Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Poetry & the Microphone

On regular occasions I return to my art-experimental and radical roots and delve into readings about art and media by various avant-garde radical writers. Publishers such as Autonomedia are a gold mine of deep reading along these lines, and websites like Ubuweb contain vast archives of radical and avant-garde music, film, writing, and theorizing. Re-reading John Cage's books from year to year, I get even more insight into what art could be, if only we would get out of our mental traps that we have locked ourselves into whenever we think about art, or Art.

I have equally strong roots in community radio, beginning with my years of broadcasting live sound compositions on WCBN-FM in Ann Arbor, MI, which at the time was sometimes known as "Radio Free Ann Arbor." We programme a kind of freeform radio that is almost unheard anymore, except on the rare community radio station or certain channels of XM Digital Radio. You never knew where you were going next, which was half the fun. One night we played live recordings of the spring peeper tree frogs in the marshes north of town. Another night it was five performers doing composed and improvised music using bottles tuned to various pitches by partially filling them with water. Another time, it was our six-hour radio version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When I moved to Madison, WI, I continued with this sort of programming for several more years on WORT-FM in Madison.

So it's with pleasure that I've been reading Radiotext(e), published by Autonomedia as part of their book and magazine series Semiotext(e). One essay in Radiotext(e) is a reprint of an essay George Orwell wrote in 1945, called Poetry and the Microphone, an essay which seems more prophetic and relevant than ever today.

Even in 1945, the problem of poetry's diminishing and increasingly elitist audience was being worried about; if anything, things are even worse now. So, it's with deja vu that one reads the following paragraphs from the middle of Orwell's essay:

In broadcasting your audience is conjectural, but it is an audience of one. Millions may be listening, but each is listening alone, or as a member of a small group, and each has (or ought to have) the feeling that you are speaking to him individually. More than this, it is reasonable to assume that your audience is sympathetic, or at least interested, for anyone who is bored can promptly switch you off by turning a knob. But though presumably sympathetic, the audience has no power over you. It is just here that a broadcast differs from a speech or a lecture. On the platform, as anyone used to public speaking knows, it is almost impossible not to take your tone from the audience. It is always obvious within a few minutes what they will respond to and what they will not, and in practice you are almost compelled to speak for the benefit of what you estimate as the stupidest person present, and also to ingratiate yourself by means of the ballyhoo known as “personality”. If you don’t do so, the result is always an atmosphere of frigid embarrassment. That grisly thing, a “poetry reading”, is what it is because there will always be some among the audience who are bored or all but frankly hostile and who can’t remove themselves by the simple act of turning a knob. And it is at bottom the same difficulty—the fact that a theatre audience is not a selected one—that makes it impossible to get a decent performance of Shakespeare in England. On the air these conditions do not exist. The poet feels that he is addressing people to whom poetry means something, and it is a fact that poets who are used to broadcasting can read into the microphone with a virtuosity they would not equal if they had a visible audience in front of them. The element of make-believe that enters here does not greatly matter. The point is that in the only way now possible the poet has been brought into a situation in which reading verse aloud seems a natural unembarrassing thing, a normal exchange between man and man: also he has been led to think of his work as sound rather than as a pattern on paper. By that much the reconciliation between poetry and the common man is nearer. It already exists at the poet’s end of the ether-waves, whatever may be happening at the other end. . . .

On the face of it, the unpopularity of poetry is as complete as it could be. But on second thoughts, this has to be qualified in a rather peculiar way. To begin with, there is still an appreciable amount of folk poetry (nursery rhymes etc) which is universally known and quoted and forms part of the background of everyone’s mind. There is also a handful of ancient songs and ballads which have never gone out of favour. In addition there is the popularity, or at least the toleration, of “good bad” poetry, generally of a patriotic or sentimental kind. This might seem beside the point if it were not that “good bad” poetry has all the characteristics which, ostensibly, make the average man dislike true poetry. It is in verse, it rhymes, it deals in lofty sentiments and unusual language—all this to a very marked degree, for it is almost axiomatic that bad poetry is more “poetical” than good poetry. Yet if not actively liked it is at least tolerated. For example, just before writing this I have been listening to a couple of B.B.C. comedians doing their usual turn before the 9 o’clock news. In the last three minutes one of the two comedians suddenly announces that he “wants to be serious for a moment” and proceeds to recite a piece of patriotic balderdash entitled “A Fine Old English Gentleman”, in praise of His Majesty the King. Now, what is the reaction of the audience to this sudden lapse into the worst sort of rhyming heroics? It cannot be very violently negative, or there would be a sufficient volume of indignant letters to stop the B.B.C. doing this kind of thing. One must conclude that though the big public is hostile to poetry, it is not strongly hostile to verse. After all, if rhyme and metre were disliked for their own sakes, neither songs nor dirty limericks could be popular. Poetry is disliked because it is associated with untelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday. Its name creates in advance the same sort of bad impression as the word “God”, or a parson’s dog-collar. To a certain extent, popularising poetry is a question of breaking down an acquired inhibition. It is a question of getting people to listen instead of uttering a mechanical raspberry. If true poetry could be introduced to the big public in such a way as to make it seem normal, as that piece of rubbish I have just listened to presumably seemed normal, then part of the prejudice against it might be overcome.

It is difficult to believe that poetry can ever be popularised again without some deliberate effort at the education of public taste, involving strategy and perhaps even subterfuge. T.S. Eliot once suggested that poetry, particularly dramatic poetry, might be brought back into the consciousness of ordinary people through the medium of the music hall; he might have added the pantomime, whose vast possibilities do not seem ever to have been completely explored. “Sweeney Agonistes” was perhaps written with some such idea in mind, and it would in fact be conceivable as a music-hall turn, or at least as a scene in a revue. I have suggested the radio as a more hopeful medium, and I have pointed out its technical advantages, particularly from the point of view of the poet. The reason why such a suggestion sounds hopeless at first hearing is that few people are able to imagine the radio being used for the dissemination of anything except tripe. People listen to the stuff that does actually dribble from the loud-speakers of the world, and conclude that it is for that and nothing else that the wireless exists. Indeed the very word “wireless” calls up a picture either of roaring dictators or of genteel throaty voices announcing that three of our aircraft have failed to return. Poetry on the air sounds like the Muses in striped trousers. Nevertheless one ought not to confuse the capabilities of an instrument with the use it is actually put to. Broadcasting is what it is, not because there is something inherently vulgar, silly and dishonest about the whole apparatus of microphone and transmitter, but because all the broadcasting that now happens all over the world is under the control of governments or great monopoly companies which are actively interested in maintaining the status quo and therefore in preventing the common man from becoming too intelligent. Something of the same kind has happened to the cinema, which, like the radio, made its appearance during the monopoly stage of capitalism and is fantastically expensive to operate. In all the arts the tendency is similar. More and more the channels of production are under the control of bureaucrats, whose aim is to destroy the artist or at least to castrate him.

These are strong words, but they're worth thinking about deeply. Do yourself a favor and read the entire essay. We'll be coming back to this topic soon.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, May 28, 2007


Between two moments, bliss is ripe. —William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.  —May Sarton

Some writers are best appreciated when you have had some life-experience under your belt. Some writers may speak to you when you're young, and speak to you even more in later years. I scoffed at this idea, when I was young, as most young people do, I suppose; but now, moving towards that point in life where one realizes that the end of life is nearer then the beginning, I feel more of the truth of it. I simply was not able to appreciate some things, then, that I do now.

May Sarton is a writer who, I believe, the reader needs to be mature enough to appreciate and understand; I first read her journals and poems in my 20s, and didn’t get that much out of the reading; but after I passed the age of 40, I re-read her and received a tremendous range of insights out of her combined writings. Everything clicked, and I became completely absorbed. I think that Sarton may be one of those writers who you can't really appreciate till you're 40 or so. I mean, of course you can appreciate her at any age; but much more so, once you have some more years on you. Like a fine wine, she gets better as a writer, as you age.

Perhaps the same is true for writing poetry. This is not to say that younger poets shouldn't write. But they shouldn't be astonished to learn that what they have written as young poets is shallow, lacks depth and resonance, and may in fact be very much like what a lot of other young poets have written. Ignorance is a commonplace problem, and leads to a lot of repetition; I can't tell you how many times I've seen teenage poets write exactly the same angst-written poems, as though they were the very first to do so, all unaware that so many others had already written the exact same poem. Truly, most young poets don't read enough. One tries to be gentle, when pointing out this crushing sameness. But ignorance is cured by experience. Ignorance in the young is forgiveable, because time will remedy it. Willful ignorance at any age is, on the other hand, inexcusable. You can grow into your best work, if you give yourself time, and don't expect your best work to happen when you're still in your 20s or 30s. One wonders if poets are capable of producing a truly great poem before they're 40. Certainly there are exceptions, but perhaps this is one of those few times where the exceptions do prove the rule. So, younger poets should write, and write a lot, and read a lot more than they write, and write some more—and not expect the world to come worship at their feet as though they were geniuses.

Poets who become too successful too young often become lazy, and rest on their laurels, and never finish fully developing their talent; and that's a shame, and a loss. Poets who peak too young often end up repeating themselves, rather than continuing to grow, broadening their range of interests and styles: and broadening the scope of their talent. The Yale Younger Poets series is a long list of names of published poets who produced one or two fine and original books, early on, then endlessly repeated themselves therafter. Most of those names never produced a late work of genius. What happened to these poets? Perhaps they got praised too much, too young, and came to believe what people were saying about them, and got stuck in trying to reproduce their early successes. Nothing is more dangerous to creativity than the desire to repeat success. It means you start caring too much about the outcome, and neglecting the process. Maintaining a healthy process, and ignoring the outcome, serves the creative writer much better, in the long run.

You grow into your potential, not overnight, but gradually. It takes time to grow an artist. Some plants flower early, many others flower late. Some wait a long time to flower, and when they do, their fruits astound and magnify.

At the same time, the older poet needs to maintain a younger, questing attitude towards life, and not ossify into solidified habits. Beginner's mind is far more flexible than expert's mind, and far more open to possibility. I look at Sarton again, and her youthful spirit, even in old age, kept her looking at the world with fresh eyes, rather than getting stuck in a mindset that thought it had all the answers. Perhaps that's the other thing that went wrong with so many of the Yale Younger Poets: they came to believe, possibly because critics told them so, that they already done their best work, and could afford to coast thereafter; or, perhaps, that they were already brilliant, and didn't need to keep exploring the edges of their talents and crafts. They stopped growing because they thought they didn't have to anymore. But Sarton, dedicated and observant gardener that she was, noticed what all gardeners noticed: plants never stop growing; neither should poets.

You grow into your potential, not overnight, but gradually. But you never stop growing, until you're dead.

Of course, this is a synchronicity of experience, or emotional maturity, rather than of calendrical time. It isn't necessarily a product of middle age. We think of those exceptional poets who wrote mature work at a young age. It's what comes after, though, that matters: what you do next. The paradox of experience, or its synchronicity, is that many of the older, more enlightened souls you will meet in your travels, maintain spirits that are very young-at-heart. Similarly, younger souls even in older bodies can be quite stuck on themselves, and humourless.

The convergence of beginner's mind and elder's experience may indeed be that cusp in which art happens.

Labels: , , , , , ,

A poem for George Mackay Brown

One of my favorite contemporary poets is George Mackay Brown, poet of the Orkney Islands. In his work the Celtic and Norse mingled, and produced a modern bard. His shorter poems are often haiku-like in their observations of the interplay between people and their world—always the islander's world, where a plowman one day will be a fisherman the next.

Many of his poems mark time as the turning cycles of the agricultural or religious years. They are calendar-poems: lists of days, weeks, months, years. Time is always changing things, even as the land endures. Many lists appear in his poems, but they are essential lists: that is, lists of essences. There is nothing superficial or arbitrary about them; nothing listed is something other than what we need to survive.

In some ways, GMB was a poet's poet: someone whose writings are beloved more by those who appreciate great writing than by the average reader. I first discovered his poems almost 30 years ago, and have sought them out ever since, as well as his non-fiction books, novels, and short stories. I have as many of his books as are available in the US, plus some others. I go back to them periodically, to refresh myself with the cold sea winds that move across the islands, and the dark mysteries found at midnight in the circles of standing stones.

This is one of GMB's best-known poems, and the last line sums up what poets do better than almost any other such statement I've ever read:

The Poet

Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence
But put on mask and cloak,
Strung a guitar
And moved among the folk.
Dancing they cried,
'Ah, how our sober islands
Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp
Invaded the Fair.'

Under the last dead lamp
When all the dancers and masks had gone inside
His cold stare
Returned to its true task, the interrogation of silence.

The interrogation of silence. That's why we hear so much of the land, the gulls, the rocks, and time itself, in his poetry. It is not poetry about the poet, but a bard giving the news of the land, the greater world, and those universal forces that will speak through no one else, and whose words are surrounded by vast silences.

Another GMB poem is a different sort of ars poetica:

A Work for Poets 

To have carved on the days of our vanity
A sun
A ship
A star
A cornstalk

Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read

That not far from the stone
A well
Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets—
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence.

Again we end with silence. One of the things I most identify with in GMB's poetry is his sense of elemental realities that are both inpersonal and transpersonal. The cares and sorrows of human life are readily found throughout his writings—he battled with melancholia his whole life—but they are mythic, they are universal, the universal found and bound within the particular, and they are also more-than-human. Anyone who feels weighed down by poetry's long-running obsession with the confessional lyric can find a bracing, alternative vision of poetry in GMB's words.

Many people have discovered GMB's words through his frequent collaboration with composer Peter Maxwell Davies. That is how I discovered him myself, through a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and guitar, Dark Angels. Numerous recordings of Davies' settings of GMB's texts are available.

So, here is the poem I wrote in tribute to GMB, not long before his death in 1996. It was inspired in part by Maeshowe, a Neolithic cairn in Orkney, which GMB has also written about, among numerous others.

Burial Mound
(for George Mackay Brown)

The darkness is a hole in the mind,
a place where gravedwellers
carve dark runes in darker stone.

Words filled with the light
glimmer there.

What we take for the journey
is little enough: a flint,
a small lamp, six blades, no map.

These bones
have travelled further
than any living man.

Leave a few words
to the silence,
and go.
Back to the daylight, the fields,
the plow, the ships that plow the waves.
Leave the darkness
to the hot sleep
of dragons.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 27, 2007


burning water, burns the air

silver pain, silver thighs
roll onto sand,
break into fingers, toes—
waves roll into the beach
at midnight, at dawn

waves of our bodies
as we lie together spoon-fashion:
air to front, back to front, back to air—
camera eye smoothly panning
across ridges of hips
dissolving to white curtains
billowing inward, in moonlight

waves curling in grass
as night winds caress
each blade of grass a consort
to the whole nation of grasses
air gliding across each feathered tuft
air to front, back to front, back to air

at dawn a redwing calls
at sunset a whippoorwill
woodpeckers thrum against sleeping trees
musical waves in your hearing

ground trembles, ripples, cracks
soil puffs dust
air to earth, falling earth, earth to air

I drown in
your tidelost,
endless surf

Labels: ,

Friday, May 18, 2007


Yesterday I drove up to Spring Green, WI, and took a tour of Taliesin, the home and studio and architectural school built and founded by Frank Lloyd Wright. Driving back home in the evening, after spending all day immersed in his buildings, the landscape, and his style of ornamentation, I have been feeling incredibly inspired.

I’ve always been a fan of his architecture. Now I am realizing how deeply I share many of his aesthetics. There are Japanese touches everywhere. Wright once said that going to Japan was an affirmation of his ideas. So the influence is strong. There are Buddha statues, and Hokusai and Hiroshige prints, everywhere. Apparently, there is a major collection of Japanese prints in a vault at Taliesin. I’d love to go through that someday. Wright designed over a 1000 unique fireplaces in his lifetime, some completely bilaterally symmetrical, many asymmetrical, following that aesthetic, which I also believe in, that asymmetry is more pleasing to the eye, more beautiful. Many of his fireplaces are incredible sculptures in their own way, as well as functional. Everywhere, in all the buildings: natural wood and stone materials, something I also agree with.

I think my favorite place on the tour was the auditorium at Hillside, the architecture school itself: this is the school’s remarkable and beautiful amphitheatre. Second is the living room at Taliesin, the residence itself. The object I was most drawn to, in both rooms, was a music stand built so that four players could sit in a circle, all see each other, and all face the stand. The stand’s center has lights that illuminate each place, and a holder for flowers in the middle. There are only 6 of these stands in existence, I was told. I think they’re brilliant; I’d love to have one, or a reproduction, and have players use it for house concerts. (I wonder if there are plans to ever reproduce such design masterpieces, for the rest of the world to enjoy.) In the living room there was also his daughter’s Celtic harp, and a special stool he built for her to use while playing harp: the only one of its kind.

Yesterday I also gained insight into Wright’s style of drawing and drafting: very gridlike, with regions of color and line. But it is in fact representational, but with shapes on a grid. The great curtain in the theatre represents dawn in the river valley: there are shapes for clouds, mist, the rise of the hill, and there on the brow of the hill, the house itself, with smoke coming from the chimney. But it’s all done with rectangles and fields of solid color. I never expected to appreciate Wright as a purely visual artist, but this insight into his drawing method provides me with new ideas for my own. Not in any imitative way, because it’s not my style at all, but like Mondrian in terms of abstract representation. In terms of interior decoration, ornamental design, it’s powerful, bold, and exciting. If you look at them closely, you see the natural forms are preserved, especially in his plant-inspired drawings and designs, but they’re stylized and made geometrical: reduced to abstract geometrical components, if you will, but retaining nevertheless their original forms and ahapes. Applying this aesthetic to fractal patterns found in nature, as well as to fractal geometry, one could quickly devise a new style of drawing, art glass, window ornament, and lighting fixture: integrated design aesthetic, of course.

The way Wright “broke the box” of the usual building rules is one of the things I like best: the L shapes of houses and walls; the use of corner entrances, so the main wall was mostly window; the stacking of shapes in asymmetrical arrangements; the strong use of diagonals to lead the eye; the long lines of views to the outside from the center of the building; rectangles and trapezoids instead of perfect squares; circular elements, that meet triangular elements. Wright also said that architecture was music, and music was so important to him that the ornamental features at Taliesin often evoke music: threes and twos, like the black keys on the piano; and the shaping of rooms to enhance musical performance by being acoustically balanced. There were numerous pianos there, and those incredible music stands.

I've been on fire with all of this for almost two days, now. I don't mind at all. I awoke this morning with images of Wright windows still in the back of my mind, and the low hangs of cantilevered rooflines, the corner windows and doors. And I still want to linger with these images, be immersed in them. This is an influence I am unafraid to absorb, to be possessed by. The whole Prairie School of architecture, for that matter. When Wright talked about organic architecture, he said it had three components: landscape, structure, ornament. I find the ornaments lingering in my inner vision, still, and I want to engage with them, for as long as they linger in mind. As I said, I am unafraid to be influenced by all this.

Now I need to do some research, and immerse myself in Wright's work. There are things there I am ready to absorb. If I had a career to start all over again, I would seriously consider applying as an apprentice architect at Taliesin. It was truly an inspiring day.

Update: Terry Teachout also responds to Frank Lloyd Wrights' architecture, in retreat. I agree that Wright's late houses, the Usonian houses, are among his best works, and certainly his most attractively livable. I got that same sense of livability in Taliesin itself.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ideas of the Artist: the Standard Models

There are many ideas about what artists are, who they are, what they do, how they do what they do. Most such ideas are limited by ignorance, because most such ideas come from non-artists. Even artists buy into them, because they're part of the cultural assumptions about the nature of reality that we all grow up with. One's birth-tribe can have a powerful influence on how one constructs one's perceptions of reality.

When ideas about art and artists get reified and ossified, they solidify into archetypes, unspoken assumptions, stereotypes, and clichés. Few things can kill the creative process faster than running afoul of one of these jagged islands in the collective consciousness. Writers don't write, or appreciate their readers, only out of ego-reinforcement. While the ego inflates itself on praise, the genuine encounter with the genuine reader in fact transcends the ego's limits.

In Western culture, over the past three of centuries, numerous ideas about artists have emerged and been considered. But two main ideas have become dominant: the romantic model, based on the idea that the artist is a lonely, oft-misunderstood Hero; and the marketplace model, based on the assumptions of commerce and the paid performing arts.

Here’s what Robert Grudin has written about these two dominant ideas:

In the romantic model, artists see themselves as brooding, solitary figures, married to art and in search of truth. Their encounters with audience, though sometimes seasoned with revelry or adulation, are ultimately oil-and-water affairs with no lasting effects. Why oil and water? Because the romantic model stipulates that writers have self-consciousness and social awareness, while audiences necessarily don’t. Although such writers may feel grateful to their readers, it is subdued affection, arched across the channel of their alienation.

In the marketplace model, writers are technician-entrepreneurs whose goals are profit and fame. Like other performers and hucksters, they have an ambivalent view of audience: they need customers, but realize that successful selling involves a degree of concealment an deceit. They are willing to indulge and flatter their audiences, to flirt with them and clown it up in front of them, in quest of personal glory and financial triumph. But these activities make it impossible for writers to identify with their readership. If romantic writers are alienated by virtue of their self-conceit and self-consciousness, marketplace writers are alienated by virtue of their greed and ambition.

These models, both fueled by time-honored American fallacies and prejudices concerning privacy and profit, typically compete with each other in writers’ minds, thereby giving the impression that they are not only opposite of each other but also comprise the only available viewpoints.
—Robert Grudin, Hearing the Audience, pp. 89-90, in The Soul of Creativity: Insights into the creative process, ed. by Tona Pearce Myers

Both of these paradigms—the alienated Artiste, the cynical commercial panderer—are sops to the ego. Neither of them transcend personal cares and worries, and neither of them ultimately engage socially. Neither of them reflect any connection to the community of humanity: both, in fact, are stances of alienation. One might go so far as to say that these two ideas about the artist, in their ultimate expressions, are sociopathic, in that to such artists the audience is not real people, not flesh and hair, not an Other one can, ultimately, find empathy with.

There is another path, though. We’re not inevitably locked into this or any other binary dualism, these apparent opposites between poles. Without denying that writing and reading are solitary occupations, most of the time, nonetheless there can be a dialogue between artist and audience that feeds both.

From the communitarian perspective, both the romantic model and the marketplace shrink to rather puny ego-driven affairs; ego barriers dissolve into a continuum in which writing and reading are coequal in a pattern of mutual response. And this realization can carry psychological benefits. Phobic syndromes like writers’ block and stage fright subside as performance is silently transmuted into contribution. The image of artist versus society gives way to a dialog reminiscent of earlier times. —Robert Grudin, ibid., pp. 90-91

This is an older paradigm, a communal, tribal paradigm. In some ways it is a return to pre-Modern values. Yet it still has benefit for us today, especially as the Artist-Hero models begin to show their essential hollowness. The last truly great artist-heroes who stood alone against the world were the Modernists, those heirs of the Romantics. Nowadays, engagement with the world, and acceptance of more facets of the world than previously thought “acceptable” is require for discourse. Increasing complexity implies increasing awareness of diversity. Heroic performance is silently transmuted into contribution. The distinction between “fine art” and “commercial art” is blurred, and that’s well: one becomes thereby able to appreciate quality in whatever arena one discovers it, regardless of position. Contribution can indeed be considered instead of (heroic) performance.

The return to a communitarian set of values in the arts also doesn’t mean we have to throw away everything that was gained during the Artist-Hero periods of increasingly alienation and egotism, because both technical and inspirational innovations were achieved during those periods—indeed, might not have been invented at all, otherwise. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck there, in alienation. It doesn’t mean we must go forward, forever heroically alienated or market-driven. It does mean we can learn from all that, even as we build new communities of art out of the ashes of the old.

Labels: ,

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Does the Audience Matter? 5

The answer we come to, after much consideration, is: Yes . . . but only in certain ways, only at certain times.

Robert Silverberg aptly summarizes where we have arrived so far:

Stories of mine that I had thought quite minor indeed had gone not only to gain awards nominations but, more than once, the awards themselves; stories that had seemed to me to be failures when I wrote them had been reprinted a dozen times over in later years; and, occasionally, a story that moved me profoundly as I composed it had gone straight from publication to oblivion almost as if it had never existed at all. . . .

[T]he moral is clear, as least to me: write what satisfies you and let the awards and the anthologizations take care of themselves, because there's no way of predicting what kind of career a story will have. Strive always to do your best, and, when you believe that you have, allow yourself the pleasure of your own approval. If readers happen to share your delight in your own work, that's a bonus in which to rejoice, but it's folly ever to expect others to respond to your work in the same way you do yourself.
—Robert Silverberg, Introduction to We Are for the Dark, pp. 243-244, in his anthology of novellas Sailing to Byzantium

Mr. Silverberg is talking about writing and publishing science fiction, of which he is an acknowledged master, but his thoughts apply equally well to poetry and other kinds of writing.

Yet the quote above touches on one realm in which the audience does matter, and matters a great deal. There is one special area that means a great deal to any writer: the response, after every else has been done. Even if you avoid folly, and write the best the you can at what you want to write, ignoring all other considerations, it is indeed a delight when some reader responds to your work, and lets you know it. Every honest writer will admit to the pleasure of that encounter.

Robert Grudin writes of the creative encounter with clarity and accuracy. I must quote his essay at length, because it contains numerous truths:

Let's say that you are a professional writer with three or four respectable books in print. On a regional tour for your latest title, you have just given a talk to a bookstore audience of about thirty people, and now about fifteen are waiting in line as you sit at a desk, signing books.

You glance up at the line of people and exchange gazes with one reader who is clearly lit from within. (I say "reader" because gender, age, ethnicity, and social stratum are wholly irrelevant here, obliterated by a generic revelation.) The reader slowly approaches, eyes luminously fixed on you, looking at you as though you had been freshly minted in Paradise, looking the Look that says Thank you for having been born. You have never seen this reader before, but the Look knows you intimately, grasps what is special about you, perceives you not as an indifferent array of flesh and hair but as a breeding poetic soul.

At last you shake hands and the reader speaks. The discourse, made concise by time pressure, may reflect on any aspect of your work or the reader’s experience, but the inner message is always, “You are part of my life.”

The reader turns and departs. It’s unlikely that you two will meet again. But a loop has been closed and things seem different from they had been just moments before.
—Robert Grudin, Hearing the Audience, pp. 88-89, in The Soul of Creativity: Insights into the creative process, ed. by Tona Pearce Myers

It’s this kind of connection, this after the fact of writing connection, that really matters. It is your third person, after your two good friends, that every poet needs: that third, genuine reader, who gets it, who understands what you wrote, who understands what you were trying to say in the way you saw it yourself.

That’s when the audience matters, not before then, but only then, and luminously, ecstatically then.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More Haiku from Michigan

Coming back across Lake Michigan on the cross-lake ferry between Muskegon and Milwaukee, the Lake Express, I found myself sitting on the general passenger deck writing haiku about the week we had just spent in Michigan. I recommend the ferry trip to anyone, at any time: it was a real joy. Standing out on the open-air top deck in the wind, as the water jets kicked in and the boat sped up from its harbor cruising speed or 15 knots to its top speed of 35 or 40 knots, was a genuine thrill.

The Michigan road trip was intense, mostly good, with one or two difficult days, and a lot of new photography and ambient recordings. For example, the redwing blackbirds at Thurston Nature Center in Ann Arbor, that I walked through every day on the way to and from elementary school.

I hope you like tulips as much as I do:

(Tulip Time festival, Holland, MI)

brilliant orange suns,
lemon skies, red flames at dusk:
fields of tulips

And five more haiku (or senryu), in no particular order:

once pristine streets
where I played as a child:
now shaggy, overgrown

my grandfather's house,
his carpenter's hands that built—
wind in maple trees

long endless visits,
gatherings with too much food—
the long road beckons

childhood swimming beach
surrounded by pines and sand:
mallards on Duck Lake

striding over dunes
by estuary rushes—
memories of youth

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Multi-(Tasking, Media, Directional) 2

As a follow-up, I'll mention that I've written about what Joni Mitchell calls artistic crop rotation here, so I won't repeat all that.

But I do seem to have pushed some buttons. Some summary dismissals of my viewpoint have been streaming in and around since I posted my original essay on this topic. (Summary dismissals of my style of writing about it, for that matter, which are ad hominem at best, since they don't really address the topic itself.)

My basic response is a shrug.

Of course, you can never get anyone who doesn't practice more than one artform to believe that it's possible—so it's probably wisest not to try. What I find amusing is the rush to dismiss the very idea: as though it were somehow a dangerous, threatening idea. The fact that an artist can be good in more than one artform seems to threaten some artists, the same way that the Unknown and Other can be threatening, Are they so insecure in their own artistic practices that they cannot imagine any other practices without fear or contempt?

The crop rotation idea is a good one to return to, though, because it highlights the truth that there is no such thing as "writer's block." Even generalized to "creative block," I still question its existence. Psychological blocks exist; and pathological psychology can indeed inhibit creativity, but it can also enhance it, or the stereotype of the Crazy Artist Outsider wouldn't have become an archetype. But the two are separate axes of human function, and shouldn't be confused or conflated.

If you're stuck in one area (or think you are, which is a more accurate description), move over to a new field, and cultivate that one for awhile. It doesn't mean that the art you make, in all your various fields, will be great art, or even good art.

What it does mean, though, is that it keeps the juices flowing, and keeps you active in the practice of being creative. If you stop playing piano for a month, your fingers can stiffen up, and lose their dexterity. The point of creative practice is that, when you need the tools, they're available and ready for use. (The issue of "mental practice," which I learned from martial arts, is worth exploring in detail, another day.)

The truth of my own practice, which I noted years ago, is thus: when I am active musically, and artistically satisfied with the music I am doing, I don't write much poetry; when I don't have much going on, musically, for whatever reason (including being on the road, or camping out in the woods away from my studio, or caregiving, or living through a period of high distraction), I tend to write a lot more poetry. I tend to write more essays than poetry, when I'm in a musical period, nevertheless I do write every single day. (Five-finger exercises.) I tend to do a lot more visual art during and after a road trip; much of my visual art is based on photography, no matter how it ends up in terms of media; when I am home for weeks at a time, I still photograph all the time, almost daily, but I tend to view that too as exercises, and the truth is, a lot of that photography is dull. But it's all practice.

Now, I am the first to say that winning awards doesn't really mean much. (Several Nobel Prize lauerates in literature were not good writers, but were chosen for political reasons.) I am also the first to say that winning a literary award, or an Oscar, can be a popularity contest as much as anything else.

Yet, I have received awards in all my creative fields, notably music, visual art, photography, graphic design, and writing. I don't think awards mean all that much, as I say; yet I notice that among the summary dismissals that I have been receiving, of the idea of an artist being able to work in more than one media, many of them have said, But of course we don't mean you: you're the exception that proves the rule.

But even one exception means that the "rule" is therefore false, or at least incomplete, and should be re-examined.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Glimpses and Haiku from Michigan

I'm on a week-long road trip with my aging and ailing father, exploring family history and genealogy. We're visiting cemeteries, historical buildings, and museums, among other things. I'm recording a lot of family stories, and taking a lot of new photos.

Here's the small, untended, ancient cemetery in rural Michigan, not too far from Lansing, where my great-great-grandfather, Marquis de Lafayette Durkee, is buried:

untended stones
lichened and mossed with time—
a thousand white flowers

sleep of deep time
slowly covered by green age-spots—
outcropped burial mounds

Labels: , ,