Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Photoshop Art

Every so often, I get in the mood to make some montages or collages in Photoshop. These are often archetypal artwork, visionary, even shamanic art, or surrealist as some prefer to name all such non-rational art. (I don't, but some do.)

I often do this in black and white, rather than in color, I'm not certain why. I shoot exclusively in digital color now, so all the source images are in color; but in compiling a new piece, I feel drawn to work in black and white. Plainly, I might be influenced by one of my acknowledged photography masters, Jerry Uelsmann. You know his work, even if you don't know his name; you have almost certainly seen it, or work inspired by it, on TV, or in advertising. It still blows my mind that he was doing these sorts of photomontages entirely in the darkroom, decades before the invention of Photoshop. I don't know that I could have done that; thank the gods I have Photoshop to aid me.

So, whenever I do a black and white surrealist montage, I always think of Uelsmann somewhere in the back of my mind. (Along with Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Minor White, and some few others.)

This is one aspect of my visual body of artwork that is visionary art, and openly so. Some of this work is also done in color. For example, the Spiral Dance series, which I hope to publish someday as a deck of cards for meditation. (Not a Tarot deck, but a deck of archetypes for contemplation, and for talking to one's own deeper, hidden selves.)

So, here's a couple of new pieces, along these lines. I'm in the mood to make more of these soon, too, so stay tuned.

Ocean Road

World Window

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Enough with the Cynicism, Already

Too much of the artistic world, and the world in general, is powered by cynicism rather than passion. Try to find a half-hour sitcom on TV anymore that isn't fundamentally driven by insult comedy: cynicism in action. Maybe that's why people prefer to watch some of the re-runs rather than the new ones. (Recycling the same old same old.)

Poetry criticism, actually all art criticism, is laced with cynicism these days. Perhaps it's because no one can bring themselves to believe that poetry or art matters anymore: that it's all just vapor in the wind, or "creative content" just waiting to be co-opted by commercial culture. It's a helpless feeling, to believe that the creative work you passionately care about has no effect on other people, the world, or life in general. That helplessness can lead to bitterness, and bitterness leads right to cynicism.

That is the pull of entropy, dragging us down. That is the tidal pull of black holes of despair. Resist it! Fight back. Be passionate, be erotic, be alive. That refusal to be cynical is life-affirming in ways most cynics can't even imagine. Lifting their heads out of their laps is too much effort for them.

It's easy to be cynical. (Entropy is always easier than extropy, just as sewage runs downhill.) It's easy to despair. Sometimes it takes all one's energy to like a plan for living. It's easier to be mean than it is to be gracious; it takes less energy to be self-centered than to be altruistic. The path of least energy, though, is often a path into shadow and alienation. After awhile, you begin to believe that no-one cares about anything you have to say. At which point, you have generated a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's also very easy to attack whenever your precious little ego is attacked: a counter-attack, a counter response, even a pre-emptive attack, is considered justified when it prefers the self above all others. Wilhelm Reich wrote about this in 1948, in his little warning of a book, Listen, Little Man!

Those who are truly alive are kindly and unsuspecting in their human relationships and consequently endangered under present conditions. They assume that others think and act generously, kindly, and helpfully, in accordance with the laws of life. This natural attitude, fundamental to healthy children as well as to primitive man, inevitably represents a great danger in the struggle for a rational way of life as long as the emotional plague subsists, because the plague-ridden impute their own manner of thinking and acting to their fellow men. A kindly man believes that all men are kindly, while one infected with the plague believes that all men lie and cheat and are hungry for power. In such a situation the living are at an obvious disadvantage. When they give to the plague-ridden, they are sucked dry, then ridiculed or betrayed.

The plague Reich referred to was (silent) complicity with the fascist elements native to commercial culture, especially in the McCarthy/Eisenhower era; but it could just as well be referring to cynicism in the arts, or about the arts, today. It is complicity in believing that one has already lost the game, because the adversary has told you so, and therefore one might as well give up and not bother. The roots of cynicism lie in frustrated and embattled hope. The fruits of cynicism are death and hatred, especially self-hatred, because underneath it all lies fear. A fear of passionate engagement, as is done by little children, who put it all out there, and take it all in, giving and receiving a hundred percent of themselves to each moment. Passion means commitment, and the cynical are afraid to commit, especially to commit the sin of admitting they might be wrong.

Don't confuse me with shallow optimists or Pollyannas. I have no use for "positive thinking" when it's based on denial or repression, rather than a realistic assessment of any given situation. I have little patience with those who would paste over every conflict with a false smile: as though sweeping it under the rug ever really made it go away.

Telling the truth, being honest to oneself and others, is a life-affirming act, and the opposite of ironic distance. A prophet cannot afford to be a cynic, and probably was never in any actual danger of becoming one; although even prophets have times of despair.

The antidote to cynicism is fearlessness, and an embracing of the freedom to be honest with oneself, and with others. This implies the freedom to make a fool of oneself, of course; but it also gives us the freedom to think for oneself, to formulate one's own beliefs and opinions, rather than have them served to you by others. The antidote to despair is a realistic assessment that includes what is good as well as what causes suffering.

If you fulfill the role of a prophet, somebody will inevitably come along and try to dismiss you with ironic humor—irony has become the dominant mode of cultural discourse, reflecting an essential hollowness, and forgetting that irony is an experience, not a critical-rhetorical stance—because you will make them uncomfortable, if you are sincerely childlike in your refusal to be cynical. Which is essentially a refusal to play along with the gang.

No-one will like you once you break the unspoken rules of the gang, and speak for yourself, as though you were your own person. Which in fact you are, but the gang will tell you over and over that they own you; some will even kill you rather than let you go. Sound familiar? There are many kinds of death: I could, in using the word "gang," be referring to an actual street gang, but just as easily to many departments of English at various colleges and universities, and just as easily to most poetic and arts criticism that follows the tactic of dismissal and vilification. It's easy to go along with the gang: that too is a form of entropy.

The gang is the Borg. They tell you Resistance is futile, and expect you to believe it, simply because they say, and because they believe in the sheer power of their own numbers. But resistance isn't futile: those silly little humans ended up defeating the Borg numerous times.

Reich also writes, You plead for happiness in life, but security means more to you. That is the general miasma of culture at this point in history. So, if you stand up yourself, you are sticking your neck out; make no mistake of that. If security means more to you than a life of personal responsibility, then the gang already owns you, and will manipulate you with ease.

It's easy to be negative, to be dismissive, to dismiss without having genuinely engaged. It's easy to be critical, rather than constructively critical. It takes more effort to be actively a mentor rather than a dismissive critic. Don't bother citing statistics about how bad art has always outweighed good art, pound for pound; so what? Show me the good art; forget about the rest.

But no: most critics would rather have something bad to say. Perhaps it's because they're so small, they can only feel larger if they tear everyone else down, bringing them down to their level. That most contemporary art and poetry is bad is a given, to the cynical viewpoint: it has ever been thus. Lamenting it won't make it better, or make it go away. The proper response is a shrug, rather than a diatribe. There were no Golden Days, that's just nostalgia for an illusory and fantastical past. The cynic would have you agree with him, and will fight hard against you if you don't. Cynics are as convinced they are right as are most fanatics; differing worldviews are subject to mockery of the tepid lameness typical of late-night talk-show monologues. Dismiss what you can't accept; mock what you can't undertsand; then it's easier to ignore. Entropy wins again.

But the antidote to entropy is life. The anodyne of cynicism is passion, passionate engagement, a well-formed opinion that isn't afraid of either commitment or being wrong. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference: hatred implies you still actually care enough to spend your energy on it. No true cynic wastes any time on hate, because that would be caring too much; they know this, on some level, even if they won't admit it. An ironic shrug is their stance, because that keeps them safe from actual engagement or commitment.

it's easier to roll downhill with the rest. But you're going uphill, not down, when you refuse to become cynical. You're going to see the wizard, or to see what the world looks like on the other side of the mountain. You don't even have to have a reason to go uphill. The mere fact that you feel you have lost your way, anytime you don't feel like you're going uphill, is a reliable inner barometer for taking the true path in life. Even if you feel like your life and your art is being drowned by a huge wave about to break over you, you have the choice to surf rather than give in and just drown. It can be a struggle that seems to take away all your life-energy in an instant.

Black holes are eating up the light. But even black holes emit Hawking radiation, the heat leaking back out due to quantum effects, and heat is a kind of light. Where there is heat, there is light, there is passion. You can be a hot black hole, not a cold one.

So, go uphill. It may be a sisyphean task, and it may in the end be pointless. But any action that slows down entropy, even locally, even for just a little while, is divinely blessed, and sheds light and life on all who witness.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

John Coltrane: the story of a sound

My review of Ben Ratliff's new book
Coltrane: the story of a sound has been
posted on Monsters & Critics.


(Update: Here's the body of the review, reprinted here just for the heck of it.)

In the growing catalog of books on John Coltrane’s life and musical legacy, there tend to be three main species: 1. anecdotal oral-histories, along the lines of J.C. Thomas’ Chasin’ the Trane (1975); 2. fan-written, passionate, even spiritual books, including those that view Coltrane as a spiritual seeker primarily; and 3. cooler, more analytical books, along the lines of traditional academic music histories. Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane’s legacy falls into this third camp.

The overall tone of this book is cool and detached, yet easily readable. Most of the time this works well, although once or twice I wished Ratliff had tried less hard to be coolly objective. This is the sort of book only an enthusiast would write, so there were moments I wished for more enthusiasm revealed in the writing. Thus, those moments when I felt I was hearing Ratliff’s own voice expressing a strong opinion, the book seemed to come alive, and be more compelling.

Of all the existing Coltrane studies, this book has been claimed (probably more by the publisher than anyone else) to be the first to examine Coltrane’s contribution to jazz from the viewpoint of the development of his unique signature sound on his principal instruments, tenor and soprano saxophone. This isn’t a strictly accurate claim. There have been other studies that approach Coltrane from this angle, notably John Fraim’s Spirit Catcher: The life and art of John Coltrane (1996). I believe Ratliff is attempting to be intellectually rigorous, however; there is more than enough music theory in this book, short of actual transcriptions, to satisfy most jazz theory-heads. The musical analyses are detailed, and I find myself agreeing with Ratliff’s insights most of the time.

The single most important new contribution this book makes lies in its part two, in which Ratliff discusses the ongoing impact of Coltrane’s musical ideas on jazz, and on popular music in general. Coltrane’s influences on rock ‘n roll, and on avant-garde new-music composers, for example, are addressed as well as his influences on contemporary jazz. Musicians will continue to need to come to grips with Coltrane’s influence for a long time to come. Like John Cage’s musical innovations, John Coltrane’s musical ideas are ones every musician (jazz or otherwise) must deal with, sooner or later, whether or not one ultimately agrees with the questions they asked, or likes the musical answers that resulted.

Ratliff correctly points out, in his concluding summation, that Coltrane was the right man at the right time to bring the new musical ideas into the spotlight. Coltrane was the point man in music history during the last ten years of his life. That he was also a gifted and adventurous musician, in any context, only amplifies the power he had of being the right man at the right moment.

As part of his summation, Ratliff also speaks to the backlash against free jazz that has happened since its moment in the spotlight. Ratliff’s accurate summation of the aims and failings of the neo-conservative “young lions” in contemporary jazz, led by Wynton Marsalis and his followers, is a masterpiece of critical understatement. Not a dismissal, but devastatingly clear about where the holes lie in their counter-revolutionary arguments.

Ratliff’s new book is overall a very good read, but there are a few inexplicable oversights. Most of the best-known Coltrane biographies and musical studies are listed in the “Sources and Acknowledgments” section at the back of the book. One or two are conspicuously absent. For example, it seems odd to have included Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The making of the Miles Davis masterpiece (2000), a book only peripherally about Coltrane and mostly about Davis, and to have not cited Fraim (mentioned above). Granted, Fraim’s book falls more into the fan/spiritual category I listed above, but it is a well-written book with some insights into Coltrane’s sound that are very similar to Ratliff’s own.

Ratliff does address Coltrane’s world-wide, universal influence in part two, although he mostly focuses on American jazz and American popular music. Yet he also overlooks some children of Coltrane’s sound that seem important, to me, to have been mentioned, including musicians who took Coltrane’s ideas and ran with them, not all of whom played saxophone: for example, Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock, both important free jazz guitarists. (To be fair, Ratliff quotes Sharrock at length on what happened to jazz in the aftermath of Coltrane’s death; I admit my opinion is probably biased, because I feel that Sharrock never got enough credit for his contributions to free jazz as a whole.) European free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann is mentioned, but the equally important Evan Parker is not. Nowhere is Jan Garbarek mentioned, the great Norwegian saxophonist whose soul-searing tone, especially on soprano sax, is to my ears one of the most direct descendents of Coltrane’s sound and sensibility. But these are all relatively minor caveats.

Perhaps Ratliff’s oversights can be explained by an attempt on the author’s part to distance himself from the sillier fan-based Coltrane books. It could also be the New York-centrism common to many music critics who still have difficulty accepting the reality that genuine musical life and music criticism does go on, west of the Hudson River. New York-centrism also possibly expresses itself as overlooking the important European free jazz innovators, all of whom owe a direct debt to Coltrane, as mentioned above.

So, I’ll give this new book on Coltrane a mildly qualified rave. Some of what Ratliff presents has been said before, although his approach is mostly new. Coltrane: The story of a sound is a genuine contribution to Coltrane studies, and worth reading more than once. It is a book dense with information, and you will get more out of it each time you re-read.

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Thanksgiving Day and Night

In the interest of demonstrating some aspects of the creative process, and using my own writing as guinea pig, or lab rat, this morning I gathered several fragments written in two different journals over the past two or three days, including some of my previous post here, and turned them into a new haibun piece. This is still a work in progress: I expect to revise it over the next few days; probably trim some chaff in spots, with better words in other spots; maybe a better title; et cetera. You have to sit with something awhile, or go away and come back later, to get clarity about it as a piece of writing.

This is how one might choose to practice writerly recycling, and revision, and the gathering of fragments into a more coherent whole. Perhaps it also demonstrates the principal of reading back through what you've loosely written over the past few days, and finding a common thread among the scattered pieces, to pull them all together to make something more like an actual artwork, rather than a journal entry. Hopefully this haibun will therefore, even in its unfinished state, reveal something about the creative process.

I've been losing time
visions overlay the world
interlocking wheels

Time falls around my ankles, a discarded robe before one steps into the bath, warmed by living flesh, soon to chill. Whole days wash off, slosh down the drain. A week suddenly gone, and nothing happened: or, everything happened, and you could not record it all. The recording angel naps those days when acedia rises in the east, the bloody and demanding sun. Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning. I'm going to wash these blues right out of my hair.

Snow late last night, coating the gray world with white. I watched it fall in that perfect silence that new snowfall brings to the world, as blessing. Juncos, round slate-blue birds, come this morning to sit on the deck railings, kicking up tufts as they land and take off again. The live-in cardinal couple is brilliant against the white land, the male a moving laser-dot of bright red against a black and white background. The chokecherry tree will still produce its small sable berries over winter, and the birds will gather in its branches, come January, gorging themselves, and stooping down to pick through the snow under the tree for more fallen fruits.

Already melting. The sun coming out, fitfully, streaks of blue between the clouds. A few more light flakes falling, here and there, just particles of air-borne dry flakes. I worry, when I can’t find my gratitudes, even a poor and starving minimal thanks for being still alive. That temporary and conditional existence universally terminated in a face-on meeting with entropy.

Meister Eckhart:
If the only prayer
you ever said was "Thank you"—
that would suffice.

More lost time: Driving home after dinner in another town, the clouds thin and crumpled, an almost-full moon hangs high overhead. I think to myself, When did you get to be full again, moon? Then I realized, I hadn’t seen him for weeks, between illness and exhaustion, and all the lately cloudy weather. Suddenly the moon's eye was almost round again, silver behind mottled veils.

moonlight and starlight
on snow-draped fields near town:
black winter berries

I sit awhile at midnight, in the armchair with my heaviest quilt draped over, staring at the fire burning in the fireplace, no lights on, thinking. Moonlight on the snow outside makes a silver light, and a few stars peek through bare trees. The cold clear night both dark and light. The room is silent except for the sounds of the fire. I feel myself approach silence within. Nothing moves but the flames. The black lines of treeshadows on the white snow are arteries, rivers, tunnels between now and some deeper place.

snowlight firelight moonlight
candelight sunlight night that made us—
receive us all at the end

Lost time. Most kinds of freedom come with boundaries built in; the genuinely free mind doesn’t bind time the usual way, or insist on narrative, or even on consensus meaning. It also doesn’t reject it. Nothing is more unreal than the self-talk that claims to be real.

Let go, and go back to sitting and staring at the flames, while out of the corner of the eye, stars and treeshadows slowly turn the wheel of the sky’s clock, winding up, winding down. And the return to silence is durable, inevitable, unexpected, tremulous, like nothing else. The light flickers through the fireplace screen, and on the ceiling of the room, and splashes on floor and walls of the silent house.

unnamed falls
to frozen lakes—
silent water sleep

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Those Fragile First Holidays After the Death of a Parent

I was driving back tonight from afternoon dinner and evening conversation with family friends, who all knew and loved my recently-departed father. It's the first set of winter holidays, for me, as a midlife orphan. Another of those big life changes I'm going through, in this segment of my own life. In the near future, I can list an aunt, an uncle, and a good family friend who will probably all die in the next year, due to various illnesses, or pining away after one's life-mate dies. The good family friend's wife passed away just over a week ago; I attended her funeral last weekend.

It's Thanksgiving Day, and I've struggled to find things to be thankful for. You know you're in trouble when you struggle to come up with even a short list of gratitudes. Even for being alive, that temporary and conditional existence universally terminated in a face-on meeting with entropy. Driving to dinner, I listened to one of my favorite John Dowland CDs: those Elizabethan blues. My own melancholic nature responds to Dowland's melancholic part-songs, especially the well-known part-song Flow, My Tears, or Lachrymae Pavan. (A piece I once arranged for male chorus; and have also arranged, or manipulated, as an ambient electronic composition.) When the CD came around to Flow, My Tears, when I had almost arrived at my dinner destination, I listened to the piece twice in a row, feeling better each time.

Sometimes, what one needs is permission to feel depressed, to accept it in the moment, and to allow oneself to be okay with it. Just for now, if not for ever. Dowland gave me that permission, today; as before.

So, I arrived not in the best of spirits, but able to find a few meagre gratitudes. At the dinner table, my host read from Meister Eckhart, the most deeply resonant, to me, of the Medieval Christian mystics: If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice. A synchonicity of meaning surrounding thanks.

I've been losing time. Time falls around my ankles, a discarded robe before one steps into the bath, warmed by living flesh, soon to chill. Whole days wash off you, and disappear down the drain. A week is suddenly gone, and nothing happened: or, everything happened, and you could not record it all. The recording angel naps in those days when acedia rises in the east, the bloody and demanding sun. Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning. I'm going to wash these blues right out of my hair.

It snowed late last night, coating the gray world with white. I watched it fall in that perfect silence that new snowfall brings to the world, as blessing. Juncos, round slate-blue birds, come this morning to sit on the deck railings, kicking up tufts of snow as they land and take off again. The cardinal couple that lives here year-round is brilliant against the white land, the male a moving laser-dot of bright red against a black and white background. The chokecherry tree will still produce it’s small black berries over winter, and the birds will gather in its branches, come January, gorging themselves, and stooping down to pick through the snow under the tree for more fallen berries.

More lost time: Driving home, the clouds thin and high, an almost-full moon was hanging high overhead. I thought to myself, When did you get to be full again? Then I realized, I hadn’t seen the moon for weeks, between being ill and exhausted these past few weeks, and all the cloudy weather we’ve been having. Suddenly the moon's eye was almost round again, silver behind mottled veils.

Do I have a point, here, a grand conclusion? No. Nor do I have closure. You go on, you endure. You find a reason to endure, even a meagre one.

Where am I, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. —Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to Avoid Using Cliches 2: Insight

Pursuing the idea that developing insight is important to poetry, let's start with a reminder about clichés: they tend to be superficial glosses. They tend to miss the point, and all the nuances, because they don't go deep enough. Clichés avoid the hard work of diving into a subject, wading around, and finding out everything you can. Clichés desire to be superficial, because real life is too much work. Clichés are reductive: they minimize every nuance into a rhetorical soundbyte. They overlook the details in favor of a pithy and supercilious remark.

A cliché cannot evoke insight, because genuine insight will supercede any cliché, and show it to be hollow and empty. True knowing, even knowing that you don't know, is the most effective cliché-killer of all.

For example, let's look at a cliché about art, that became a literary/critical cliché in its own right. Calling the Annie Proulx short story Brokeback Mountain the "gay cowboy story," or calling the movie made from the short story the "gay cowboy movie," completely misses the point. It doesn't tell you what the story is really about. Proulx herself has talked about the fact that this was a rural love story set in a rural place, at a time when such a love was just heartbreakingly impossible. It still is, mostly. I've lived in Wyoming and New Mexico; I've spent a lot of time in Texas, Montana, and the other western states; I can say with utter certainty that the story of Brokeback Mountain is still happening, in various ways. The heartbreak isn't a thing of the past; men like this still exist, still stuck in those patterns of belief and culture that make expressing such love uneasy at best, impossible at worst.

Worse, the cliché that such a story is a "gay cowboy" story ignores the context and beauty of the land in which it is set. The story takes place mostly in the Big Horn Mountains, which straddle the borders of Wyoming and Montana. There's a lot of open prairie there, but there are also some of the most beautifull mountains in the western USA. It's horse country, and sheep country, and cattle country: ranch-hand country, cowboy country. The context of cowboy culture, usually shyly laconic or speechless in the face of social gatherings, knows not what to say about two basicaly ordinary uneducated ranch-raised cowboys accidentally falling in love with each other. The tragedy of the story is that it can never work—not because gay love cannot work, but because in 1963 Wyoming "gay love" isn't even a concept on the map. It's not even words anybody would put together, there and then. The geography and environment are like characters in both story and film versions: characters larger and more silent still than the protagonists. The sheer beauty of the land, as well as its harrshness and implacability, are presences felt constantly, in all the scenes in which the actors move. The Big Sky is its own presence, its own character, out there. It's something you can never forget, because it so dominates every vista.

So, if you can still call it a "gay cowboy" story, I pity you. That's a typical ignorant city-bound viewpoint to call it that, from someone who's never lived out there, under that sky, in all that continuous wind.

Ignorance is always curable. It is easily curable. All it requires is the ability to read, a little bit of empathy, and maybe some little bit of travel experience. So, ignorance, being totally curable, has no excuse.

Insight requires you to get your feet wet and your hands dirty. It requires you to wade in there and get dirtied by the mire and blood and messiness of real life.

If you're going to write a poem about some topic you haven't experienced for yourself, get the details right. This is the truth that lies behind the writer's platitude Write what you know—the truth that writing is often more compelling when it's based in experience. But the other side of experience is imagination, and a writer's vivid imagination can go boldly where the writer herself has not. The key to making it work, though, is believability, and believability lies in the details. Get the details: do your research: visit your locales if you can. Notice the quality of air and light wherever you go.

I've had negative responses to some of my poems because I talk about an ineffable quality of air and light in the place where the poem happens. People didn't believe it, they thought it was artistic hyperbole—until I showed them the photographs I took there, and they realized that I was not at all exaggerating, merely reporting. For example, here's a photo of the Taos Plateau in New Mexico.

The Sangre de Christo Mountains are in the background. The sunset light hit a veil of descending rain coming from the low clouds. It was minutes before sunset. I slammed on the brakes, pulled the truck over and ran out onto the plateau to capture as many photos as I could before the light faded. It was chilly and windy, and when I got back to my trailer, a little later, I had a bitter cold night. I huddled in my blankets for hours, doing nothing but trying to read, drink tea, and stop shivering. But it was all worth it, to capture this one photo. The secret of my photography is very simple: Always carry a camera with you, and always be ready to drop everything to get that one photo, if you happen to be in the right place at the right moment. Never hesitate to drop everything. Never hesitate to ignore people staring at you, wondering what the heck you're doing.

So, look at that photo. How would you describe that light to someone who has never seen it, or even been outside the boundaries of their city existences, even if they've moved from city to city?


Insight means immersion. It means being willing to drop everything for the sake of a poem. It means gathering experience and memories like fuel for an invisible fire. It means being willing to go well out of your way to make sure your research bears fruit. It means travel—but it means more than mere tourism.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in 1910, in his autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, wrote this, which stands as good advice for any poet willing to immerse themselves in life:

. . . Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,— and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour, and of light, pale sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them. (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)

So, insight takes patience, and work, and time. Time to come to fruition, to grow into our lives. Time well-spent while we appear to be doing other things. (An artist is never not making art, no matter what else they appear to be doing.)

The reason Proulx' short story Brokeback Mountain works is because it doesn't try to impose a false narrative on the messy details of life. The author describes the details well, and gets them right. The story doesn't end: it just stops. It has a concluding thought, but really it just stops. You know that the lives of the characters go on—those still living anyway—and that there are things that happen after the story ends, which are not told. (One mark of the impact of a good story on the reader is, you want to know what happens next, after the story ends.) The story relates the messiness of life to the by not trying to impose a logically coherent narrative, with an artificial beginning and end; the author doesn't try to shoehorn the story into a conventional narrative format, or force an ending that rings like a church bell in some stiff attempt to tie up all the loose ends. The loose ends in the story dangle there, unresolved. The characters get caught up in the mire and blood of real life, sometimes literally. And they go on, as messily as ever, having learned at least not to repeat their same mistakes.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

the way of leaves

More autumnal poetry. Something I wrote some years ago, freshly revised. Actually, a combinatorial retrofit of two discrete poems, merged into one better one.

The leaves here have mostly fallen. The weather has closed in, and is dark and bleak and overcast. The few colors left to the land stand out brilliantly against the gray-brown gloom. I think again, since it's autumn, of everything fallen, everyone lost. John Donne famously wrote, centuries ago:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. —excerpted from Meditation XVII, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

I’m in the time between the end of an old cycle, and the beginning of the new. I don’t want to go back and write the old poetry, the old music; the new is not yet formed, not yet emergent, except in small pieces. I’m in a desert time, a waiting time. I am not sure where I’m going, or even who I am; I’m not sure of anything, anymore. It’s hard to be patient, sometimes. Sometimes the world wants you to rush ahead, and not wait. But in crossing the desert, you have to cross on foot, which takes time. Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes the time taken for the journey matters more than the arrival. The going is complete in itself.

I feel like I am back in Joshua Tree, camping in the desert under a sky full of stars, the reflected light of my cookfire flickering on the surrounding rock formations, making them orange and alive in the wavering light. I sit there, listening to the fire crackle, no other sound around me. Out in the silent dark something moves. I can sense it, but it hasn’t come into the circle of my light yet. I’m waiting for it to come sit down opposite the fire from me, so we can have a dialogue. I can wait a long time. The fire shows no signs of going out.

the way of leaves

the way the leaf lies on the book,
giving these lines color: summer greens,
autumn browns, even in the weakening light
of winter blue—
still alive—
ready to spring
out of the page, growing
instant branches, trunks, vines:
homes for spontaneous wings

she becomes leaves:
a whisper-quick merge
of lament and breeze
larks through the orchard
as she cries, falling—
striking the grass, wind-torn,
a browning heap of maples

when you open the book,
leaves fall out:
paper, like ore, wants to return
to the mountain where it was born

last light:
the hills pass the sun
to naked trees

and sunset colors
towards the evening star
and up, up:
to the green aurora

the sky’s teeth
hissing veil

the place where blue
becomes pale indigo
and black is the
color of retreating suns

she goes to bed late:

a few auburned things
shaking by the banister
hesitating on the stairs
before climbing towards the unsaid shadow—

a lurker in the attic
a bed-spirit
abductor of the roses
a loving knife—

into twilight
the adulterous wounding

the unexpected caretaker

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

the dreams of roads

The road dreams it goes on forever. It can see itself on the other side of that hill; or maybe it can only know itself as a ribboned way that can’t see its own endings. Roads are built, but self-created. If a street had consciousness, would it think of its desire to be used, or resent the weight of trucks? Some unpaved desert tracks have a will of their own, curving themselves to fit unconformities in the local geology, disregarding human ideas of straight lines and geodesics. Some roads here caress the shapes of hills, but others are obviously made from a grid laid on a conceptual map: they pay no attention to topography, but are forced to drive through the land until stopped by a precipice or bluff too sheer or expensive to engineer around.

At night, the roads sleep, purring. They wait for daybreak and sunset to sparkle; they’re most alive when the light-angles are low to the horizon. Mid-day the highway naps in place, softened a little but after a heavy meal of traffic, trying to find a little shade for a siesta. In the fog, the road plays games with itself, hide and seek, pretending to go between worlds the size of a bubble of visibility. Around any next corner, who knows, is the twilight zone. Night fogs lend themselves to the clomp of horse’s hooves, a black coach passing by pulled by white phantoms; somewhere under the gaslights, old Jack lurks, blades glinting.

Night tires in the distance, the thrum of vulcan rubber on creosote, a sound like escape, the distance beckoning. Somewhere the desert remembers you, even as the sea breeze weathers you with salt and time. A track of crushed gravel, a paranoid ophiolite broken on its own shoulders, leads down the coastal cliff to a beach crusted with gulls. This terrain is haggard, a bowl of glop. Where the track meets the highway, the road argues with itself, making holes and dents barely navigable. The road sings of the hills to come. Will it remember your tires, after your passing, like so many other passengers, or go back to sleep? There are roads that don’t care about endings, or beginnings. The backbone for every flux, transition, and change, the spine of travel, a broad shoulder massaged by every footfall as you walk on, destinationless.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to Avoid Using Cliches

Lots of writerly advice will tell you that you should avoid clichés in your writing, but very few actually tell you how to do so, or even to recognize what is a cliché. Let's pull back the curtain behind the Great and Powerful Oz, shall we, and reveal the secrets of the mystery school: things that (theoretically) most experienced poets know, but don't bother to set out in an organized manner for beginning poets to learn from. Since clichés are one of those things that virtually every beginning poet (including you and me, at one time) gets mired in, sooner or later, learning how to avoid the pitfalls of cliché up front seems like a practical step to advance one's poetics apprenticeship. Tips and techniques are hardly absolute truths, or rules, however. (I am indebted to Jessica Schneider for reminding me of some opinions I stated on the topic some years ago, but had forgotten about.)

1. The vast majority of clichés in poetry—up to 90 percent or more of clichéd phrases, stock imagery, stereotypes, etc.—arise because of the bad or lazy use of modifiers. You can avoid many clichés simply by freshening up the modifiers, the adjectives, etc. It really can be just that simple.

For example: don't tell me about "dark shadows." Use a fresher modifier. Describe to me "red shadows" or "thin shadows," anything but "dark shadows."

Avoid similes, and use actual metaphors, especially striking metaphors. Don't give me "my love is like a red, red, rose;" give me "my squirrel love scurries up my roots." Most of the time, except perhaps when it's there for purely metrical reasons, the word "like" used in a poem as a simile is a waste of a syllable, and a red flag telegraphing to the reader to be prepared for some kind of comparative imagery. Why warn them? it's doubtful your simile's going to be so shocking that they have to brace themselves in advance.

2. You can also fix a cliché by evoking it without evoking it. How do you do that?

You do it by subverting the cliché, in various ways.

First off, change those modifiers. Pick modifiers that sound close to the originals, but mean something else.

You can also simply reverse the modifiers so that the elements of the cliché have been shuffled around. On some level, the reader will still the cliché in their minds, but the actual words won't be the cliché.

For example, "it was a dark and stormy night" might become "it was a storm and darkening light."

Certain post-Modern poets, such as Charles Bernstein, have run far with this idea of writing poems built on these sorts of deflected or inverted puns. Bernstein has made a whole career of punning clichés onto their heads, to often humourous effect. His is a type of "language poetry" perhaps more friendly to the reader than some others; and it perhaps has its roots in James Joyce's punning, so it also has a pedigree, and is done with conscious intent. Whatever your opinion of the (theoretical) poetics resulting from Bernstein's wordplay, the technique can still get you out of a rut.

Poet Dan Schneider talks about subverting clichés in such a way that the reader suddenly gets the unexpected. In his opinion, which I largely agree with here, a great poet can begin to evoke a cliché then suddenly change direction, even with an apparent non sequitur. in doing so, the cliché that was being set up is still in the reader's mind, even though the poem doesn't actually use it. This is one way is which a poem can develop many layers of meaning: the expected layered with the unexpected.

3. Let's step back for a moment and look at the root question here: What makes a cliché a cliché?

A cliché is some trope or truth in literature that is (or was once) based in reality but through excessive repetition has lost all its power, resonance, and depth, and has become overly-familiar, superficial, and lifeless. That clichés keep getting used is because of the nature of human reality: we all share some very large experiences in life that are archetypal, powerful, unavoidable, and largely too big to really fit into words. We keep trying to fit these experiences into words, by inventing signs and symbols that represent them, even though they cannot encompass them.

Who can really speak of birth, or death? enlightenment, and suffering? Sometimes a few familiar words is all we can manage. We go to a funeral of someone we mutually loved, and all we can choke out is I share your grief. What is unsaid speaks volumes. It's a lifetime of memories to try to fit into some few words.

A cliché is at root a sign that stands in for something else: it is a phrase that tries to evoke emotion or depth by repeating a stock image or phrase. The reason so many clichés become a problem is because, through repetition, such stock signs or phrases have had all the life bleached out of them.

Clichés are at root lazy. They're stereotypes. They stand in for feeling and sense, rather than evoking it.

They're supposed to trigger a Pavlovian response in the reader, make them feel something, because of their familiarity. But in fact the only thing they evoke is the mental flicker of awareness that they've gone by; they do not evoke a moment in the reader wherein the reader is taken all the way into the poem, and feels the experience of the poem as an experience. Clichés in fact prevent that from happening. They in fact stifle genuine emotion, and paper over real feelings by saying something simplistic and ultimately phony.

Don't tell me when you use a cliché that "it's all I could think of!" or "It worked for this great writer, so it should work for me!" Don't tell me that because that's basically an attempt to avoid doing the hard work of thinking up another way—your own way!—for your poem to present a familiar idea without using familiar signs and symbols. Coming up with a new way to write about love and death is indeed challenging; it might be the hardest poem you've ever tried to write—if you give yourself the assignment of writing about it without collapsing back into easy and familiar and comfortable clichés.

While some may argue that clichés have their purpose, and even their benefits, in writing, that's a viewpoint I've never understood. How can one seriously defend stereotypes, superficial symbols and stale metaphor?

Defending clichés is like saying it's okay to be lazy because none of it really matters. Indeed, maybe none of it does matter in the long run. Poetry isn't exactly a life-or-death discipline like oncological surgery.

But there is (or should be) in any artisan, craftsmen, or artist, the impulse to take pride in whatever one is doing, and do the best that one is able to do, on any given day. (The best that one is actually able to do will vary from day to day.) There is the impulse to do the very best that one is able to do; rather than flipping one's hand and sitting back, slacking off, and doing as little as possible. The impulse to always work at the edges of one's ability should always be encouraged, especially in artists: it's the way we grow, as artists.

Always working from within your artistic comfort zone is a sign or laziness, or fear. And those are the same impulses that tempt one to use clichés, rather than listening within for who really wants to speak. Art is work, sometimes effortless, sometimes very hard indeed. Rilke wrote, in The Notebooks of Malte Laurits Brigge, his semi-autobiographical novel: For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things. . . .

Take your work seriously, as an artisan, even if you don't take yourself seriously.

4. Come at the poetic moment, and poetic experience, from a completely different angle. An unexpected angle, even to yourself. Use your primary artistic tool: your imagination.

For example, T.S. Eliot comes at the familiar Christmas/Epiphany story of the birth of Jesus from a completely unexpected direction in his poem, The Journey of the Magi. The poem is narrated by one of the Three Wise Men, the Magi, and talks about their difficult journey, and ends with a meditation on the hardness of life and death. There is not one single bit of dogma or doctrine in this poem; the Christ Child is barely mentioned, except in passing. This is a Christmas poem!? Yes, it is, and a brilliant one.

5. Develop insight into the subject matter you're writing the poem about. That may sound surprising, but that's the word: insight. Do your research. Don't be superficial about it. Learn about your subject in detail.

Here's a possible exercise to try:

If you were to write an article for a newspaper, you'd be required to verify your facts and check your sources for veracity. if you were to write a paper for a classroom assignment, you would be expected to know your subject welll, cite your sources, have a strong and convincing argument, and again, check your facts.

Now try doing that for a poem: Don't include anything in the poem that isn't objectively verifiable. Don't interpret. Don't adorn with ornament. Don't make conclusions. Simply state what you've learned.

Then, as a follow-up exercise, go back and write a new poem on the same subject, without the constraint of reportorial accuracy. Allow yourself to interpret, allow yourself to feel your way into the subject matter, and write about it from the inside. You will find that, having done your research, getting inside the mind of the poem will be much easier.

Don't cheat: do these two poems in that order, and not the reverse.

6. In order to develop insight into poetry, and also learn in the process how to recognize clichés when you encounter them:

Read a lot more poetry than you have so far. Read the great poets. Read the dead poets, both men and women: the reason living people are still reading them, centuries later, is because they still speak to us, and have something to teach us about what it is to be having a human experience.

Don't rush right into "expressing yourself" and expect that your thoughts and ideas will be new and unique and fresh and unknown and original. If there is any sort of "mystery cult" in poetry, it's this idea that a beginning poet doesn't have to go through any kind of apprenticeship or training in poetry; that one can write Great Poetry right out of the bag, without having read or studied much, but only out of one's Naked Soul. Sure, that's remotely possible (Rimbaud being the exemplar people usually hold up—even though he read a lot of poetry, too), but only remotely. Chances are what you thought was your original idea, or original slant on a subject, has been done numerous times before.

This is not a problem. This is no reason for despair. Don't become the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, beating your breast in existential angst, intoning, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. . . . Don't put that much weight on yourself: it's a burden no artist can carry.

It is not a problem! What it is, is the reflection of a problem suffered by most poets, especially those younger in their writing careers: Ignorance. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of, but it's also nothing to be ashamed of—because it's so easily cured.

Ignorance is curable by study, and by working hard at reading. Read voraciously. Read eclectically.

Read, read, read, read, read, then read some more.

Don't read only contemporary poetry. Don't read just what is being published Right Now, or what your friends are writing, or what you can easily discover in one of the online poetry journals or archives. Go down to your local library and dig in. It's going to take some time, so plan on a full month's worth of reading, not just an hour's.

Read a lot of poets you like, but don't slavishly imitate them (except to write études that are sketches like every artist makes to learn from the masters).

Don't read only poets you like. You also can learn things from poets whose poems really turn you off. You're learning what not to do, in those instances.

Read bad poetry: there is no faster way to identify what a cliché is, or what bad writing is. Fortunately, this is the easiest variety of poetry to find, anywhere, anytime.

Don't read just poetry! Read everything. Read lots of non-fiction, prose, stories, and essays. Read everything but poetry. Reading only poetry–especially only reading contemporary poetry—is navel-gazing of the worst sort: it only tells you what you already know.

7. One definition of cliché, mentioned above as being some idea or image that was once based in reality but has been over-used, brings us back to the idea of stock image or phrase. Just as in advertising or marketing, the poet presents you with an image in order to manipulate you into feeling something. Resist being manipulated!

When you have read a lot of poetry, you will recognize a cliché in part because you have seen it already, many times in many times. Thus, a simple definition of what a cliché is clear: a cliché is something you've already seen in a hundred (or more) other poems already. You already know where it's going to go, and what it's supposed to mean. It's as stale as month-old bread. It evokes a yawn.

Having seen it already so many times, allow yourself to become immunized against its effects. Resist being manipulated! The reason many clichés fall flat is precisely because they're so familiar that they just fall lifeless to the floor. Your bored familiarity is actually a useful critical tool: if the poem isn't making you jump up and down, if the poem isn't an experience you are having, right now, then there's a problem—and the problem is often that it's a cliché. If the poem doesn't take you inside itself, so that you feel the poem in your own viscera and cell tissue, then there's a problem. If the poem makes you feel nothing, then the poem is relying on nothing to create nothing. It's already dead.

You can bring it back to life. But you might have to work hard at it. You might have to put some of your own blood into it, to restart its heart. That's what this is all about.

It's all about writing against boredom. This is about writing for life, to give life, to preserve life, to evoke life. It's about refusing to be dead and bored. It's about making art so that you, the artist, feels alive—and chances are, your audience will pick up on that, and feel alive, too.

8. Even certain topics are themselves clichés in poetry: unavoidable, perhaps, because they are part of the human condition, and to write about them is human nature.

But you can avoid being obvious about it. As the saying goes, A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn't. A little gentility can go a long way. A little deflection. A little talking around the subject, rather than bluntly and explicitly stating it.

For example, look at Robert Frost's poem Home Burial. The poem takes place in the aftermath: it never explicitly describes the fact of dying, and mentions the character in the poem who has died only obliquely, as part of the dialogue. The poem is about the effects of death upon the living—which after all, is what all death poetry is about, anyway, and all memorial and funeral services. They're for the living; the dead don't care anymore.

Poetry doesn't have to be as explicit as pornography in tis details. Poetry can suggest, and evoke, and be erotic rather than pornographic. Poetry can be a sharp as a well-focused photograph, and as finely-argued as a brilliant essay. But it can also be a luminous envelope rather than a spotlight. It can suggest rather than explain. Some of the worst poetry is pedantic and lecturing; it hectors you into believing something, trying to convince you against your better judgment. Good poetry can seduce and entice, and lead you on. You don't need to use a bludgeon to get your meaning across.

Clichés are bludgeons. They're like throwing bricks. You can learn to dodge the bricks, and this is how.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Autumn Scenes 2

In late September, I took a week's road trip through northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The purpose of hte road trip was to take photos of the fall colors for an upcoming DVD project. A month later, I drove again to the Twin Cities, and got more good photos along the way. These are only some of the best photos from these trips.

Locations: Devil's Lake State Park, WI; Nicolet National Forest, WI; St. Paul, MN; Upper Peninsula, MI


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In the Blood

Bear Butte, South Dakota

Tassels hung on leather strips, tied with buttons to breast. Soft tanned hide over shoulder and back. Red ties at sleeves. Cone beads ringing. Soot-ink drawings on flaps: buffalo, chased by horses running. Many Kills wore it once: he was warrior. Once we too. Abalone from a sea of water, crossing a sea of grass to get here, and be counted. How many winter counts between the old ones running, and these hung lights. Running at the Knee. Yellow Hair talked fair, but lied. We killed him near the river. Stones there, now, amongst the trees. Crow keep their horse-herds next to that land. Grass dry and brown all winter. Once we were warriors, and leaders of our people. Dark brown at the collar, where Blue Shirt was stuck with a spear, and bled onto the grass.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
—opening paragraph from The Big Sleep

I was browsing in the local thrift store yesterday, in between bouts of hacking cough and sneezing, and stumbled across a re-issue hardcover edition of The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler's first novel, from 1939, I read it all again yesterday, with the same pleasure I always have had, reading it before, and again.

Chandler was not the Great Literary Writer that wrote the Great American Novel—assuming anyone has actually done that yet. He wrote "genre fiction" rather than mainstream fiction—oh, let's call it what the mainstream fiction writers actually would like to call it, but never do: fine art fiction.

Chandler was a populist writer, rather than a "fine art" writer, a prickly person, hard to get along with, opinionated and surly and often self-defeating. He struggled his entire life to make ends meet, did not always treat his wife well, though he professed to love her dearly; and I believe him, because the effect her death had on him was devastating. He was not a perfect man. He no doubt drank too much. Born in Chicago, educated in England, settled in Southern California—which he both loved and hated, for its exquisite beauty and decadent tawdriness. I've been to Chandler's Hollywood, if 60 years late: it's still the same landmarks, the same streets, as shiny and tawdry now as back then. I can walk or drive those streets and feel as if I'm in the car with Marlowe, thinking his thoughts.

I've read every word Chandler ever wrote at least three times, including the sketches and unfinished pieces, whatever I have been able to find. Some of the novels, like The Long Goodbye, I've read more often than that. Chandler's plots were not his strong point: sometimes the plots don't actually make sense, or tie themselves up in tight knots with no loose ends. But then, life is more like that, than it's like an English drawing-room mystery (Christie and her ilk), wherein all the loose ends make sense at the end.

The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.
—Raymond Chandler

In fact, although Chandler has been attacked by literary critics on the weakness of his plots, I wonder if he wasn't slyly commenting via his non-linear plot-schemas on the artificial contrivances of narrative plot within his own genre, the murder mystery. It seems certain that he knew the famous Virginia Woolf quote about why she wrote the way she did: Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

For that matter, the entire hard-boiled detective fiction genre, whose most famous representatives are Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain, shares this tendency towards having plots more messily life-like than neatly logical. Many characters in these novels, even the good guys, are morally ambiguous. The whole film noir genre in film, famously dependent on hard-boiled pulp fiction for its plots and stories and mood, and even its lighting if you get right down to it, sometimes rewrote the endings of the novels, to make them tie up more neatly. That was not always a good choice, because a pat and tidy ending to a story is not always as emotionally resonant an ending that leaves an ambiguous feeling in the reader or viewer. I've never liked the "happy ending" of the Bogart-Bacall version of The Big Sleep, although the rest of the movie is fine, because it reverses the novel's ending for essentially Hollywood star reasons. Hollywood likes happy endings, so it tends to do that sort of thing, which is why real writers don't like it much. Heck, Hollywood even changed the ending of the film version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town to make it a happier ending; so, nothing's sacred, nothing's safe from meddling. The only thing that saves that revised ending in The Big Sleep from ruining the rest of the film is that it features Bogart and Bacall. The remake of The Big Sleep some decades later, set in England and starring Robert Mitchum, preserves the novel's original plot much better, and as a result is a more satisfying movie—even though moving the novel's setting from Los Angeles to London bothered some critics. It doesn't bother me, because otherwise that movie version sticks close to the strengths of the novel itself.

Robert Mitchum, by the way, is the actor who lives indelibly in my own mind as the ultimate Philip Marlowe. I hear his voice in my head whenever I re-read Farewell, My Lovely. I almost always hear his voice as Marlowe's; the only exception being that I can sometimes hear Marlowe's voice in The Big Sleep as Bogart's.

If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.
—Raymond Chandler

The strong points of Chandler's writing are his sense of character, motivation, and mood. No-one describes the mood of Los Angeles' many parts better than Chandler. No one had his turn of phrase. He made the rules, and he broke the mold. Post-Chandler Los Angeles writing always evokes Chandler's voice, in echo if not in fact.

Chandler only wrote seven novels, some short stories, a bit of genuinely insightful non-fiction, and a few screenplays. But his mark on the art of writing in unforgettable, his voice like no one else's.

When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.
—Raymond Chandler

Let me get back to that fine art fiction idea I just came up with. There is a certain snottiness to it, the idea that some fiction is artistic while the rest is not. Of course, in cinema, we have "art-house films" and the rest; so maybe the analogy is apt. Poetry too has become increasingly polarized between populist poetry and "professional" poetry, without a lot of middle ground; the poles there can be exemplified by Maya Angelou writing verse for Hallmark Cards on the one end, and academic professor-poets who write poems no-one but other professor-poets reads, or wants to read. The sort of thing poet-critics and literary-theorists read, and no-one else wants to.

But this is why crappy writing in so-called mainstream fiction ends up on the best-seller lists while much better writing in so-called genre fiction never does: it's already been ghettoized. Even when the quality of the writing in genre fiction is light years better than anything in fine-art-fiction, it gets ignored by the literary critics. Most of the novels that people will recommend to you—because they're fine-art-fiction that has made it to the best-seller list—are not very good reads. Most are written in that bland and boring "no-style" style perfected by journalists and applied to thriller fiction. The ones that are written in more experimental styles, or structures, or formats—fiction that self-consciously wants to be thought of as fine-art-fiction—is in fact mainstream plot with special effects. Very Hollywood; very shallow.

By comparison, the writing in a Chandler novel is so memorable that I want to read it over and over again, every few years, just to relish the turn pithy of phrase, the inventive description, the unusual blend of contemplation and action. Marlowe often pauses for a moment of reflection, even in the midst of action, to make an aside; it could even be a literary aside, or about chess. It is often existential with a hard-boiled post-Camus lyricism unlike anyhting else in literature.

It got darker. The glare of the red neon sign spread farther and farther across the ceiling. I sat up on the bed and put my feet on the floor and rubbed the back of my neck.

I got up on my feet and went over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
—Farewell, My Lovely

Marlowe the detective is a thoughtful thug, a genuinely honest man trying to make a small difference in a corrupt world, and willing to do anything to protect his clients; which also means, as an honest man, that he is often broke, because he refuses dishonest jobs for dishonest clients.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
—from Red Wind (1938)

I want to re-read the Chandler novels for the pure pleasure of the writing. It doesn't matter that I already know the ending—unlike most murder mysteries, wherein knowing who did it, knowing how it all comes out, means you're done, the puzzle is solved, and there's no interest in re-reading the book as literature. So, I read Chandler again, already knowing whodunit, and not caring. The pleasure is in keeping Marlowe's company, hearing him think, hearing him crack wise to another character. This is reading for the pure pleasure of reading good writing.

Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.
—Raymond Chandler

The moment a man begins to talk about technique that's proof that he is fresh out of ideas.
—Raymond Chandler

The motion picture is like a picture of a lady in a half-piece bathing suit. If she wore a few more clothes, you might be intrigued. If she wore no clothes at all, you might be shocked. But the way it is, you are occupied with noticing that her knees are too bony and that her toenails are too large. The modern film tries too hard to be real. Its techniques of illusion are so perfect that it requires no contribution form the audience but a mouthful of popcorn.
—Raymond Chandler

At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.
—Raymond Chandler

An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence.
—Raymond Chandler

The Raymond Chandler Quote of the Week.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

The "Better" Button

Here's a way of working that I've found to be very productive. I've actually used this way of working for years, but hadn't formulated it in quite these terms till recently. (The terminology itself comes from my partners in Liquid Crystal Gallery, Al Jewer and Andy Mitran.)

This way of working involves piling in everything I think I might want in a piece—a Photoshop collage, for example, or a musical composition, or a free-flowing prose-poem—until there is too much material at hand.

Then, I start eliminating chaff. It's the principle of the sculptor who works in marble: you get rid of every bit of the original block of stone that isn't the sculpture.

I delete things that were maybe good ideas in themselves, but aren't going to work here, after all, in the finished piece. I delete layers and side-thoughts that make the piece too cluttered. I delete side-topics and distractions. I shave away parts of an element that distract, or waste space and time, leaving behind only the core image, or core musical theme, or core thought in the poem. I delete, re-arrange, delete some more, and eventually the final piece comes into focus, revealing itself as emergent from the chaos I started with. With a few last touch-ups and polishes, it is done.

That's why we call the Delete key The "Better" Button: every time you use it, the piece gets better.

In poetry, the Better Button is particularly useful during revision. When you're first writing, let it all spew out, as you would in your journal, or in conversation. Then, as you go back through what you have written, start deleting the chaff. Take away everything that distracts. Remove every side-conversation, to intensify the focus on the central core of the piece. Delete all those extra little words that don't add anything, but are just filler. You can usualyl use fewer adjectives; you can almost always remove a few more "the"s and "and"s. Focus and compress. Go for concision. Use the Better Button ruthlessly. If you started with a long poem, and all you have left at the end is a good haiku, that will have been worth every deletion.

This, in essence, is the principle of reducing chaotic complexity and clutter to elegant simplicity. As Saint-Exupéry said, perfection is achieved not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away. You discover structure within chaos; elegant form emerges from clutter. You have to start out with that mess, though, and make a real mess, so that you can clean up and discover the final form within. It usually lets you know on its own, revealing itself as you continue to carve things away.

So, use the Better Button. use it early and often. It's right there on your keyboard, just waiting for you to get to work.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Notes & Quotes at Semi-Random 2

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
—Edith Wharton

This speaks to me about lit critic Harold Bloom's coinage of the anxiety of influence. No Bloom fan myself—in fact, I find most of his reactionary ideas about literature to be antithetical—the phrase sticks in the mind. It is about the confrontation of the modern artist (poet, composer) with his or her percursors, and the strength needed to attain one's own artistic "voice" in the face of the weight of art history.

What Wharton is saying here, though, is that even reflected light is still light, and still spreads light. A good performance is itself an experience: the performer matters as much as the composer, in that moment, because the orchestra brings the piece to life from its place on the page.

The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.
—Samuel Johnson

Not being a devoted fan of Dr. Johnson, the way many English-language writers are (and tell me I should be too), I nevertheless admire many of his comments, as quotes. This is a pithy one. It speaks to creativity as a balm. it speaks to the experience of art as solace. (Which then, for me, immediately calls to mind Scott Joplin's great piano composition, Solace.) It speaks directly to my own life's experience.

Earlier today, I was feeling a little at loose ends. I had just gone out to bring afternoon tea to, and visit with, an elderly friend who is now at home, being cared for by Hospice, and slowly dying of cancer; she and her family are probably experiencing her last few weeks of life. I chose to divert myself by stopping in at the local drugstore, rather than going directly home. As I walked in the door of the drugstore, Chris Isaak's masterful song Wicked Game was playing on the store's music system. The mood of this song, both melancholy and quiet, perfectly suited me. I bought nothing, I didn't even browse, I just stood in the store listening to the song, and left as the last bars played. On deeper levels, the song's message is very dark and bleak, an existential song about loneliness and isolation: but paradoxically it is also about endurance, and in its romantic complaint, it promotes the very things it claims to deny. It matches the mood, for me, of solace, and of Solace.

And so we get to a deep meaning of Dr. Johnson's quote: merely the act of writing, and reading, of art-making or experiencing great art, can help one endure. And endurance, if you know it's endurance, can lead to enjoyment.

To choose against the culture is not merely to disobey; it is to "die." Against what the culture knows is real, true, and good, one has chosen the evil, the false, and the unreal. To be or not to be, that is the question. To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.
—Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (1970)

This is one of those books I keep returning to, for validation, and also for solace. It was written during a turbulent time, and is full of questions about society, self, and meaning. Novak has gone on, since then, in directions I don't agree with, but his early radical books still speak to me. (And I do still read him, even though I usually disagree with him, now, beacuse he's a gifted writer who presents his case brilliantly.)

But this book, The Experience of Nothingness, is a seminal book for me. I have re-read it several times. It speaks to my experience of the dark of the soul, as well to other events in my life.

This particular quote speaks directly to the role of the artist in modern life: most art-makers are, in our commerce-oriented culture, outcasts. Artists who don't "sell out" are unbelievers in the domineering, universal Religion Of Money. they are heretics, untrustworthy, and are often burned at the stake.

To choose against the culture is to experience nothingness.

And yet it is necessary to do so, if to do so you are following where your art leads you. I'm not trying to promote the stereotyped archetype of the Lonely Hero-Artist here, nor the Starving Artist—both are stereotypes I despise. What I'm promoting here is integrity to one's own vision: the guts to stand up for your art, even if it's unpopular. The mere fact that you have become an artist—against all odds, against family and tribal pressures that to this day constantly ask you "When are you going to get a real job?"—is in itself an act of tremendous courage.

Don't sell your courage short by dismissing it as nothing special. To be an artist in this culture is completely necessary, whether or not the mainstream culture admits it, and is an act of integrity and courage, even when it is overlooked. And it is, also, an experience of nothingness: because you'll be on your own, without your Tribe to support you and validate you. Those are things you will have to learn to gain from within.

Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time.
—Thomas Carlyle

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In earnest the mallards rise to the river's surface, and expel. On the sandbar, a clash of quacks and wings, a shrill ruckus that makes four deer wading at the ford pause. A stare, an earflick, then lowered heads drink before long ankles carry them on, white rumps gracefully swaying. Branches of a box elder, falling sideways as the rains erode its root-bound banks, droop over the sandbar. The mallards sleep there on hot afternoons, standing one-legged in the shallows, safe from overhead.

The grass is getting long, now. Leaves fall everywhere, dry green. Two woodchucks, brave and brown, lie on the glade and chaw at blades sawing in the breeze. Everyone pretends the redtail hawk has moved on. The sky's dome is dotted with black dots of sparrows, the woodchucks stay within reach of dense juniper bushes.

Oak branches curve down, black jagged lightning bearing fruit, where the wild turkey flock has just glided down. The day's round will take them foraging, then back here to roost. They fight and call in between bouts of pecking for food. In the evening, cinders zigzag from lower branches to higher, as they settle in.

Deer are silent, never saying much to strangers. They keep their dreams to themselves. You can listen a long time to hear a deer thinking. You must silently stalk them, downwind, remaining still when they look your way, unbreathing. When they look away, inch forward. When you can touch them, fingers brushing fur over spine or flank, and they do not start and run, perhaps then they'll speak to you.

And the eye of the great blue heron watches from its roost across the river. It preens long wing feathers. And the great golden eye orbs slowly in the ambering light. The heron turns to look at you, a long stare that could mean anything, could be a reproach, or a wish. And the great wings spread and flap as the giant neck lunges out. The heron swoops down and levels off above the stream, flying upriver, towards sleep, and dreams of silver-sided trout hovering in a deep riffle at the bend.

a gold maple leaf
the last to fall from its branch—
cicadas, ceasing

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

How Do You Know If a Poem is Good or Bad?

This is probably one of the single most-asked questions. It usually means, especially for poets younger in their art: How do I know that my own poems are any good?

The question is misleading, and opens the door to trouble. Lots of self-appointed critics will try to convince you that their criteria for selection is the one true religion. There are objective criteria, and there are also subjective ones. Beware the authority who insists that their subjective judgment is an objective criteria: they will never give you the whole map, just their tiny corner of it. Always remember that it is much easier to tell if a poem is well-crafted than if it is great.

The truth is: It's an impossible question, with some conditional answers.

But I can tell you how to find all this out for yourself. Here's how:

Read, read, read, read, read, read, read some more, then read. And keep reading.

The more poetry you read, good or bad, the more likely you are to be able to spot something that stands out as great. You are also more likely to learn about clichés and how to avoid them. The more you read, the more you can see what works, and what doesn't. There is no substitute or short-cut for actually reading a lot of poetry. Apprenticeship takes time.

Anyone who claims that all you need to read, in order to write great poems, is their little style manual is lying. They are full of themselves, and wrong. There is no magic bullet.

Each poem is a complete universe, and must be judged on its own terms. Approach it as if you are stepping through a gateway into another world. Dive in, and wade around.

Leave the critical theories at home. If you must read them, read them after you've read the poems. Learning the craft or writing is good, because you need both inspiration and craft, working in harmonious balance, in order to create an outstanding poem. And you can learn a lot about craft just by reading a lot of poems. But do not think that you have arrived at wisdom if all you have studied is craft.

If you want to learn all the linguistic, grammatical and syntactical technical terms in writing, go ahead. But never confuse the trees for the forest. Those tools will help you analyse and understand a poem, and maybe even help you revise one, but they won't help you create one. Never let the tools of analysis dictate what you write; as wonderful as they are, that is not their proper place. If you manage to study the "rules" enough to have internalized them to the point where you don't consciously think about them when writing, all the better. "Learn the rules, forget the rules, break the rules." Which really means, "Transcend the rules."

Remember that academic "creative writing" programs, such as all those shiny new MFAs in poetry, can only teach you analysis and criticism: they are incapable of granting wisdom, or teaching inspiration or vision. They can teach you the tools of analysis, but that's about all they teach. They can help you hone your vision and your voice, if you already have one; but they cannot provide you with one.

I keep returning to what poet Adrienne Rich once said about what poems should do: Instead of being about an experience, a poem should be an experience.

Note that Rich did not say "a poem should move you," or that it's all about feelings. Feelings are only one kind of experience. What she implies is that a poem should pull you all the way into its world for the duration of reading, so that you forget all other words. A poem should be immersive—not only either intellectual or only emotional. It should be a complete experience, in and of itself.

And don't forget to keep reading more poems. If that's all you ever do, that will suffice.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Where Do You Write?

I don't think it matters.

No special place, no rules, no limits.

You write wherever you are, whenever you have to. You write because you must, because the words come forward, demanding to be written down.

When the words come forth, demanding to be transcribed, my discipline has over the years become clear: to be always ready to receive them. I have no preference for location or medium. My practice is just to be ready; that means keeping materials on hand, but I have no strong preference for materials. I practice the warrior's discipline of maintaining constant readiness, to take action at a moment's notice. I do find that portability and lightness of writing materials matters, therefore.

There's lots of places I could list as places I have written, and liked to write in. But it's also true that I travel a lot, for my photography and music work, and can sit and write almost anywhere. A mug of tea at hand is almost more important than location, for setting the mood.

At the moment I'm sitting writing on my laptop, which is on my grandmother's secretary desk which I have inherited, looking out the big picture windows of my late father's house over a huge backyard surrounded by woods, the yard fronting a river with a wooded floodplain on the other bank. Geese and ducks are on the sandbar under the trees in the stream. A few mornings ago, a six point buck sauntered across the open space between wooded lots. Last spring there was a mother deer with two dappled fawns playing in the yard. There's a flock of wild turkeys that roost in my trees every evening, and a group of woodchucks who like to lie on the lawn and chew the grass on sunny days. I've seen redtail hawks and cardinals, and many more kinds of birds, just looking out the window while doing my email. All summer long, several kinds of hummingbirds hovered at my window, briefly looking in, before zooming over to investigate the hanging fuschia plant on the backyard deck. I'm indoors, but it's as if I'm in the woods. I spend a lot of time outdoors, for my photography work, and my camera cases all have notepads and pens in them, just in case.

So, I actually write here at this desk, on the laptop, regularly. But I also write in journals I take on camping trips. I've been known to write on the backs of gas station receipts, after pulling over when a poem came on, and nothing else was handy. One time I was driving, and a storm front was right behind me, chasing me, and a great blue heron flew right in front of the truck, crossing the highway to take shelter in the marsh; I couldn't stop, so I grabbed a fast food receipt and wrote on the back of it, on the steering wheel while driving. (I really try to not do that sort of thing; but that poem was just demanding my attention, right then.) On one occasion, I wrote a poem in the dirt, and took a photo of it to record it. I've drawn ideograms in snow with a stick, brushed them into soil with a pine bough, picked pebbles on a beach to arrange into words.

Different media sometimes bring out different kinds of writing. My laptop is as good a way to write as is my journal, for most things. I do love fine pens, such as fountain pens, and I especially like Japanese calligraphy brush pens. With those brush pens, though, I almost always seem to do haiga or haiku; it seems natural and fitting. These days I always keep a little zippered case with pens, pencils and paper in the truck, and another in my laptop's backpack case. Lately I've been having the urge to draw with colored pencils, and have a set of those in the truck now, too.

Readiness is all. Materials and location are secondary. I almost never set out to write a poem; I just wait for them to come to me, and do my best to be attentive and alert to their arrival, in order to get them down. That means being prepared, at any time, to drop everything and write the poem down. You have to capture it while you can.

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The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles 2

Some further elaborations on the topic of coming up with good titles for one's poems:

I tend to think of titles as integral to the experience of the reading the poem: they're the front door, the front porch, the invitation inside, the first encounter with the poem. The title is, therefore, actually the first line of the poem: it's what gets you to read the rest of the poem. It can be thought of as integrated into the poem, as part of the whole. It can also be thought of as artistic marketing, of course.

I prefer to choose titles that lead into the poem, or give alternate meanings to the poem's body, as though viewed from a slightly different angle. When I'm looking for a title, and feeling stuck, sometimes I pull an evocative phrase out of the body of the poem and move it up to the title (and replacing the line, or not, as I feel called to). I often come up with titles late in the writing process, or even in revision, after the poem's been written. It's atypical, if not completely unknown, for me to come up with the title first, then write the poem on the theme as given by the title.

Reading a poem's title in an anthologoy, if it catches my attention, will intrigue me enough to read the poem. A generic, bland or boring title is far less likely to catch my attention, except (as has been mentioned) in the case of an author whose work I already am familiar with and like; then, I want to see what they've done, regardless of the title, but having a great title still helps.

On the other hand, sometimes a poem is so integrated, so monadic, that I cannot find a title for it that isn't more than a simple repetition or restatement. So I have in fact published poems labeled with that cop-out word "Untitled." Ditto some of my visual artwork.

Maybe this means that a title just hasn't emerged organically from within the poem (or artwork)—yet. But in some cases, years later, it doesn't seem likely it ever will, so I'm stuck with Untitled for the indefinite future.

The poem (and the artwork) knows when it's done, and when it's time to stop working on it, or trying to "fix" it (don't fix what ain't broke), or come up with a brilliant and original title. I tend to listen to what the poem wants. Sometimes the poem tells me it doesn't need a title, or won't say that it does (a subtle difference, if you think about it).

So I must remain content with Untitled poems, at least some of the time. Better that than a boring or bland title.

This may seem inconsistent, but what is really is, is an acceptance of uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery. I don't obsess with coming up with brilliant titles—that's too much like brainstorming in an advertising agency corporate boardroom—I give it my best shot, then let it go. I think any aspect of creative work can become a pathological neurosis, if you take it too far, or try to apply it too universally in an inappropriate manner. There are levels of consistency and congruency, and not all levels exist on the surface, to be superficially examined. As Emerson once wrote, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Emphasis, one imagines, on the word "foolish.")

As for known "name poets," or famous poets, or poets whose work I'm familiar with: even though the name recognition factor might induce me to read their poem, when I'm in the process of reading the poem, I still tend to read it as I read all poems new to me: with as few expectations as possible, as objectively as possible with regard to the elements of craft, and hoping for musicality and those ineffable elements beyond craft. In every case, I want the poem to create an experience for me, to be an experience in its own right, rather than merely tell me about an experience the poet might have had. I want to be invited in, seduced if you will by the poem's creative eros. A great title really opens the door to making that seduction happen.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Ahead of all storms

Gusts stir restlessly in trees, blowing leaves over lawns, silhouetted birds fly across a low cloud shaped like a fish skeleton, that gradually morphs into a starship, gun-metal grey on a light slate background, and swims or flies off east.

Minutes later, sudden calm. The sky, now blue-grey, changes color to an ominous peach-pink, glowing from inner light. And then the front arrives, and it’s a dash for shelter. Clouds hunker down, glower at the greening. Thunder comes too soon after the strobe.

skies bruised with torrents
push the flood hard uphill,
past sheltering wasps


The storm, in the mythology of bees, is the wet disrupter, long waster of flight time, obliterator of scent trails. To the birds, it’s falling sky shaking the perch, knocking heads and berries down. To groundhogs, who give up munching grass to scurry for burrows, it's the bland interrupter; it cannot reach into home, warm damp dark home, crossroads of earthworms. The deer speak nothing, as usual.

the first squall passes,
steadying down to grey sheets—
nearby, unseen songs

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Notes towards an egoless poetry 12: Changes

I wrote recently that I have been noticing a change in my creative output since I have gone through this past year of full-time caregiving, PTSD, my father's death, the aftermath, and the ongoing grief process. I don't desire to dwell on it, yet it is much on my mind, partly because I am noticing that the poetry I am writing since the life-changing events of the past two years has been like nothing I have written before—and partly because, without intending to, I have generated a great deal of controversy with this new poetry. These new poems, still few in number as I have not been able to write mmuch at all lately, are in forms and styles new to me, and though it all feels very organic, it's all very new. I am working without any roadmap, creatively. All the old maps are incomplete—or simply useless. I can't rely on the old maps: I can only grope forwards.

At the same time, I have been encouraged to hear, in conversations with other artists who have been through similar life-changing events in recent years, that this is not unusual. It has happened before, it will happen again. I claim no unique or special qualities. i am not alone, even, in noticing the changes.

It is something that happens naturally: you have changed, the way you make art will also change.

In contemplating these changes, I feel that the fact of them underlines the truth that we make art out of very inner selves—those of us to whom making art is as necessary as breathing. It reminds us that art-making is integral, core, an issue of central identity, is central to self.

Conversely, one cannot help but wonder if, when an artist goes through major life-changing experiences and their art does not change, that their art-making may not be as deeply integrated into their selves. This gets to motivation. There are, after all, artists who use their art-making to conceal themselves form the world—and from themselves. There are also artists who take pride in their art having no connection to themselves, but existing as an entirely non-organic, non-personality-based material. I hesitate to suggest that such artists might be working from a more superficial place, but I can't deny the possibility. I am not referring to the art that appears in states of egoless meditation or contemplation, or from the emptying of the self. I am referring, rather, to that art that is all about concealment, subterfuge, automatism, game-playing, and deceit—and there is a great deal of contemporary poetry that falls into all of those latter categories.

It's very hard, for example, not to view some of Jackson Mac Low's computer-language-based poetry generators as gimmicks rather than genuine inspirations. Mac Low famously worked with chance methods in text/poetry generation—but so did John Cage. Some of Mac Low's experiments are interesting to look at, but some of them parse out as simple tricks: once you solve the puzzle of how he generated the text, the "poem" becomes a dead thing with no life to it. It becomes a solved puzzle, to be set aside. It's hard not to view that kind of art-making process, used that way, as sleight-of-hand, or intellectual games theory, rather than as integral art-making. It is perfectly possible to use the same tools in the same ways as Mac Low used them, and generate something much more like a real poem, and much less like a puzzle-box. (Cage's mesostics stand as proof of that comparison.)

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between depth in creativity, and superficiality in art. (In my opinion, it also summarizes the difference between Cage's briliant inventive depths and Mac Low's usual gimmickry.)

If we are to pursue an egoless poetry, that doesn't mean a poetry that is devoid of life, of breath, of visceral engagement. It doesn't mean a poetry unconnected to experience or embodiment. It certainly doesn't imply that poetry should intellectual games with words—which is the main problem with most so-called Language Poetry: once you figure out the gimmick, the chase is over, and the interest wanes. Once you know the trick, it's hard to take the illusionist seriously.

At that point, any judgments about the quality of the artwork must come to depend entirely on what the artist does with the gimmick, and not at all about the "gee whiz!" factor of the gimmick itself. Far too many artists, including many "schools" of contemporary post-modern poetry don't understand that: they have remained too fascinated with the gimmick itself, as a tool, and have not graduated to making actual art by using the tool. By using the tool as just another tool in the tool-kit, neither more special nor inherently valid or valuable than any other tool in the tool-kit. To elevate any one tool above all others, except in a way that is personally relevant to the artist's individual process and style, is to confuse the tools with the creative act itself. Furthermore, this very levelling of value-judgments is the very root and method of post-modernism itself; thus, to claim to be a post-modern artist whose tools are better than everyone else's is to be inherently self-contradicting. It's impossible to take such absurd assertions seriously.

This mistake, in regarding the tool itself as inherently more valuable than other tools, is precisely what lies at the root of the continuous (and boring) argument between formalist poetry and more formally organic poetry, including free verse and its prosodic cousins. There are deep psychological motivations at the root of the continuous outcry against "chaos" and "formlessness," whenever such outcries occur, that are about insecurity and fear. In terms of poetry and egolessness, the ego is always the generator of fear of chaos, because what lies at the root of that is the ego's fear of its own dissolution, its own apparent death. It's quite amusing, at times, to read the heated rhetoric when formalists attack free verse: they have no coherently logical argument to make, because at root their argument is a moral one. This is why such arguments often quickly devolve to personal attacks, or attempts to shout down the opponent by sheer volume—these are the last refuges of rhetoric that has no real argument to stand on. (If they were honest enough to admit that their argument was moral prejudice, one could accept that; instead, they usually try to cloak their moral outrage with a facade of reason. It never works.

I am reminded, when I think about how artists can confuse the tools with the creative act itself, of those heady days in the early 1980s in popular music, when analog synthesizers with keyboards were first discovered by rock musicians. We got a great deal of "gee whiz! look what I can do!" music at that time—a lot of it very bad—and it took awhile before synthesizers became viewed as just one more available instrumental timbre among many others. When the glow of novelty had faded, and the "gee whiz!" factor had also faded, it was only then that genuine, original, good, profound music began to be made with synthesizers in pop music. The same process happened somewhat later with samplers. The same process is going on right now with software-synthesizers, and with all the new digital software compositional, audio recording and editing tools; tools that allow anyone sitting in their living room to compose, record, and release a complete album, entirely on their own, without the necessity or intervention of the recording industry. This is a process of the decentralizaion of the distribution channels: the same recording artists can also completely bypass the intermediaries, and sell directly to their audience, via the internet and similar technologies.

The music industry paradigm is, right now, changing, and the big record companies (those who pay the fees of the lawyers who work as lobbyists for the RIAA) are very upset about it. They exemplify the fear of dissolution and loss of control that the ego feels when it can no longer understand or direct everything that happens in life. The solid ground begins to liquify and move unpredictably, panic sets in, and desperation. That is precisely when people begin to lash out in fear and hatred. Xenophobia, fear of the Unknown, is always about fear of change, fear of the loss of known "truths," and, ultimately, fear of personal mortality. Most of the (neo-)conservative arguments in the arts reduce to simple "Change back!" messages: messages to return to some imagined golden age (that never was), when the rules were simple and clear, and everyone knew their place.

The way to get through big changes in life is not to grip ever more tightly to the old paradigms, the old ways of doing things. The way to survive these big life changes is to embrace them, to let go of any pretense of control, and surf the wave as it breaks, no matter where it goes.

An egoless poetry embraces fluidity and change, because it realizes that change is the only universal constant. An egoless poetry does not try to stop or control change.

This is why those loudest voices for purely formalist poetry exemplify inflated egos in their critiques of non-formal poetry. You can see it in their rhetoric and language. You can see that they have a big stake in forcing a particular outcome of the argument between formalist and non-formalist poetry. You can see that they care a very great deal that they are proved to be In The Right—and everyone else wrong. These are all signs and symptoms of ego inflation.

An egoless poetry deflates the personality-ego of the artist, rather than enhances it. An egoless poetry is not about continuously celebrating the self in these superficial, clever ways. It does not demand the death of the self. It merely requires the ego to retain its proper and necessary place in all things, and not let itself become more and more inflated by pride, prejudice, and fear.

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