Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Unprinted Books

(Re-)reading a slim little book this morning, The Gospel According to Zen, I came across a couple of passages regarding poetry and creativity that seem important to pass on. *

There has been a lot of turbulence on Poetryworld lately. Probably no more infighting than usual, but I find I have no taste for it, no interest in definitively establishing who's right and who's wrong—if that's even possible, which I doubt. There is much heat, and little light.

In the midst of all this, I picked up this little book to re-read at random, and the book fell open to the following passage, which seems so incredibly relevant to the state of poetry, and creativity in general, at the present time:

Men know how to read printed books; they do not know how to read the unprinted ones. They can play on a stringed harp, but not on an stringless one. Applying themselves to the superficial instead of the profound, how should they understand music or poetry?
—from R.H. Blyth, ed., Haiku, Vol. 1

What this makes me think of is the artless art, the sublime numinous experience that lies behind the poem, and is both source and cause of its making, and if the poem is well-made, the numinous recreated in the reader, in their own soma and out of their own experience. That is real connection.

The argument is made by some poets that poetry is the highest artform of all because it most closely approaches this form of near-telepathic connection between writer and reader. Certainly poetry is capable of achieving that. But saying therefore that makes poetry the "highest" artform is a leap, because that assumes that other artforms are not capable of the same level of near-telepathic connection, which demonstrably they are.

A similar argument is made, following up on that idea, that because poetry is capable of such near-telepathic connections, it is therefore the most abstract artform of all, which of course means it is also the pinnacle or highest of all artforms.

That doesn't follow at all. It isn't even logical.

Poetry is made of words. I will grant you that poetry is the pinnacle verbal artform. But it is not more abstract than music or dance, which use no words at all.

No words are as short and compact as one note expressively played on a violin. Words are never as abstract as wordlessness, just as silence is more abstract than noise.

This is all rationalization. It doesn't really matter, of course.

But this is typical of artists in all artforms, when they talk about their artforms, and compare them to other artforms. All poets say poetry is the highest artform, all dancers say dance is the highest artform, all musicians say music is the highest artform, architects say the same thing about architecture, painters say the same thing about painting, and so on and on.

This Artform Vs. Artform Deathmatch Championship is absurd, because comparisons between "the greatest" are only valid to a point when you're talking apples and oranges and lemons: they're all fruit, but they're all different enough varieties of fruit that comparisons only take you partway to the truth. We can all have our opinions and beliefs about what the greatest artform is, or could be, but they're not much more than that. You'll never convince a dancer that poetry is a higher artform than dance. Maybe if you teach the poet to become a dancer, and the dancer to become a poet, they might have some genuine common ground for comparison, but without that somatic experience, comparison is a mental/verbal game, and not much more than that. In fact, because it's a verbal game, it's limited by its medium. If you want to pursue truisms that point out the weakness and uselessness of words in many situations, one need only cite the hoary clichés Actions speak louder than words or I was struck speechless by your lies.

The Buddha's flower sermon was conducted entirely in silence, and was one the most profound teachings ever transmitted by any spiritual teacher.

Opera was considered the highest artform for centuries in Western culture, because it combines music, lighting, words, theatrical presentation (drama and acting), stage design (visual artwork), and is a time-binding narrative artform the same way plays and movies are. That's a fairly convincing argument, because opera is a multi-media artform. A multi-artform artform in which all the other artforms are subsumed within it to create a larger synergistic whole. The nearest thing to that in contemporary arts, that is not opera per se, is performance art, especially as it is practiced by artists such as Laurie Anderson.

In songwriting, poetry (words, if not poetry) are one element that combine with other elements to create a larger synergistic whole. That's an argument sometimes used by songwriters to claim their artform is the greatest. The truth is, most song lyrics are not poetry per se, and cannot stand on their own without the music that both enhances and contextualizes them. Most song lyrics do not succeed when read on the page, or spoken out loud as poems, rather than sung. This truth points out the fallacies behind the cult of Bob Dylan being a great poet: he is indeed a great songwriter, but he is not a great poet. Poetry has to be able to function successfully without the music, and also on the page. (The entire spoken word/performance poetry vs. printed poetry deathmatch is another bit of absurdity. A poem needs to work both on the page and read aloud.)

So, you can argue this a lot of ways. Most of them are convincing, at least on some levels, and most of them are rationales for saying that whatever artform you yourself practice is the greatest of them all. This reduces to self-justification, for the most part.

You'll never convince dancers that poetry is a higher artform than dance. They know better. And, within the context of the artform that they are practicing—dance—they're right.



Authority prevents the understanding of oneself, does it not? Under the shelter of an authority, a guide, you may have temporarily a sense of security, a sense of well-being, but that is not the understanding of the total process of oneself. Authority in its very nature prevents the full awareness of oneself and therefore ultimately destroys freedom; in freedom alone can there be creativeness. There can be creativeness only through self-knowledge. Most of us are not creative; we are repetitive machines, mere gramaphone records playing over and over again certain songs of experience, certain conclusions and memories, either our own or those of another. Such repetition is not creative being—but it is what we want. Because we want to be inwardly secure, we are constantly seeking methods and means for this security, and thereby we create authority, the worship of another, which destroys comprehension, that spontaneous tranquility of mind in which alone can there be creativeness.
—from J. Krishnamurti, in The First and Last Freedom

This speaks to me of the ongoing discussion, of which I have played a part, in what's wrong with online poetry, and how the situation might be improved. (The essay that triggered this discussion can be read here, a lot of the suggestions for what can be done to improve online poetry are to be found in the comments thread. This discussion has also rippled out across cyberspace, and has been discussed on many online poetry-related fora and blogs, etc.) The discussion has resolved into some profound questions about the usefulness of moderation and administration for online poetry workshops, and how policing the masses can interfere with a poet's growth, in that context. The poet deserves the chance to fail, without interference, or succeed.

Krishnamurti goes on with some general comments about creativity:

Surely our difficulty is that most of us have lost this sense of creativeness. To be creative does not mean that we must paint pictures or write poems and become famous. That is not creativeness—it is merely the capacity to express an idea, which the public applauds or disregards. Capacity and creativeness should not be confused. Capacity is not creativeness. Creativeness is quite a different state of being, is it not? It is a state in which the self is absent, in which the mind is no longer a focus of our experiences, our ambitions, our pursuits, and our desires. Creativeness is not a continuous state, it is new from moment to moment, it is a movement in which there is not the "me," the "mine," in which the thought is not focused on any particular experience, ambition, achievement, purpose, and motive. It is only when the self is not that there is creativeness—that state of being in which alone there can be reality, the creator of all things. But that state cannot be conceived or imagined, it cannot be formulated or copied, it cannot be attained through any system, through any philosophy, through any discipline; on the contrary, it comes into being only through understanding the total process of oneself.

The understanding of oneself is not a result, a culmination; it is seeing oneself from moment to moment in the mirror of relationship—one's relationship to property, to things, to people, and to ideas. But we find it difficult to be alert, to be aware, and we prefer to dull our minds by following a method, by accepting authorities, superstitions, and gratifying theories; so our minds become weary, exhausted, and insensitive. Such a mind cannot be in a state of creativeness. That state of creativeness comes only when the self, which is the process of recognition and accumulation, ceases to be; because, after all, consciousness as the "me" is the center of recognition, recognition is merely the process of accumulation of experience. But we are all afraid to be nothing, because we all want to be something. The little man wants to be a big man, the unvirtuous wants to be virtuous, the weak and obscure crave power, position, and authority. This is the incessant activity of the mind. Such a mind cannot be quiet and therefore can never understand the state of creativeness.


Krishnamurti is describing both the state of meditation, I believe, and the state of egolessness in which creative force moves most freely. You have to get your self out of the way so that the Self can emerge. When you learn to get out of your own way, sometimes what emerges seems much larger than oneself; and it often is. It's something larger than the little me that gets up in the morning, pays the bills, and wants to eat a good meal. It, when it emerges, is something much larger—perhaps something transpersonal, something cosmic, or something mythic. It is this aspect of the larger Self with which we co-create, when we create, when we are being creative; that is why this kind of creative force is not limited to known artforms, but can show up anywhere.

————

* This is one those slim little anthologies of collected wisdom that were popular as paperbacks when it was first published. The full title is The Gospel According to Zen: Beyond the death of God, edited by Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr (Signet/Mentor, 1970). The blurbs on the cover tell about the book more directly than I can:

An extraordinarily ecumenical collection of readings in the new consciousness of post-Christian man. . . .

At the living heart of both Christianity and Zen lies a single, luminous perception: Whether it is called Satori or Salvation, it is nothing less than the perfect knowledge of God. This unusual book brings together the most enlightening parables, riddles, and poems of East and West, to explore and illuminate this "new consciousness" that is thrusting modern religious thought beyond theology.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have nothing especially profound to add to your post but I'd just like to say that I agree totally. It's tiresome how much time people waste on this one-upmanship lark. I can't help but think of how fed up Beckett became with words over the years, how inadequate they increasingly proved to be. You talk about the best poetry providing moments of clarity where you get to see into the mind of the poem's author and yet that same work can be murky and unapproachable to someone else. There is no perfect means of communication, not yet. I wonder if telepathy would even be it. If it was then that would mean there was only one answer to a poem or a painting or a cello concerto and what a boring place the world would be if that was the case.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Jim.

Following up on your "one answer" comment, I agree with it in spirit. I far prefer art that presents more than one interpretation, because nuance and layered meaning adds resonance and depth to the aesthetic experience. If all art had only one meaning to decode—actually I reject the very notion that art is something meant to be decoded—then it would be engineering, not art.

10:29 PM  

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