Monday, September 29, 2008

Poets on the Peaks

Back here in the flat Midwest, flat relative to the mountains of the West, tucked into the Great Lakes riverine zone that mostly drains towards the Mississippi, and on the edge of the Great Prairie: solidly on the Precambrian craton rock of the central North American Plate, this glacier-scraped and carved northern Midwest that is my native land. Back here for days, not wanting to be here at all, wanting to be back there, back in the mountains, in the high thin air and the silence except for the wind in the trees and sage and grass, and the wildlife passing through.

A book I bought in California, in Berkeley, and brought back here with me, reading it these past few days while sitting here in my porch chair wrapped in blankets against the chill autumn rain, devouring this book as though it were a sacred text to be read every morning before starting my difficult days, with everything that has to be done upon return from a long retreat, most of which I'd rather not have to do, this book reminding of where I so recently was, enjoying the stories from these places I know, tales of events and illuminations that occured 50 years ago in the mountains.

Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades, text and photographs by John Suiter. (Published 2002)

Reading this takes me back to where I was, all in the last five weeks, camping more than once at 8000 feet or above, as well as camping sometimes in the Pacific tsunami hazard zone at less than 30 feet above sea level. The coastal range, the ocean parks, and the silence and solitude of the high mountains. Yes, you do encounter more people up there than you would have 50 years ago, but for the most part the people you encounter walking and hiking, as opposed to driving, are reverent and appreciative of these mountain lands. Even in overrun Yosemite, a group of college boys, jumping off the bridge into the Merced River, took time to chat with me since I had my cameras in hand and was catching the late afternoon light on the peaks on the canyon sides.

photo by John Suiter, from the book

Thinking about hermitage in the desert and the high peaks. One night of sublime hermitage this trip at Wheeler Peak, another day and night of hermitage in the cold sea-fog at a state park on the north California coast. The best times on this past trip for me were stolen moments of solitude and silence, or days driving alone, or hiking with the photo gear up some trail, the first person out in the morning, the last one out at dusk. The best times were when I could stop the truck, get out, hike away a bit, and be alone. Photography is in some ways an excuse to be out here, where I want to be most of the time. People understand better if you have a purpose for being out there, even if really the purpose is just an excuse for being where you want to be. Another trip, perhaps, I'll take just a notebook out with me; but no, I'm not fooling myself, I'll probably always carry at least one camera, even just a light portable one, because I love remembering what I've seen and where I've been, and photographs are memories.

This book by John Suiter is a literary history, but it's also a book every mountain-loving soul could love to read. The prose is evocative of time and place, the descriptions of the fire lookout stations on top of the mountain peaks vivid enough to smell, vivid in the memory especially if you've been there, or to similar places. Everyone at 9000 feet knows what the air smells like up there. It's a smell too recent in my own memory to be lost; I can take a deep breath and be transported, even now. Suiter's photos are incandescent, luminous, and evocative. One wishes for more of them in the book. This isn't really a coffee-table book; that's just a disguise for something far richer and more promising.

It can take six weeks for your body to adapt to altitude, for your marrow to produce enough extra red corpuscles to be able to pick up more than enough oxygen to keep your system in balance. Until then, you pant a lot, and maybe your eyes are funny, and maybe you see visions of angels and demons, and anything else that the open doors in the sky have opened you up to experiencing. After awhile, you breathe easier, the headaches go away, and you begin to enjoy how incredibly clean the air is, how much it fills you with light. Get thee to a mountain peal, and open your soul.

Those jock climbers for whom mountaineering is a matter of conquest miss all the sublime magic; most of them summit, but do not linger, eager to notch their ice-axes with another conquest made, and on to the next. I've met a few of them on the trail. I've noted they never stop long enough to let the silence linger, become still, and enter you. Some people don't know how to just stop, and listen. Well, I can't judge them too harshly; I've been guilty, as most eco-tourists have, of trying to cram too many stops into a day, to try to visit so many places in a short trip that you never linger in any of them. I've been guilty of moving too fast across the face of the world, and sometimes not being able to linger even when I wanted to, because of appointments to keep.

Yet I went out on this last sojourn in part to remember how to listen to the silence, feeling like I'd lost the skill under the personal drama of the past few years. I didn't tell anyone here that was my real goal: to recapture what I felt I'd lost. I deliberately had an open itinerary, allowing myself to deviate from a planned route, and spend more time wherever I felt like it. And thus I doubled the length of my foreseen visit to the Snake River, to the Hoback, to my beloved Tetons. This was my return to my own mountains, the places in Wyoming I'd first studied geology in the field, as a young artist studying science, when I was 18, literally only weeks out of high school before finding myself living and studying there. You need to go back to your roots, as an artist, those places that first lit a fire in you; even though you carry them always with you, even if you rarely get back in person.

I went out to the mountains and the ocean in part to be alone, to remember how to listen to the silence. And to bring some of that back here. I did succeed in writing the first non-haiku poems out there that I've written in months. So the inspiration that these three poets on mountain firewatch found for themselves in those mountains is still there to be found; and I renewed myself, just as they did. If you have no better reason to read this well-written and beautifully-photographed book, let it be for inspiration: to get out there yourself, and get up in the mountains, and listen for what words in the wind will come to you.

One of the lessons of this book is how the mountains mark you, as person and artist. Even decades later, these mountains are still in Snyder's poems, and Whalen's, and Kerouac's Desolation Angels is basically his journals and logs of his lookout time, as is the end of Dharma Bums. You want to re-read those, now, having just been there, in those mountains. You want to get out the books that these poets took with them up the trail, and re-read those, too. Some few of them I have on my shelves already, most notably the books Snyder took, as I've always shared many of the same interests, such as D.T. Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism, a compilation of essential Zen texts from a thousand years of writing by the masters. And my own recent trip was a renewal, a return to places that have marked me as deeply as the North Cascades marked three earlier poets, one of whom, Snyder, has been a life-long inspiration and pathfinder to me as to many others. Our inspirations in part give us the excuse to go out and do what we always wanted to do anyway; inspiration as validation of purpose.

I don't want to be back here. But here I am, still yearning for the 9000 silences, remembering them as I sit quietly on my porch and read, letting them follow me home. Here I am, till the next time I'm back out West, in my beloved mountains.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Chihuly at the de Young Museum

I had an opportunity to go see the large retrospective show of glass by Dale Chihuly, at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This is one of the largest shows he's ever had, and it's diversity was both glorious and a little overwhelming.

They allowed the public to take non-flash photos, so given such license I went a little nuts and shot a lot; sometimes i got into closeups, lit from behind or overhead, just an abstract array of colors. I have always liked his work, both for its originality of form and amazing color, but also because it's just different. One of my best artist friends did glassblowing, and so I'm not unfamiliar with technique and what can be done with it. Chihuly has pushed the envelope a long way beyond where it used to lie. His forms inspired by organic and natural forms, never really seen before in art glass, are often stunning, even mind-blowing. You can sometimes tell from an artist's work that they have had an experience of cosmic consciousness, or some kind of peak experience—you can feel it in their work, if you've had similar experiences, because there is a recognizable quality present—and I feel that way about Chihuly, I feel that in his work. It opens the mind and heart to new possibilities that you never thought of before.

So, here are some photos from the exhibition, in all their amazing and glorious color.

To me, the most impressive and illuminating aspect of this show was the drawings that are included. Drawings in acrylic and multimedia, actually they're full-blown paintings that often serve as sketches for the glass pieces to follow. They're the inspirations and maps.

But they're also amazing work in their own right. In the exhibition there were two rooms with a full each of the drawings, mounted in groups as though they stained glass windows onto something beyond the room. The lines and forms and colors in the paintings captivated me even beyond what the glass was capable of. I was fascinated, and spent a long time in front of each wall of drawings.

Another favorite was the room with all the glass overhead, through a transparent ceiling, lit from behind. There were lots of seaforms but also some whimsical touches mixed in, so the overall feel was like being underwater and happy about it.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Travel Haiku

Various haiku and haiku-like poems from the road trip, more or less in chronological order. Some of these work better in classical Chinese four-line forms, perhaps. And I am still writing some haibun around the haiku. These are not necessarily finished pieces, but a work-in-progress towards a longer haibun travel journal. No doubt rewrites will occur. I present these as a sample, a log, a foretaste.

I thought of how many times Basho revised Oku no hosomichi, and I thought of how it might be interesting to present a piece at various stages in its development, for comparison's sake.

Camped at 10,000 feet above sea level, Wheeler Peak in the near distance above the campground. Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Other people in other parts of the campground, but far enough away that I feel alone here, under the stars and the wind. Planes going by overhead are low enough to see and hear. Across the basin 7000 feet below, I can see Notch Peak in Utah, which I saw from the other side as I began my day's drive.

moon, stars, aspen, pines,
the mountain peering over my shoulder:
silent companions

Dayton State Park, Nevada. A little pocket park by the Carson River, five minutes from the small downtown, but still feels isolated and in the countryside. A covey of quail ran away from my tires when I pulled in. Out in the darkness, coyotes are mocking an anxious, frenzied barking dog.

sleeping under stars
even filtered by city lights
is healing medicine

Bats circled overhead at dust. My feet puffed up the dust by the sagebrush. The fire keeps away the dark, primitive fears.

one last look at the stars
before settling in for the night—
a satellite, a shooting star:

Driving into the dry playa salt-pan basin region of northwestern Nevada, the harsh land is sometimes leavened by surprising emerald strips of growth, like putting a lawn on the moon. East of the road, a thin lake lies between flat-topped mountains, absolutely mirror-still.

mesa stretches out
its own dry lake
to reflect in

Sunset at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, CA. The thin ribbon of waterfall falling to the beach, in its circular cove, the northern slope covered with pink day-lilies the locals call "naked ladies." A pair of deep blue Stellar's jays work through the lilies, while the sun settles into a pool of gold far out over the ocean, on this cold and cloudless evening.

calm ocean mirror
reflects the setting sun—
the sickle moon

Morning after camping at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park:

crows caw in the trees
around my resting place—
morning alarms

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium:

pale white drifters
pulse slowly, tendrils floating—
moons in the sea

sea of tentacles
blue, orange, white on the seabed:
mouths to feed, children

the hammerhead shark
cruises close by the tank window,
turns to show his teeth

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Dale Chihuly's Seaforms

Seaforms by Dale Chihuly, from the Jellies: Living Art show at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA, 2008.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Living Jellies

Images from the Jellies: Living Art show at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA. This was an amazing show which displayed tanks of live jellyfish alongside artwork inspired by jellies themselves. For example, the entrance featured a display of seaforms by Dale Chihuly. I wandered through the show several times in one afternoon. I kept returning to it. (The show is now closed; I arrived at the Aquarium in its last week or two, and was grateful I'd seen it.)

My favorite room was the moon jellies room, which was very dimly lit, with jellies in tanks on two walls, and the other two walls being mirrored. The visitor can see him or herself, but only dimly, and the mirrors also reflect the moving jellies on the other walls. A quiet room, a meditative room, very calm and quiet. A kind of sacred space, with living things as the objects of contemplation. It made a terrific meditation room.

And there were more baroque forms, more colorful, more exotic. Tentacles colored by algae growing symbiotically within the jelly itself.

Jellies are drifters: they flow with the ocean currents, and their food comes to them. They are mostly made of water, and in some species are almost invisible to the eye. Others glow as though alive with light, sending rainbows through the water. In the tanks, they moved slowly, pulsing gently, sometimes drifting upside down in their weightless environment. The moon jellies in particular rhythmically pulse, gently moving themselves through the water by inflating and contracting. It was hypnotic to watch for a long period of time.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things Acquired Along the Way 2

I'm mostly done with this long photo and video road trip; I start heading from home on Saturday, although I have planned one or two more stops along the way. I plan to visit Yellowstone, and the Tetons, the places I frequented the most, when I was first studying geology as a freshman in university. It will be good to see them again; I anticipate a sense of returning home.

I'm in Portland, OR, at the moment, having just ridden the city bus to and from the legendary Powell's Books, the store that takes up an entire city block (not counting, however, the technical book store annex a couple blocks away, and their warehouse, and other branches, etc.). It's a dangerous place for an obsessive reader to find oneself. I came away mostly unscathed, but I did acquire a few new books that match my current obsessions. Two of these books were on photography; one was purely poetry; and the fourth combines both.

I realized in the past few days, thinking and reading about poetry as I was traveling, that the poetry that speaks to me is the poetry that engages all of the senses, the soma, the embodied self. I have little taste for, or use for, poetry that is disembodied and overly-intellectual, that is all mindgame instead of experience. So I found myself in Powell's, in their extensive poetry section, guiltlessly skipping over most of the poets currently lauded and praised in the literary capitals of the east coast, and hunting for books by poets who I feel close to, who I never tire of reading. I skipped over the Ashberys and the Language Poets, I skipped over the hip younger poets. I went directly to the shelves where Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, Loren Eiseley, Odysseas Elytis, Octavio Paz, Rilke, and others live. I took my time, and fingered no small number of titles, choosing my way carefully in view of my already-overburdened travel budget.

I circled around Robinson Jeffers again. He is mentioned, or is a topic, in three of the four books I acquired at Powell's today. I held in hands some expensive first editions of his books of poetry, although I did not feel I could justify the expense.

Loren Eiseley: All the Night Wings. A posthumous collection of all his previously uncollected poems, making up a fourth book of poems that ranges from his very early, formalist verse, to the poem he left in a drawer to be found after his death, Beware, My Successor. Jeffers is mentioned as an influence in the preface.

I tend to be a compleatist, finding and reading everything I can by an author I have come to love; but I would have bought this book anyway, on the strength of Eiseley's last poem. It's a poem I feel an urge to read aloud, for others to hear. "Successor" is a technical term in geology, and it is this meaning as well as the human meaning that is in the poem: those who come after us, in the long eras after we are extinct. The poem is a meditation on the many trees he has known, in many parts of the world, all of whom whisper to the poet that he, too, will pass, while they remain. The poem ends with a very Eiseley-like warning to us all, not to be complacent about the poet's passing; some essence will linger to haunt us, as he has been haunted.

Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition, by photography historian and biographer Nancy Newhall. This is the final edition of Newhall's overview anthology of Weston's work, begun as an exhibition catalog and expanded several times into a very expansive book. The book includes numerous photos from all his periods and subjects, with excerpts from Weston's Daybooks and letters. (The only thing missing here is Weston's late explorations in to color photography.) It's a good place to start digging into Weston, and further into Adams, as I see now I must do. The reconciliation I must make with black and white photography and the unavoidable influence of this generation of early photographers on their successors, myself included. In Yosemite, as I was photographing, I was often thinking in black and white as I framed a composition, and I was thoroughly haunted by my awareness of the presence of both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as photographers who had seen what I have now seen. Let no one ever convince you there is no such thing as the magic of place; Yosemite and Big Sur and Devil's Tower and Joshua Tree prove that there is.

Two pages, one text and one a portrait, are devoted to Jeffers in Weston's book. Weston describes the poet's self-awareness, which at first he thought skewed the portrait session away from the natural but then realized that Jeffers in fact was a person who knew exactly who he was, and that was what the photos captured. Una Jeffers thought these were the best portraits of Robinson ever taken.

Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast; Lines from Robinson Jeffers. (This is my second copy of this book, bought ultra-cheap here, and to finish my travels with, since I have just been there, seen that, photographed it, and have been thinking about it.) Originally published by the Sierra Club, this is an anthology from several photographers, including Weston, Adams, Wynn Bullock, Eliot Porter, and several others. The book sets many lines from Jeffers; poems side-by-side with the photographs. This is a book that can serve as a good introduction to Jeffers, as well as to what the landscape was in the middle of the 20th century. (It's more "developed" now, although many places have been preserved as pristinely as possible.) To bring this all full circle, Loren Eiseley contributes the Foreword to this volume, and there is a color portrait of the poet made by Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams, Our National Parks. This is a book I've been seeing on the shelves at all the shops at all the state and national parks along the California coast, this past week and more. I've picked it up to look through more than once. Today I succumbed, and took it home with me. The book contains many well-known Adams images, and focuses on the "national park idea" that Adams' work as both photographer and founder of the Sierra Club were instrumental in bringing before the public's eye. It is in some ways a polemic, in other ways a celebration, in yet other ways a history. What ties it all together is the gorgeous sensuality of Adams' diverse photographs, every one of them beautifully presented.

I've had it in my mind as a personal project to visit as many of the National Parks as I can, and photograph them anew. I'm well on my way, but again I am confronted with the precedence of Adams' own body of work. How do you deal with your predecessors (who haunt us a Eiseley warns us they will)? You sometimes feel the futility of trying to replicate, or even match much less exceed, their examples. It all seems worthless. Yet you have to keep going, keep making your own art. If you must ignore the early masters, in order to not feel paralyzed by futility, then by all means ignore them; reconciliation and understanding can come later. Work only in the present moment. All other considerations are secondary. Weston writes about that: focus on the work, and ignore everything else. Usually it falls into place, anyway, whether or not you expend much worry on it.

If you stop in Coos Bay, OR, there is a used book store on southbound Hwy. 101, in the Koski Bldg. located next to the old Tioga Hotel building (the huge "Tioga" sign is still there); northbound and southbound traffic streams are split in downtown Coos Bay, as though they were rivulets around an inner island of city blocks. The writing section is in the back of the store, and a real treat. I got several very good books very cheap, including William Maxwell's book of review-essays

I picked up from their One Dollar Bargain Room two books, including a collection of Auden's essays, The Dyer's Hand. The other book is a history of printing in the 20th century, with examples of the lithographs and other prints by well-known artists throughout the century.

And I found a slim volume published in 1974: A Yosemite Album: Fifteen Photographs by Ansel Adams. This contains many beautiful photos of Yosemite, some not as well known as his most famous images, with an introductory excerpt about the Valley by Nancy Newhall, and a postscript by Adams called "Photography in Yosemite" that is essentially a guideline for the amateur or professional photographer. It's Adams in teaching mode, and it's all good advice about photography in general, not just in Yosemite. One wonders if this volume was produced, like a portfolio, for sale in the Park, or for promotional purposes. The reproductions are lovely, the imagery iconic.

It's interesting to me, looking back on Adams and Weston, and feeling it necessary to finally come to grips with their work as a photographer myself, now that I have seen and photographed many of their archetypal locales: Big Sur, Carmel, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley. There was something self-consciously heroic about this first or second generation of Art Photographers (as opposed to snapshotters, who have always been with us, and will always be, since the invention of the Brownie camera and cheap Kodak film; now they have cellphone cameras that upload directly to the websites, for example). This first generation fought a lot of battles for artistic respectability, and their legacy is that some photography, at least, has indeed become artistically respectable. As I've discussed before, at least some black and white photography has; color still retains the aura of the dismissed snapshot. It colors their rhetoric. Their writings are sometimes defensive, as well as explanatory. There are times when you can hear them implicitly explaining themselves to those who refuse to listen, vicariously, via essay or memoir or letter, rather than directly. One feels as if one is overhearing the early statements in an argument that is still going on, although the photographers thought it would be settled, if not in their lifetimes, then soon after. This creates a historical context to one's own work.

I have yet to reconcile the younger Adams—who is full of teacher's joy and infectious enthusiasm as he leads groups into the mountains for long hikes, as he shows his photos in the nation's capital in part to promote the National Park system and environmental preservation—with the older Adams, the master printer and writer of photography how-to books, the inventor of the zone system, and the occasionally stubborn cuss. I find the younger Adams very appealing; his friendships with Stieglitz, his mentor in photography, with Georgia O'Keeffe, with whom he shared many subjects of interest, and with Weston, with whom he worked side by side to articulate and sell the idea that photography is a valid artform. The older Adams I have found harder to embrace. Having been to Yosemite now, though, and feeling haunted by Adams' legacy when I was making photographs there, I see I need to look again at the old master, and find a way towards a deeper empathy.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

San Francisco

cliffs on the hill
resolve to become buildings

mountains in air become
glass steel towers
reflecting light

clouds rolling
nothing stops them

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Against Argument Culture

There is a great deal wrong, nowadays, with literary criticism, poetry criticism, and the culture of workshopping critique. About that, if about nothing else, many are in agreement. But what I perceive as one of the main problems seems so endemic to the culture of criticism that it is an uphill struggle getting anyone to notice it. It's just as bad, or worse, in the political arena (which I will dip into later by way of example although I usually avoid discussing politics here) as it is in the literary arena.

To lay the groundwork for my own position, here are some short excerpts from For Argument's Sake; Why Do We Feel Compelled to Fight About Everything? by Deborah Tannen:

Everywhere we turn, there is evidence that, in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation. Headlines blare about the Starr Wars, the Mommy Wars, the Baby Wars, the Mammography Wars; everything is posed in terms of battles and duels, winners and losers, conflicts and disputes. Biographies have metamorphosed into demonographies whose authors don't just portray their subjects warts and all, but set out to dig up as much dirt as possible, as if the story of a person's life is contained in the warts, only the warts, and nothing but the warts.

It's all part of what I call the argument culture, which rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate. The best way to cover news is to find people who express the most extreme views and present them as "both sides." The best way to begin an essay is to attack someone. The best way to show you're really thoughtful is to criticize. The best way to settle disputes is to litigate them.

It is the automatic nature of this response that I am calling into question. This is not to say that passionate opposition and strong verbal attacks are never appropriate. In the words of the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, "There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language." What I'm questioning is the ubiquity, the knee-jerk nature of approaching almost any issue, problem or public person in an adversarial way.

Smashing heads does not open minds. In this as in so many things, results are also causes, looping back and entrapping us. The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression: We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake—for the sake of argument. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and we often feel guilty if we are conciliatory rather than confrontational—even if we achieve the result we're seeking.

. . .

The roots of our love for ritualized opposition lie in the educational system that we all pass through. Here's a typical scene: The teacher sits at the head of the classroom, pleased with herself and her class. The students are engaged in a heated debate. The very noise level reassures the teacher that the students are participating. Learning is going on. The class is a success.

But look again, cautions Patricia Rosof, a high school history teacher who admits to having experienced just such a wave of satisfaction. On closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently. And the students who are arguing are not addressing subtleties, nuances or complexities of the points they are making or disputing. They don't have that luxury because they want to win the argument—so they must go for the most dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent's point—even if they see its validity—because that would weaken their position.

This aggressive intellectual style is cultivated and rewarded in our colleges and universities. The standard way to write an academic paper is to position your work in opposition to someone else's. This creates a need to prove others wrong, which is quite different from reading something with an open mind and discovering that you disagree with it. Graduate students learn that they must disprove others' arguments in order to be original, make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability. The temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent other positions, the better to refute them.

. . .

Staging everything in terms of polarized opposition limits the information we get rather than broadening it. For one thing, when a certain kind of interaction is the norm, those who feel comfortable with that type of interaction are drawn to participate, and those who do not feel comfortable with it recoil and go elsewhere. If public discourse included a broad range of types, we would be making room for individuals with different temperaments. But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse—or choose not to—are likely to opt out.

But perhaps the most dangerous harvest of the ethic of aggression and ritual fighting is . . . an atmosphere of animosity that spreads like a fever. In extreme forms, it rears its head in road rage and workplace shooting sprees. In more common forms, it leads to what is being decried everywhere as a lack of civility. It erodes our sense of human connection to those in public life—and to the strangers who cross our paths and people our private lives.

I am struck by how pertinent Tannen's analysis is to the general tone of discourse in the world of poetry criticism in specific, and to the world of literary criticism in general. The distinction that Tannen makes between legitimate disagreement and ritual combat is an extremely important one that is mostly overlooked. It's never wrong to state your disagreement with someone's comments—such as sweeping generalizations, outright untruths, and things that touch on social justice issues including civil rights and hate speech—but how we respond, the style with which disagreement is undertaken, matters a great deal.

There are poets and critics who I generally like as persons, whose opinions and judgments on literary matters I often agree with. But I can't talk to them anymore, can't dialogue with them, can't engage with them, because they will relentlessly pursue their position to absurd lengths in order to be In The Right. They can’t let go of an argument. They pursue fine details, they pounce on others' irrelevant inconsistencies while denying their own, and they refuse to let go until they are the last voice standing—like a rat terrier that will not stop shaking the rat it's been given until the rat submits and dies. Such inveterate arguers cannot concede any points, even ones they have in other discussions stated their agreement with, because conceding a point somehow seems weak to them; sometimes you can get a factual correction, but even if the facts contradict the argument, they find a way to spin it. (Tannen’s examples of academic arguments, and lawyers arguing, are the model here.) This ends up making them look bizarre, because in different discussions they have openly contradicted themselves, leading to the appearance of inconsistency at best, and irrational extremism at worst. Such critics are arguing for the sake of arguing: argument has become their dominant and only style. It is with regret that I say I can't talk to them anymore, because I used to enjoy doing so; yet as their discourse gets ever more and more strident, ever more heated, ever more personal—since, when a position is shown to be hollow, the personal insults usually kick in—I have had to back away. You can’t call these people on their bullshit without risking a violent repercussion. As in the schoolyard, the biggest, loudest bullies usually win, since after awhile no one will talk back to them.

This is no way to live. It's also no way to become famous in the literary world, unless one wants to be known mostly as a gadfly and arguer rather than a deep thinker with some worthwhile ideas to contribute. Yet it has become one very dominant style of discourse within lit crit.

I am not saying that one should not stand up for a good cause when one finds one. I have never said that. There is always good reason to speak out against injustice and hatred, including hate speech. As Abraham Heschel once said, A prophet interferes with injustice, often by speaking out against it when all others seem afraid to. Talking back to the bullies is sometimes unavoidable because keeping mum is worse.

But not every encounter requires anger and an aggressive response. You don't have to turn every statement you make into militancy. There is room, in critical discourse and in general human relationship, for conviviality and cohesion, for compromise and agreement. It doesn't all have to be disagreement for disagreement's sake, and it doesn't always have to be stated aggressively from the very start.

The problem is that when you see the world through only one mindset, you oversimplify the world, and in the end respond inappropriately, because you’ve lost your discrimination. When you’re a hammer, all you can see are nails, waiting to be hit down. Argument for its own sake is a trap. It can alienate rather than win over the reader. When you always state things aggressively from the very start, even when no one is disagreeing with you, you create the very climate of disagreement you claim to be reacting to: you create what you expect, and the Universe being accommodating, you get it back, thus creating a feedback loop or vicious circle.

When I read a critical essay or book or movie review in which the writer has assumed from the start that anyone who disagrees with him must be an idiot, I have no incentive to respond, to be in dialogue, or to reply in any way. I have every incentive to move on, silently, because this style of discourse projects the impression that the critic's mind is already closed, and discussion with them not only won't get anywhere, it will likely devolve into personal attacks almost immediately. "Attack my position, attack my person" is the trope when an essayist or poet cannot bear contradiction. Domination is the name of the game, as though literature were mud wrestling. Then again, based on a great deal of literary criticism I've skimmed of late, lit crit is mud wrestling—except wrestling has rules.

It should be obvious how this style of argumentative discourse, when it becomes the default style—when it becomes so commonplace that no one even seems to notice it—only aggravates the polarizations and oppositions, political, social, literary, artistic and personal, that are already in place. Rather than seeking to find common ground so that practical actions can be undertaken, politics for example has become so completely polarized that the mere attempt to find common ground with the opposing political party can get one labeled a traitor. This became blatantly obvious during the neoconservative push, after 9.11.2001, which has eroded a great deal of civil rights and turned democracy towards totalitarianism, in comments from the administration that labeled all disagreement as treason. But politics is only one arena in which this argument culture exists; although don't expect the media to notice it, because they are complicit and highly invested in it, as Tannen points out.

As Tannen observes, one casualty of this climate of argument is purely civil disagreement. Everything has to be a battle, rather than a discussion. Gleeful demolition of the opposing viewpoints is the goal, rather than rapprochement.

But another casualty is nuance, subtlety, slow reasoning towards thoughtful conclusions. When everyone is shouting at each other, there is no time for reflection or balance. When's the last time you read a genuinely balanced, nuanced in the details, essay review? If it's been a while, you might ask yourself why.

A side-effect of argument culture is its mirror-inversion: preaching to the choir. A great deal of discourse, when it isn't argumentative, is sycophantic. We see interviews in literature and politics alike wherein no disagreement or questioning is allowed, but only fawning praise. Reviews tend to be either promotional pieces or demolitions. Rarely is there a measured, nuanced book review that points out a book's strengths as well as its weaknesses, or vice versa. When such review essays do occur, the dominant discourse dismisses them as soft, as waffling, as mere opinion. Having a strong response to a book, a strong opinion, is no bad thing, even if you don’t think it’s a great work of art, the Great American Novel, or the Beast Poetry Ever. Merely having a strong response is suspect when criticism itself has become polarized into a ridiculous either/or us vs. them mentality in which a more subtle both/and approach is dismissed out of hand.

This state of affairs has also run rampant on the online poetry critique boards: everything has become polarized into either attack or support-group-style praise. Where in this is there room for genuine criticism, especially constructive criticism that is meant to help the writer do better next time? Nowhere, it seems. Discourse is mostly personal, rather than focused on the poem itself.

When argument has become the dominant style, and contentiousness the normal mode, it's wearisome, even when you agree with most of the criticisms. When the logic of one's position is shown to be weak, or incomplete, or inconsistent—that is, when one's argument is shown to fail—that's when the vicious name-calling begins. And a great deal of critical argument, especially in poetry, is disguised name-calling.

Of course, the heated rhetoric serves only to remind the dispassionate observer that, really, there isn't anything at stake here. In poetry criticism as in academia in general, the less something matters the more vicious the arguments tend to be become. They run in opposite proportions.

Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.
—Richard Bach, from The Messiah's Handbook in his novel Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

There is another mode. That mode is to supersede argument culture and just state one's own truth. What ever happened to simply stating one's truth, and not caring if you beat someone into submission with it?

But, you might say, what good is that? How can you get anyone to listen to you, if you don't win them over? The economic argument: How else can you convince them to buy your books? The marketing argument: How can you get them to notice to you if you aren’t at least as loud and obnoxious as everyone else?

Granted that contemporary culture and media are very strident. Granted that the signal-to-noise ratio is very weighted towards noise. Granted that shouting is something that seems increasingly necessary, just to be heard. Those who remain silent are always overlooked, the conventional (advertising) wisdom goes. Those who push forth themselves and their work, who are relentless self-marketers are the ones who succeed, despite the quality of their wares, because success in the mundane world is measured by popularity, by exposure, by celebrity, and by money. One might list a few writers who have become notorious celebrities because they're gadflies, not because anyone will publish their work. When does lit crit become gossip columnists' fare? That's a tricky edge to negotiate.

Again, these are all marketing and economic arguments that have nothing to do with literary merit. They may in fact all be true arguments. But is it a world you want to live in? A world of relentless self-marketing and self-display?

There is another mode. It is indeed a quieter mode, and indeed perhaps it will not be a conventional success in terms of marketing, of egoistic artistic radical self-expression (the problematic word there being "self"), and indeed might not make you rich and famous. But it is a valid mode nonetheless. It is the spiritual mode—one of many spiritual modes, actually, but one that many wise teachers over the years quietly mention again and again. It is the mode of quiet self-respect, of self-interest without ego-inflation. It is the mode of self-esteem rather than instant gratification. It is the mode of nonviolent resistance.

The simplest way to resist argument culture is to refuse to participate in it, or glorify it, or engage in it as the default mode of discourse.

Again, this doesn't mean one must be silent, or that one must never speak out against injustice or untruth. But it does imply a refusal to engage on the level of argument for argument’s sake.

The interesting thing to observe is how many determined arguers make fools of themselves when it has become obvious that they really have no reason to be so aggressive, since no one is arguing back. They shoot themselves in the foot and prove themselves to be fools be the simple act of being unable to understand any other kind of discourse, up to and including silent disagreement. They know they’re not wining over the crowd, but they don’t know why, and they begin to flail about, searching for a good fight.

Talking past them really upsets them, too, because by refusing to engage with them directly, you mock them, or so they think. Determined arguers take disagreement very personally.

Yet it has always been possible to change the rules of discourse mid-flight. A reply from a different direction or attitude is still discourse. It's just that you've refused to play by the given rules, and have changed them to suit yourself, or your analysis of the situation.

The truly flexible mind understands this.

Argument culture is sandbox culture, it’s schoolyard bully culture: when being right is more important than finding the truth or reaching agreement, mutually and together, than you know you're dealing with the infantile bully. The truly flexible mind, dare one say adult mind, is capable of finding the right style of discourse for each occasion, of developing an appropriate response rather than an aggressively knee-jerk response.

To the truly flexible mind, argument is only one palette of discourse among many, and one is free to choose which style of discourse is appropriate to the moment.

Having only one style of discourse, as Deborah Tannen implies in her analysis of argument culture, is stifling rather than illuminating. It is inherently self-limiting, as is any unitary style. Having a range of options is always better than having only one.

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Labyrinth, inlaid in stone on the floor of the nave, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA

I took the bus up Nob HIll to visit Grace Cathedral, and the AIDS Interfaith Memorial chapel, and the labyrinth. I hadn't intended to walk the labyrinth today, but I found myself doing so, after sitting for awhile in the Interfaith chapel, and thinking about all the family and friends I have lost this past year and more. I felt moved to walk the labyrinth in no particular hurry, but not dawdling, either. I have at times walked various labyrinths very slowly, with timed, measured steps, which creates in me a deep meditative experience. This time I felt like I was shedding and releasing old burdens, leaving them in the center, with the Divine. I actually felt lighter and happier walking out from the center afterwards; had I been alone in the Cathedral, I might have skipped through the turns rather than walk them as usual.

As I was leaving the Cathedral, I stopped by the outdoor labyrinth, and made a quick one-brushstroke drawing of an image that had come to me a few minutes after finishing my labyrinth walk.

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Teaching Myself to Draw 4

Yesterday I went up to Jenner, CA, where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean. This is well-known as a resort and vacation area. At Goat Rock Beach State Park, just south of the River mouth, there is an archway in a huge outcropping, out to sea some several hundred yards. I have photographed this location several times over the years, in different lights, different weather conditions, and at different times of day and year.

The strand per se was crowded with people, although no one goes very far into the water here, as there are dangerous and unpredictable riptides and undertows. (I discovered later that someone had drowned here the day before I was there.)

I took several photos of the water, the receding waves, the folded and faulted metamorphic geology, and driftwood: all similar, twisted, fractal forms.

On the way here, we stopped in Novato at an arts and crafts supply store, and I bought myself several very nice, very expensive Prismacolor pencils. I have been teaching myself to draw with cheap, ordinary colored pencils. I was told early on that it was a good idea to start with the poorer-quality materials, and learn my craft using those; that way, when I moved up to better materials, I would find them much easier to work with. I found this to be true almost immediately. The new pencils were smooth and sensuous, almost silky on the page, and extremely easy to draw and shade with. After taking lots of photos, and some video, I sat on an outcrop above the waterline and drew plein aire for awhile. The following drawing is from life:

This uses only two colors, blue and silver. It's pretty good, if sketchy. I feel like I have a long way to go, still, but I am able to convert seen forms into drawings a little more smoothly each time I sit down to draw now. I am going to try drawing this scene again later, using the photos as reference, for comparison. This is a loose sketch.

Today, I was sitting in a café on Mission St. in downtown San Francisco, sitting in the warm sunlight, waiting to meet up with a friend for conversation and snacks. I have found the archways in the islands along the Pacific Coast fascinating since I first encountered them, years ago. I keep taking new photographs of them, every time I go by. It's a topic that deeply interests me: what new worlds can be seen through these doors and windows into other worlds, into other light?

So it's no surprise that I drew the archway again this noon. This time, though, the drawing is in my straight-edged style, and drawn more from memory than from reference. It's interesting to compare the two drawings. The first is mostly realistic, while the second is abstracted from nature. It might be interesting to go a few more times through the abstraction process, till what's left on the page is lines of energy rather than a pictorial representation. This is of course one technique that the Cubists and other abstract artists started to explore almost a century ago, that led to more and more abstraction.

I am not interested in Abstract Expressionism, frankly; I am interested for now is continuing to learn to draw and sketch from nature more or less representationally. But neither am I interested in photorealistic depiction, or such draftsmanship precision that would take me days to execute. I enjoy drawing quickly, even if nothing Fine Art emerges from the process; I like the process of seeing what works, in the moment. And if a drawing fails, rather than trying to revise it towards perfection, far better to start over on a new drawing.

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Monday, September 08, 2008

New Directions 2

Sevier Dry Lake, UT

I was having a conversation with one of my oldest, most durable friends. It was the day after the funeral of the father of one of our mutual best friends. The evening was wearing on, and the light failing as we sat on my screened-in porch, which is my de facto summer dining room, after I'd cooked dinner for two. She was filling me in on her recent experiences with her ongoing spiritual and educational explorations, and her own travels across the country this past year.

We got to talking to about how neither or us is interested in beginning-level studies anymore. We've both done lots of workshops and seminars; we're both Reiki Masters; we're both experienced and certified in multiple energy-work and body-work modalities. (I don't write about this often here, because it's not related to creativity, except in terms of energy dynamics; but it's a whole 'nother universe I operate in nonetheless.) She had just been through an intensive, advanced workshop experience, taking place out in the wilderness, and had come through it well, with insights and new knowledge about herself.

There are precursor workshops to the advanced ones in most systems these days. But we both agreed that neither of us wanted, or even needed, to do the beginning-level work anymore. We framed it as: we want to do grad-school level studies from now on, and no more elementary-school studies. In the disciplines we've both studied and explored over the years, from art-making (she has two degrees in art, I have one in music) to alternative healing and spirituality, neither of us are beginners anymore.

I frame this to myself also as deriving from an increased awareness of my own limited time on this plane. I have a lot I want to get done, and a lot I want to do for other people; so constantly recycling what I already know by being required to take beginning-level coursework is a waste of my time and energy. I have no objections to the work per se, and everybody starts out as a beginner. And I'm not a beginner anymore. This is purely an energy-management issue: an efficient use of my time and energy, when I am still recovering from a long period of having little of either. What I have I value highly, and I no longer have much tolerance for people who are wasting my time, especially on their own agendas which have nothing to do with mine. Life is too short to waste a lot of time recycling teachings you already know and live.

Now, gradually, I find myself starting to write poetry again, although it still feels like some new and unknown direction, with a lot of false starts and no certain roadmap. I often write more when I'm on the road then when I'm at home. I write a lot in my handwritten journal, sitting or lying in the tent before going to bed, or just after waking up, when I'm out there camping while traveling. Something is unique and special about writing longhand in a journal when you're in a tent, on the road; it's a similar rootedness to sleeping outdoors like that, where you can hear every breath of wind through the leaves around you, and the passage of the night beasts and birds.

I've written a few new haibun and haiku; I'm always writing haiku, even if they mostly aren't so good. I've also started but haven't brought to completion a couple of more complex poems, from the series with titles in Greek. I keep getting ideas for this series whenever I encounter one of these Greek epistemological and theological terms. The poems might be idea-triggered, but they're still visceral. I expect my poetry to only become even more of what it already is: vatic; shamanic; visceral; mythopoetic and archetypal. I don't expect to back down from that.

The surreal bit of life surrounding my poetry is that I continue to be dismissed as experimental while simultaneously belonging to no camp of avant-gardism: this rejection is mutual. I have no use for avant-gardism for its own sake, and even less for literary fashion. I simply happen to be writing poetry that isn't like much else being written right now. That makes you an experimenter by default, even though I can also trace influences and inspirations back centuries, and even could place myself in a lineage of visionary, vatic poetry; or so it could be argued. But I'm not interested in literary fashion (a lot of what's hot in writing online is very much flash fashion with little probable durability), I'm interested in truth-telling and something that is eternal as well as particular.

The new direction(s) I am pursuing have no fixed markers or guides; a lot of this road is fog-shrouded and uncertain, turning back on itself the way tight, winding canyon roads follow the creek up or down until reaching either sea or mountain pass. If you asked me where I was going, as though all art was pre-planned and thought-out beforehand, as though all art was intentional and consciously-directed, I'd have to laugh and shake my head in disbelief. Most of the time I have no clue what I'm doing or where I'm going. I'm on the road, far from my new home, and completely aware that getting back home will be as much an adventure as leaving it as been. Nothing on this road trip that was planned has stayed in place; as a great general once said, Even the best battle plans never survive first engagement with the enemy. Everything in life is provisional, and subject to revision. So, sometimes I find the idea of intent in art laughable, at other times I find the idea of pre-planning what one is going to do in a piece equally laughable. This is not a wholesale dismissal of pre-visualization, as Edward Weston called his planning process. What it is, rather, is an awareness of how provisional life itself is—much less the art we make from life.

Everything is provisional. Don't take any plans too seriously. Even your own plans. And especially your plans for the art you want to make: take those plans as even more provisional than most.

What I have been doing more and more is giving over my complete trust to instinct and intuition—putting it into practice, not merely theorizing about it, but putting it into practice with trust and attentive listening; which makes this a far more radical process than mere "radical artistic self-expression." In giving over my process to intuition, not only has my intuition become more highly-trained and accurate in both mundane and cosmic levels of operation, but I have been led to surprises that have made me feel alive again, as an artist and a person, for the first time in many months. A wise man once said that, since fear and excitement feel exactly the same—all we do is judge one negatively and the other positively, but as far as our bodies, glands and neurochemistry are concerned they are nearly identical states—each time we feel that state, we might as well choose to call it excitement rather than fear.

If you are brave enough to choose excitement over fear, then you might be brave enough to trust your own artistic intuition, and stop trying to turn it into a mentally-directed, logical, intellectual, linear process. Just let it be what it is. Acceptance is the next virtue to be discovered, that unknown country where most artists till fear to tread.

Giving up control of your own creative process can, after all, be a terrifying loss of Control in those arenas of one's own life over which one has managed to scrape together some illusion of control. Yet that is exactly the perfect moment to choose excitement over fear. The perfect moment to trust your own process to not let you down, but to take you into your own best places. The perfect moment, in the end, in which to begin life anew with each new artwork. Which, since art is in some sense nothing other than co-creation with the Creator, is as it should be.

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