Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Zen of Poetry, The Poetry of Zen

I stand here and watch the people of this world:
all against one and one against all,
angry, arguing, plotting and scheming.
Then one day, suddenly, they die.
And each gets one plot of ground:
four feet wide, six feet long.
If you can scheme your way out of that plot,
I'll set the stone that immortalizes your name.

—Han Shan, 8th century, translated by J.P. Seaton

The Poetry of Zen
Translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P Seaton
Shambhala, 2007.

A review.

This is an important anthology to have, right now, not only because it contains many poems new to readers familiar with either Zen or Asian poetics in general, but because this collection focuses the traditions of poetry through the lens of Zen Buddhism. The book contains fresh translations of a wide variety of Chinese and Japanese poems, respectively translated by Seaton and Hamill, both of whom are experienced translators of this material. Many of the poets included are not specifically Zen poets, or even Buddhist, but their poetry, the translators argue, contains the spirit of Zen. These are not didactic poems for the most part, poems that monks and abbots wrote as teaching literature; rather, included here are numerous poems that express the Zen moment, and the haiku moment, the moment of clarity, of clear light in the mind, that moment when poetry best expresses experience, and all other language fails.

The poets included range from those already associated with Zen, to many poets new and less familiar to even the knowledgeable reader. We find here Han Shan, Basho, Saigyo, Issa, Ryokan, Ikkyu, and Wang Wei. But we also find Li Po and Tu Fu, Yuan Mei, Su Tung-po, Dogen, and Sosei, among many others. The anthology begins with a few lines from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, which is appropriate, as Ch'an Buddhism, or Zen, arose in China from the encounter between Buddhism, brought from India, and the native Taoist ideas. Zen has always been more Taoist than Confucianist, more nature-inspired than bureaucratically-aligned.

What truly intrigues me about the poems Hamill and Seaton have brought to the table, however, is the overt demonstration of the paradox of using poetry to talk about the unspeakable. Basho insisted that poetry is a do, a tao, a Way; his insistence upon the Way, and its clarity, is one reason that some haiku scholars claim that haiku began and ended with Basho. (Issa is the exception that proves the rule.) A generous sampling of Hamill's lucid translations of Basho's haibun and haiku are present in this book, demonstrating again how central Zen study was to Basho's thinking.

The paradox itself lies in that realm between language and the inexpressible, between the realization of the clear mind in which all language falls away as one aspect of the illusory nature of reality, and the troublesome necessity of using language to convey the experience, to communicate it, to pass it on to others, to teach or demonstrate it.

Without beginning,
utterly without end,
the mind is born
to struggles and distresses,
and dies—and that is emptiness.

—Ikkyu Sojun, 15th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

This idea of emptiness and non-verbal silence in poetry is one I regularly find myself working with in my own poems, which often seem to hover on that edge where words become wordlessness. It is a central issue to my own work and thought about poetry, and I feel a kinship to these ancient poets in this anthology who have struggled with the same approaches, the same insights, and the same failures. So I am reading The Poetry of Zen in part as a discussion among poets about the limitations of words, about the limitations of their own art, and about the paradox of using words to talk about experiences that remain unsayable and essentially wordless. I believe this is a valid reading of this anthology because both Seaton and Hamill explicitly discuss the issue in their separate introductions to the Chinese and Japanese poetry sections.

In the general Preface to the anthology, furthermore, Hamill makes some very thoughtful points:

Since its inception, Zen has had a paradoxical relationship with literature, especially as regards translation and poetry. . . . The Buddha asked his disciples to translate his teachings into all the languages and dialects of his native India. Those teachings (sutras) contained allegorical tales, anecdotes, recorded conversations, and ritual verses. Even at the beginning of Buddhism, poetry was an essential aid to understanding.

Poetry was not only a didactic teaching tool. Like allegory, poetry was used as way of short-circuiting the usual habits of thinking by startling or shocking them into insight. The koan, or teaching paradox used in some varieties of Zen, is often highly poetic in nature if not always in form. The main thrust of Zen, though, is often anti-language. Many of the greatest Zen masters, such as Hui Neng, advocated "just sitting" as the central practice of attaining enlightenment. As Hamill continues:

Zen practice is eminently simple and profoundly rigorous. All the questions of being are called forth. There is no escape into faith. "In your heart, you already know." [Hui Neng] The tenth-century Zen master Pen-hsien reminded his followers not to depend too much on sutras or koan study. "If you really want to get to the truth of Zen, get it while walking, while standing, while sleeping or sitting . . . while working." Only then, he says, can one begin to define what doctrines are actually being followed.

There is a strain in contemporary poetry (strain is the right word, because the poetry produced often feels strained) that emphasizes the personality-ego "I" of the poet, and there is another strain that foregrounds (or privileges, to use the post-modern rhetoric) language itself. The latter tacitly claims to be anti-meaning and anti-narrative poetry, even aleatoric; the former tacitly argues for self-expression, self-depiction, and autobiography. Neither of these poetries seem to believe in any poetry but their own styles and coteries; both are profoundly inward-looking and ultimately self-regarding. In the end, both of them emphasize the personality-self in different ways, and both tacitly regard the poet herself or himself as heroic. The archetype of the lone hero-poet, a deeply post-Romantic image, runs rampant through most such strains of contemporary poetry. And the method and defense of these poetries has become highly intellectualized and argumentative.

In many ways The Poetry of Zen is the complete antagonist of these poetries; albeit a gentle antagonist, one that does not make manifestos or proclaim laws of poetics. Instead, many of the poems in The Poetry of Zen address the problems around the poetic ego obliquely, by pointing off towards ego-transcending alternatives. (Which have always been available, one notes; it's perhaps the dominance of the psychological narrative-insight coupled with the heroic-poet archetype in Western culture that has led us astray).

Now a cuckoo's song
carries the haiku master
right out of this world

—Matsuo Basho, 17th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

Who says my poems are poems?
They aren't poems at all.

Only when you understand my poems aren't poems
can we talk poetry.

—Ryokan, 18th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

This is a bracing tonic, that if genuinely absorbed by contemporary poets writing in English could completely change their goals and methods. The poetry of Zen is profoundly anti-egotistical and anti-rhetorical while having a deep understanding of the foibles of human psychology; it de-emphasizes the heroic ego and seeks "no-mind" in the sense that the mind's ceaseless self-regard might become still. It seeks to point at the moon, rather than talking about pointing at the moon. Hamill continues later on:

In the thirteenth century, Ch'ih-chueh observed, "The failure of the Zen path comes from teachers without deep attainment just setting forth sayings and showing off knowledge to capture students, and from students with no great aspiration just following popular fads and current customs, content to sink themselves in the domain of intellectual knowledge and verbiage. . . . The 'teachers' and 'students' bewitch each other." As regards "verbiage," Yueh-lin observed, "Ninety percent accuracy is not as good as silence."

These are provocative ideas. The comments about fads and customs, about intellectual knowledge and verbiage, strike me as highly relevant to the contemporary poetry scene(s), which is all about intellectual bewitchment. Yueh-lin's observation is directly relevant to aspiring poets, whose aim at targets of form, meaning, content, and style often miss the mark: Ninety percent accuracy is not as a good as silence.

On Running into the Taoist Master "In Emptiness"

So, say my way differs from yours.
We both have old men's hair and beards.
They say words can kill faith.
I like to arrange spring blossoms in a rough old funeral jar.

—Kuan Hsiu, 8th century, trans. by J.P. Seaton

Now we come to the paradox: If it can't be said in poetry, why bother to write at all? As Hamill phrases the question:

If the essence of Zen is not to be found in words, why so much poetry in the Zen tradition? The use of poetry goes back to the very roots of Indian traditions, as well as to Chinese roots. In the birth of Zen, two poems play a particularly important role. Shen-hsiu, the great Ch'an master of the Northern school, wrote a verse:

This body is the Bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror.
Polish it and keep it clean,
let no more dust settle there.

Hui Neng write a verse in reply:

There is no Bodhi tree.
No bright mirror exists.
Since all is emptiness,
where could a dust mote settle?

(This teaching story using poems to tell the truth of Zen has echoed down the centuries. John Cage retold a version of the story, for example, in his lecture-performance text Indeterminacy.)

Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose. It was used for argument, description, ceremony, memorialization, and some were even koans—"cases" for meditation. Poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of a moment's experience. Ninety-nine percent accuracy in poetry is not as good as silence. A good poem says more than the sum of its words, leading the reader into the practice of understanding the great unsaid that is contained, framed in a poem's rhythms, words, and silences. In these ways, poetry opens the mind. "The mind is Buddha!" Hui Neng declares. All of this makes poetry an excellent aid to practice. The same might be said of poetry in the Bible.

Here is the essence at last. Why do we pursue the Way of poetry knowing all along it will fail us? Why does the paradox of wordless wordiness continue to come into being?

Because poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of the momentary experience. Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose—or would take much longer to say. The paradox of poetry, not only Zen poetry although perhaps it takes a reading of Zen poetry to arrive at this insight, is that poetry is always "moves upon silence," as Yeats wrote in Long-Legged Fly. Poetry always contains in it an echo of silence, an awareness that there is a layer of silence somewhere in the poem, waiting for the voice to still itself and come to rest. A good poem is a synergy, a sum of more than its parts; its parts are words and images and language, but a poem transcends those elements to become an embodied experience: if the poem succeeds, the reader may inhabit the experience from the inside. That poetry opens the mind, that it leads to revelation and insight, is the core of Basho's belief that poetry is a Way in itself, a path to enlightenment.

This is the balance-point of the paradox. It is what, in my own poetry, I keep returning to, in attempt after attempt to scale the mountain wall of words to arrive at that paradoxical balance-point where words meet silence. The Zen of Poetry in its paperback edition is, fortunately, small enough in physical size that I may carry it with me on my journeys, and consult it regularly. I will no doubt continue to seek a poetry of silence, and this anthology of Zen poets will no doubt serve as a traveler's guide for the journey. (May it serve you as well. Nine bows!)

I return again and again to the edge where words melt into wordlessness. Why bother to write poetry at all? There remains in every poet a need to find a way to express the inexpressible, as worn-down and hollow as that way might be.

This poor grass-roofed hut
of old brushwood may sound
miserable, but
I very quickly found it
altogether suiting my taste.

—Saigyo, 12th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Teaching Myself to Draw 2

This afternoon, I was sitting at the table talking to one of my best friends, who was visiting for the weekend from out-of-town. I picked up one of the clipboards lying around and put a piece of paper on it to take notes on our conversation, but as he went out to his car for a minute to get something, I started to draw. I thought maybe I'd doodle something, then take notes, maybe make a sketch of something small in a corner of the page. By the time he got back, an entire drawing was mostly sketched in, and that sheet of paper, of least, would never be used for taking notes. I worked rapidly, and continued to look at and add to the drawing as we sat and talked for another hour. In an hour, the drawing was done. I've looked at it a few more times during the afternoon, but feel like there's nothing more to add. It's loose, sketchy, evocative, rapidly executed, and probably more expressionistic than I currently know.

As I have said before, I like it when I just sit down to start a drawing, and it's done quickly. I'm not one for drawings that take days to finish—at least, not yet, not in my current stage of learning. I like doing drawings that I can get done in just a day. I would like to try some drawings based on photo images, and see where that leads. It will no doubt be good practice in selecting which details of a scene to emphasize, and which to leave out: art is often about leaving out unnecessary details, so the main subject can be brought into focus. Photography is that way, too, although it seems a lot of non-photographer visual artists often mistakenly assume that a photograph is supposed to include everything.

Today I started, as I often seem to do lately, with a circle. Sketched the edges. Made some rough forms. I am attracted to circles and spirals. I am primarily inspired by natural settings in my photography and now that I'm learning to draw with colored pencils I find myself starting with circles. Sometimes it's the moon, sometimes the sun, sometimes a circle of rocks or a void inside an old tree-trunk. I start with a circle, and the drawing reveals what it wants to be.

Circle forms have a history in my artwork. I often am drawn to them in photography, and even more often when making landscape art pieces. I practice drawing enso whenever I get out my Japanese calligraphy brushes. Sometimes these turn into drawings; more often they are just enso, and occasionally become what Paul Reps called Zen Telegrams. Sometimes they become haiga.

I started making some long strokes in abstract shapes around the circle I had started with, and the next thing I knew, I was drawing an image of high thin clouds scudding rapidly over a dark sky, partly revealing and partly obscuring the moon. The color palette for this particular image is dominantly purples and blues of various tones blended together, overlapping, interfingering, interlacing. Layers of thin pigment using light pressure, the pencil turned to the side so that the edge of the lead makes a wide stroke.

This is an intuitive process. I realize that it is similar to the intuitive processes that dominate my artistic process in other media, such as poetry and music. I often do not know where I am going when I first start out. But you have to start somewhere. You start with a single line. The next thing you know, a form emerges. Once you know what the form wants to be, you develop other forms nearby, and the drawing emerges. This is not pre-planned. It emerges organically as I go. You have to start somewhere, to fill the page's blank void. One stroke will do. Starting with a circle gives me an anchor-point.

This intuitive process itself is what separates the making of a piece of art from just doing a study, an étude or practice drawing. An actual artwork (quality of execution is another matter) comes from this need to draw (or write, etc.). The need is there, and the piece wants to come out. It demands attention. It's almost never something i set out to do beforehand, and planned to do; the things I set out to do are usually practice-pieces, or études, not finished pieces; they might give me some good insights and skills practice, but I rarely think of them as finished pieces. It always seems to happen this way for me in poetry; it's interesting that it's started to happen this way in drawing as well. The "feel" of the process is similar. Also as in poetry, I make no claims as to the quality of what is produced: it could still be merely a sketch, a basic idea that later needs revision and reworking, before it becomes an actual artwork.

My visiting friend, who knows much of my artwork and my process, commented that as usual I was following my intuition, as I do in many arenas of life, not least of them the spiritual. His comment gave the drawing its title: Intuition (moon and high clouds).

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Windows & Doors

No words. Just views into other worlds.


Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 2: The Inner Compass

As an artist one must, eventually, develop an inner compass. And one must learn to trust one's own internal compass.

The upshot of receiving both praise and vilification of one's artwork is the realization that all flavors of critique do, at least in part, reflect their giver, rather than the artwork being critiqued. it is never possible to be completely objective, or to entirely divorce personal taste from the occasion or critique—which does not mean that one should give up any attempts towards attaining greater objectivity than one currently possesses. I've never advocated total subjectivity: I believe that dead-ends in solipsism. I believe that striving for objectivity is necessary. But I've also never said that striving for objectivity was an attainable goal. It's absurd to believe that one can ever attain that: nevertheless the impossibility of the attempt is one very good reason to undertake it. If we only ever did what we thought was possible, the species would have died out long ago. Attaining the impossible is required. It's just that one has no illusions about thinking one can ever, finally, arrive there.

The inner compass carries the artist through times of turbulence and shadow, wherein nothing seems to make sense, one's sense of direction is otherwise lost, and one is buffeted by turbulence from all sides. This can refer to criticism that supports the artwork just as much as it can to criticism that rejects it. Both can be deadly, if one has no center, in oneself. The inner compass requires self-confidence and self-esteem. A lack of either of these can get the artist stuck with an inflated sense of one's own worth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an equally false belief that one has nothing at all worth saying.

When reading critique, always CTS: Consider The Source.

It is helpful to remember that even the very best critics can be wrong. Critics almost never realize how much of themselves they are revealing; the wisest critics do realize to an extent, and don't mind being so self-revealing. Oscar Wilde once quipped: The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Of course Wilde also said: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic. And this is true: the art is always moving ahead of the criticism, as is just and proper. Theory follows praxis, always.

I wrestle with both the rejection and the embracing of my artwork by critics. I've had a recent poem or two that have developed camps both for and against—actually, I get that regularly, but what's interesting in terms of this discussion is how the camps flip in their opinions based on the content and style of the poem itself. It's become clear to me that, at least with regards to what I'm writing right now, that the comments both pro and con have really nothing to do with me or my writing, and everything to do with what people think my writing should be. Even a well-meant comment that tries to tell me what is going on inside my own mind can be so off-target as to be laughable.

The truth is, nothing has changed in my creative process as a result of criticism: I still make art, I still write poems, and they still come out the way they want to come out, which is not necessarily how everyone else would like them to come out. Or even how I might like them to come out. I will continue to make art in just this way, not always knowing what the heck I'm doing. My best work is often a surprise to me, too, not just to you.

Nothing should change in my creative process just because of a critique: being able to maintain a steady course despite either praise or rejection is one mark of a steady inner compass. Neither praise nor rejection should be able to rock you, or throw you off-course. Of course, no one is always impervious, and we all have days of weakness, when we let things get under our skin, for good or ill. One simply tries to minimize the impact of that on oneself, and keep one's center aimed onwards.

When you let the outside world tell you who you are, and judge you as either fit or unfit, you are giving away everything in you that makes you an artist and person. The outer world can never tell you who you are. Other people can only tell you who they think you are, or who they would like you to be—always consider the source, and always be aware of the possibility of hidden agendas. (Hidden agendas are not de facto evil, or even wrong; but they can be driven by unconscious desires that have nothing to do with you, or with your artwork.)

Demanding that I conform to rules that have been established even by my own prior work is an attempt to keep me (or any artist) locked into a straightjacket of conformity and expectation built on previous work: it denies the possibility of growth. To grow is to risk, and to risk is to occasionally fail; to fail is to grow, if one can learn from one's mistakes. I am more than happy to make artistic blunders and failures, because it means I'm really onto something. it may be, in the end, a blind alley or dead-end. Still you cannot know that until you have gone down that road and tried it on for fit.

This truth is what lies behind Cocteau's comment that We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar. The demand that an artist endlessly reproduce him or herself, rather than evolve and change, is one meaning that Ralph Waldo Emerson evoked when he commented that A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Just as in chaos theory, in which higher forms of order may lurk behind fields of seeming chaos, higher levels of consistency may lurk behind an artist's apparently scattershot and widely-strewn attention.

If ever there was a demonstration of the arbitrariness of taste in criticism—even among those who would claim objectivity in their critique, and who occasionally achieve something close to the that claim—it has been this recent series of poems of mine, which have received both ridiculously fierce rejections (some of which amounted to moral arguments rather than poetic ones) and ridiculously high praises. On occasion i've been left standing in the middle with my head spinning. One can get to a point where those critics one normally trusts are no longer giving one useful critique, since it either keeps missing the mark or doesn't give you enough specifics to dig into. In which case you are left on your own devices. But that's okay: You must trust your inner compass, anyway, even if it occasionally can be wrong. We can all be wrong. The point is: critics who won't admit that they can be wrong, have got a problem.

Here's a truth any reasonably self-aware artist must run into at some point or another—and it's a truth that drives both critics and rationalistic artists crazy: The artist is not always in charge of the creative process. The artist is not always in conscious control of the artwork. The gods forbid we were: nothing new comes in art but that it arises from some Mystery, often surfacing as part of the artist's own unconscious. Art that is entirely conscious-mind-driven tends to end up repetitive and dry. It's the difference between those surprising and terrifying "monsters from the Id," and replicated production art.

So, I will continue to write the poems that come to me wanting to be written. I will continue to write new poems in whatever style or format the poem tells me it wants to emerge in, growing itself organically to flower from within. And I will no doubt continue to baffle and piss off some critics, friends, and fellow poets. So be it. (One also comes to believe that one must be doing something right, to have triggered such an uproar.)

In the end, one important point on the internal compass must always be highlighted: This is just a poem. This is only a poem.

Navigations, from Spiral Dance

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Teaching Myself to Draw

Beginning in fall 2007, I began to teach myself to draw with colored pencils. This is an entirely new venture, a new world, a new way (for me) of making art, and an adventure of exploration into new territory.

Since youth, I always believed that I couldn't draw. I always believed that I couldn't paint. When we were children, our family decided without much discussion that I was the Musician and my sister was the Artist. These divided and designated conceptual roles lasted well into mid-life, for me, although I have learned over and over again that I can do anything in the creative arts that I put my attention to. It was when I began to work in photography and digital art in Photoshop that I began to free myself of that birth-tribal belief.

In fact, I'm a good visual artist. I have "the eye" for composition, color, form, and contrast that a competent visual artist needs.

I was originally drawn towards photography, in my youth, in part because it was a visual art that my sister wasn't interested in at that time, and therefore there was no possible competition. Being the younger child, I always felt slower and stupid about a lot of things. Then I realized as an adult that I am fact highly gifted in many creative arenas, but since I was literally several years behind my sibling who was both my friend and role-model in the arts, I had developed a skewed notion about my own competencies. I was in my twenties before I realized, through observation, that in fact I was able to learn everything faster and more thoroughly than most of my peers. (My "secret super-power" is that I seem to have an exceptional memory; I absorb material quickly, and retain almost all of it.)

I have been honing my skills via photography for more than twenty years at this point: my first good, mature photography came into being when I was living in Java, studying gamelan music on a Fulbright, but also studying life, and photographing dance, the countryside, people, landmarks, and cultural events. I date my first "mature" photographs to that time. It was also soon after, when I returned from Java to the Midwest, that I began to get work as a graphic artist in Photoshop and Illustrator, which have become tools so familiar to me now that I don't have to think about them, I just use them.

What drawing does is provide me with a new set of tools for art-making: a new medium. I will probably end up combining drawing with photography, typography/calligraphy, poetry, painting, and multimedia. I have an artist friend who often takes her drawings into Photoshop for further manipulation and processing. It falls into the realm of play, which is where most discovery happens.

At the same time that I have been teaching myself to draw, I have also re-connected with a pleasure in calligraphy that I explored earlier in life: at the end of my college years I was a part-time professional music copyist, calligrapher, and letterer. I studied music copying in part because I was a composer, but I also did score and parts for other composers, including orchestral parts for a couple of off-Broadway musicals. I find these pencil and pen and brush manual skills to all be connected. I have been writing haiga—illustrated haiku—and brush-poem-pictures. With the colored pencils, I have been freehanding some similar themes from nature. It's all about making images with the hands, directly onto paper, as opposed to photography or digital artwork: the manual touch, the sensual nature of the tools and the feel of the paper.

I am not interested in photo-realistic drawing, or photo-reproductions. I am still learning basic techniques and tools. I am using photos for reference, for drawing, but I am also using the natural world and my imagination. I'm not interested in photorealistic reproductions, though, but in evocations, in archetypes, in forms, in the forms behind the forms. This also ties into my long-standing interest in fractal geometry.

I am not using high-quality pencils (such as Berol Prismacolor pencils) yet, although I have a few. I am restricting myself to cheap RoseArt colored pencils (which you can buy at Target in graduated sets of 70 or 100 for less than ten dollars). I am doing this to learn technique and control. Cheaper pencils are no waste and no worry; if you use them up fast, who cares. Learning techniques with harder-to-control materials also means that when I graduate to using better pencils, my control will be more refined simply by the quality of the materials. When you learn a new skill, refinement comes later; sometimes "brute force" is the only way to get going. These cheap RoseArt pencils suit this need admirably.

I am also using small notebooks to draw in, for now. The idea of a large sheet of paper or canvas is too overwhelming. You want to work up to larger scale works, not start there, or you risk paralysis. It can be come too overwhelming too quickly. Far better, for now, to set some arbitrary limits that I feel safe working within, with no expectations that anything that I do at this point will be anything more than an étude, a study, a practice piece. I am not looking to make "finished art" pieces any time soon. This is actually liberating, because it completely removes the pressure (internal or external) to Make Art. It allows me the freedom to learn at my own pace, to develop at my own rate, and to progress without expectations or goals in mind.

I am also discovering that one of the reasons I have liked photography over painting so much is that I'm impatient. I'm discovering that I like doing quick pencils drawings rather than drawings that take days. I like being able to finish a piece in a short period of time. I have always been productive in the arts; I've joked with fellow artist friends that two of my favorite four-letter words are DONE and NEXT. The truth is, I'm already more prolific than I know what to do with, between music, art, photography, poetry, and the rest. In some ways, teaching myself a new artistic skill slows me down again to a level of appreciation and slow-pleasure. It curbs my impatience, and reminds me that I have a lot of time left in which to continue to make art.

(Lately I've been feeling my productiveness in the arts slow down a great deal. But I've also been going through several life-changing experiences, and my energy and my time have both taken hits. One reason I felt like teaching myself to draw with colored pencils was that I needed to do something completely new—some completely new way of making art—to affirm that life goes on, and that I have my own future to pursue. Teaching myself to draw is as much about the new life as it is about completing the old. Don't read some heavy-handed Freudian cause-and-effect interpretation into all this. It's mostly about teaching myself to do something new, to affirm life rather than rebel against death. It could have been pottery.)

During this same time, I have been re-discovering an appreciation for the art of Georgia O'Keeffe. I went to an exhibition last October at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts in Minnesota: Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction. At the exhibition I was impressed with how the artist kept returning to the same themes and motifs throughout her life—and how some of those were always on the edge of abstraction. There are circles and spirals encompassing voids filled with both darkness and light, that appear in her work again and again, from her earliest charcoals all the way to her late paintings. This exhibition was chosen to emphasize these connections, and to point out how O'Keeffe was always just on that edge between realistic depiction and abstract form. It was an interesting way to retrospectively look at some recurring themes in her work, and the arrangement was convincing. I bought the exhibition book to take home and look over carefully again. When I got home, I also pulled out all my other O'Keeffe books, including the two biographies I have, and have been re-reading through them.

At the present time, as I teach myself to draw, I find O'Keeffe a role-model who validates and affirms what I am pursuing with both my drawings and my more abstract photography. There are times when figure-ground relationships are ambiguous or reversible. There are elements of a quasi-representational style already emerging, that hover on the edge of abstraction, because I am playing with forms that emerge without pre-planning. I am learning that I have more control when I move the pencil in small counter-clockwise circles than when I move it in clockwise circles. I am learning that I have a good eye for shading and gradients already, but that perspective is still beyond me. Actually, since my artistic goals are not about becoming just another realistic artist (in the same way that I have never been interested in becoming just another guitar player among millions of others), I'm not thinking about realism at all, especially at this point. Perspective-drawing may or may not ever interest me as much as the cave paintings at Lascaux interest me. I have no goals along those lines, either way, at this time. Ask me again after a year of drawing practice.

Another thing I find validating about O'Keeffe is her independence. She once joked that art critics had tried to fit her into every -ism and style that had come along in her lifetime of painting, and finally gave up after pop art. It goes without saying that those critics trying to shoehorn her work into those categories—which always had an element of being fashionable rather than true—inevitably failed, and that she was never fully categorizable. I have had numerous similar experiences in my own various creative careers. O'Keeffe continued to pursue what interested her, following her own ideas and interests, and that serves me well as a model for my own various interests and pursuits. O'Keeffe's independence of artistic spirit affirms my own.

Teaching myself to draw is like exploring a brand new world. It's exciting even when it's overwhelming. If I have learned anything about handling huge learning tasks, though, it's to break them down into smaller pieces, and tackle one or two elements at a time. You can do this without losing the overall perspective. So for now I focus on basic drawing techniques such as shading, gradients, space-filling methods such as hatching and pointillism. Making actual "art" is still down the road. If I accidentally happen to make a drawing while I'm doing practice exercises, that's fine. But it's way too early in the process to expect that to happen. You might get a sudden, unexpected first taste; a drawing may just tumble out of you, finished and surprisingly good; but then a lot of practice and self-discipline is required to develop the mental muscles necessary for bringing that first taste back into being at a more predictable rate. Without that first taste, we would probably never pursue the practice: I am not the only impatient practitioner out there in the world, nor am I even the worst. So, for now, the discipline is all about mastering the techniques and tools; actually making art with these new tools is something that will happen later. For now, I'm content to just do études, and I feel no pressure about having to Make Art.

If I can teach myself a new artistic skill, so can you.

Making art—creativity itself—is about participating with the Creator in continuous creation. It is a human birthright available to all who wish to pursue it. It is life-affirming rather than life-denying or life-destroying. The day you stop exploring new ways of being, new ways of making art, new ways of interacting with the constant inspiration the world brings to your doorstep, is the day you will have died.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Take Your Inspiration Where You Find It

If you spend too much time thinking about the goal, you miss the journey. The goal is only as important as you think it is. The life you are given doesn't have to be the life you stay with. If you lose everything, what's lost? Nothing.

I find inspiration comes from all directions, at all times. It's almost never what you expect it to be. There are things I figure will probably be inspirational, and often they are. But it's not because they are inherently inspirational: it's because you have to be open to the possibility that they might be. Nothing stops the journey like thinking you have the goal figured out.

We're usually too sure of ourselves. The first thing to learn is that you don't have control over anything. The first thing to learn is uncertainty. The first thing to learn is that you don't know anything. It's only when you don't know anything that you can learn something. Experts have it all figured out; beginners know nothing. So beginners don't know that they're not supposed to be able to do something, so they just go ahead and do it anyway.

I find inspirations don't come when I call, but only when I stop calling. That means: shut up and listen. Stop talking, start hearing. When I don't care about them, they are endless. When I cling to them, they dissolve into nothing. Mist. Wraiths.

We go looking for inspiration when all that's needed is to look around, and there it is. "There are no ordinary moments. There is never nothing going on." That's a perennial teaching that we spend a lot of time forgetting or ignoring, when nothing could be simpler.

I find inspiration in simply stopping thinking about whatever I'm thinking about, and looking at what's around, and hearing what's around. You can only do that if you shut off the noise: not just the TV or radio, but that noise we all generate between our ears, a lot of the time. Put the grocery bag down and go to the window, and look out. Don't say anything. Don't even tell me what you're seeing.

Until you can spend a lot of time in this complete and utter silence, you will never be able to write a single word that's worth anything.

If you want something to write about, stop and look and listen. I find that moments last forever when I give them my full attention, and go by so fast when I care too much about them going by too fast. People often wish they could recapture the freshness of the world they perceived as children. They often wish the day could last as long as it did, back then. It can. "Lose your mind to come to your senses." Have you lost your mind lately? No? Then you're probably thinking too hard. You need to stop that.

How do you recapture that sense of long afternoons and slow summer days you remember experiencing as a kid? Simple: Throw away everything you don't need. We all carry around too much. The past is as malleable and as changeable as the future. It's perfectly possible to take the worst memory I have, and make it never happened. Some things I don't even remember any more: they've been discarded, and forgotten.

There are words that are toxic, and need to be banished from your personal lexicon. These are a few of the words that I have banished from my vocabulary: hope, should, try. These words are toxic to me; they keep me from seeing what's really there, because they get me caught up in my thinking, they eat up my attention and take me away from this moment, right here. Try is a word that really means I already know I'm going to fail, so I'm letting myself off the hook beforehand. The word should is always coercive: it's a word we beat ourselves up with; it's a word we use to tell ourselves that we suck, that we're not worth it, that we should be able to do more, and do it better, than we can. Should is a word that causes people to hate themselves, and each other. It is a violent, pain-giving word. Should is a word that is always judging something or someone; it is an inherently and deliberately judgmental word.

Hope seems innocuous enough; it seems harmless, because hope is a good thing, right? It keeps you focused on the future, on getting out of the mess you're in right now. It's supposed to give you faith in the midst of the darkest days, it's supposed to give you strength to endure the worst suffering. Right? Hope is by far the most toxic of these three words. It is a word that takes me out of the present moment and into an illusory future or past that doesn't exist. It is a word that allows me to collapse into fantasy, then sets me up for a fall into painful disillusionment as my expectations are never met, and the illusions I had evaporate. Again and again, it has been a word that sets me up for a fall. Hope takes me directly to an abyss of suffering. Does that seem harsh? In my experience, it's actually something of an understatement.

I find inspirations don't have to be hoped for, or gone looking for. All I have to do is stop and look and listen. The world comes to a halt, and the day lasts forever—a moment is a very long time indeed—and I have all the time in the world. When I accept the world just as it is, without hope: then hopeless acceptance lays a table for the ease of all suffering. I have to start and end with what the world is, not what I want it to be.

I don't have to try to find inspirations, either inside myself or outside of myself. They're always there: put your hand into the river, and your hand will get wet. Who does the water droplet running off your hand belong to? You?

There is no should-do, as there is no try-to. The minute I stop thinking I really should be doing something, anything, other than what I am doing right now, I find that I have given up all judgment about what there is to do, whether it's the right or wrong thing to do, right now. I have no idea what I'm doing—isn't it wonderful? Do you think kids playing are thinking about what they're doing? They're just doing it. Should I do this? or not? Shouldn't I really be doing something more responsible and adult and productive with my time? Something other than what I'm doing right now, which is writing this down? How pointless is that? Completely, wonderfully pointless. Now go play!

If you don't think you can do any of this, you're right, you can't. You've already prevented yourself from being able to do any of it. "Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours."

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Shared Experience and Personal Witness

How do you find your way into a poem written by an Other, by a person whose experience is one you do not or cannot share? How do you legitimately critique such a poetry? Can we be critical of another person's experience, if it cast in the form of poetry or art?

Aaron Baker, in his review of Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, raises the question as follows:

Any poetry clearly based on a writer’s personal experiences (and not just when those experiences are of war), adopts an aura of authenticity that readers can find coercive. It’s not uncommon to see poets who use “experience” as a cudgel of authority to beat down a reader’s resistance. When it comes to stories or poems about war, or others forms of trauma, there is always a nagging sense that we ought to shut up and just listen to those writers who have, in the vernacular, “been through the shit.” But at the same time, we can’t help but remain on guard against the attempts to self-justify and self-mythologize to which such work is especially prone. And all of this happens before we can even begin evaluating poems on the basis of their technical achievement—to commence weighing and measuring somebody’s extreme real-life crises in a way that some might find (not always unreasonably) inappropriate if not downright indecent.

How does one balance the credibility of the eyewitness against the problems of solipsism and the confessional personality-ego "I" in poetry?

Baker continues, about Turner's collection: At the same, the less successful poems in the collection are those in which there is no first-person speaker at the center. The instinct to decenter the subjective I, to sympathetically enter into the experiences of others, is admirable, but the poems which do this usually seem cursory and ill-suited to the minimalistic, perceptually immediate approach that serves Turner better elsewhere. [Such] Poems . . . have documentary interest, but they could just as well have been written by anybody who had heard the same stories.

Towards the end of his review, Baker provides one answer: Because war is a societal, communal event, does the voice of a soldier actually command greater deference than anyone else’s? Does having “been there” give a poet’s work additional weight? The question of deference is probably the wrong one to ask. Regardless of any single poet's experiences or imaginings, poems are entities with lives and careers of their own and will flourish or fail according to terms separate (if not wholly independent of) a poet’s biography.

Poems, like all artworks, have to live or die on their own merits. In parallel, a poet's varying bodies of work must also live or die on their own merits; some may be stronger than others. It's not always admitted, but writers do have areas where they are stronger than in other areas.

It's exactly the experience-factor that is often used to justify poetic "street cred" in the hip-hop and poetry Slam scenes (not that those are distinct scenes any more), and also used by poets of victimology, woundology, and the worst extremes of political correctness, to deflect all criticism before it can start: "You can't criticize my writing becuase you haven't been through what I've been through!" That sort of thing. (I don't get a sense that Brian Turner is doing that, from reading his poems cited in Baker's review; but who knows?)

However, the aura of authenticity only works, I think, if the writing is good writing. Otherwise, it's pretty blatant that bad writing is given a pass because it's highly topical or because it's "not okay." If you don't want to get called racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., you generally have to keep your mouth shut rather than point out that the poem is just a bad poem. The problem is, as usual, one of ego, rather than one of literary merit.

This is a familiar fallacy: confusing the poet with the poem. The rejection of critique of the poem relies upon the poem being identifying with poet, so that all critique of the art becomes an insult to the artist.

The autobiographical fallacy is also why writers get accused of lying when it's discovered that they haven't actually had the life-experience they claimed to have had in their writings. As if writing was ever not lying, on some level. All writing is fiction, to some extent, because it's filtered through an individual's personal perspective, experience, viewpoint, etc. Even the literature of witness has passed through the creative process: readers tend to forget that journalism is also creative-writing, not the direct transmission of thought. Factual memory, as any cognitive psychologist or experienced trial-lawyer will tell you, is notoriously imprecise and self-serving.

One of the purposes of collective memory is so that the tribe can remember its own myths; nonetheless, there is always room for variance. Yet an individual take on an event, whether or not it agrees with the collectivized fiction of cultural myth, whether it affirms or disrupts consensus reality, is a fiction. We could perhaps think of fictions as atomic units, as assembling blocks that generate cultural myth, cultural trope and pattern, and even dogma, doctrine, and belief-system. As the anthropologists have repeatedly pointed out: every tradition is an invented tradition. We could call the historical era in which we live our "ficton," a word coined by SF writer Spider Robinson for just that purpose.

The principal problem with excluding the reader from any possibility of being able to critique, because you have not shared the writer's experience, is that this exclusion leads ultimately to solipsism: If you claim exclusivity of experience—only women should write about women, only blacks should write about blacks, only gay poets can write about being gay, only X can write about X, only (ex-)soldiers can write war poetry—you reduce your audience to a purist group of pure insiders, you reduce your audience to only cliquish in-group writers, and ultimately you reduce your audience to you yourself alone. (The rhetoric of much post-modern poetry criticism seems to want to do just this—and then complains about the lack of an audience. But I digress.) And where is the literary-critical discourse in such solipsism? Usually, there is none, nor can there be any. Discourse is simply shut down.

Most war poetry is similar to most political (politicized) poetry, in that it tends to rely on generalities and abstractions, rather than on the specific and evocatively personal—or, as war veteran Ernest Hermingway once quipped, Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. Still, war poetry, as I have often read it, seems more innately personal than most political poetry. It tends to be more embodied and more visceral than political poetry, which is words about ideas, not words about experiences. Anti-war poetry is often political poetry, but war poetry written by veterans of war, or by soldiers in the field, has a different tone than anti-war poetry written by folks who object to war but have never held a weapon or fought in a battle. Some of the most visceral anti-war poetry I have ever read is that written by veterans; for example, Michael Casey's small book of poems, Obscenities, which was about the Vietnam war.

The question of coercion towards the reader is an interesting question—but isn't any compelling, absorbing reading experience therefore coercive in the sense that it envelopes the reader into a full experience evoked by the poem? Isn't any poem that recreates an experience in the reader so that they become completely immersed in the poem—isn't that coercive? It is, in the purely technical sense. The issue is really one of consent.

I think we should clarify the use of the word "coercive," perhaps by rephrasing it as non-consensually coercive, to restrict this connotation to those poems that try to force the reader into believing a viewpoint stipulated by the poem (and maybe by the poet, but not necessarily). Poems that argue political or religious points, poems that tell me what to think—I find these sorts of poems far more coercive than Brian Turner's poems of wartime experiences, in that I feel he invites me viscerally into his experience. Invites me in, rather than forces it on me. He entices, and I consent. This is possibly the difference between restraint and subtlety in poetry versus the heavy-handed use of rhetoric to force (ideological) agreement. The latter is definitely coercive; the former is perhaps what we have discussed before as "poetic embodiment:" inviting the reader to re-experience what the poem evokes as an experience. This allows the reader to consent of their own free will to enter the viewpoint of the poem. To my mind, enticement and invitation go much further, in activist poetry, than do preaching and ideology. By bringing the reader into the experience of the poem, they are free to make up their own minds about the politics of the poem; this, in a nutshell, is "show" versus "tell" in poetry.

I think it takes imagination to read these war poems, too. (In my opinion, baker fails to use his imagination at the end of the review, where he misses the title poem's correlations between the body's gastro-intestinal system and the barrel, body, and action of a bullet leaving a rifle.) They are laced with images that make powerful metaphors.

In the end Baker makes the argument that Turner's book, while containing good poems, and while serving as an effective book of witness, does not break new literary ground, stylistically or technically. Well, maybe that's an understandable and justifiable response to the overzealous hype around the book and the poet; one can only imagine the Pentagon's propaganda machine foaming at their orifices about having a genuine war-hero poet to present. (For the record, my sense is that Turner is complicit in none of that.) But it seems pretty Ivory Tower to demand that a book of war poems must always contain poetic technical innovation on the same level as Wilfred Owen's, et al. I'm not sure that's a valid criticism, even if one does assume that war poetry does drive poetic and literary change. Even though Owen's et al. poetic work did drive some of the changes of Modernism in literature, it's probably not fair to expect any contemporary book of poetry to have the same impact—partly because the world of the arts is not as monolithic as it was a century ago, and partly because war itself has changed so much, technically and stylistically, over the past century. I've read numerous comments along the lines that post-modern warfare is more like a video game, with less direct contact with the enemy (as happens in Owen's well-known poem Strange Meeting). It may therefore be an unfair comparison to force Turner's book into having the same impact on litetature as did Owens'. Only time will tell, on that front. The problem with second-guessing the verdict of history is that history happens after you're dead and gone, usually.

Where Owen and Turner do share common ground as poets can be found in Owens' famous statement: My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. A reader of imagination, whether or not they are a war veteran, can I think participate, as witness, to both the pity and the poetry.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Ideology of Critique

We keep returning to Jean Cocteau's plangent observations: We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.

And: When a work of art appears to be in advance of its period, it is really the period that has lagged behind the work of art.

And: Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically.

All these happen with regularity in the ferment that is poetry in transition. But Cocteau's comment about the tendency to judge the beautiful by what is familiar speaks not only to the rejection of the unknown in art, but also to entrenched ideologies and opinions about what is genuine and true in poetry criticism itself.

Is a cliché always bad in poetry? Almost always; but it can be turned to good and effective use, too. Where we have difficulties is with the ideology that rules of quality are absolute standards, and therefore objective. The problem is, while some aspects of poetry can be judged objectively—matters of craft are the obvious example—other judgments are often less objective than they claim to be. There is usually something else going on, whether or not it's openly acknowledged.

Does a reader's emotional reaction to a poem, positive or negative, obviate the critical faculty, short-circuit it so that bad poetry passes simply because people like it? This happens often enough, surely; it is surely true that a lot of bad poetry still stirs people to feeling. If this were not so, the manipulative sentiments expressed in greeting cards would be ineffective, and the entire greeting card industry would collapse.

But the reverse assumption, which can be seen often enough in poetry criticism, that any poem the reader has an emotional response to must therefore be suspect, on the grounds that emotional responses are themselves suspect, amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It ridiculously overstates the valid and honorable attempt to be as objective as possible in poetry criticism. The mistake here is not the attempt to be as objective as possible; the mistake is in believing one has succeeded.

All art has the potential to elicit an aesthetic, emotional, and transformational response in its audience. There are always both subjective and objective qualities in art, intermixed and blended. They can be difficult to sort out. While it is valorous to attempt to set aside one's feelings and look at a work of art as objectively as possible, in its context of craft, historical moment, and subject matter, etc., assuming that one has achieved total critical objectivity is a form of self-delusion. The critic who can admit to error and subjective opinion is the far more honest critic. Whether their assessment is right or wrong is also not the mistake; the mistake lies in believing one's own critical acumen is greater than anyone else's, which is hubris, and delusion. Not to mention, unprovable.

Even critics who are right most of the time must acknowledge that they can be wrong—because anyone can be wrong, about anything—or they are in deep, deep trouble.

Offhandedly rejecting one's emotional responses when undertaking criticism isn't the same thing as admitting a fondness for a really bad movie, or panning a novel because one ate bad shellfish for lunch. It is, or rather can become, a critical ideology that claims that the person assessing the poem must always be unemotional and objective. This is an impossible standard that, honestly, no one has ever lived up to. It allows absolutely no wiggle room for aesthetic appreciation. It removes the human response from the equation; in its worse extremes, it mechanizes the critical response (which it should never be forgotten is prompted by the aesthetic experience of witnessing or being confronted by the art itself) by banishing it and replacing it with a list of obvious criteria. They may even be valid criteria. But this approach to criticism takes valid criteria and turns them into a categorizable list of items to be checked off, to see if they fit. Too much of an emotional response? Check: must be a bad poem. Next!

Cocteau also commented: We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any definite recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be.

The artist can be as surprised by the art that appears as anyone. The artist can be quite alone, quite surrounded by bickering, with no rudder with which to navigate.

This can run in several directions, even conflicting ones. For example, what happens when a formalist poet suddenly discovers that a poem came out as free verse? How do they deal with that? Do they let it happen, and accept the results, or will they try to re-format the poem into a familiar metrical form that they are more comfortable with handling?

Or, what happens when a poet who is used to working in more "experimental" terrain, has become used to being vilified more than praised, generally if not universally misunderstood and miscategorized, who has become suspicious of most critique on the grounds that it no longer helps him or her grow as a writer—what happens when such a poet suddenly finds him or herself expressing a more conventional poetry, a less experimental form and language, and cares more about the outpouring in the poem itself than in its language and technical aspects of craft? (In other words, that had something to say, and just said it, plainly and simply, with very little artifice.) How do they deal with that? Do they accept it and let it happen, or do they fight against it?

And then, when they have become used to all their recent poems being rejected, even openly vilified and condemned as non-poetry, how are they to respond when the criticism comes back on this newest poem, a poem different from what they've been doing for some time, and this new poem is lauded, praised, highly touted, heaped with honors by one camp who thinks it's best poem of its type they've read in 30 years? while another camp says it's an aberration, and the poet has lost his or her self-respect, is pandering, and this is the worst thing the poet has written in years.

One the one hand lies a welcoming embrace, on the other a faux-objectivity that portrays cynical rejection as simple honesty. On the one hand a pleasure in the familiar in which critical acumen is not willfully set aside but perhaps is overruled in the moment, on the other hand a violent insistence on a continuity of innovation in which the sensual pleasure of just writing what you feel has become suspect. On the one hand Dionysus, on the other Apollo (but which is which)? On the one hand the pleasure of the text, on the other a dedicated dismissal of pleasure (but which is which)?

Who is the poet—who whirls suspended in the midst of all this—to believe? (And when did revising a poem become a choice between who you please, other than yourself, and who you piss off?)

What's endlessly fascinating is how both camps claim to be objective and unemotional in their assessments of the poem, while having diametrically opposed views of the poem in question. The poet is left with a situation in which no criticism is any longer useful, or even helpful, because it's become obvious that even those who claim to be driven by objective standards still wear blinders of taste and opinion that they are using to substitute for actual criticism.

Both camps would dictate to the poet what the poet "should" do—if only in avoiding the pitfalls of what they each think is bad in poetry. But a completely negative aesthetic, an aesthetic of avoidance, produces nothing. It's a shortcut to the abyss of acedia. Both camps would deny that they are setting boundaries around what they like and calling it "good," but that is what both camps are doing. This is political action disguised as literary crticism; it is of course nothing new in poetry criticism, which has been fighting between camps for a very long time indeed.

Who is the poet to listen to, if the poet has grown weary of the divisiveness of critical camps, and just wants to make poems?

Yes, I am referring to myself here. This has all happened to me in the past few days with this poem. It's been a hilarious exercise. Both of these camps, both of these diametrically opposed reponses were triggered by this same poem.

Who does this poet believe? No one.

An always-available option, of course, is to continue to write what you write, ignore everyone, and let them catch up to what you're doing, if they ever do. This is where Cocteau's comment is relevant, about when art appears to be in advance of its period. The solution is to just keep writing, and let the critics fall by the wayside. It is equally amusing when the camps revert to their usual party lines, if the next poem reverts to "normal."

The issue here for the poet is self-esteem, and retaining self-confidence in their own artistic process. Humility lies in admitting that they could be wrong. Self-esteem lies in not bending to every wind of fashion, even those you agree with; it lies furthermore in letting the art be the art, and in having the courage to take risks and make mistakes. Meanwhile, the poem itself languishes in a kind of limbo; attempts to revise it have been stifled by the conflicting responses; the poet might choose to set the poem aside, and revise it later, when he can hear himself think again, after the din has died away.

What is laughable, all around, is the utter lack of self-awareness (one might say, the breathtaking ignorance of their own internal asuumptions and filters) in each camp, in how both claim to be objective yet cannot see where they are not. Even where they are objective and accurate can now be called into question by their failure in this instance. So, I guess nobody's perfect, and no-one's right all the time. Critics least of all.

Beware of anyone who claims that they are right all the time: they are driven by an ideology of critique, and they are fundamentalists—even if you agree with them.

I suppose, in the end, none of it really matters. Lists of poets you like and want to promote as fellow-travelers are beside the point. Critical cheerleading is the most ephemeral game in town. It matters not at all, in the long run. The only real test is the test of time.

I don't know what, if any, of the art I have produced, or have yet to produce, will affect anyone in the future; nor am I likely to ever know. The truth is, it doesn't matter. Like any other artist, I have ambition for my artistic children, but—apparently unlike many other artist/critics I know—I seem to lack the essential hubris required to believe that I have already changed the world with my art, or will, for good or ill. I cannot know. That actually frees me up to not care very much about what the various camps say; it frees me to write rather than talk about writing. As much fun as it can be, the criticism is not the art. Some of the art will hopefully endure; criticism has always had a notoriously short shelf-life, and always will.

The result of such an experience is the artist's realization that critical approval is subject to fashion and taste, that critics who claim to be objective are never as objective as they think they are (even when they're right most of the time, no one is right all of the time), and that all that matters to the artist—all that can matter—is to keep making art. If you let what the critics think about your art rock you, deter you, steer you off course—either for approval or in rejection of approval—you will surely lose your way. The artist must maintain his or her own convictions, her or his own center, and not be swayed. Don't stop listening to opinions—but don't let them sway you, if in your heart you know what you are pursuing must be pursued. Even if, in the long run, what you are doing proves to be something you repudiate years later, it must nonetheless be given its head, and pursued—for now, if not forever. Both critical camps can be quite wrong about the progress and direction of your art—even when they are occasionally right about the details. It's your art, after all: it is no-one else's.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008


a white crane lands on the shaman's hand
weightless soul flight

somewhere in the snow-crowned pines
the raven watches

kite-strung prayer-flags flap at the high pass
is it the wind that moves the prayer
or the prayer that moves the wind

a gate opens at sunset by a northern lake
striking down the seer

a boy climbs out his window onto the roof
at midnight naked under stars

he steps into the circle of old ones
firelit crescent moon on his breast
dancing till he becomes human at last

a thousand mice under the snow
waiting for the fox to whisper

hard flung rain a crushing weight on shoulders
carrying plantain bunches to market

his hand moves to the door and waves
whirlwinds dance at his ankles stepping through
to spend a month walking the bronze desert naked

with dragons


Monday, February 04, 2008

Ode to Walt Whitman

After a year of continual dying, of ending both sudden and lingering,
the deaths of parents, the death of a life once lived, no place to go now,
a long year of being nothing to myself, but of washing the dying, and their homes,
after years of dangerous solitary migration across mountains and by an ocean,
across a world in exile in a homeless truck, a whistling trailer disintegrating
airborne in sudden wind, the alembic travel of a nomadic anchorite,
after years of wandering homeless, camping in deserts and by oceans,
years living nowhere before living too much here, of too much giving,
I turn to you, Walt Whitman.

You remind me, every time I see your beard in the grocery aisles
checking out the stock boys, you tell me, whenever I see you giving me
a strong look across a crowded station before disappearing through the turnstiles,
you leave me stranded, these late nights I can't get home, Walt,
then reel me in with your naked laugh.

After the ecstasy, poet, the laundry. Washing dishes before bed,
already undressed, I see your eyes glint outside the kitchen window,
sparking reflections, peeping Walt, daring me to come back to life.
To dare to love again, after these months
living with death, the dead, these tables left behind.
There's your face in a scrapbook my grandmother gathered, long buried
in a trunk that's been to India and back—my own passage to India, Walt,
more literal than yours, my childhood browning in that sun; not your sun,
but still the same sun—buried in the winter basement next to
her scrapbooks of Lincoln memorabilia.
There are lilacs on the black pages where he lay.
I see your likeness, poet, in the overcast cafés
of winter-locked midwestern smalltowns. Here's your portrait in effigy
above the science fiction section of a used book store. You look down on me
in bathrooms, scrawling graffiti in the johns of heaven,
slow smiles in the long beards of aging lovers.

Walt Whitman, your beard drips white dew.
Your young Irish lover in his jaunty bowler hat has strolled the aisles
of thrift stores here, leaving his hat behind. Your gray woolen coat hung
on the rack at Goodwill, your gray trousers are missing.
Still your scent lingered in the air, Walt Whitman, and the sounds of birds
that once lived in the sheaves of the great gray poet’s beard.

Walt Whitman, I look for reasons
to go on. I have sought to live in grasslands, in wastelands, in wilderness,
now that I have only myself to live for. I think of you wherever eros
and thanatos intersect, wherever ekstasis
seems to surge greenly forward. I think of you when I cruise
the priest at the funeral, when I get an erection in the library,
at the supermarket. I think of you whenever I feel the urge of life
in my testes loins and genitals beating back that bitter neutron tide of entropy.
Lately when I am massaged, erotic and naked together,
I know I am feeling the lifeforce sap rising through me
so that death shall have no dominion, and death shall have
no dominion over sex and life and lifelove—this urge
to ecstasy is a direct path towards rebirth, a trajectory of the rejection
of what old shame would not let me invite you into this new life, this greening,
this opening of the portals of the mystery of hope.

Let me speak as freely as you, Walt Whitman: let me shout
my loud barbaric yawp from the rooftops of the world, that
I have loved men as you loved men, not excluding women
who I have also loved, before. I want to celebrate,
to masturbate, to agitate, not cogitate.

Sex is rebellion against death.
Whenever I make love to myself I think of you, Walt Whitman.
When I look at the waiters in restaurants and country clubs, I am cruising
in your name’s bold honor. When I lay naked and spent
in silent minutes after sex with my lover, Walt Whitman,
you are laying with us. When we enfold each other
in our arms after making love, you are there with us, laying with us,
watching over us, breathing with us, running your phantom hands across
our cooling thighs. Your legs twine together with ours.

I dedicate my next dozen orgasms to you, poet of life and rebirth,
poet of comrades together, of walking naked under clear summer skies—
each greening wave launches a new created tree of life
across nebulous illumined space into exploding worldbringers
spreading life in sparking quanta, falling fire rain, created songs
of generative outcries.

                              You came,
you ogled the boys playing basketball
mostly shirtless in the sweat of summer evenings,
you saw, you arrived stepping off ferry boats
into the press of the throng, you conquered
every heart in the breasts you touched, male and female
you created them, all in love with you did you create them,
Walt, all of us loved you, even rejection itself just love
turned backwards into spite yet still threaded
through that same needle of connection
you sung about, out of the cradle, captain, and fallen
back into death to lay between two sleepers swimming
an ocean, saying your name in the capital, in their sleep.

Walt Whitman, I envy you. You're more free now than ever.
Your voice has not been silenced but sings through
every boy and girl first loving, first striding a road away
from home, first discovering each other, first wedding
themselves to field flower rapture sun-shrugged rain.
You continue to sing, Walt, some days you won't be quiet.

Your voice in my hearing too young, perhaps,
I stepped out as early as I could, you embraced me, in Calamus, to speak
as I would speak, not as others would demand I speak.
There is no closet that can fold us in, Walt Whitman,
we are making love to remind ourselves we are still alive.

Walt Whitman, are you watching me naked now and again?
Are you watching the bathers in the rivers of heaven?
Do the wounded soldiers you bathed and read to visit you still?
Do you look down on the bathers in today's riverine swimming holes?
I admire you, poet, for celebrating this body of life.
I want to be with you in heaven, Walt Whitman,
admiring your vitality and endurance.

I am stretching forth my own body
to be one with you, Walt Whitman,
and to be embraced by you all night,
all mourning passed by, overturned.
I am making love to you, poet of love,
with words I come to you,
to be with you,
to be alive,

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

This Writing Thing (after the Fox)

Just because we can have fun with this doesn't mean it's not serious business. Sometimes the fun and the business are the same. Sometimes you feel manic, out of sorts, out of control, standing aside while someone or something else is in the driver's seat, but knowing it's all going to work out perfectly, so just hang on for a wild ride. And you trust it, even as it rocks you world.

That's the lesson of the Trickster, the Heyoka, the reversal clown, of Coyote, of Raven, of Anansi, Reynard, the Kitsune: it's all serious fun, and seriously funny, yet also, funnily enough, it's serious.

This afternoon I stood at the window, talking on the phone with a close friend whom I love, looking out at the recent showfall that had covered the land, making land and sky that same white color again. I stood at the window, looking out, chatting away, and a red fox walked across the frozer river, up the opposite bank, and into the graphic-pen brush of the woods on the floodplain over there. I gasped. It was a beautiful sight.

Suddenly nothing else mattered. The miscommunications and declarative bullshit that had been the nature of human relations in my orbit all this part week; the misunderstandings and umbrage taken; the hard work to make things happen in the next phase of my life, after the death of both of my parents in less than a year's time, and everything else that had been making me crazy for months—none of that meant anything. A red fox trotted across a white snowfield and into some black trees. That's all. That's enough.

I've written before about encounters with nature, and about foxes. I have encountered them several times in my life, as well as coyotes, wolves, and other wild canids. There is something special about encountering a fox: it's always quick, always fleeting, sometimes very playful, and often a shock to the expectations. Seeing a fox is always a pleasure.

One time, driving in eastern Wisconsin in the early evening, I passed a field of hay that was standing tall and tan, probably due to be mown soon. There was a gap in the hay, a driveway into the field for a tractor, a truck, a combine; just a little gap, about the width of a car. As I flahsed past at speed, I saw there in gap, dead center, a fox sat on its haunches, tail wrapped around its paws, mouth gapped in a fox smile, tongue lolling, nose up. It looked very pleased about something. As I drove on, not daring to stop or even slow down, I saw the fox get up, self-possessed as you please, and trot across the two-lane highway to disappear into another field across the way. It was as if it had been sitting there, waiting for the traffic to clear, calm as you please, like someone waiting at a crossroads for the traffic lights to change so they could at the intersection. And gone into the evening's blue light.

In the time it's taken me to write about the fox, the light outside has gone from white to the deep blue of dusk. Will I see the fox again? I don't know. But I'll always look for it, now.

white sky, white land,
black trees, brushwork on paper—
the strolling red fox

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Friday, February 01, 2008

How to Learn from What You Read

One of the most sage pieces of advice you will hear about learning to improve as a poet is to read, read, read, read some more. I think this is true.

But what are some specific things you can do while reading? Do you do a close reading, a formal analysis? Do you do a line-by-line analysis? Copy or parody a poet's style? What are the practical things you can do to teach yourself about poetry, while reading it?

Here is a very simple truth: No art school, no music school, no dance academy, no MFA poetry program can teach you joy, inspiration, or enthusiasm. All they can teach you is craft.

If you're lucky, you get inspired and enthused anyway, either by your own love for what you're doing, or perhaps by a teacher who fulfills the role of a mentor for you. You have to generate all the rest of it yourself, internally. That's why the best advice is still to read widely, eclectically, and omniverously: read read read write read read write read write read some more.

Therefore, I believe that line-by-line analysis or similar forms of analytical close-reading are more useful for academic and craft-oriented analysis than for poetic analysis. Those are all very heuristic, very intellectual, very left-brain modes. There are good arguments to be made for doing it that way; to figure out how meter and form works, for example. But don't read just Shakespeare's sonnets, read Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnets, read Edwin Denby's sonnets, read Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus—all sonnets, yet nothing alike.

The danger in line-by-line analysis is that the overall sense of the poem can get lost in the analysis, in terms of sentences, phrases, and grand overview. I don't recommend analyzing the composition of the moss on the north sides of the trees in the forest, if in doing so one loses the sense of the forest itself; its ecology, its place in the world, in history, in relationship, its grand breathing.

Analysis is almost always reductive; appreciation is by contrast expansive rather than reductive. So, when I read a poem, I read it as much for pleasure as for analysis. The two are not mutually exclusive. But again, analysis is easier to describe, proscribe, and discuss, than is appreciation.

"Parody" means "imitation" in its original sense; or as in 16th century sacred music, the "borrowing" of other musical material to include it in one's own setting of the Mass. Copying the masters has always been one way to learn about them. Painting students have done that for centuries, and it's still a good way to learn technique. That's true in all the arts, including poetry.

If a poem inspires you, write a poem in response to it: not necessarily in imitation of it, although you can learn craft that way, too. Every time I read Rumi, I feel inspired to write poems on similar topics, similar scales, similar themes; so I do. Every time I read Rilke, similar things happen.

Keep in mind, though, that parodic poems, or imitation poems, do not always stand on their own, as poems. They might best be thought of as études rather than finished, independent pieces. Nonetheless, a great deal can be learned about poetry from this practice.

Choose the poets you love to read as your de facto mentors, and learn from them by reading everything they wrote. Be thorough; read even their juvenalia, their weaker efforts, their failures; don't just read their best and greatest poems, read everything. Read their letters, their essays about and reviews of other poetry. This will give you a well-rounded view of them as human beings, not just as disembodied, iconic genius-artists. It is both humbling and validating to realize that your poetic heroes had feet of clay, the same as you and I do.

One method to really learn about a poem is to copy out the poem in your own hand. This slows you down enough to pay attention to what you are reading, and you notice things you wouldn't simply by reading the way we usually cursorially read. You might notice the rhythm more clearly, or the arrangement on the page. You might even want to take a particular poem you love and make it into a piece of artful calligraphy, to frame and mount on your wall.

You might read the poem out loud, word by word, as you copy it out. You might discover that you have memorized the poem during the process of copying; then you can even walk down the street reciting it. (Never be afraid of people looking at you funny; artistic types are assumed to be weird, remember. Use that to your advantage.)

Reading poems out loud is very important. You learn a lot about rhythm, but also about what works on the page and what doesn't work in a reading; and vice versa. Lots of Slam poetry works as performance art, and fails utterly on the page; lots of "post-avant" poetry looks fascinating on the page, and quickly gets boring when read out loud. A great poem can be recognized in part by how it succeeds in both written and spoken realms. This may be in fact a good definition of a successful poem: it can survive and thrive both as spoken art, and on the page.

Reading the poem out loud, and copying it out in your own hand (I have made caligraphic artwork pieces of favorite fragments, from time to time) are both helpful because they are both somatic processes, rather than processes of pure mentation. Most poets need to get out of their heads more often than they do, and more into their bodies. Reciting and copying out are both good ways to trigger that shift. If poetry doesn't live in your body—if you don't feel the occasional gut-punch from reading a poem, a visceral reaction brought on by the reading of the poem—then you need to go find a poem thatdoes do that for you. If movies can make you weep or feel such joy that your heart is about to leap out of your chest, then so can poems.

I mentioned sonnets earlier. You can also do a course of reading that focuses on one aspect of poetry, and do a comparison and contrast across many poets, to see how they used a form like the sonnet (or the haiku), and how they exploded or transcended it. Look at the similarities and the differences; this will provide a wide range of "solutions" posed by writing a poem in a particular form or style.

Poets have come up with many different ways of "solving" the problems imposed by the limits of form, meter, method, content, and style. These can all make or break the poem. It's another way of spotting a great poem amongst the chaff; often enough, many great poems transcend the form they're written in, in some subtle way. Shakespeare's sonnets read out loud so well, in fact, because they read as sentences that break across the line; reading them purely as accented rhymed couplets fails to do them justice, while reading them as sentences brings out their deeper beauty.

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