struggle much harder with every piece that I make, I would still make art. I can’t help it. It’s as necessary to me as breathing. I feel blessed to have a useful set of tools.

Thus, I take as my touchstone and guidepost those artists, whose work I like, who work (or worked) in multiple media. Ever since I was in junior high, I’ve been keeping a list of artists who work that way. I always pay attention to what these artists are doing, and I constantly learn from them.

In truth, they are my mentors.

I can remember, even in junior high school, having discussions with teachers, and other clueless adults, about all this. I can remember citing my list of chosen mentors as evidence that it was (and is) perfectly possible to be good in more than just one artistic medium. I remember making my point, quite passionately at times, with my chosen mentors standing beside me, in spirit, as justification and reason enough. And to the arguments that I could not possibly be as accomplished as those artists who I took to be my mentors, I would reply: maybe not, but I’ll never know if I don’t at least make the attempt.

The short list of my main mentors, who I cited even back then, included: Gordon Parks, John Cage, Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and one or two others.

Thus, I have in my collection many books by artists who have worked in more than one medium. Not all of them are great artists in all the media they worked in, but some of them are surprisingly adept at working across those boundaries between the arts, those boundaries that always seemed so artificial to me.

A partial list, by no means comprehensive, includes: Books of photographs by writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles, and Thomas Merton. Books of essays by painters such as Piet Mondrian, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee. Laurie Anderson’s books of texts and images from her multi-media performance art shows. (Anderson is one of the few artists I will still pay a lot of money to see live, in these days of ridiculous ticket prices.) I’ve already mentioned Greenaway and Jarman, film-makers and painters both of them, who have radically questioned the traditional conventions of cinema. John Cage’s books of lectures, essays, poems, and visual artwork such as etchings, as well as numerous recordings of his musical compositions. A whole library on typography on design that is as much about conceptual art as it is about commercial design solutions. Books by Andy Goldsworthy, whose photographs of his ephemeral sculptures made of natural materials are often the only lasting record of his work; and I make land art sculptures myself, out of materials found at the artwork’s site, in the desert, or by the ocean. Books of visionary photography which break the rules of conventional photo-reportage to create representations of myth, dream, and archetype; books by Jerry Uelsmann, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And books of multi-media paintings, sculptural visions, and unclassifiable assemblages by visionary artists such as Susan Seddon Boulet, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, M.C. Escher, Isamu Noguchi, Paul Pletka. Books of essays about writing by Gary Snyder, Ursula K. LeGuin, Hayden Carruth, Sam Hamill, Carolyn Kizer, Lu Chi, a hundred others.

The list is long, and I always feel like I’m leaving something important out. But, short of cataloguing my entire library here, I can only represent the trends and core ideas.

I have no overarching theory or art and art-making, no grand unified theory of creativity, no single bible of style. In fact, I question such overarching theories of creativity, if they don’t leave room for the small mysteries, the little moist corners that never seem to get scrubbed, the little bits of chaos that are manifestations of a higher, more paradoxical order.

So, I leave you with no grand conclusions, only an observation or two: As the saying goes, argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours. But argue for your strengths, your widely-strewn and dedicated attentions, and they’re yours, too. It’s enough to be able to make art, anywhere, anytime, using whatever means one finds lying close to hand. They are of great importance in a creative life, those little things lying close at hand, and should never be underestimated or dismissed.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Glimpses from the Road 5

Ocotillo cactus, Joshua Tree National Monument, CA

HIgh desert sunset, near Twenty-nine Palms, CA

Open road, near Petrified Forest National Monument, AZ

Painted Desert, AZ

Zuni I

tangled the wire: flicker of deadwood
flickered bough: end of the aisle of sand
fallen the stones: nothing beneath this tree
but feathers, trulled cedar, blue stones

your hands in barbed wire
horse knickering upstream
gate rusted into bone, bone into ash, into sage
at the edge of the eye, some dark bird

calling across camp, voice of dying crewel
three notes descend, hummingbird bounces
from bough to seed to syrup: engaged
here, stuck in the ground, a circle of flat rock

nothing but this place to sit, crosslegged, naked
nothing but shadows and echoes in the air above

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Wanna Be a Western Writer!

Not a writer of Westerns. But a writer of the West, from the West, about the West. Ever since I first spent the summer of my eighteenth year doing geology in Wyoming, I’ve been in love with the place.

Annie Proulx’ story People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water starts like this, with two introductory paragraphs:

You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country—indigo jags of mountains, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.

Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti’d celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You begin to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.

—Annie Proulx, from Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the story collection that ends with Brokeback Mountain

It’s like that: the land itself is always a main character in the story. Proulx’s Wyoming stories always include the presence of the land, infusing everything. The humans are just players on the shape of the land. The same way that Andrew Wyeth’s paintings use the land, and settings, rooms, and farm implements, as characters. In Christina’s World, that huge sweep of grass, dwarfing the fragile girl, putting her smallness into perspective against the huge sweep of the sky. That’s a familiar feeling, out West.

I want to be able to have lived in a place where I can write sentences like that, just from observing what’s around me.

I want to write like Proulx, or Barry Lopez, or William Least heat Moon, riding his van across the small roads of the USA. I want to be in those open spaces, where my head expands, and my own smallness and pettiness, and hard luck, evaporate against the indifferent sky and empty land. You put yourself into perspective, there. My own Basin & Range works are walks towards those receding hills. Having recently been out there again, and then back, feeling cramped in relatively crowded Wisconsin, it’s an urge for escape, for me, for my dreams, and self. I am a Westerner at heart.

Of course this is all probably romantic horseshit. But no more so than the annual Cowboy Poetry gathering in Elko, NV, which is a festival of familiar tropes, romantic fantasies, and clichés, even though it’s all done with fun, spirit, and a good heart. Even in my romantic fantasy moments, I feel a lot more hard-headed about the West than some others I could name. I’ve been out in those salt pans, out of water, a hundred miles to go. I’ve slept on the lava flows, under more stars than most city dwellers can imagine or have ever seen. And the silences: they linger with you. Sometimes you need to go back there, just to listen to the wind, which is a constant presence that paradoxically deepens the silence.

The Real West is hard, bleak, dangerous, and bitter. There are a thousand ways to die from accident, stupidity, mischance, or intention. There are million isolated places where such deaths, by whatever means, will go undiscovered for some time. Maybe not a long time, but long enough till it’s too late. Search and rescue efforts often become forensic clean-ups. It’s the nature of the land: there’s a lot more space than there are people.

Gertrude Stein’s seminal comment applies to the great West, especially: In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is. There is a lot of truth in that, and when you drive out West, and stop in small towns in the middle of nowhere, you feel it directly.

I want to write like Edward T. Hall, one of the best writers of philosophical anthropology of the past century. His book West of the Thirties, about his early experiences among the Navajo and Hopi, is a classic.

And I want to write like Loren Eiseley. The geologists and paleontologists who take up literary writing are marked by the lands and peoples they have studied. The remnants of what and who used to be there echo through their contemporary awareness like revenants.

I started my own geological fieldwork early, age 18, by spending a summer doing geology in the field, based at Hoback Junction, south of Jackson Hole, in Wyoming, near where the Hoback flows into the Snake. I had started studying rocks much earlier, and was in the Geology Club in school from ninth grade on. That summer I learned to exist in the field. I learned to travel light. A Wyoming cowboy told me that summer, and I’ve always known it to be true: “When you head out in the morning, don’t take a drink of water till later in the day. if you drink early, you’ll be thirsty all day long, and never get enough water. If you wait till noon, you’ll be good. Otherwise, when you’re out riding all day, you might run out of water too early.” I was never much for big breakfasts anyway, and only do them when I need to, which is rarely. My experiences that first summer in the field set my habits in place for a lifetime. I still don’t drink water too early in the day; although I often drink a lot, later in the evening.

Geology has marked me, especially Rocky Mountain geology, and continues to be an obsession of mine. I learn a great deal about a place I am visiting, just by looking at and smelling the land. Humans do reshape the land, but the land also shapes us, directs us, nurtures us, and destroys us. We might successfully commit cultural suicide, but the land endures. We are not capable, as the apocalyptic doomsayers claim, of destroying all life on our planet; life is too resilient. We might do great damage, and we might wipe out our own civilizations; but life will find a way. It is arrogant and presumptuous to believe that “the end of the world” means anything more than just the end of our world, our lives, or our way of life. “The end of the world” doesn’t mean the end of the world: it just means the end of us.

I find myself in alliance with the proponents of ecopoetics, many of whom are Western writers. My own poetry has once or twice been compared by others to Gary Snyder’s—a claim I would never presume to make myself. But I feel a kinship of interests and preoccupations there.

But maybe I’m always going to be (just) a Midwestern writer. It’s where I’m from, and I suppose I have the attitudes. On the other hand, I did spend the first half of my childhood living in India, so my attitudes have never been classically and only Midwestern. I’ve traveled a lot, and I have the attitudes of a global nomad, not someone who was born and bred and still lives in his hometown. I don’t have a hometown. I have a home base, but that could be almost anywhere, as long as I like the place. And travel is in my bones. So, I will be spending time out West, and writing while I’m there, and writing more once I am back at home base.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007


Poetry that is influenced by painting is called ekphrasis. One could expand that to poems that respond to all the visual arts, including photography and sculpture. Visual artwork that responds to written text is called illustration, illumination, and cinema. Dance and music are often considered to be inextricably integrated, although Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and their circle of artists, proved that the only things that ultimately link music and dance are that they may happen at the same time, with no other connection. Sculpture can be memorial, monolithic, lightbearing, evanescent. Architecture is the artwork we live and move inside, and decorate to taste.

Frank Zappa once opined: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And yet we still do it. Frank didn't say we shouldn't, he just told us what it was like. In modern dance classes I particpated in at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, led by Ellen Moore, there were sunny afternoons when we went outside the studio, and responded to the architecture of the buildings all around us, and the open spaces of the tree-dappled lawns. So, in fact, I have danced about architecture; and I often write about music.

What do we call art that responds to the art of other artists?

Recursive self-referential art? Insular, navel-gazing art? Critics of art that interprets and responds to other art would call it this and many other disparaging labels, all the while forgetting that recursion (self-referentiality) is a natural function. The branching forks of a river delta repeat the veins of a leaf, the branches of a tree, the way capillary blood vessels merge into veins in your own forearm. Fractal geometry is the first geometry that accurately represents natural forms. A poetry or other art rooted in the natural world, the world we experience, might also be branching in form and meaning (intent).

Some of the critical negativity against recursive art is derived from the critical stereotype of the Hero-Artist, standing alone and misunderstood by all (except of course the Hero-Critic, who alone amongst his peers "gets it," and whose mission is to educate the ignorant masses). More of the critical negativity comes from the post-Romantic notion of the artist as solitary genius, creating work so original and powerful that only later centuries will embrace it. Both of these are heroic, romantic, ideological stereotypes; yet they dominate a great of discourse about the arts. It's true that these heroic stereotypes have led to a lot of bad art that was intended to be an hommage but instead becomes mere panegyric or hollow praise-singing.

But the idea of the pure, heroic, genius artist is a false stereotype. It never really existed. All genuinely original artists have responded to their times, in the context of their times, and made their art sometimes in reaction against the prevailing winds of artistic fashion, and sometimes in response to those same winds. All art is created in context. Hardly ever does a New Art burst forth into the world through sheer inspiration, fully formed, as though sprung like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.

Artists constantly refer to work by other artists; their predecessors, their teachers, their influences. Artists engage in dialogues: with each other, with themselves, with their inner worlds, and with the Mysteries. They talk to each other, across centuries, or wider gulfs. It's natural to want to engage in dialogue with those you feel are your peers, your teachers, your interlocutors, no matter how near or how far they are from you, in time and space. Kindred spirits gather around the same fires, and are confocal in their interests.

There is something sacred about the act. It is, in the hands of some artists, worshipful, almost religious. It is not impossible to view artwork as responsorial, in the sacred sense: responsory chants to the voices of the other singers. Two choirs singing across a gallery from one another.

On my shelves are numerous responsories: contemporary artistic festschrifts to Albrecht Dürer; Leonardo da Vinci; Piet Mondrian (Louis Andriessen's marvelous symphonic work De Stijl); f-Stop Fitzgeralds' photo books of musicians and sculptors; Mark Magidson's book of photos from the making of Ron Fricke's Baraka, which Magidson produced; and many other kinds of examples. Some of the most interesting books, to me, are responses to Paleolithic shamanic art: Clayton Eshleman's poetic study of cave paintings; Gary Snyder's research into Native American poetry; Jerome Rothernberg's anthologies of modern re-tellings of the old chants, poem-stories, and songs; and many more.

Artist Roni Horn responds in many works to Emily Dickinson. In some works, lines from the poems are painted onto the physical object, and become integral to its presence; they function as words, but words that float freely above the space they're placed in, not divorced from physical presence.

In one of the purest homages to this planet we live on, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures out of natural materials. Some are designed to endure. Some are so ephemeral, that once a photo is taken, the art melts away, and all that remains is the photo, as document. (Which is the real artwork? The ice-sculpture melting in the morning sun, or the photo that remains?) Goldsworthy's art is ecological, and eco-poetic, not in any theoretical academic sense, but purely, viscerally, kinesthetically. He plays with time, and time's effects on the materials of the composition. Ultimately, Goldsworthy's art might be about anentropy: resistance to death at the same celebrating ephemerality. It is a profound response.

Responsories can be cross-cultural, as well. I have lived in Asian countries for significant periods of my life. And those experiences have left their mark on my art. The way I play improvised music has been influenced by years of listening to and studying Indonesian gamelan. I have written before about cross-cultural musical pollination, which has been called New Traditions music.

Don't take this too literally: I am not necessarily going to write a journal-poem about living in Indonesia. I am not necessarily saying ekphrastic poems that literally depict what's in the painting are anything more than reportage. The best, most genuine artistic responses are usually not literal, but evocative, even spiritual. There are numerous artists who I respond to, every time I encounter their work, but whose work I do not literally imitate. Imitation is what you do when you are apprenticing yourself to an artist: you learn by copying, till you find your own way. But at some point, you are responding to the spirit within the artwork, not to its visible form. As Basho said: Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.

Our responsories are that seeking: we seek what they sought. And if we're diligent, dedicated, and presistent, we may find it. No guarantees, mind you. But when you sing out, you are never certain that an echo, or an answering voice, will return your song. Nevertheless we sing out. Because we must. Because it's necessary. Because we can do no better thing, in response to our lives, to our world, to what we love.

Responsaries 2

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Friday, April 20, 2007


Clarity and accessability are issues in poetry. For some the issues are a pitfall. How does one straddle the line between clarity and accessability, and their opposites? On one side is the abyss of obscurity, on the other lies the precipice of pandering.

My own poetry is occasionally considered to be obscure, even experimental (as if that were a naughty word). But inevitably, there is always a reader or two who grasps my meaning and intent; and I am satisfied. So perhaps clarity in "difficult" poetry is not the issue, but rather whether or not the poet has allowed a wide enough threshold for easy entrance. Clarity is indeed an issue: but it is a separate issue from accessability.

It's a choice, perhaps. For each poem, how readily accessible do I want the poem to be? Sometimes making a poem "wide enough" to be understood by a reader who has not shared the experience conveyed in the poem, will lose some of the sharpness and accuracy of what I want to convey. Yet can one be happy with the appreciation of a narrower, more select audience?

"Threshold" is a very good way to describe this issue of accessability into a poem: the poem's threshold, the availability of its self to inspection, the openness of its portal to entry. How readily accessible do you want your poems to be? How wide open do you like to leave the door for the reader who is entering your poem's house?

I think of Odysseas Elytis' remark: Every poet needs an audience of three, and since every poet has two good friends, the search is always for that perfect third reader. I also think of The Dweller on the Threshold, from Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Zanoni.

The Dweller is the guardian of the mysteries, the temple guardian, whose job it was or is to turn away the casual, unwary, or insufficiently prepared. Many sacred texts speak of this, as well as the occult literature.

I'll be honest: I appreciate clarity wherever I find it, because I think it's a sin of egotism to make a poem obscure merely for the sake of being obscure. (Doubly so when such obscurity is really transparency in a cloak.) But I'm very aware that many "difficult" poems ask the reader to work, sometimes more than some readers would like; they are not inaccessible, although they may be unclear at first, and require work to get into. Many of my "difficult" poems come out of my experience, and for the most part are concrete and imagistic, but they often get labelled by others as unusual and experimental. So, even though I greatly appreciate clarity over obscurity, I guess I have a relatively high threshold.

So be it. Looking out the window from my writing desk, where I sat and wrote out these ideas recently, here is what I perceived:

lines of shadow on snow: spiral labyrinth of barren woods.
riffle of near-ice water at the bend. long sleep of trout.
animal heart tracks of rabbit, deer, wild fowl: blood song lines.
this cold silence. these crisp twigs, cracking. moon of popping trees.
together, turning: passion way dormant, sibilance of red bird's wing.

Or again:

Outside the bitter wind, window on east creek view: these shadows
of late-afternoon winter trees make trail-lines across the crusted snow, engaging
in angled dialogue with all the animal tracks left behind as punctured memories;
deer, wild turkey, showshoe hare, cardinals flitting, a few junco and brown sparrow,
leaving their trails in overlapping lines with the tree shadows. A clear pale cyan sky
reminds that as the day ends, so do we: each morning a resurrection. A day spent railing
along the grooves, knocking loose dead leaves, palimpsests of grieving, new fear.
What the heart murmurs to the machines: some rhythm of reverence, of memory,
merging with some long cold sleep just this side of permanence. How do you weep,
when there's nothing left to say, but fare well? A turbulence in the breast:

a lamentation, a shock of skipped steps, a serenity earned. Nothing more.
In the rising wind, snow crusts fall from the juniper and make fresh pocked tracks
in the fading light, the amber, again snowfields.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Imagery in Haiku and Breaking the Rules

Haiku and its related forms have been described, in Western discourse, as imagistic. In fact, the Imagist movement, led initially by Ezra Pound and h.d. (Hilda Doolittle), was influenced by the West's early exposure to Japanese arts; as was Paul Claudel's Cents phrases pour éventails (One Hundred Movements for a Fan). The tendency to emphasize imagery, or imagism, in Western haiku sometimes turns into a "rule," that haiku and haibun "should" consist only of images; furthermore, those images "should" be sensory and concrete. (Leading ultimately to William Carlos Williams's dictum no ideas but in things.)

But many of the old masters' haiku and haibun, in Japanese, contain outright declarative or interrogative parts. Many haiku use emotive and/or aesthetic words: ideas rather than things, telling rather than showing.

So, where do we find a balance? Where do we draw a line? When does a haiku become aphoristic, epigrammatic—a wise or witty saying—rather than a haiku?  When does imagery in haiku become too much, too metaphoric, too dense, too rich? The line is not always clear.

This issue came up with my haibun Green Man, which got responses describing it as Surrealist or DaDaesque. In fact, I wrote that haibun to depict the change of state of consciousness from human to vegetal: the awakening of the Green Man, and the falling away of the human. The haibun, thus, begins with straightforward syntax, and evolves towards a very different, "experimenta" syntax.

With Green Man, I ran afoul of those expectations and "shoulds" that have accrued around writing haiku in English. I have noticed before how, when a form or style is borrowed from another culture, then takes on its own life in a new language and culture, there is always a tendency to ossify style into something fixed in the new language, and make some hardfast rules out of what in the original were only trends and tendencies. Part of this is simply the process of transition. Yet when you go back to the original haiku masters, you see that every one of them broke all the "rules" that are commonly proposed today for haiku in English. Such rule-like "shoulds" include: imagery; detachment depicted as an avoidance of emotion-words; the season-word (kigo); the fashionable trend towards ultra-compression (because of the different linguistic syllabics between English and Japanese, which is a somewhat legitimate argument, if you don't carry it to the point of absurdity or "tontoisms"); and so forth. Most of the haiku "rules" or "shoulds" in English are debatable, and if you examine the original Japanese haiku canon, you see as many exceptions to the "rules" as you do submissions.

In this debate about the haiku "rules," I am sometimes reminded parallel debates around jazz classicists like Wynton Marsalis and his attempts to museumify early N'Orleans jazz as the prototypical style of jazz, the legitimate and only kind of jazz—and ignoring several other whole and vibrant traditions within jazz, not least of them free jazz and cool jazz. Louis Armstrong was a great jazzman, but putting him on a pedestal to be worshipped as being the inventor of the entire tradition, as Marsalis does, is too extreme, and quickly becomes absurd. (I don't know that Armstrong himself would care to be put on that pedestal, either.)

My haiku and haibun, such as Green Man, as well as others, sometimes get accused of being experimental or innovative—and the accusations contain a tone of disapproval, as though innovation was an inherently bad thing. I can say that I never set out to be particularly innovative, although I admit to being exploratory, and following where the brush goes. I just write what I write. I'm not trying to stir things up—usually, things get stirred up by the more tradition-bound haiku reactionaries, irritated by something I've done. Well, I can respect their position—as long as they respect mine, in turn. Seems only fair.

The problem is, those same haiku traditionalists seem willing to ignore the truth that if anyone was a literary experimenter, it was Basho himself. After all, he invented the form we know now as haiku, by experimenting with hokku (the opening three-line stanza of a renga chain), renga, and waka—in his own era he was considered quite innovative. Basho's was an exploratory, experimental spirit. His literary innovations were presented as such during his working lifetime, and were not without controversy. That he established a school of poetry is without doubt, however. He started something new, quite intentionally and dramatically, sending ripples throughout Japan's existing literary scene. I take Basho as my role-model and mentor, for what I do with haiku and haibun. I always come back to Basho's admonition, from his few preserved commentaries about haiku-writing: Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.

Issa's body of work is full of "rule-breaking" haiku. He often breaks away from purely imagistic haiku, and uses personification and anthropomorphisms in his famous animal and insect haiku, ascribing to them the same emotions humans have; some of his haiku are forthrightly humorous rather than contemplative; others are purely philosophical, and contain only one image, not the two contrasting images often required by the "rules"; still others are one-sentence haiku, rather than two fragments with a turn, or hinge.

Consider one of Issa's best-known Buddhist-philosophical poems, which contain perhaps one image, if any. This haiku is considered a masterpiece by many (translated by Sam Hamill):

this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . oh and yet . . .

tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara

This deep longing for the world and all it contains, even though we know it is illusory and impermanent. I have felt this poem myself, at times. You know that attachment is the source of suffering; but you can't help it, loving the world, loving people in it. All love, like all things, in this world, will die. And yet . . . oh, and yet . . .

Here's another one-image Buddhist haiku by Issa:

he sits all alone
in freezing rain for us all,
this great stone Buddha

hito no tame
shigurete owasu
hotoke kana

Setting aside the human-centric idea that only humans have emotions, and that animals or stones cannot—a notion I have always found particularly puzzling, as anyone who has ever lived with a pet knows full well that animals have a full range of emotions—the poetic use of anthropomorphism in haiku has precedent in Issa.

Some critics dismiss Issa as the exception that proves the rules, or as the only one able to pull off these rule-breaking haiku. But that is selective redaction of the canon, and ignores hiaku by Basho and Buson that also break "rules," as also did some of their followers.

The point is that the haiku poet who is open to the world, who has beginner's mind, is always going to break some rules, at some point—simply because they are pursuing the haiku spirit wherever it goes, rather than blindly sticking to the "rules." The masters are always explorers and innovators; it is the disciples that codify things and make fixed rules. Which spirit would you prefer to pursue?

So, to return to imagery in haiku, it is of course central, as it is to much other poetry. The problem is not in the use, or not, of imagery, but in the rigidity of how people conceive the "rules." In terms of imagery, in fact I believe it is entirely possible to create a poetry that consists entirely of sequenced images, like Minor White's photographic sequences, or non-verbal, non-narrative films such as Baraka, in which the audience/viewer/reader generates (or projects) a narrative and story-line for him or herself out of what is presented. With no overt storyline and no foreground storyteller, telling you what to think, telling you what's going on, the images can speak for themselves, and lead the viewer/reader through a somatic (re-created) experience.

I am very much a visual poet first. The words in my poems support, often inadequately, the images that I perceive with my mind's eye, as real before me as if they were visions. The words point to the images, for me, before they mean anything on their own.

So, I think this type of use of imagery is quite possible in haiku, tanka, haibun, and their related forms.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Glimpses from the Road 4

Pigeon Point Lighthouse, CA

wandering the beach
I hear scurrying laughter:
local schoolchildren

Big Sur, CA

far below, the rocks
paint themselves with white surf—
petals on a hill

beach at Bolinas, CA

sudden landslide:
logs and flowers drop
to the rising tide

fog, Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, CA

fog, Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, CA

slow mists obscure
then reveal the inner bay:
breath of dragons

dusk, Monterey, CA

shoreline flowers walk
alongside grey sky and sea—
evening stillness

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Haiku Subjectivity and Objectivity

Poet Mike Todd asks the question: Many haiku I read suggest a detachment on the part of the writer, though neither "I" nor "me" is mentioned. Should haiku be entirely subjective, or entirely objective? Or is there room for a kind of layering of consciousness, of awareness?

The duality of subjectivity vs. objectivity is a product of Western philosophy, and not native to Japanese thought—or other Asian thought in general, really, in the Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions. It's mentioned in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, but mostly to point out that's in error. One could argue that the whole point of the haiku aesthetic is to create unifications, rather than dichotomies: to communicate those moments of transcendence, or epiphany, when the subjective and objectivce unite. So there is in fact a complex layering of consciousness and awareness in haiku, but not necessarily an emphasis on subjectivity.

At the same time, traditionally the haiku aesthetic is for restrained emotion rather than bathos, subtlety rather than blatant emotionalism and drama. It is refined emotion, not divorced at all from the being of the poet and the reader, but evocative rather than openly stated. The angle of a tree, in context, can make one feel longing or heartbreak. Placement in the universe (this Floating World of Dreams, the Ten Thousand Things) in context.

The key is to be evocative rather than to blatantly state things outright. The classic Iowa Workshop piece of advice to writers is "show, don't tell," and as much as that can become mannerist in other genres of poetry, in haiku it's a good tendency to develop. The reader completes the poem, in part, by having a shared group of associations with the poet—not in an artificial way but because poet and reader share cultural and social concepts.

So, we get in haiku the use of season-marker words (kigo), which are essentially plants and animals and insects associated with the seasons, which are prevalent during time of the year, absent at others. The reader who knows that cicadas appear mostly in late summer, knows what time of year in which the poem is set, if it has a cicada in it. The cherry blossoms come in early spring, the leavew turn colors in autumn. Each season of the year has accrued interpretative meaning and associated emotions—autumn is a time of longing and often regret; spring is a time of new beginnings. It's not really all that complicated: it basically consists of the haiku poet giving the reader associative clues that help the reader apprehend the emotional "haiku moment."

In the hands of experienced and good haiku poets, all this is seamless and subtle. At its best, these elements of haiku, which I suppose one could call aesthetic structures, as opposed to strictly poetic structures, all hover below the surface, and arise naturally. In less experienced haiku poets' hands, the scaffolding shows, and you get the sense of "oh, I'm supposed to feel this way because the poet has put in this season-word." It can even seem openly manipulative of the reader's emotions. It's a very subtle thing, and understatement in haiku is usually more effective than overstatement.

The other aspect of worldview relevant to the discussion is the Eastern idea of "beginner's mind," which in my opinion is integral to haiku. This is a state of being, rather than a purely psychological state ("mind" is a loose translation, and does not mean the same thing in Eastern philosophy as it does in Western psychology). It refers to the openness of little children to the world, how they are experiencing everything for the first time, with their full beings engaged. A beginner, when first learning a new skill or way, is dedicated and gives full attention to the task at hand: nothing is assumed, everything is possible, and the best ways of doing a task are yet to be discovered. Everything is done for the first time. Everything is being learned for the first time. An expert, by contrast, knows all the answers already, and so doesn't actually see what's there, but only the overlay of knowledge that is in the mind, projected onto the world. Beginner's mind is open, expert's mind is closed. In the same way, young children don't know all the answers and will often say "I don't know."  

Beginner's mind is completely objective and observant while simultaneously engaged emotionally and subjective with regard to the experience of the person. The heart is open to being broken by the tragic beauty of a single ephemeral flower petal falling to the ground. The mind rests serene as the still surface of a pool of water, till the shock of a frog jumping into the pond startles us awake, oh my! It's a state of being in which any event is perceived directly, without judgment of filtering, and in which action happens in the moment, from the center of being, spontaneously and without stopping to think about it first. It has been described as "mind like the wind." It has also been called "mu," nothingness—but it's that nothingness that is filled with the pregnant possibility of being, that moment of raw potential just before the universe came into being.

Beginner's mind tends also to be playful, while expert's mind tends to be serious. You can tell a haiku written from expert's mind, because it tends to be mannered, intellectual, and take itself very seriously. Basho, in talking to his haiku students, emphasized a light touch and a light tone in haiku. Beginner's mind is something to be cultivated in haiku, and experienced haiku poets can still develop beginner's mind even after years of writing haiku. In this sense, haiku-writing is a Way, a Tao or Do, in which the observation of the world one does as a haiku poet serves as practice for getting into and sustaining that state of being known as beginner's mind.

Haiku at its best is a reflection of this state in the writer, and evokes this state in the reader. You experience the poem directly, freshly, without intermediation or interpretation: it just is. This isn't a state that is often described in historical Western literary criticism about poetry; even many Western poets don't mention it; although some writers like Thoreau, and some of the mystics like Meister Eckhart, do talk about it.

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hand, glove, her journey into forgetting

latex-gloved hands
that still play piano now—
holding on tight

I wonder if she'll remember my face, soon. Names already forgotten. This gradual unnaming, unlearning, leaves of life's books strewn from lawn to gutter, wind-scattered, browning under acid rain. Unforgiving blue sky behind curtains drawn tight unless we visit. Plastic drinking glasses gathered against loss, on windowsill, behind dresser, evenly paced in closet corners. Wads of crumpled paper napkins like rescue crews climbing over. The long forgetting. Still knows who I am, but not why, and not where. Asks about her parents, long-buried, if they still love her, are they well, have we heard from them lately, why won't they let her walk home to see them again. During visits, she takes the potted sedum plant we gave her out of the closet where she'd hid it, afraid the staff would steal it. She's afraid they'll take everything, clothes, glasses, kleenex, plants, memories. They stopped trying to take away the latex gloves she insists on wearing so that no one steals her wedding band. She finds new gloves, wherever they hide them. After we leave, the plants probably go back in the closet. Had to take her easy chair away because she was pushing it against the door at night, to keep the demons out. This childlike forgetting, this reversion to dreams of childhood poverty. She unnames them. Made-up words and mumbles instead of proper knowns. Language leaving her with improper nouns. The lifelong piano playing probably the last thing to go; she still plays daily, from memory, or sight-reading, or both. Music has more depth than words, more engraved meaning, more character, more truth.

my mother's long journey: a solo voyage
I cannot follow, only watch

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Axes of Interpretation

A poet friend recently listed the following criterion, among some few others, as one of the things he expects from poets who critique poetry: Does [the critic] understand a basic law in a relativity-captioned universe: that there are no priveleged positions from which to view the whole, no outside vantage point? That could stand as a one-sentence capsule summation of postmodernism.

One of the hallmarks of the postmodernist viewpoint is multiplicity of viewpoint: as every street cop knows, getting witnesses to agree on what actually happened can be a lost cause. Everyone has their unique viewpoint. The more viewpoints you have on an event, or a work of art, the more complex the field of discourse, and the postmodern dialectician must be responsible for addressing (responding to) as many of those multiple viewpoints as possible. It does make the job of literary criticism more difficult.

So why does literary criticism still maintain such a linear, narrow-focused, either/or perspective? Could it be that it is still stuck in the Modernist mindset, and hasn't figured out how to deal with multiplex, vs. simplex or complex, viewpoints? Very likely. Modernism, after all, still maintained that post-Cartesian, "outside" vantage point: the classic "floating disconnected brain" viewpoint that pretends to look upon Nature with objectivity as a non-participant. Modernism still believed that social ills could be engineered: fixed, by the proper application of artistic, cognitive, and politically-positioned resources. Most of the usual criticisms of postmodernism that I read, in various places of discourse, often boil down to one thing: it ain't Modernism. We don't what it is, but it ain't Modernism. And you're making our brains hurt by asking us to think in too many directions at the same time.

Here, then, is a modest proposal: It is time to expand the cognitive presentation of literary discourse. It is past time to expand from linear, simplex reasoning, to incorporate multiplex, multivalent, even mulitkulti reasoning. And here's one way to do it:

Consider each spectrum of discourse—each binary-polarized critical dichotomy—as a separate one-dimensional axis within multi-dimensional phase space. If you recall from your old geometry lessons, a line was described as a one-dimensional space; when you cross the line with another line at a perpendicular angle, you then have described a two-dimensional space, with two dimensions of measurement. If you draw a new line at yet another perpendicular angle to the first two, and going through the same vertex, you have a representation of three-dimensional space. (On the two-dimensional surface of a piece of paper, this is fudged by using special notation: the new line appears at a 45-degree angle to the vertex, with arrows or thicknesses representing that it is in reality extending out in back and front of the plane of the paper. This is how we represent the unrepresentable within our limited means. Sounds like poetry, doesn't it?)

That's how you keep adding dimensions: add right angles to the existing complex of intersecting vertices. Multi-dimensional phase space can be visualized as a three-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional hypercube, with numerous extra vertices, sides, and angles. (I grant that not everyone can quickly summon up the imagery in their minds.) If that makes your brain hurt, try just thinking of it as adding right angles; even if you can't visualize it, you can still conceptualize it.

Thus, in poetry criticism, it might be easier to remember to keep separate axes of interpretation that are in fact different, but which tend to be conflated via sloppy uni-dimensional thinking. I get tired of so many critics constantly framing every issue as an either/or, us/them, binary polarity. The world is so much more complex than mere two-dimensional binary polarities. There is almost always a third option, and a fourth, and even fifth.

And therefore, in herding one's thoughts into coherent discourse, if one were to remember that many qualitative issues in aesthetic discussions are lines that touch at a vertex, but in fact are not the same axes of interpretation, one might hopefully become less prone to lazy discourse built on stupid conflations of attributes that are not unitary. (And if you don't like complex multivalent sentences, you're probably also not ready for The New New Sentence in poetry. But I digress.)

For example: the axis of difficult poetry vs. easy-to-understand poetry is not the same axis as good poetry vs. bad poetry. They are two separate axes, and plotting their qualities in phase space becomes quite clear when you remember that a difficult poem can be either good or bad, and so can an easy poem. Far too often, difficulty is either praised as good—if I can't understand it, it must be great poetry, right?—or vilified as bad, simply because it takes more work to get through it than your average bit of doggerel. Both of those positions are useless to criticism, in that they tend to be snap judgments without a lot of thought or perception behind them.

We could list numerous other axes of interpretation that are not the same, but perhaps we just need to remember that, in post-Einsteinian space, which is governed by relativity, there are no priveleged positions from which to view the whole. There are no absolute criteria, and no absolute qualitative determinisms. (This is not to say that there aren't numerous attractors in our posited conceptual phase space; for example, it is demonstrable that the overall statistical spread of good vs. bad poems is not a bell curve, but that the bad far outnumber the good, in any given genre.) What that means, then, is that multiple interpretations of a poem are possible, and that diverging opinions can be equally valid, and true. It is all relative to where you, the observer, stand in relation to that hurtling object, the poem.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Inventing New Forms

two iced black coffins
sit by blue dusk roadside ice—
strewn silver petals

sweep of taillights swerving across reflective wet asphalt smearing red and gold across eyespace blurred evening that brief deep-sea-blue time between sun's set and full night opposite the blur of morning spread pre-dawn the silent space between night birds ceasing their calls and dawn birds beginning theirs while dusk loud with singing tires flees across wet roads into distance marked by retreating red lights black silences under the pines deep blue memories of guardrails twisting their callligraphy over the shouting abyss don't be so hard on your silences those unshed waters running are for other reasons perhaps something that falls or rises in the space between twisting rain-soaked ocean-cliff road and the offshore monuments of black gull-sleeping wave-licked crags flashlighthouse beam sweeping the blue drenched skies dropped with rain the space between filled with light cracking open the space between no place between worlds

in darklight lowering actinic arclight flares
indigo silver red metal streak blur passage

No one ever said i wasn't a visual poet. Consider this a reverse ekphrasis: a poem coupled to a visual artwork not yet made. Maybe later I can make the artwork. In my mind, the images, the elements, the movements, and effects, are clear and specific: a movie to be shot, perhaps. I'm reminded of the film director who once said: really, writing the script is the important part, and I imagine the movie in my mind as I write; putting it on actual film is like shooting it to put it out of its misery. The finished film is never as good as the film in my mind, as I was writing it.

In fact, I envisioned this form before I wrote the poem. (While driving home after grocery shopping this afternoon.) That's unusual for me. (The poem form aspect, not the other stuff.) Usually the reverse happens: I discover the form as the poem reveals itself to me, as I write through it. In this case, the image of the typeset poem appeared fully formed, but not the words inside the form. But when a demanding vision appears in my mind's eye, like a daydream, I've learned to pay attention: such things are usually important gifts from Somewhere.

When I invent a form, or when is (shall we say) Given to me, I tend to stick with it, and use it for more than one poem, and keep returning to it, to see if the form applies to images and emotionscapes that rise from within, or come into my mind's eye from within, or without. This is what I went through with some of my haibun, but even more what I went through with my five-line fractal form I developed some years ago. Sometimes new poems appear to me in that new form, and my task is to write them down. They do, in fact, appear as typeset lines appearing across my visual field.

In homage, perhaps, to my increasingly intense engagement with haibun, haiku, and prose-poem, this new form combines a haiku with a prose-poem of a specific visual length, followed by a longer two-line strophe. The central prose-poem should be arranged in eight lines of equal length, depending on the typeface. The prose-poem section is of course the most flexible part, because except for basic visual size it has no rules, so far, for style, structure, composition, punctuation, or other syntactical elements. Could be very open; might be self-contained. I don't know yet. The film is only half-written at this point.

Let's see what we can do with this, shall we?

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Language is Fossil Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay, The Poet:

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

Norman O. Brown wrote in his book, Love's Body:

The dead metaphor.  It is only dead metaphors that are take literally, that take us in (the black magic).  Language is always an old testament, to be made new; rules, to be broken; dead metaphor, to be made alive; literal meaning to be made symolical; oldness of letter to be made new by the spirit.  The creator spirit stands in the grave, in the midden heap, the dunghill of culture; breaking the seal of familiarity; breaking the cake of custom; rolling the stone from the sepulcher; giving the dead metaphor new life.

Brown ended Love's Body with the line: Everything is only a metaphor; there is only poetry.

I respond to this the way a paleontologist or geologist would, as stratigraphy. The way Loren Eiseley did in his best poems, some of which are directly on geologic topics. I recorded my reading of three Eiseley poems while sitting in my truck at Pescadero, overlooking the sea, surrounded by sedimentary and ophiolitic rocks. I've written about stratigraphy here before: The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles. Some of my own poems fall into this realm, as well, for example: Erosion.

Stratigraphy is the study of geologic structure, especially the analysis of rock layers to establish chronological sequence. In the mountains, where many outcrops are exposed, the layers are often not what you'd assume they'd be, with older layers on bottom and new layers on top; rather, beacuse of folding and faulting, you often get newer layers appearing under older layers. (Think about how that applies to poetry.) Sometimes the whole sequence has been turned on its side, or upside down. The job of stratigraphy is mapping, and analyzing deep structure. You learn about the standard markers in each sequence, what in sedimentary sequences are called marker fossils, which are known to be of a certain age, a certain climate or oceanography, and deduce where you are in the sequence. You discover where consistent layers have been weathered away, and there's a gap in the standard sequence. You learn about how folding and faulting, and metamorphosis caused by igneous intrusions, or by deep submersion of the rocks, till they partially melt and recrystallize, all change the nature of the rocks and their sequence. Stratigraphy is like three dimensional mapping using limited data and a lot of deduction. Actually, it's four-dimensional mapping, because time is an inherent element of the geography.

To a geologist, fossils are not really dead, just hidden: buried, until they are exposed, either by weathering, or by being dug out—hunted for. Fossils are characteristic to certain strata, certain eras, certain locales: the marker fossils, that give you a reference, a location in spacetime. Fossils, in the geologist's imagination, are alive in deep time, not really dead. Geologists are used to thinking in multiple scales of time: deep time, and present time. It's fun to watch them drive along an outcrop in a cut valley going up or down a mountain range: either they pull over and put their noses to the rock, or they veer all over the road, almost causing accidents, because they're staring at the outcrop rather than the tarmac. Deep time spans millions of years, alive in the mind. You learn to shift gears, coming down from looking at the outcrops, and it's hard sometimes to remember that you were supposed to have dinner with a friend, when you've spent eons in the Devonian shales.

Deep time often comes back up to the surface, as strata weather away, and expose the fossils of what used to be there.

Like the ripple marks of shallow rivers and seas found on top on cliffs above a lake carved out by glaciers and kept filled by springs that rise up in the bend of the lake, so that the ice never really gets thick right over the spring: Devil's Lake in Wisconsin.

Like the logs of ancient trees, now agatized, lying scattered on the desert floor, or half-buried in stream-beds that carry water only two months of the year: Petrified Forest in Arizona. Exposed to the elements, but durable and beautiful. Sometimes the logs are even translucent, because the silicate minerals that replace the wood are white and translucent themselves. You can see through the fossil of the tree into its deep structure, without having to break it open.

Like the newest rock on the planet, seeping or exploding out of volcanic mouths, deep throats of molten rock going down into the subduction zones, or even into plumes in the mantle: Mauna Loa, Hawai'i, or Mt. Etna, Italy, or any of the others. Sometimes violent, like Krakatau or Mt. St. Helens. Sometimes gentle and slow. Sometimes alternating. But the newest rocks on the earth seep out, or flow out, or blast out, layering over the second-oldest rocks that had seeped or blasted or flowed out some recent time before.

Fossilization is the process of living tissue, or organically-produced mineralogy, being replaced by mineral seep in bedded layers of rock. Apatite, which the form of calcium carbonate that living things generate, including your teeth and those shells you just picked up from the beach, gets replaced with calcite, or various types of silica. Calcite and quartz are the two most common replacing minerals. Opal is a form of microcrystalline quartz formed in wet seeps so that little spheres of waterpockets get trapped in the matrix: what makes the rainbow shine in opals. Jasper or chert is what replaced the tree cells in petrified wood, another form of microcrystalline quartz, but a dry form.

Emerson is making a metaphor when he calls language fossilized. I have to believe he knew about geology, which was a new science in his day, but a growing and important one. I further believe that he was making an aesthetic comment, about how language begins in sacred speech, in ritual oratory, in the voices of spirits speaking through shaman. Perhaps the first consistent language was built on the magical speech we first used to describe and communicate with the sacred: and that sacred speech is always closer to poetry than to ordinary, everyday prosaic speech.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The New New Sentence

In these days of bland no-style generic post-Hemingway prose, not to mention the lamentable influence such prose has had on contemporary poetry, is there anyone left who understands that a complex sentence is not necessarily a run-on sentence? You'd think not, based on most of the criticism I've read on the topic.

In Samuel R. Delany's early-career novel Empire Star, a schema is laid out of intersecting ways of interpreting experience, memory, and understanding the universe. It is a set of three progressive and mutually interfingering layers of awareness and consciousness: simplex, complex, multiplex. What's interesting is that the style of the novel changes as the lead character progresses in his awareness from his simplex origins, through the complexification of his awareness, to a multiplex, and equivocal, even circular, ending. Simplex sentences generally complexify, as the novel progresses, till we get to the point where time and space are considered from several angles simultaneously, and traditional (simplex and complex) linear narrative breaks down (becomes multiplex). I find most visionary artwork and poetry to be multiplex in its perspective; and I tend to articulate my experience of the Universe that way, as well. (And thus I get called an experimental poet, for my pains.)

So, the long complex sentence has some potential to affect the way the reader structures experience, which in some way is how we also structure the universe: the world is made of stories.

The problem with the complex sentence these days is environmental: we live in the age of The Short Attention Span. The post-Hemingway no-style style that dominates every work of popular fiction on the bestseller lists nowadays (which itself has become dominated by crime thrillers and literary romance novels) is geared towards short sentences, quick rhythms, and rapid action and dialogue. Plot, not characterization: the anti-Proust. Short, choppy sentences even dominate in poetry, where one might imagine that there is room to stretch out a bit, and spread one's language-making wings. Instead, what we usually get is significant shrinkage.

Case in point: what first drew me to Robert B. Parker's series of mystery novels featuring his character Spenser was the first three novels in the series, which I originally purchased and read while living in Indonesia for a year; these three novels each contained long, complex, occasionally rhapsodic sentences. There is one scene in one of these early novels where Spenser is making account of a fistfight; the writing style causes the reader to forget all else, and focus down to the sheer visceral level of action, which is described in balletic detail, in a paragraph that stretches to almost two pages in length, in the paperback edition of the book that I have. It was a genuinely memorable scene. But the most recent Spenser novels rarely contain a sentence over 10 words long, and most paragraphs are also short and compact. Parker's earlier novels in the Spenser series contained a great deal of poetic prose, even some memorable passages that could qualify, in another context, as prose-poems. More recently, the prose in the Spenser novels is more like a blunt instrument. I dislike thinking that Parker is just phoning in his performances these days, but one does notice a significant shrinkage in his writing style.

We also live in an age where the soundbyte stands in for wisdom, and simplistic, knee-jerk sloganeering stands in for genuine philosophy. Everything is reduced to simple black-and-white equations. Signs and symbols stand in for the wisdom of experience, and discourse is reduced to aphorism. Is it any wonder that genuinely interesting sentences have been replaced by merely serviceable ones?

One of the things I dislike about Language Poetry—besides the basic objection that its theory precedes its praxis, which is almost always a recipe for making bad art—is that it tends to be deconstructionist, and uses reductive analysis rather than organic synthesis as its hallmark methodology. You often end up, in LangPo, with a lot of short, disconnected sentence fragments. But then, LangPo is not at all about sense and meaning, it's about playing with alphabet blocks.

One of the marker indicators of Language Poetry, as illuminated by one of its chief proponents and practitioners (and cheerleaders), Ron Silliman, is what Silliman describes as "the new sentence," which he characterizes, in part, as follows:

1) The paragraph organizes the sentences;

2) The paragraph is a unit of quantity, not logic or argument;

3) Sentence length is a unit of measure;

4) Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity;

—from Ron Silliman, The New Sentence, p. 91

George Hartley explicates this in more detail here. Some LangPoet ideas about LangPo are quoted here. Three perspectives on a Silliman's Ketjak can be read here.

What do I think about all this?

Mostly I think it's a smokescreen: a justification. A justification for fracturing and fragmentation. Not in an interesting fractalized way, but as a means of breaking language away from meaning. As a rationale, it doesn't seem ot mean much, or hold much water. The structuralists and deconstructionists argued that All Things Are Text, and thus can be analyzed as text: broken down via reductive analysis. Certainly the inception of Language Poetry began as a (justifiable) rebellion against, in part, the confessional lyric. They broke away from the dramatized personal expression of the Confessional Poets, and focused instead on language's surface action. They broke language away from meaning, and unstitched syntax from sense. But putting language back together again, after you've broken it down into its constituent parts, is a more difficult project. Mere deconstruction ends up in nihilism, and one ends up stranded on the many islands of solipsism.

There is, however, an argument to be made for the sentence to be thought of as the unit of composition, rather than the line, especially in prose-poetry. Silliman argues that Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons presages the new sentence in exactly this way. (Other thoughts about Tender Buttons approach the work from a slightly different perspective.) If the sentence is the basic unit of composition, though, I think we end up with prose, rather than poetry. Certainly much contemporary poetry reads like prose broken into arbitrary lines. It reads like prose in tone and style, rather than like poetry.

The prose-poem has the potential to stitch this all back together. (And Stein remains more readable than most Language Poetry, to this day. Her work has a musical rhythm to it that remains fresh.) One of the benefits of the prose-poem is that one can let go of strict prose grammar and syntax, and experiment with non-narrative (multiplex) time. Prose-poetry has many strengths, and many flexibilities.

In truth, however, I began this meditation on the sentence with a parody, written spontaneously one recent morning as a single complex sentence. Is this a manifesto? No, it's a joke. Is this the way I think poets will mostly write, in the future? Get real. Is the New New Sentence better than the New Sentence? No, it's just different. Take it as a parody, or a polemic, or an antidote, if you wish. It is, essentially, a parodic rebuttal of Silliman's New Sentence, in the form of:

The New New Sentence

is endless, spiral, scrolling, and flexible, goes where it wants, following the brush, following the pen, reeling off its sidebar parenthetical remarks (which when read out loud by Clifford Geertz, each layer of embedded parentheses being read in a softer and softer voice, until some deeper, most important layers are barely audible) with gusto, yet finding its way back to its central point, eventually, if obliquely, before skirting off again into another parallel associative digression, long-winded, perhaps, but unapologetic to the post-Hemingway short-attention-span generation who like their sentences to be short and sharp and bitter (not knowing that irony itself is not a way of life, but only a tool of instigation), making no concessions to the reader that cannot track along, and eventually winding its way towards conclusion, having said a great deal (full of sound and fury) about very little (signifying nothing), very quietly coming to its close, having spread its wings to encompass the world, and now roosting at last on a cliff overlooking a quieted airless planet whose geologic plates ceased lubriciously floating and bumping against each other eons ago.

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