Friday, July 31, 2009

Morning Glory

Out in the garden in the high heat of the day, trimming and weeding. One of the morning-glories has started to bloom. At last the recovery of color in the green, greening, brown of time. Purple-red trumpets sexual at the ends of whirling vines. Yesterday more cold, gloomy, wet, rainy weather. The coldest, darkest, wettest July of record. Has summer actually begun now, or is it still an illusion. Be prepared for cold nights, no matter where or when. The trumpet flowers say, heat, heat us, oh the sun, oh bright sun, we love rising and opening, we open to you, rise, open, rise, open, wind, fall, return. Bees everywhere, our lovers. What are these iridescent scarabs lurking in the goldenrod. How we open, rise, and open, even to them. Our vanity is perilous, but lovely. Glory is a vine climbing towards the light, the light, towards sun, god, light, and high frail skies. We trail. We trail ourselves along your grasp. Available windows. A spout of rain. We rise, open, rise.

and in the midst
of roses, another rose:
bees, be not afraid

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Writing Aphorisms

Sometimes in life it's time to synthesize, to crystallize, to reflect upon experience in short, pithy sayings. These are called aphorisms. The word comes to us via French, sourced from the Greek aphorismos: to define, from apo- + horizein to bound. Aphorisms have come to mean a concise statement of a principle. Often short, pithy, and witty, aphorisms are a practice many writers have engaged in since antiquity.

The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas opens with the line: These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. It's in some ways the only Gospel I read anymore, as it seems closest to the source.

Oscar Wilde was a gifted aphorist. Many of his throw-away lines are wit embodied.

Yesterday I was thinking about dialogues with other writers I had been engaged in recently, discussing books, poems, and related matters. I am occasionally frustrated with my peers, as at times many seem to cling to opinion beyond reason. The aphoristic phrase came into my mind late yesterday:

An opinion that is not an informed opinion is just a prejudice.

I can accept an opinion from someone, even if I disagree with their opinion, if I am assured that they've done their reading, and have thought about their opinion. Right opinion, in the sense of right livelihood and right being, is based on experience, on going out there and seeing things for yourself, on having read the book you're making remarks about. Nothing is more awful than a book review where it's obvious the reviewer didn't actually read the book.

If I state an opinion, you can be certain I've done my homework, and I've thought about it. That's my rule of operation. Perhaps it's a variation on the stoic theme given by the Norwegian side of my ancestry: If you haven't got anything good to say, don't say anything. That's an aphorism with some cultural weight. I reinterpret it for myself as: I'll say any damned thing I want to, but before I say it I'll be sure to know what I'm talking about.

Which leads me to my follow-up aphorism:

Opinions based on prejudice are generally impervious to reason.

Nothing is as impervious to discussion as a fixed opinion, in which your interlocutor is intolerant of disagreement, rejects alternative interpretations, and likes to have the last word, even if it means shouting down all opposition in the most blatantly foolish manner visible. (Y'all know who you are: Literature World is full of such bloviators.)

Quick knee-jerk opinions, it must be made clear, are not the same as intuitions—those sudden knowings which are beyond doubt. Intuition is as available as sunlight; and it can be developed as a skill. If you take an instant emotional dislike to someone, that's usually prejudice, not an intuition—because genuine intuition tends to be emotionally neutral, just data, just a knowing, a gnosis that arrives unbidden and unwanted. Knee-jerk opinions are indistinguishable from prejudices primarily because they evince no thoughtfulness beforehand. Few things reveal a fool like the agility with which they put their foot in their mouth.

Which leads me to my next follow-up aphorism:

Prejudice reveals itself by its own reflexes.

So you see the process by which one might convert some thoughts into aphorisms. This is one way to write aphorisms, by distillation and compression to the least statement of a principle. It requires compression in one's writing style, and focus on the essentials. One is encouraged to prune away anything extraneous. In this, writing aphorisms is like writing haiku: nothing but the core, nothing extra.

When a writer reaches a certain age in their writing experience—which is coincident with but not identical to their calendar age—it's time to start distilling one's experience into aphorism. Think of it as refining what you know. You can find witty or humorous ways to state it, and you can also just be blunt. I appreciate aphoristic wit when I encounter it, but my own style tends towards the plain-spoken, even blunt.

As much as I enjoy reading discursive writing, the model of which is Montaigne's Essays, one can distill numerous aphorisms from the broad weave. Oscar Wilde often disguised his best aphorisms as asides in dialogue. One living novelist who often gives us many excellent aphorisms hidden within the weave of his narratives is Neil Gaiman.

When I was in high school, Creative Writing was offered as an English elective class in 11th Grade. I took that class with pleasure—so much for MFA programs, we did it in high school, thank you very much—and discovered I had a flair for the writing exercises and ways of thinking our teacher presented. My creative writing teacher, in fact, became one of my creative life's first real mentors, encouraging me to go further, helping me with extra reading and lessons, and encouraging me to submit my finished writings to contests and publications. So it was that a short story I wrote that year was published, and won a national award.

I look back on this now and realize that this was the experience that kindled my first real interest in writing. Writing as self-expression, certainly. But more importantly, it was a realization that writing was another artistic medium by which I could interpret the world to myself. Writing was a lens through which I could explore the world, explore myself, explore my friendships and relationships, and learn about them. Writing is a kind of self-learning, a form of reflection. The living paradox is that one goes inward to learn about the outer life: writing as a practice is solitary, introverted, but what it can teach you about living and relationships is profound. As novelist Jerzy Kosinski once remarked in an interview, Novels are a rehearsal for life. Now there's an aphorism for the ages.

One exercise we were given in creative writing class was to carry around a notebook and notate everything we observed. I did this with my full attention, not realizing at the time that this was precisely the same kind of mindfulness that I later learned from studying Zen meditation. Pay attention! I'm sure I looked a little strange, walking around my neighborhood that week, stopping every few feet to scribble some few words in a palm-sized notebook. But what I learned from that practice, which I still do, is to observe closely, to see things clearly just as they are, without the filters of prejudgment, and transform them into words. This practice was foundational. It is the root and spring of writing even now. I am a writer who observes, who chooses the telling detail from the broad weave, who follows the image or experience wherever it leads. I have become an explorer, an adventurer; which is one reason I keep inventing new poetic forms rather than repeating stale ones: it's a way of fitting experience into the most perfect display container.

What does this have to do with aphorisms? My creative teacher was fond of them. One day we all wrote aphorisms in class, and some of the kids revealed both wit that made us all life, and some real wisdom that made us stop and think. There were several aphorisms our teacher was fond of repeating on appropriate occasions. Here are two of them, one humorous, and one profound.

Monads are essentially windowless.

And they also have a topological value of zero. Think about it.

The Kingdom of Boredom is within you.

I have to say, I took that latter saying to heart. I have therefore almost never been bored. In thinking about the aphorism, I realized that boredom is a luxury of the young, and never a necessity. It's easy to be bored if you're young and understimulated. But the solution is to go out and do something. Or invent a game. Or go for a bike ride. Or read a book. I did all of those things. I can honestly say that boredom is something I rarely experience.

When I do feel something like boredom, I now recognize it as acedia, the dryness of spirit, the noonday demon, that is a warning sign of spiritual discontent, of the nearness of the dark night of the soul. Acedia is a modern condition par excellence, in our culture which supplies us with Unlimited Stuff and Endless Entertainment, but at the unfortunate cost of depth of feeling. Far better to be passionate than bored. Far better to be engaged with life at full volume, at full intensity—as with Walt Whitman, Odysseas Elytis, Frederick Franck—than to be dried up, bored, and mental. Oscar Wilde's pose of dissolute boredom was in truth a pose: a mask that concealed his passionate engagements with life, words, and relationships. It seems to me that the greatest poets, the greatest artists, have all been passionately engaged with life—sometimes with its quietude and silence rather than its voluptuousness, but engaged nonetheless.

This morning I began reading Kathleen Norris's book Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. There are almost no books currently that explore acedia as the root of modern discontent. We're not really bored, we're not really depressed, as a culture, we're in the grip of acedia. The only other books I know of that approach our cultural malaise from this direction are Andrew Solomon's brilliant book The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression, and the "Via Negativa" section of Matthew Fox's book Original Blessing.

I look back over where I began this essay, which has wandered far off into parallel universes, and I realize that my original aphorism, An opinion that is not an informed opinion is just a prejudice, in fact does contain a comment about acedia. Prejudices are one symptom of acedia. Opinions that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things are another. As Norris writes:

It is indeed acedia's world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. Now more than ever we need contrarians like Thomas Merton, who once told a Louisville store clerk who had asked what brand of toothpaste he preferred, "I don't care." Merton was intrigued by the man's response. "He almost dropped dead," he wrote. "I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest of something with five colors. And they all have a secret ingredient. But I didn't care about the secret ingredient." Merton concluded that "the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things."
—from Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, p. 125

The worst thing, if you listen to the advertising and marketing gurus. The best thing, if you listen to your soul.

And that's where I was going with this meditation on writing aphorisms all along: As a way that I have used to combat acedia in my own soul. Writing as a tool of self-revelation, indeed, or self-expression. But much more, writing as a tool of discovering and making relevant to the self what really matters: of discovering what there is to live for, on those days I can't find any other reasons to keep on going.

Acedia, the Kingdom of Boredom, is a killer because it kills meaning. Camus' crisis of doubt in the meaning of existence itself can lead either to death or to overcoming. (And Camus always points us towards overcoming, unlike Sartre, who pointed resolutely at death.) Writing is fighting back the noonday demon, beating it with sticks and braces, till it retreats. If only for today.

Fight acedia. Write an aphorism. Don't be bored. Give a damn about what really matters.

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Summer Storm Clouds

Optional soundtrack: Storm Sirens    

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Robert Frost at Derry

images from the Robert Frost homestead at Derry, NH

Coming down from Maine, wandering through the winding New England roads, arriving in the early afternoon at Derry to visit a friend, it turns out there's a Robert Frost place there. This was his first independent home where he raised his family, a century ago now, where he first began to be a poet, to write and gather poems into what were eventually published as his first three books. (Originally published as books in London, when the Frost family was living in England, they were republished in the US when Frost brought his family home at the beginning of World War I. It was at this point that "Robert Frost, the Poet" began to become famous. This was the beginning of his long career.)

Touring the Robert Frost Farm at Derry was a good day well spent. This is the house where Frost was a failure as a farmer, where he tried to be a teacher, and wrote his first two or three books’ worth of poems.

In one of the publications for sale at the Derry farm, which I purchased, there are some passages about Frost at Derry that give some context:

. . . in 1900, when Robert Frost accepted his doctor's advice that he should get out of the city of Lawrence and into the countryside, somewhere, because it seemed that he might be suffering from tuberculosis, he found in New Hampshire exactly the kind of farm he wanted. It was a small farm, roughly two miles south of Derry Village, on the Londonderry Turnpike. But he needed some help because of his illness. . . . Frost, depressed by many troubles besides illness, needed all the help he could get. Perhaps the best indication of how near to suicide he came, during this period of discouragement, is provided by the poem entitled "Despair," written soon after he reached Derry. In this poem, the speaker is represented as imagining that he has drowned himself and is glad he is dead. In later years, Frost could not remember how he managed to overcome his recurrently dangerous moods of despair, during the first year on the Derry farm. . . .

In later years, when Robert Frost spoke of his life on the Derry farm, he was always quick to admit that he might have been a better farmer if he hadn't been so lazy; he never did make a financial success of it. Finally, his need for more money, to support his growing family, caused him to secure a teaching position at Pinkerton Academy in Derry Village, starting in March of 1906. . . .

—from Robert Frost's Affection for New Hampshire, by Lawrence Thompson (pamphlet reprint of a lecture-article given in 1967)

Many casual readers are used to thinking of Robert Frost as a bucolic, backwoods, pastoral, reflective and mostly positive-minded poet, a traditional rhymed verse poet of the countryside and woods and small towns. And he was all that, in many poems. But it was also a performance, a mask he presented in his poems. In fact, his poetry is often darker and more bleak than many casual readers ever suspect. He fought lifelong against the same depression he battled in Derry, and he could display towering egotism which he himself knew was a hedge against his own doubts and fears. Many of his poems contain undercurrents of shadow, of the awareness of the impermanence and hardships of life. Some later poems are explicitly violent and dark; not at all "pastoral" poems, except for their country settings. This is one sensibility that places Frost amongst the Modernist poets, rather than the last of the Romantics.

The barn is connected to the laundry room and kitchen via the enclosed woodshed, so one can walk in the coldest part of winter out to the barn without having to go outside. This is a typical New Hampshire and Vermont sort of farm home. The friend I was visiting, who lives in Derry, told me, this is just a normal house around here; he had lived as a boy in one exactly like it.

The tour guide was a local man who got an MFA in poetry under Charles Simic, then ended up back here, teaching. He loves doing this tour guide gig, and was very funny and full of stories about Frost and the family, including some stories probably not commonly known. It was very enlightening beyond what I already knew about Frost and his history.

The homestead here, even though Frost failed utterly as a farmer, and failed in particular as a chicken farmer, was the place he wrote many of his first, famous poems. The wall in the poem “Mending Wall” is right out back, across the meadow behind the barn.

the kitchen, the center of any home, as always

It was fascinating and inspiring to sit at this table in the kitchen and look around and think, those great early poems were written right here in this room. (It's just as likely that Frost wrote in the mechanical recliner chair in the living room; he tended to like to write at comfortable desks, or at his leisure.)

The house had other owners before the family reacquired it and restored it. (Frost tried to purchase it again in the 1950s, but the current owner declined; it was re-purchased after the poet's death, in 1963.) Now it has been returned to as close as anyone can recall, or see from old photos, as to what it used to be. I spent all afernoon here, and had a wonderful time.

I ended up hanging out with our poet-guide afterwards and talking shop for an hour. We talked poetry biz, but also music, bass playing, etc. This was for me a very enjoyable visit.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009


It was perhaps prophetic that the turning point in my decision to leave The Poetry World and strike off on my own was a poem called Kenosis. It was significant that the responses I received about that poem, and others written around the same time, were contradictory, even reactionary.

It's been a process of letting go, of emptying: of kenosis. It's the living Void, the experience of emptiness, of nothingness. By living, we mean, continuing, exultant, sinking and cooling.

I continue my process of emptying by desiring less and less to categorize my writing into those bins labeled Poetry, Prose, Essay, whatever. Let's just call it Writing. In the same way that I care less about defining what I write as Poetry, I find myself aware that the standards and concepts by which reviewers and critics judge Poetry mean exactly nothing. More precisely, those standards by which Poetry is labeled and judged don't always apply to the marginally-poetic-if-not-Poetry writings that I make when I am writing in a spiritual-poetic-mythic mode. One dismissive critique of this species of writing has always been, "Well, it might have something interesting to say, but it's just not a well-written poem." Yet, if the same critic had judged the writing as Essay, or Prose, they would have accepted the writing more readily. I'm not interested in explaining or justifying a poem. If you think it doesn't work as a poem, or if you just don't like it, then unless I get from you a real reason for why you feel that way, I have no obligation to even respond.

The important point here is: writing is not automatically made better by being confined to one style or form. Or by being confined at all, really. Writing that is not necessarily intended to be Fine Art Literary Writing doesn't necessarily need to be judged by those literary standards. When I write something kenotic, my personal purpose in writing is cathartic, revelatory, even visionary. Because I have to. I do my best to always write at the highest level of quality that I can achieve, on any given day. I don't throw a piece of writing away if it has successfully expressed something important, just because it's not my best writing. Heretical as it is to say these days in The Poetry World, sometimes content really does matter. I might recognize that something I wrote isn't my best writing per se; but if it does what I needed it to do, that might be enough. I'm not rationalizing slacking off here; quite the opposite. What I'm saying is: it might not be possible to write great fine-art literature on certain topics; and, that doesn't mean one should avoid writing on those topics; and, given that does the best one can on any given day, one has to accept that not all days will one be writing at the same high level. It goes in waves. Sometimes you might take a break, then write again on the same subject, till you get it right.

Which leads us towards the existential questions: What makes a poem a poem? What makes a poet a poet?

It's not just enjambment, the breaking of the line, by whatever criterion the line is made to break. I've written before that prose-poems don't really need to be defended against or for "the death of Poetry." Prose-poetry is simply another, equally valid mode of writing.

Once again I find myself in a lifelong situation of walking a definitional line, being an insider/outsider, being both/and rather than either/or. If some critic or poet or reader thinks something I wrote is not a poem, that's fine; they're welcome to call it whatever they want. It's not my box they're trying to put it in. I'll just continue to write what I write, and go on. I don't require to be named, or categorized, or even noticed.

When you go through a life-changing experience, or sequence of experiences, your art is going to change. You can try to force it back into the known and familiar boxes, or you can leave the door open, the windows open, and let whatever breeze moves through your house flow through, emptying out the old stale air, bringing in the new.

Empty the self to find the self. —a saying found in almost all meditation and contemplative prayer traditions

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Friday, July 24, 2009

My Father's Roses

This is the rosebush that my father grew for many years in front of my parents' house, near the garage. It was partially shaded by tall oak trees, and surrounded by other plants. When I moved to my new home, when we put the old house up for sale, I transplanted this rose to my front garden, and tended it carefully. Now, two blooms have opened at the same time, just this past week.

After we had to move my mother into the residential Alzheimer's care facility, because my father couldn't take care of her any more, whenever this rose produced a bloom, he would cut it, and take it to her. He visited her almost every day, his own health permitting, and went and sat with her while she ate lunch. Sometimes she wouldn't eat if he wasn't there, just being with her, coaxing her along. He didn't use a fancy vase to bring her each rose, just a cup with some fresh water in it; vases would disappear there, who knows why. Mom often put Dad's roses immediately on the windowsill in her room, where they would catch the west light, and admire them.

This rosebush has bloomed at last this summer. There are two blooms on it now, with another one about to open. I sit on the lawn and take in its rich fragrance, but I can't bring myself to cut the blooms off, even to take them inside. Perhaps next year, when the bush is even more established. I'm told it's good to let a rose go a little wild, the first year or two of planting, till it establishes itself firmly in its new home. Last year, late in the fall, it was about to bloom, when the first frost came. I almost had a November rose. This season I am letting it go, just watering it and watching it. If it continues to do well in its new home, I will think about trimming the blooms and putting them in a vase on my kitchen table.

And remember.

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Transformative writing is more than just changing one's mind on one or two issues. That remains all in the head, all intellectual. Transformative writing needs to be more than just a superficial change. Writing, when it's a process of self-discovery, has the potential to transform the writer, just as with all engaged creative processes; the reader comes along as a voyeur, watching over the writer's shoulder.

Like every other kind of writing process, writing begins with reading. Transformative writing begins with transformative reading. Reading in which you, the reader, are utterly changed. I don't think I ever wrote anything worth reading until I had encountered, and survived, numerous life-changing experiences, including life-changing reading. (I recently drafted a quickly-written list of books that have stuck with me; one can pick out several life-changing reads from that list.) Life-changing reads change not only the shape of your mind, but the shape of your life. Decisions and choices cascade from experience, leading one down paths previously unsuspected. A truly powerful personal experience can completely change your life's directions, and make you discard your plans and expectations, replacing your dreams with new ones. For writers, such experiences can come from reading as well as from life itself.

It needs to be remembered that reading is an inward journey, but no less of a journey than a physical pilgrimage. I've done both, so take my word for it. I do some of my best thinking when on long drives through empty lands—pilgrimages to the desert, to wilderness, to the ocean's wild coast, to the empty spaces. I continue doing my best thinking when I pause in those travels, and begin to write about what I've seen and thought. I write longhand in my road journals when camping at night, between day-long drives. That's often when insights and poems emerge. Others emerge later, when I'm back home, reflecting upon the journey.

There is a mental silence to driving all day long across the Nevada desert, across Arizona under a cloudless sky, across the open prairie states, across northern New England. One must honor this mental silence by not listening to the radio or blasting loud music. Out of this mental silence arises the quietest and most inward of one's own voices. Sometimes when I'm traveling on a train or an airplane, I put my iPod headphones in my ears not to listen to music, but to let other travelers know that I'm being inward, that I don't want to partake in casual conversation, or watch the in-flight movie, or be otherwise interrupted. It's a boundary-marker for an inward focus.

Far too many people use conversation or the radio and TV or their iPods to fill the silences; as a culture, we are afraid of silence, of its unknowing. People fill the silence with distractions that keep them safe from hearing their own inner voices, that arise whenever there is silence. Most people seem uncomfortable with the voices that arise in such silence. It brings them too close to that terrifying Void.

But I've been unable to avoid becoming a Void-diver. I've been thrown into deep water by life so many times, that I've been required to learn how to become a diver, a spelunker, a swimmer. In my mind's eye, there is an underground river of black water that occasionally breaks through to the surface, flowing hard and fast with a lot of power. In my dreams, there are often tidal waves rising up out of lakes, or wells, or fountains, to inundate the land: I've come to recognize these inner symbols for what they are: the power of the unconscious about to break through into the light. When I have these dreams I know I am being put on notice: watch out, something's going to come through soon.

I've had more than one vision of the Void. The first vision was incredibly traumatic; it was kenotic. It ripped away everything I believed, and thought I knew, and left me with nothing. I literally saw the ground fall away under my feet, leaving me suspended above an abyss. The second vision of the Void, which came exactly 4 years 3 months and 14 days after the first vision, healed the first vision of the Void for me. It was during and after the process of these visions, that I first began to write a group of poems I called the Sutras. This writing was also directed and inspired by transformative reading I engaged with during the Void process, between the two visions.

I later realized, from my theology readings, that I had been through what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the senses, which is characterized by three interrelated spiritual indications:

1. The soul finds no satisfaction in either the things of God or in other creatures. One cannot connect anything; it's all meaningless.
2. The soul is troubled by the impression that it has turned away from God; it interprets its distaste for the things of God as a falling away from Him. There is no satisfaction in any familiar spiritual or religious practice, ritual, or aphorism. The words and actions are all hollow and empty, meaning precisely nothing.
3. The soul finds itself no longer capable of meditating and using the imagination in its prayer, despite fervent attempts to do so. Dryness and acedia are common.

In my case, the two visions of the Void bracketed this experience. The second vision healed the first, I said above: meaning, it gave solace at last, in a mysterious and symbolic way I can only describe poetically, to the feelings of alienation, abandonment, and isolation I had been living with continuously for over four years. It was a balm. I came away from the second vision with no idea that anything new had come in to replace the emptiness, and with no glib words to articulate how I felt, but with a sense that now, again, connections could be made to happen again. The first vision ripped away every idea or belief I had held to that time; the second did not replace what had been taken away, or return them. The second vision did nothing to fill the Void: only now, the Void was no longer terrifying, no longer an existential crisis. There was nothing that needed to be filled.

Since then, periodically over time, I've been required to strip away every idea and belief habitually accumulated from experience, to wipe the slate clean, and start over again. To know nothing is to experience the process of unknowing, of unnaming. This has happened several times in my life since these first two, rather dramatic visions. Each time, the process of stripping away my assumptions and beliefs has been difficult and sometimes painful—we do so love to cling to our ideas about life—but it's been made easier by knowing what was going on. Oh, it's the Void again: the same old familiar kenosis, that old blues empty feeling. Hello there. What's new?

By the way: Let go of the "God" language, if it gets in your way. The dark night of the senses is all about letting go of what we think we know about the Divine, about our images of the Divine (imago dei), about what we imagine the Divine is. One has to rid oneself of these illusions, or delusions, before one can see what's really there. Meister Eckhart once encapsulated this truth in a memorable aphorism: I pray to God to rid me of 'God.'

The transformative reading I encountered during this period of my life—a period in which I was probably more susceptible than usual to being transformed, by experience, by reading—can be listed here, however inadequately, as the book titles that gave me life-changing reading experiences at that time:

Nikos Kazantsakis: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises
Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness
Lyall Watson: Gifts of Unknown Things
Albert Camus: Lyrical & Critical Essays
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies and Letters to a Young Poet
(some of these I'd read before, yet re-reading them during this period went much deeper)

All this led, almost immediately upon the heels of the second vision of the Void, to a flood of writing longer poetic "spiritual exercises" more akin to Kazantzakis' small book listed above than to the poems I had previously written to date. Life-changing experiences change your art, as well as your artistic process. I wrote a moderately bad chapbook, with one or two good poems salvageable from the mire; I wrote a lot of haiku; and I worked on the Sutras. Actually, for a period of about 18 months surrounding the second vision of the Void, I wrote no poems at all; except a few scattered haiku. That was an important fallow period at the time, which led to new directions, and within a few years my first real poems (in my opinion) in a mature style, in a more mature poetic voice.

I noticed, eventually, that one result of the life-changing experience of the Void, and of the life-changing reading I was doing (especially via the first three titles on the list above), was that I could now recognize the Void in the writings of others. It's like you develop the ability to hear an octave of music, or see a painterly content, that had been previously inaccessible to you. It was always there, perhaps, but now you are able to recognize it. I could see where the Void had touched Dickinson, Whitman, Rilke, and many other poets; I could recognize the Void experience in short stories, in novels. An artist friend of mine once confided that, after she had taken LSD a couple of times, she could see in the art of other artists whether or not they had ever taken LSD; those doors of perception had been opened. My experience was very parallel to hers, although no drugs were ever involved, just the presence of the Void.

I haven't finished the Sutras, as a purely literary work. I don't know that I ever will. There now exist about 40 poems in the cycle, which I have only loosely gathered, and which have as yet no final edited order or structure. I'm still rewriting a few individual poems, while others are in as finalized a form as I can achieve. (Paul Eluard's comment, A poem is never finished, only abandoned, is very relevant to this body of work.) Some dedicated poets I have shown these writings to refuse to label them as poems. (One wonders, in hindsight, if this wasn't the beginning of my eventual move towards refusing to label my writing as "prose" and "poetry," to let those overlap and blend however they will.) I accept that they're not typical "poems," and that in a purely literary sense I have written much better poems elsewhere.

I've ceased to claim any literary quality for the Sutras, therefore, because I have come to understand that Kazantzakis' subtitle, Spiritual Exercises, is precise with regard to the Sutras. I wrote them out of necessity: they were transformative writings. The issue of literary quality is beside the point; the Sutras are as well-written as I can make them, without crossing over that line into "fine art literary poetry" that would dilute their impact as (let's be honest) personal attempts at writing Scripture. In many ways, the Sutras are epistolic: letters to the faithful, letters to myself, to an errant congregation of one. They are transformative writing; their intent was scriptural. They are the records of visions, or visionary encounters and experiences. They are one brand of visionary poetry that I engage with, which transforms me during the writing.

Several of the Sutras are poems of embodiment; in fact, one or two of them are explicitly sexual. But the sexual is the spiritual. That's one truth both the visions of the Void and the process of writing about them revealed. Perhaps it was part of my coming-out process—but a process as much about spiritual experience as about sexual orientation. One "rule" I required of myself when writing the Sutras was complete, even ruthless honesty: no poetic evasions or literary obfuscations; no hiding behind words; no diversions or tactics of concealment. The purpose of this "rule" was to be completely honest with myself: I was, after all, writing to understand, to transform, to reveal myself to myself. I began to study Tantra because I had had spiritual and psychic awakenings during sex, and I needed to understand what was happening; and writing about some of these experiences in the Sutras transformed my understanding of events. How do we heal the past? By changing our interpretations of events.

I have come to believe that, if making a work of art doesn't transform the artist, too, then it hasn't achieved its highest potential as art. I realize that this will be readily misconstrued as art-therapy-speak by some, as fringe blasphemy by others. It's a very highfalutin' critical standard, perhaps quite impossible to live up to. I do not mean that artworks that don't live up to this very high standard have no quality or merit. I mean, as near as I can articulate, that this level is perhaps the next level beyond; the next higher level of art, and art-making.

Some will no doubt claim that examples of this transformational art must be very rare. Yet I find examples of transformational art in all media, all the time; it all seems to so obvious to me, now. Perhaps, like the experience of the Void, or of my friend's experience of LSD, one isn't ready or able to see it in the artworks or writings of others until one has experienced it for oneself. Perhaps, one must be open to the possibility of perceiving a new octave of color shades, in order to be able to actually see them.

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Circles of Contemplation

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random 2

Further thoughts:

7. If I must "understand the theory" behind a poem in order to get anything out of the poem, then the poem is incapable of standing on its own. If a poem isn't capable of standing on its own—providing an experience of reading the poem, of being involved in the poem, of absorption, of interest—then the poem almost always fails. Such poems never make me want to re-read them, to savor them, to go back to them later.

I suppose this is my meta-theoretical statement: my theory about poetic theories.

I don't demand "meaning" or "sense" in a poem—the straw-man set up by many poetic theorists as something they reject in poetry. There are plenty of poems I don't comprehend, the way one comprehends a narrative short story, yet which I still enjoy, as poems. I appreciate, even prefer, an element of Mystery, of the unknown or unknowable. I don't demand a post-Romantic evocation of the mysteries beyond human understanding. I don't demand that every poem be explainable, or even able to be summarized—in fact, if a poem can be too easily summarized, why not write it as a story, even verse story. I can read a poem and be very deeply affected by it and still not know what's going on.

Yet when I see poet-critics require that the poet's theoretical underpinnings be examined, as if in a lecture hall, before one can appreciate the poem on any level, I tend to become suspicious.

Poetry is not supposed to need a decoder ring, or a puzzle-box solution. That so many poet-theorists seem to think poetry does need a decoder ring is precisely why such poets end up talking only amongst themselves, with no public audience. Well, fine, if that's what you want.

I think there's a middle ground between being arcane and obscure for its own sake (like most of the so-called "post-avant"), and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator expectations of public verse (like Rod McKuen or Billy Collins). I think there's room for poetry than can be "difficult" yet still powerfully engaging, not obviously understandable yet very universally human in its complex response to life and love (for example, Rilke, Elytis, Paz). I think there's room for apparently light verse that contains deep and resonant life-experience and learning (for example, James Broughton, who is consistently underestimated in precisely this way).

All too often the theoretical camps that poet-critics fall into, or arrange, are little more than game-pieces in a self-serving turf-war. If a theorist-poet proclaims that I cannot possibly understand his obscure, difficult-to-read poems unless I have read all the same theoretical books on the various post-modern -isms that the poet himself has read, then my usual response is to ignore their poetry. (Yawns are optional.)

This is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes: If you can't dazzle them with substance, baffle them with BS.

I don't even care which theoretical -isms are being cited. Chances are, I have indeed read the theoretical sources being cited, and more. I'm very well-read, and I remember most of what I read. Chances are, I've read more than the poet-theorist in question, at least in terms of diverse and eclectic reading.

Has anyone but me noticed how often the French theorists usually cited during these BS battles—Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Baudriilard, et al.—all owe a heavy debt to reading Freud deeply, but have for the most part deliberately overlooked Jung, Adler, and all the other post-Freudian schools of psychology? Has anyone but me noticed how often the poet-theorists, who cite the -isms of the -ists, have also never read anything but Freud, if they've read that much?

I think that's a real telltale for what one can expect from poets who demand theory before poetry. Chances are, too, that they've read de Sade and Sartre but not Camus and McLuhan. This, too, is telling.

8. Make me feel it in my body.

I've written extensively before about how poetry written from the head, which excludes the soma and the heart, ultimately fails, and why.

When I read poetic criticism these days, I return again and again to what Adrienne Rich originally stated in 1964, which remains relevant even now:

In the period in which my first two books were written I had a much more absolutist approach to the universe than I now have. I also felt—as many people still feel—that a poem was an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it would say. There were occasional surprises, occasions of happy discovery that an unexpected turn could be taken, but control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals, and for many reasons it was satisfying to be able to create this kind of formal order in poems.

Only gradually, within the last five or six years, did I begin to feel that these poems, even the ones I liked best and in which I felt I'd said most, were queerly limited, that in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order. . . .

Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it. In my earlier poems I told you, as precisely and eloquently as I knew how, about something; in the more recent poems something is happening, something has happened to me and, if I have been a good parent to the poem, something will happen to you who read it.
—from Adrienne Rich's Poetry, the Norton Critical Edition (1975), edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, p. 89

What remains relevant is the insistence that a poem be connected to the soma, and not just a mental exercise. Puzzle-poems, language-poems, most of those who carry the banner of "post-avant" (which really means that they're still engaging with the literary avant-garde of a century ago), usually do little for me, as poems, because they're bound up with the theories, and mostly written from the head. Only a few declared Language Poets have ever managed to get under my skin enough to make me want to re-read them. With most, once I get the gimmick, there's no desire to continue, or to go back and re-read.

Too much literary theory is about gimmicks. Call it theory, call it profound, it's still mostly about gimmicks, tropes, tricks, and tactics. Most theory-driven poetry doesn't inspire the urge to be re-read precisely because the theories aren't that interesting.

What remains so very relevant here is what Rich said about poetry: Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it.

If a poem isn't a somatic experience in its own rite—if it's merely a mental game, and doesn't get me in the guts—then why bother with it?

I'd rather read—and write—poems that are experiences, to poems that tell me about experiences. I focus on this in my own poem-making. I have no problem with a poem that I don't fully understand, if the poem nonetheless becomes an experience. Sometimes the tools of avant-garde or experimental writing—broken syntax, unusual leaps, the arrangement of the projective field—are precisely what a poem needs to create an experience in the reader, regardless of whether the reader's critical-analytical faculties can parse the poem into a theoretical structure or narrative.

Experience first. Explanations later.

9. Inventing another "New Poetry" isn't a way out of poetry hell.

It just recycles the same tropes of originality, newness, the hero-author, the tropes of avantgardism (as opposed to a genuine avant-grade, which is always surprising and unfamiliar), and the use of manifestos as tools of discourse. Much heat, little light.

if you have to have an ideology, or theory, before you can write a poem, so be it. Write a manifesto. Write something that requires theoretical interpretation. It will keep another generation of academic critics employed, if it does no more than that. I hear rumbles in the poetic landscape, lately, that indicate dissatisfaction with the current state of fractured affairs; but I don't see rumbles visionary enough to reunite an overarching aesthetic that will give poetry life again. Mostly I see a lot of puffy clouds that are the gunpowder spurts escaping the cannons of canon-making. This wisp here is yet another theoretical (theological) dead-end.

If you sincerely want to invent a new kind of poetry, which no one has seen before, set about doing that, but don't tell anyone about it. Don't announce your project before you set out. Truly uncharted waters do not need to be identified: Columbus thought he knew where he was going, and the genius of his discovery of the New World was that it was an accidental, unintended discovery. Far better to explore uncharted waters, even with a map that proves out to be wrong: one is far more likely to stumble upon something genuinely New. One is far more less likely to stumble upon anything new if one deliberately sets out to make Something New.

The ideology of originality, coupled with the theory of originality (which, make no mistake, is a Romantic theory), is more likely to arrive in waters already well-known. Real explorers aren't afraid of making mistakes. Real inventors aren't afraid of failure.

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Literary-Critical Thoughts at Semi-Random

1. Keep an outsider's perspective. No one is more defensive than a critical "insider."

I once wrote a paper in grad school, about being an insider/outsider: one who straddles more than one position. In the ethnographic disciplines they used to call it being a participant-observer. One does not remain aloof and try to be an objective all-seeing-eye. Rather, one participates in the daily lives of those people one is studying, while also observing and making notes. In terms of ethnomusicology, which was what my grad school focus was upon, this means learning to play the music of the culture one is studying, by immersion as deeply into study as one can. Insights come both from breaking through to understanding what one's native teachers are passing on, and also from one's position of partial-outsider.

Of course, my paper on insider/outsider musicians within the culture I was studying was also autobiographical. My entire life has been a procession of situations in which I have never been a total insider, or a total outsider, but always someone who straddles boundaries, who sees more than just one viewpoint. Of course this experience is not sequentially narrative, or a linear procession of singular events, but rather a lot of similar patterns always going on, in relative force, all the time. One notices the patterns of one's life, if one learns to pay attention. And those patterns give us clues as to what we don't know that we believe. So I've noticed, many times, how I often seem to have one foot on one side of a fence, and the other foot over on the other side. Makes walking interesting, some days.

2. Critical thinking as the dominant discourse of daily life has got to go. Or at least to expand.

We've gotten into this habit, now, for more than a century, of thinking critically as the dominant mode of analysis and discourse. Who relies on "feel" anymore? Well, a few do, but they're often hooted down or forced to sit in the back of the class.

There are two ways in which the outsider status becomes part of discourse. First, one is often labeled a dissident if one has an alternative viewpoint, even if one is not particularly interested in the local politics of dissent. Second, the habit of critical analysis has become so ingrained that one really sees folks just sit, stop, shut up, and appreciate the roses.

There is something past critical discourse. It might be labeled "appreciation," or it might be labeled "gestalt." Perhaps it's gestalt in that one clusters one's thoughts by association, rather than thinking purely sequentially. I've known for years that my mind tends to go "off on tangents" that in fact are tied to the thread of a conversation, but locate other angles or axes of interpretation. I find myself often looking at things "sideways," while everyone else seems unwilling, or unable. I've found myself more than once labeled a dissident merely because my style of discourse was non-linear, rather than typically linear-critical. This did not go over well in college, for example. Perhaps it's an instance of poet's mind being more rooted than expert's mind.

The reason critical thinking needs to expand is because it rarely takes into account non-intellectual, non-verbal modes of being in the world. Critical thinking was a mode of discourse developed 300 years ago, during the so-called Enlightenment. (It was called that by its founders, not by its detractors.) This was the flowering of logical, rational thinking in the 17th Century, at the end of the Renaissance. At the time, it was a bold, necessary move, a cultural step away from mental tyranny towards free-thinking. But what we have now is its final flowering. We've come to the end of that trail, and it's time to discover where the trail meets up again with other modes of discourse. Logic and faith no longer need to be at war; it's time to re-integrate what has been splintered. Truly responsible humankind needs to be able to reunite people of faith, people of intuition, and people of pragmatic reason.

Zen training demolishes critical, analytical thinking by refusing to play its game, and coming at it from completely shocking directions. A central tactic of Zen training is to short-circuit critical, analytical, rationalistic thinking in the student so many times that they have a breakthrough, eventually, when the knots they've tied themselves up into must be cut through, or collapse under their own weight.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

3. People like to argue. It's generally better to resist playing along.

No kidding! The familiar quip goes, The reason critical arguments about poetry are so very vicious is precisely because there's so very little at stake. (One might readily substitute "within academia" for "about poetry" with no significant change in one's observational results.) Really, this is scholasticism: arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while the pantry is being emptied by burglars. It misses the whole point of living.

I suppose many people like to argue because it gives them something to care about, to get passionate about, which makes them feel alive. I suppose some people like to argue because they care very much about being right, and/or proving everyone else wrong.

Here's a simple tip from game theory: No game is so entrenched that you can't change the rules mid-game. If you respond to a provocation on someone else's terms, on their ground, following their rule-set, it's much more difficult to make headway. I find it far more fun and interesting to come at entrenched positions from a completely different angle, rather than buying into someone's basic assumptions that set the parameters of the argument, the rules of the game. Of course, thinking sideways on one's own part often leaves those minds most deeply entrenched either baffled or feeling insulted, or both. But if there's one thing the founding Dada artists were all very good at, it was the mind-opening, scenario-expanding joke.

Q: How many Dadas does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Fish.

4. People correcting each other on the style of their discourse is fundamentally condescending.

This is often an attempt to impose a rule-set on the game. If I can get you to argue your case based solely on my terms and assumptions, it's easier to knock you down. Whenever I see critics telling each other how to make their points, how to argue their viewpoints, it sends up a red flag: because this is not an actual response to a point being made. What it really is, is an attempt to discredit the other viewpoint on purely technical grounds. (Sometimes that's useful, even valid as a tactic: It's a tactic I've used occasionally to point out how incoherent and incomprehensible an argument is, when faced with someone who is ranting ideologically rather than making a valid argument. One asks very politely for clarifications that one never expects to receive—or, if they are proffered, to make no sense at all. Sadly, one's expectations in such cases are rarely disappointed.)

In other words, this is an ad hominem attack, which has nothing to do with the points actually being made. It doesn't actually respond to the points one's opponents has made. It attacks the means rather than the content. (Again, sometimes this is a legitimate and defensible tactic to pursue. If the points one's interlocutor has made are bizarre and illogical in the extreme, pointing this out is not unethical.)

5. I am less likely to be convinced of an opinion if there's nothing given to back it up.

It's fine to have an opinion. But if there's nothing to back it up—no examples, no evidence, nothing to support one's position—then it cannot rise above being an opinion, and in fact may sink down towards being merely a prejudgment.

To be clear, I am putting logic above all else, here. Logical argument is good, but an intuitive, feeling-based argument can also be very compelling if it's well-expressed. Critics may argue passionately for their gut reactions and be convincing, if they can convey why they had such a strong reaction. A sound psychological argument can be as compelling as a sound rational argument. Many great critics are able to convey their viewpoints in all of these modes of discourse. (This is one reason I like to read what writers have to say about writing, artists about art, poets and poetry, etc. It's very telling when a poet is able, or not, to discuss poetry well; and not only about matters of craft, but also matters of experience, and the very visceral responses that art can convey to the reader, or viewer, or audience.)

I like it when people tell me why they think or feel the way they do. Of course, one doesn't get that all the time—or even most of the time. There are many critics who demonstrate little self-knowledge; or, if there is self-knowledge present, small ability to articulate it. One might be aware of one's own biases—yet if one does not disclose them, they can unconsciously reveal themselves in ways that undermine one's own position. People shoot themselves in the foot a lot, when they lack awareness of their hidden agendas and underlying motivations.

Always check your motivations. Knowing why you're doing something, even if you don't articulate it to anyone, gives you a head start towards being internally consistent—which is a marker of personal integrity. Be deliberate about it, rather than knee-jerk. And yes, it's okay to be deliberately inconsistent. Emerson once quipped, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Some people use Emerson's comment as a justification for being completely irrational; but in truth, the key word in that quote is "foolish."

6. What's foolish about most literary criticism is that it takes itself way too seriously.

Does any of this really matter? Not really. Does any poetic theory or school really matter when it comes to making poems? Not really. Does any argument around poetics really resolve anything, or change anyone's mind? Unlikely. Does anyone but me care how seriously I take my writing? Not bloody likely.

Keep that in perspective. Which means: Argue for the joy of bumping ideas together to make them clearer and more potent, more relevant. Argue for the pleasure of being engaged in conversation. Argue knowing full well that it probably doesn't mean anything, and probably won't resolve anything, but meanwhile keeps the mind sharp and the wit honed.

Argue for all the right reasons, and none of the wrong.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009


While on the subject of space, here's a reminder of that celestial orb most critical to our existence: the Sun. All our life, light, and power ultimately comes from the Sun. It's what powers everything on our planet. Even fossil fuels were once plants that grew and flourished under our Sun, eventually being compressed under the weight of stone and time to be converted into oil.

And so our Sun is worth studying. There is a wonderful website that posts all the current and archived data of the ongoing SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite. This is one of my favorite ongoing space-science experiments, with new observations coming in all the time. (The Hubble space telescope is another favorite, as is JPL's Planetary Photojournal.)

What's really wonderful about SOHO and similar observatories is that the data is made available for anyone who wants to use it: scientists, students, teachers, private researchers, and amateur enthusiasts such as myself. (And I'm geeky enough to understand a lot of the science and math. Does that make me a writer?)

The science here is also yours and mine, since it's paid for largely by our taxes (if you're a US citizen). So, it's available as raw material for making art, as I occasionally do. SOHO images have appeared in numerous magazines, as part of artworks, and more; there are even occasional art contests on the website.

When I first encountered SOHO, ten years ago, early in its career, I was first moved by the beauty of the data, even the raw data. On the Best of SOHO webpage, there are numerous gloriously beautiful as well as scientifically interesting images. I find some of these images simply beautiful in their own right; and many are available for download and/or printing.

SOHO demonstrates that the union of science and art is not only possible, it's going on all the time.

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Apollo 11

Optional soundtrack: Apollo mission voices; AD, piano & processing    

Forty years ago, with the Apollo 11 mission, human beings landed for the first time on our lunar satellite, the Moon.

I remember that my family was traveling that summer, to visit friends in Canada and Minnesota. We drove up through the Upper Peninsula from Ann Arbor, went on to Winnipeg in Manitoba, then returned via the Twin Cities. I remember following the Apollo 11 news on the TV and radio as we traveled. We were in Minneapolis when the LEM lifted off from the lunar surface, to return to the Command Module, and begin the return journey to Earth.

I remember talking about the importance of the lunar landing with family and friends. I've always been a space buff, and I still am. I believe we have to get off our planet, and spread out a bit. We need to expand our minds and souls by expanding our physical horizons. We need to leave the womb, if only to return to the soil in the end.

Forty years ago, an importance event in space exploration took place. It captured our imaginations, and our hopes and fears. It made us more than we are. It gave us hope for our long-term survival asa species.

We need to go on from there, now more than ever.

Images and sounds courtesy of NASA.

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Monday, July 20, 2009


the abstract corners of where we dwell
shelter, dwelling, and barrow
emergence to grave
is something like home

at least
for now

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fun with Mesostics

Occasionally I like to play with algorithmic generators. I like an element of chance in my art-making, an element of indeterminacy and non-self-directed choice. I have used various algorithmic generators with much interest and pleasure, for example:

The Surrealist Compliment Generator
Algorithmic Arts music generating software

The mesostic, a poetic form invented by John Cage, which is a variation of the acrostic, now has its own generator, called the Mesostomatic. You choose a word or phrase or name for the mesostic's spine, which is the row that runs down the middle, which Cage typically used to indicate the theme of a given writing. Then you enter a URL from which phrases are chosen, using indeterminate rule-based algorithms (such as Cage's decisions being made via consulting the I Ching, or various generative computer programs), and pick how many mesostics will be sequentially generated.

And voila! An original mesostic. For example:


(A mesostic based on this blog, on the key-word theme of Poetry Process.)

What's striking to me, in the current climate of poetic argument around "conceptual poetry" is how old the techniques used in this new poetics are. Indeterminacy is not a new technique, no matter how much the "post-avant" poetry movements claim to have invented it. Indeed, Cage is almost never given credit for his influence and inspiration on syntax-less contemporary poetry. Only a few critics of the avant-garde such as Marjorie Perloff and Richard Kostelanetz even seem aware of (or willing to examine) just how much Cage did contribute, or set up, the current state of poetry affairs. Cage's later works increasingly dealt with language in musical ways, applying to texts and writings and lectures many of the same techniques he had developed for "pure" music.

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A Simple Crow

One of my favorite writers, Jim Harrison, a fellow Michigan boy, appears on PBS to discuss life, poetry, his writing, and the point of it all:

(For a transcript of the interview, and more, click here.)

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Monday, July 13, 2009

the mysterious fall of water at the mouths of caves

images from Mammoth Caves National Park, KY, and from a cave on private land, Sparkman, TN

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