Tuesday, February 24, 2009

May Sarton: An Appreciation

May Sarton is a writer that one grows into. One can read her when young, but if one re-reads her later in one's own maturity, her words take on extra depth and meaning. When I was in my twenties, I discovered her journals and poems, particularly Journal of a Solitude, most likely still her best known book. While I liked it, I moved on. When I re-read Sarton in my early forties, suddenly every word was alive and deeply compelling. I had grown up enough to have caught up with her. I went out and read almost all of her work, then, and found as many hardcover first editions as I could find. I read or re-read the journals, and the poems; I read the novels, and found myself reading one or two them more than once within a short span of time. I discovered a spirit, sometimes cranky and forthright, not always living up to the stereotype of the kindly elder writer but always with genuine kindness as a river flowing underground.

Sarton often finds her audience among younger women writers, who then develop a lifelong relationship with her work. Sarton was a woman-centered woman: very much a feminist although not militant, as her social graces were deeply influenced by her European background and connections. Sarton never explicitly said she was a lesbian, as she actively resisted being categorized in ways other than literary—she wanted to be thought of as a "universal writer"—although her deepest friendships were with women; one might say that she was a person who loved both men and women, but for whom individual women were her Muses.

In her sublime and spiky novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, one of those I mentioned that I have read several times, the central character is a woman writer whose creativity is given to her by her enlivening encounters with individual women. The central part of the novel is structured around a long interview the writer gives in her home to two visiting guests, broken up by reminiscence and memoir; there are also long prologues and epilogues, in which the writer gives wisdom to a young man she knows, a friend who is troubled. The young man is clearly having homoerotic feelings and experiences; and the elderly writer at one point says, in effect: "people like us are always going to have problems." But she means, sensitive artists like us, as much as she means people who are emotionally attracted to their same sex. Lenora Blouin writes in May Sarton: A Poet's Life:

Frequently referred to as her "coming out novel," [Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing] was embraced not only by "feminist" scholars but by Lesbians as well and marked a turning point in Sarton scholarship; her work began to be studied in colleges and universities, especially in Women's Studies programs. Articles appeared in feminist journals and books, and much would be written about this novel in the years to come. For Sarton this posed a dilemma; she celebrated the serious recognition her work was beginning to receive yet shunned the label "lesbian writer" which she felt narrowly limited the perception and focus of her work. She was and wanted to be seen as a universal writer and had, in fact, already written many novels about family and married life.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is nonetheless Sarton's most openly autobiographical novel, and one of only two that openly deal with the topic of women-centered women; the other novel is The Education of Harriet Hatfield. My other favorite among her novels is Kinds of Love.

Sarton thought of herself first and foremost as a poet. Entry after entry in her journals show how much happier she was when the poems were coming, and how much she worried when they were not. In the long run, I sometimes feel that Sarton will be best remembered for her many journals, which are a deep and rich history of one writer's struggle through writing to examine herself, her needs, her wellsprings and sources. Every writer ought to read May Sarton's journals (especially, again, writers over forty): there is so much humanity in them, which leads this writer, at least, to feel less alone, and to find some solace in knowing that at least one other writer has met similar struggles and overcome them.

Going through the many books I'm still sorting in the basement reading room—I have still lived in this house for less than a year—I came across my volumes of May Sarton, and paused to browse. The journal I picked up again, a few weeks ago, and have been re-reading since, is The House By the Sea (1977), the journal that came after Sarton had moved from country-village New Hampshire to her home in Maine overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The last year in her old home had been traumatic, as had been the move. (I relate to both of these, since my last two years in my parents' old home were as live-in caregiver then, with my sister, having to sort through everything, and also find my own new home and move into it.) In early January of 1976, Sarton writes:

I feel now very much at peace, even happy, as I start a new year with poetry. It is the first time in three years that I have dared look down into the depths or play records while I am working. Until now music had been too painful . . . if I opened that door I began to weep and couldn't stop. I had been traumatized by the final year at Nelson. [her New Hampshire home]

. . . But at least some of the anguish was transformed into As We Are Now, so it was not all waste. What deep experience, however terrible, is? And I think I came out stronger and more sure of my own powers than I have ever been.

The sea has erased the pain. I have never been so happy as I am here, and I welcome the new year with great expectations. Since they are expectations that I myself can fulfill and have to do with inner life and with the beauty of the world around me, I dare to say this. Peace does not mean an end to tension, the good tensions, or of struggle. It means, I think, less waste. It means being centered.

That last paragraph is key. It's key not only to my own struggles, but is a universal key. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke echoed it in both poems and as a refrain throughout Letters to a Young Poet. For example, from the third letter:

Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!

Sarton wrote, Peace does not mean an end to tension. Chaos doesn't go away; living itself is a kind of ordered chaos, and even the biochemical processes of life can be articulated as tensions resisting the mineral stillness of death. This knowing, this mature wisdom, phrased in Sarton's unique voice, is why her journals are so rich. They are filled with insights like this, which emerge from more scattered and chaotic times like a balm of true peace. I once wrote, years ago, a line in a poem that perhaps Sarton would have agreed with: True peace is hard-won, still, and private. It's a teaching that I still need to keep re-learning.

Sarton's journals are also full of thoughts about the writer's life: not only about the process and the product, there are also critical insights into literature, genres, and the collaboration with the reader. Later in The House By the Sea, in an entry from February 1976 she writes:

I wonder why it is that "inspirational" writing such as appears in The Reader's Digest and in religious magazines so often, far from consoling or "uplifting," makes me feel angry and upset. Most of the platitudes uttered are true, after all. But the fact is that this kind of superficial piety covers the real thing with a sugary icing meant to make it more palatable. It makes me feel sick. And the sickness is because I feel cheated. It debases God (by making him a kind of universal pal), and sentimentalizes Jesus, and—what is most dangerous and unchristian—it makes its communicants feel superior, part of an elite club where the saved can gather, shutting everyone else out. Into all this [Paul] Tillich enters like a cleansing, ruthless wind. . . .

I wish I had written that: it's exactly how I feel.

In the March 1976 section of this journal, Sarton ruminates:

I have always been attacked for writing political poems, first by Conrad Aiken years ago, then of course by Louise Bogan (some of this argument is in our letters). Bad rhetorical poetry is just as bad as any bad poetry and I think the question is how deeply moved one has been, whether the political poem can come from the subconscious or reach the subconscious to be fertilized.

And here we get at why a lot of "political poetry" is bad, and also why some poetry that happens to contain political thinking can be good. The artfulness of the poetry, not of the rhetoric, is the determinative element. Sarton's attitude is, I think, the proper one; and it reflects her desire to be a universal writer, not only a lesbian-feminist, or merely political one. That the poem must arise from, and activate or be activated by the deeper (subconscious, unconscious, archetypal) parts of the self is essential. Sarton demonstates why poems, rhetorical or otherwise, that are written only from the head ultimately fail.

Sarton is a writer who needs to be read by mature men as well as young women. In some ways she is a very "masculine" writer—forceful, honest, unafraid. Sarton pointed out more than once that while these attributes are seen as desirable in men, in women they are seen as unseemly or negative. In a word, uppity. Sarton was from an early age a feminist thinker, if only later seen as a "feminist writer." I agree with her opinions, written during the 1970s and 80s, about these cultural filters through which men and women were and are differently judged. What Sarton became as an opinionated writer, though, was one of the very agents of change, in her times, that she looked for in the writings of other women who were more overtly feminist. Sarton acted is if the differences between men and women writers mattered not at all, and by doing so, set the example that they did not, and thereby made them matter less.

Male writers need to read Sarton because she can be from them a mirror for their inner selves, their innermost feminine selves, their anima, which can become as strong in them, as writers, as any post-Hemingway emblem of macho male writerly superiority. (Norman Mailer failed as a writer, to pick only one example, because he rejected all things "weak" in himself, meaning feminine, and so never became a whole person.) In the image of this strong woman, men can see themselves reflected, as do other strong women. Sarton's writings emerge from and activate deep psychological resources—not only from her strengths, but her wounds—that every writer needs to encounter, sooner or later, to become fully human. Gay and lesbian writers need to (continue to) read Sarton for the affirmation that their own struggles can be overcome by assuming, as Sarton did, that the battle was already won and no longer mattered. She knew she presumed, and she also knew that her presumptions were not yet universal; but the very act of presuming helped make it come true. That's a courageous and effective strategy, to live as though the struggle were already won, and to hold one's head up and take the high road, as Sarton generally did.

May Sarton will, I believe, be remembered for her journals if for nothing else. I do think she was a poet, occasionally a very good one; and some of her novels can be held up as among the best in the naturalistic (or literary fiction) style of the 20th Century. They continue to be popular among readers even if most critics have forgotten them for the moment. Sarton will in print a lot longer than some of her contemporaries who literary critics now give more attention to—which means she has succeeded in her oft-stated desire to connect with the reader, with the person who the reader is, in their shared humanity. But even if all she had left us were her journals, that would be a rich and treasured legacy indeed.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Devil's Lake 4: Winter B&W

Devil's Lake State Park, WI

scattered treefall
strewn across bluff talus—
thrown I Ching sticks

last clump of seeds
dangle shadowed over snow:
are you lonely, branch?

animal tracks
by the open lead—
creek flowing home

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The Purpose of Waffles

What is the purpose of waffles? or, for that matter, pancakes?

Of course, everyone knows the answer to that.

The purpose of waffles is to be a delivery mechanism.

To carry maple syrup to the mouth, and the taste buds.

That is the purpose of waffles. Of course it's nice when the waffles themselves are delicious. As these were.

In the meantime, they also serve who pose for still-life photographs. In the sunlight on the kitchen counter, in my sunlit still-life counter studio, this was an irresistible opportunity. Enjoy the waffles. I certainly did. (And, they're gluten-free.)

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Snow Flood

Winter floods happen on Turtle Creek when melte starts, and ice floes back up and get jammed under the bridge under Cranston Road. Then the water flows out over the wooded floodplain across the river from where my parents used to live.

The water, black with cold, backs up against the banks, and sheets across the buried sandbars. Icebars take their brief place instead, till the dams melt enough to dislodge and pour downstream.

Before the black cold of winter's road fades into summer's reign, before the last grip of latency gives way to the return of life, there is this last conflict between ice, water, and land. The river floods in winter, not only in the autumn rains.

And where it floods, rippling mirrors are made beneath the stalks of winter trees.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Still-Lifes 2

On a sunny morning, in the middle and late parts of morning, light floods into my kitchen and dining room. There's a spot on the white counter, to the left of the sink, where the light comes in at a hard angle, especially in winter. This is a spot I find I'm using often as a still-life studio. I like bright sunlight for still-life photography, with strong shadows, and light coming through whatever I'm photographing. There's another spot in the sunlight at the other end of the kitchen that I've used for sunlit flower photography.

the kitchen

Sometimes arrangements are accidental, sometimes deliberate. It's usually the quality of the light that catches my attention. Light has always been central to my art, even as a composer and writer. I've made this explicit in a recent poem, requiescat in lux, for a family friend who recently died, and in text-sound poetry pieces such as Light.

Qualities of light are what catch my attention. The changing of the light is something I'm always aware of, and can observe for hours. Even while I putter around doing other things, the light catches my attention. It can stop me in my tracks.

maple syrup arrangement

So this corner of the kitchen, because of the white counter on a sunny day, makes for a useful still-life studio. I'm building a more formal photography studio in the basement room, now, hanging some backcloths and lights from the roofbeams, so I drop them when I need them, and otherwise store them out of the way. I have a table there that I can drape with the backdrops, to use as a studio still-life table. The possibilities continue to develop.

maple syrup refraction

I love the way the sunlight passes through glass and, in this case, maple syrup, and the shapes and colors it splashes onto the white counter. I've photographed wine bottles on the counter, in similar ways. I keep looking, keep seeing, keep seeing new things, and photographing them.

Still-lifes are a useful practice, for any photographer. They're like technical etudes wherein you're working out a particular visual problem, or exploring new ways of seeing. You are free to experiment and fail because you're not photographing for a client or a project. You're free to fail. And that's how we learn.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Writer's Place

(With thanks to Rachel Fox among others for the prompt on this.)

my writing desk area

I've mused before about where writers write, saying that I don't think it really matters; the most important thing is to write, wherever and whenever you're able. I still don't think it matters, but I recognize that many do; my reply to that is that it matters if you think it does, not because it inherently does.

Yet many writers create a designated space in which they write. Many writers need this space to create their zone, or their routine. Routine can be important: the almost-ritual of preparation that puts one in the mindset for writing. Routine and ritual need a designated space. The advantages of this is that you can leave everything set up most of the time, so when an idea arrives, you can just sit down and get to it.

I learned about myself a long time ago that having a designated studio space that I just leave set up all the time means that I get more work done. If I have to spend time setting up my creative zone, I might do something else instead; if I had to walk or drive several minutes to a studio in another building, I'd go there less often than I would if I have a space already prepared. This seems to be true for most of my creative work; it also applies to meditation and exercise practices.

I have recently realized that my writing space is a lot less cluttered than many others'. I do have cases of books nearby, and I do have a lot of materials to hand. I don't think of myself as a neat freak, yet I discovered years ago that for me visual clutter leads directly to mental clutter, scattered focus, and scattered energy. So I keep my visual field as soothingly minimalist as I reasonably can. I have the space to do that, now, in my own home. I can designate a space and leave everything set up. That still feels pretty new and strange; this is the first home I've owned, and it's modest in scale although spacious for one inhabitant, his books, music, art, and other chattels, and I'm still getting used to every aspect of it.

Some years ago, I had a carpenter build me a custom-height worktable for art-making. I was at that time interested in working standing up, which I still like to do sometimes. I sometimes wrote at that table, I sometimes did art projects there, and I had it set up in front of my third-floor apartment window. Sometimes I work at my kitchen counter, now, if I want to work standing up. It takes discipline to keep the kitchen uncluttered; it seems to attract loose papers like some postal magnet.

For me, it's very important that I have a window with a view of the natural world. A window in which I can see the sky, its many moods, from clear to stormy, bright to dark. I need to see the sky, I need to feel connected to the outdoors. When I'm traveling I do a lot of my writing at picnic tables at whatever campsite I'm at for the night. I also write in the tent, late at night or early in the morning, bookending the day's adventures.

writing desk

My laptop is usually parked on my grandmother's antique secretary desk, in front of the big windows looking west at the pine trees and the lawn. A rabbit ran across the open field this morning, an instinctive dash to avoid getting snared by hawk's talons, and parked under the pine grove for awhile, ears twitching. In the heavy snows over winter, thousands of tracks have passed through the pines and across the lawn: deer, rabbits, squirrels, small winter birds, other more mysterious tracks. The snow melted in the unseasonable thaw last week, but today the sky has been lowering all day, and we're expected to get inches of fresh snow now, as the next storms pass through.

I often write here first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. I do much writing near sleep; it keeps me close to the Dreamtime, I suppose. I do most of my photography editing on this laptop, at this desk, with the portable hard drives plugged in, the printer warmed up and ready to spit out its quota of new images.

art desk

The art desk is both storage for art supplies and workspace for drawing, calligraphy, whatever. I also use this space to organize projects, put together photo sets, and so on. It's handy to have both desks available to my same office chair, so I go back and forth if I need to.

I also take the laptop all over the house, since I have a wireless router in the basement. In the early mornings, before breakfast, which is when I often write, meditate, contemplate, I sometimes take the laptop over to the couch and curl up in a cocoon of blankets and pillows. In warm afternoons and evenings in summer, I go out to the table on the screened-in porch, which is also glassed in for winter. It's a great place to watch a thunderstorm, a great place to sit with a mug of tea in the darkening evening and feel the breeze and sit with the laptop. During the warm times of the year, I use the porch as my dining room, hosting dinner parties out there, eating my own meals with the laptop open in front of me, or with a book, listening to birdsong or the white noise of distant traffic.

I tend to vary my routines, which makes me the exact opposite of some writers. Some require repetition, the precise placing of starting conditions, which frees them to think about their writing. I vary routines, I always have. I vary my driving routes, I find new places to sit and work, I even rotate my sleeping positions periodically. I find it clears my mind, and shakes things loose, to vary routines. Otherwise, I can get mired in habit. Far better to occasionally shake things up. I've lived in my house less than a year, and I've already rearranged some furniture. Sometimes things tell you what they want, where they want to be, after awhile.

Nothing shakes up my mental processes, in a good way, like a good road trip. Those long drives are where I do some of my best thinking. Then writing it all down at day's end, wherever you've ended up that night.

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Don't Write Love Poems

I've written before about the difference between erotica and pornography, but I haven't written before about love poetry, except obliquely. The truth is, it's a topic I avoid: there's too much baggage around it, and most people already have their opinions set and their minds made up. They may not know much, but they know what they like—and they don't want their boat rocked. Wading into the fray is destined to get oneself called a cynic, or heartless curmudgeon, or labeled as incapable of "true love"—none of which are true.

The problem is: most love poems are rife with cliché, hoary with sentimentality, scented with tawdry cologne. Because Love is one of those complex, universal Big Topics, we have on record millennia of love poems from every living world culture, and many dead ones. Some of the oldest love poems are still the greatest; one thinks of Sappho, and of ancient Sanskrit poems from India. But because love is a universal human experience, virtually every fledgling poet tries their hand at a love poem—often in the first thralls of first love—and what we're left with is mountains of bad poems about a topic that deserves better. That's my essential point here: The topic deserves better than it usually gets.

The problem isn't the topic of love, which is a universal topic, but the cheap sentimentality around it. It's a Big Topic, so most poets collapse before it, daunted before they've begun. They give up and fall back on the familiar phrases around love because scaling those heights via a new path requires immense effort. We get a lot of clichés in love poetry because poets can't do any better than that—and because they think that's enough.

So most love poems use a cipher or sign in place of genuine feeling. Most love poems use clichés as markers intended to evoke shared experiences, because the poem can't find anything uniquely personal or original enough to say—actually, I should say that most folks who write love poems are not poets in any sense, and use clichés mostly because they think they still carry meaning. But clichés are by definition phrases, images, and tropes that have become thin and weak, like dipping the teabag for a fifth brew, precisely because of their overuse. "Love is like a red, red rose" is only one of the most familiar love poetry clichés. Many non-poets who attempt love poems (who perhaps could be excused on the grounds of ignorance, from not having read much poetry before they attempt to write it) hark back to imitating what they know: so one sees a lot of imitation Shakespeare, Plutarch, Neruda, and others.

One simple means of freshening up your own love poetry is to study the love poetry of a culture utterly foreign to your own—not as something "exotic" but as a completely different, completely valid, very human response to the universal experience. Absorb how others have discussed love. Imitate their responses only insofar as they illuminate your own: imitate neither slavishly nor shallowly.

The problem is, the emotions evoked by clichés remain shallow: familiar, comfortable, nostalgic, sentimental in the worst way. The emotions evoked by clichés, those ciphers that stand in for genuine feeling, are safe. They do not disrupt, they do not threaten, they do not change the world. They do not ask either the poet or the reader to ruffle any feathers. They might ripple the surface of the pond, but only with the smallest and most ephemeral of waves; most of which never bathe the shore.

Real love poetry ought to disturb, it ought to leave the reader wrung out and panting, needing to comb their hair, needing a moment to catch their breath. Real love poetry ought to be unforgettable, even shocking. Real love isn't safe, either: real love disturbs the universe. It's anentropic, making the stars burn brighter and longer. Real love brings a searing light into the world that burns everything it touches, leaving in its wake a new tactile sensitivity to fire. Once burned, twice sensitive. Real love poetry must reflect that light.

Some of the best love poetry we have isn't "love poems," but sacred literature in which union with the Divine is described via a sustained metaphor of union with the Beloved—as if those could be separated—sometimes loftily and sometimes explicitly, sometimes both. The Song of Solomon is both sexy love dialogue and narrative of consummated Union. The monk Ryokan's Zen-flavored love poems are both specific to the nun he loved, and encompass the world. Mirabai dedicated her erotic and incandescent poetry to the Dark Lord, Krishna, who was both her god and her fickle lover who she complained to as much as praised. Further examples abound.

What the mystical poetry of love embodies that the average love-poem lacks is depth, layers of meaning, and resonance: one can feel both literal and metaphoric layers moving together in the poem. Resonance in poetry is that sense that there are echoes of meaning you can only barely hear, present yet elusive; resonance carries a poem into a larger reverberant space, something more than two-dimensional. Mystical poetry is almost always multi-layered in that one can discover multiple meanings, multiple interpretations, on each reading. There is the literal, surface layer of action in the poem; but there are usually several layers of metaphoric, symbolic meaning also hovering in the heat-haze.

One reason mystical poetry has fallen out of fashion in our too-late-capitalist, logical-positivist, materialist culture is that we've been taught to deny any meanings but the most obvious, surface meanings to any work of art. And many artists have been complicit in that, choosing sign over symbol, quick gesture over resonant archetype, either buying into or reinforcing the cultural bias. It's a chicken-and-egg situation, in some ways, whether artists reflect or enable cultural worldviews. In the case of love poetry, the bias against depth in meaning shows up in the small scale, small ambition, small scope of much contemporary poetry, in general. Most love poems by contemporary literary (professional, "fine art literature") poets are small things: miniatures, set-pieces, personal reflections (in the wake of the dominating influence of the post-confessional lyric). They stumble, they rarely catch light and burn.

Perhaps it's too radical a thought, in these times of small ambition, but I do think that even the lesser mystic poets tend to be better love poets, on average, than the vast majority of avowed literary poets. And when you get a mystic who has read and absorbed a great deal of learning before abandoning it to the fires of their passion, you get something amazing. Jelalladin Rumi was one of the greatest of these, a learned scholarly man who drowned his books when he met the Beloved. Another great poet was Rainer Maria Rilke, the modern poet of deep inwardness, whose journey through the dark heart of the self led back out again to an embrace of the wider world. Look at The Sonnets to Orpheus, read the Mathnawi. The truth is, there may only be one genuine kind of Love, and that is of the Divine Beloved, the mirror is which all else is reflected.

Set Walt Whitman's best poems in the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass side-by-side with most contemporary love poetry, whether it be from a professional poet or found in a greeting card, and see how they pale in comparison to Whitman's wider embrace:

When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d;
And else, when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy;
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing, bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day my food nourish’d me more—and the beautiful day pass’d well,
And the next came with equal joy—and with the next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.

Rumi is one of those voices (it's hard to say "writer," because his spontaneous poems were transcribed in the moment, as he sang them, by his followers) who never fails to set me on fire. Whenever I read Rumi, I feel I must write poems in response. I feel I receive a direct transmission of inspiration from Rumi. I get this from a few other poets, too, yet the responses I find myself making to Rumi seem light-filled in a way I can't explain; except, perhaps, by helplessly and inarticulately gesturing towards the original, the inspiration. I've been writing poems "after Rumi" for a decade now; someday they might be collected, but I have to admit up front that my critical judgment is in near-total abeyance with these poems. I'm quite sure that some Literary Establishment critic/poet will find fault with them, as poetry, if for no reason than that they break many of the unstated rules of current poetic fashion. But these poems were written in response to an actinic voice, not to please literary critics. To put my money where my mouth is, here's a single poem "after Rumi" that exemplifies the response:

Don’t write love poems,
write what you know: immolation:
a falcon’s fire diving from the sun,
the cricket burning in the night tree,

tulips kissing dawn mist, glowing,
the cold gleam of mushrooms.
And a Presence, everywhere,
hidden just behind the curtain

almost out of sight
seeping though the world’s thin cracks:
calling you towards a deeper well,
the voice of the wick
as your wings catch light.

So, attempting to practice what I preach, I've written almost no love poetry: no "love poems," I should say, in standard style, with standard sentiment. The very idea makes me cringe. It's not that I prefer originality for its own sake, it's that love poetry as a whole is so burdened by unoriginality that any attempt at freshness demands near-impossible effort. So I don't write many love poems; the few I'm pleased with have come at me sideways, surprising me when they happen because the topic of love is one I have almost never set out to consciously attempt. I haven't written poems for lovers as gifts, for numerous non-poetic reasons. Maybe I'm just not that romantic; I certainly have little truck with cheap sentiment or nostalgia. I've sometimes preferred to write poems that subvert the clichés, or that look at the familiar narratives of courtship from an oblique angle.

As models for how to find some freshness in this kind of approach, I refer you to poets such as Constantine Cavafy, Harold Norse, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Valentine. For passionate originality of expression in love poetry, I refer you to Octavio Paz, Emily Dickinson, Olga Broumas, James Broughton.

Here, then are two more poems of my own, both non-love poems (to coin a phrase) that exemplify, first, the sideways approach, and second, the oblique approach via mystical erocticism.

If you would court
a poet: make sure
you catch him by the wings:
the incandescent shoulders of praise.

If you would make love
to a poet, make sure
your words are well-oiled:
as sensual and exotic

as butter churned in starlight,
as clear as the sea’s whisper
under its wind-shocked cliffs:

as crisp and intimate
as your fresh-washed hair: tangling.

God is a curved line:
the breast of a girl or boy,
the turn of shoulder and hip;
even the lines our minds
decide are straight are not,
are curved or bent at the edges.
Whether girl or boy, the bend
shows through the skin,
a landscape of rounded river basalt,
a spiral maple seed’s plummet.
What we call straight up,
the spine or the sex,
is still bent: standing tall
is the curve of a willow,
the bent heart, the blossom
of bone in the loon’s cry;
a heart made of girl and boy
whether boy or girl or bent between.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Journal Entry or Personal Essay?

Where lies the line between telling too much and saying too little?

One can build an essay around personal details, that give the context to the essay's target ideas, deepen it, enrich it. This grounds what might otherwise be a too-intellectual, too-abstract, too-remote general essay in the truths and events of real life. Raw journal-entries themselves are neither finished essays nor finished poems. Yet personal detail, detail out of life, any kind of life, paradoxically is what evokes shared experience in writing, making it more vivid to the reader. The reader needs to find himself or herself in the writing, find a way to enter the writing, to be able to connect. Details are what make things universal. Speaking in generalities rarely connects. One can build an essay, of course, with no personal details included. One still needs to find a way to connect, of course, or else it's a purely mental exercise, a form of verbal self-stimulation.

Revealing the events and relationships of one's life in an essay is a balancing act. Tell just enough to give context and body and weight to the essay, but don't write a diary entry. I've never liked diary writing. Who cares about what I ate for dinner ten years ago? Who but me cares who I loved?

I make a distinction, perhaps artificial, but I think useful, between "diary" and "journal." A diary is what some people write every day that includes all of the daily events of their lives: the minutiae, the events, the relationships, the feelings. Few diaries are interesting to anyone but the writer. Diaries can be important to young people, when they're sorting out who they are. A journal, by my definition, is written in when one feels moved to; when one writes some idea or event out in order to understand it; a journal is a place to write things out in order to discover what one thinks about them. Some writers have said that they don't know what they think until they've written about it. Sometimes we see them thinking out loud, in their personal essays, and their journal entries.

I've kept a journal since I was in college, since 1980 or 1981. There are numerous volumes now, between 20 and 30, stored away. I generally don't go back and re-read them. When I do, what I discover is my own psychological development, how I got from there to here; and the occasional idea for a new bit of writing. It can be an interesting kind of personal archaeology, in certain moods. I use photographs to look into the events of family history, because for the most part none of that is in the journal. Most of the journal is unreadable and uninteresting to anyone but me, I'm certain, because it's mostly thinking-aloud. It's disorganized, it's random, it's often angst-ridden (everyone needs a safe place to vent), and without clear reference to events in daily life. It's an internal history rather than external.

But my journal is also where, for many years, writing practice and creation took place. You can find first drafts, dated, of most of the poems from the last twenty and more years; usually just the first or second drafts, though, as my habit became to transcribe to and revise on the computer. I can locate seed-kernels of larger ideas in the journal, that eventually became essays or larger projects. There are notes towards artwork and musical projects, too. There's a lot of writing practice: description, detailed sifting and self-analysis, attempts at developing voice and style. But very little of it is publishable. Some of it not even I am interested in, later.

I have no problem revealing personal details if it serves a purpose, or supports the thesis of an essay. Two models of thinking-out-loud are Michael de Montaigne and PL Travers, who described her own process of rambling discourse as thinking-is-linking. I do a lot of that. Montaigne was of course one of the inventors of the essay, and his example still looms large. Montaigne's essays expanded with each edition, rather than contracted, as he included more of the world in each, as he brought in association after association, side thought after side thought.

A good personal essay can be like a wander through a labyrinth, leading one through turn after turn until one realizes that one has walked a crooked path indeed, but it all makes sense when you turn around and look back on it. Where were we going? Now we know. Sometimes discovery is half the fun, when you set out not knowing where you'll end up.

So, when we look at the personal essay, the journal entry, and the diary entry, what we must consider is their relative amounts of polish. Sometimes I prefer to leave a journal entry unedited: a raw field note, neither prettied up for some wedding nor made less spontaneous by revision. Sometimes I revise my thoughts into more structured forms, and they become essays. Both seem valid forms to me, the field note and the personal essay.

An essay form I use a lot, which I see very often, is the recursive spiral: the subject keeps coming around again, after we've wandered off for awhile. But you don't walk in a circle, because each time you touch a new piece of ground, you have the memory and history of when you were here last. So you're up a level, on an overlay, walking a spiral, rather than a circle. Or dancing.

What the diary and the journal entry both share is that they're undigested. Both are momentary. Timebound. Not necessarily ephemeral, because there may be something there to look back on later, but of-the-moment. They're not really intended to last.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Lessons from Having Been Bullied 3

So in the wake of more death, more friends going, gone, lost, maybe it's the full moon, in the wake of tragedy comes misunderstanding after misunderstanding, continuous drama and upset. I am painted as the black hat simply for speaking the truth; that is a habit I admit to, but I don't think it's a bad one. You just have to remember that when you speak the truth, many aren't ready, or willing, to hear it. I watch friendships fall apart from the sidelines; I watch cyclic self-destruction manifest itself as reversion to habit of trying to Control things that are best left unmanaged, trusted to manage themselves, and let be themselves rather than controlled. It's an organic kind of trust, a flower kind of trust, a kind of vine and creeper that trips the unwary when trust disappears for awhile. In the wake of more death, comes personal disaster. And all seem powerless to stop it.

I watch people revert to their most infantile selves, and play by sandbox rules, whenever they let their fears overwhelm their trust. I do not accuse, although I might. It's not a truth anyone wants to hear. I watch them let their fears drive them, make them become paranoid, make them turn towards something almost bestial, lurking there under that veneer of civilization. When you scratch off the top layers of civility, the beast is always there, in the shadows under the vines.

How do you break this cycle? By talking back to the bullies that are inside yourself. When you've been bullied, near or long ago, you internalize an image in your own self of what a bully is, does, and acts like. Everyone has an inner beast. I know very well what mine is, what mine looks like, how it behaves, its personality and its typical responses. I know it well, and a good deal of my personal power arises from it.

But here's a secret: The beast is not meant to rule you; it's meant to partner with you. When you ride the Dragon, you might be holding on for dear life, but you do fly.

Suppression and repression are the consensus agreements of Apollonian civilization that would just as soon pretend that Dionysus never existed. Suppression and repression might contain the beast, and the vine, over here in this room, so that it remains an organized and cleanly-lit room. But whatever you push down here, will pop back up over there. You can't Control where or when it will pop back up; if you push it down, you bind yourself to living in fear of its return, in a time and place, and a manner, that you can't Control.

This is a natural law. No one can escape it.

If you're smart or rich or lucky
Maybe you'll beat the laws of man
But the inner laws of spirit
And the outer laws of nature
No man can
No, no man can

—Joni Mitchell, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey

The inner laws of spirit. That's the vine, and the garden, the inscape of paradise.

You know when you've violated those laws. Conscience pricks you. You know, even as you ignore the still small voice of conscience within you, that what you're doing is wrong. You can see it coiling in the eyes of bullies, when they are on the attack: some suppressed shadow-vine in the back of their eyes glitters with self-loathing. What a bully does is lash out at everything and everyone in blame. Bullies never target those who are the real cause of their suffering: themselves. And the revenants in themselves of their victims, and their own victimhood.

There are indeed bullies who were parentally abused, and confuse fisticuffs with intimacy, who know verbal derision as the only binding tie of love. If you beat a child or a dog enough, it starts to believe that the beatings are the proper and natural way to express love. You have to be carefully taught to hate. Many bullies (those who aren't outright sociopaths) are Victims, and are ruled by the stellar constellation and sign of the Victim. What else shall we name that beast under the vine, but Victim?

I remember a schoolyard bully in elementary school who I hated and feared. More than once he and his brother waited for me after school, knowing they could corner me in the schoolyard before I could get home. I remember being a victim of their abuse many times. I remember details: the press of the tetherball pole cool against my back; the taste of brick dust; the stiffness of half-healed bruises. A perverse secret I carry that I've told no-one is that the stiff heat of bruised muscle is familiar enough to me that, when I am injured now, years later, by accident or overuse injury, the feel of a half-healed bruise is a kind of comfort zone.

I also remember learning a great deal about stealth and invisibility, about learning to avoid the bullies—about learning to avoid conflict. I am still learning to stand my ground when conflict arises, and not run from it. I am still learning that conflict is a kiln, not an unexploded bomb. I am still learning that a softening response to conflict is more healing, while my reflex tendency is still to stiffen up. I've forgiven, and I still am not able to forget. Not yet.

And I remember that when the brothers pushed too hard, and finally got caught bullying me by some teachers, and their father came after school to get them and dress them down, I learned where they had learned their own lessons in how to be bullies. Their father verbally berated them with such intensity and such towering rage, that I saw their souls shrink to coals in seconds. They cowered and they cringed. The sudden compassion I felt for these brothers must have leaked into my gaze, because when the older brother met my eyes while his father yelled at him, I saw his hate flare anew, powered by shame. You have to be carefully taught. How dare I pity him, his jaw seemed to say. Just wait till next time, his fist said, involuntarily clenching under his jacket sleeve. You'll get yours, because I'm getting mine and you witnessed it, the hunch of his shoulders said. And the nape of his neck said, Is this what it means to be loved?

Here's a secret—it's probably another natural law: People who don't know why they feel the way they do are under the spell of their emotions. They are possessed by their own feelings. They are not in control: they are being Controlled. They are wraith-driven: haunted: possessed. Sudden behaviors that have no rational cause catch the observer by surprise.

How do you break the knee-jerk reactions that trigger you, that push your buttons, that make you scream and leap, claws out, snarling deep in your throat? How do you live, without the beast being in charge of your life? The first truth is: You have to get to know yourself. A little self-awareness can carry you a long way. You need to learn where your buttons are, and what pushes them. The second truth is: After you've watched your own responses enough to learn what triggers you, when you are triggered anew, you have to learn how to redirect that sudden surge of fierceness that makes your skin hot and tingly, that makes you want to explode. You cannot suppress it; you cannot repress it: that's what got you into this mess in the first place. And the third truth is: You're not alone. Everyone carries a in them a beast lurking under the shadows of the vines. We are all verdant, and we are all rotten, and that is both right and natural, and just the way things are.

In Vietnamese folklore, humans are said to be half angels, and half demons. Half radiant celestial being, half Dragon. We exist on this plane, which is midway between the angels' plane, and the demon's. We merge spirit and degradation in one flesh, half descending form heaven to be born, and half arising from hell. Learning to balance these halves of our being, to get them to work together in harmony: that is the work of a lifetime.

Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That's the burden of the angel/beast

—Bruce Cockburn, Burden of the Angel/Beast

Apollo without Dionysus provides us no safety-valve to release the steam. The pressure builds and builds, and if it is never released, the vessel explodes. Dionysus with no Apollo makes us manic—literally, in the original meaning of the word, mania—it provides us no useful structures into which to channel our energies. Everything scatters to the wind, directionless, wasted, fertile seed blowing across an infertile wasteland. Dionysus lives in the vines, and in the beast that lives under the vine; and Apollo makes the arbor, the trellis, the cultivated row, and weeds and waters root and stem alike.

The two gods are meant to work together, in tandem. They are each other's balance, each other's shadows. If the balance tips too far one way or the other, on the one hand one gets repression and totalitarianism, Control for the sake of Order; and on the other, one gets refulgent Chaos on which one has no firm ground upon which to take a stand.

There is a beast in me, that looks out through my eyes. It'd fangs drip with sap, as it hides back under the vine trellis, letting you see only its eyes. Sometimes the Dragon looks out through my eyes. And because I am reflective, because I am practiced at monitoring my own inner weather, I know it when it happens, which gives me the choice to let it fire my gaze, or to let it cool.

Here's a secret: There is always a choice. You can always choose to let the beast out, or to let it stay in the shadows. When we have learned what our triggers are, and where our buttons are that get pushed, when we have learned to watch ourselves to learn about what lies in our shadows, then we can choose. Choice is our chief power, and our greatest responsibility.

With self-knowledge comes responsibility. When you know where your beast lairs, you no longer have the luxury of pretending it's not there. Repression is not only longer an option, we become aware of repression's innate toxicity. When we start to live our lives more consciously, we can no longer hide behind excuses or pretend that we don't know what's going on. When we begin to live more consciously, we no longer have the luxury of denial. We know what's going on. Our conscience pricks us because we know very well that we've done something wrong.

Bullies largely live unconscious lives. They don't know why they act out the way they do—lashing out at the external world in hate and blame—and for the most part, they don't want to know. Knowing brings with it guilt, shame, regret, and recrimination. The index of self-hatred goes way up, before it can come back down. Who would want to see themselves so naked, so plain, so starkly illuminated? Bullies kill prophets before prophets have a chance to illuminate their darker places. Self-knowledge is a kind of light that those who would rather live unconsciously, so that they can continue to blame others for their problems, rather than actually redeeming them, will run long and hard to get away from. The light can scorch at first; but it is in fact a gentle light. The gaze of compassion can be no less fierce than the gaze of fear.

But our freedom to choose is infinitely renewable. I have witnessed a bully relax his clenched fist, choose to shake hands instead, and become a former bully. I have seen the place at the Little Bighorn where, a century after the battle, they literally buried the hatchet. Buried the tomahawk, buried the war iron. Let them decay, and feed the soil where, even now, flowers grow where the dead had fallen. Death is not the end of healing. Death is a door into something of redemption.

So in the wake of ever more death, friends and loved ones falling all around me, I remember how it feels, too, when the muscles have become supple again, after the bruises have fully, finally faded.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Noel Perrin on Charles Williams: A Universe Charged With Meaning

Noel Perrin's A Reader's Delight is well-named. It consists of short chapters in praise, or in study, of a wide range of books, mostly from Perrin's own library. It's a magpie book, a commonplace book, wide-ranging and completely, delightfully disorganized. Each chapter contains pithy general observations as well as discussion of the book in question. Perrin is aware of context and history, and shares both with the reader. He shares his delight as a reader with us, his readers. Such enthusiasm is intoxicating.

So it was a pleasure to stumble across Perrin's chapter on Charles Williams' great novel, All Hallow's Eve. This is one of my own favorite books, re-read several times over the years. Reading about it from Perrin's viewpoint was like looking sideways through a glass, some things familiar, some things seen from a different perspective.

Charles Williams wrote novels that have been characterized as "supernatural thrillers," novels of spiritual crisis and overcoming and transcendence. He is perhaps best known for his novels, but also wrote extensive criticism, plays, biographies, theology, and a long cycle of poems in the Arthurian mythos, Taleisin through Logres. Occasionally arcane and opaque, there are in fact deeply symbolic poems that, when they rise above Williams' idiosyncratic mythos and interpretations and symbols, become sublime.

Williams was one of the Inklings at Oxford, that informal writer's group that gathered in J.R.R. Tolkien's rooms to discuss literature, and to critique each others' works. Williams is often considered the thirdmost of the group, after Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, it's two most famous members.

Perrin writes in his essay on All Hallow's Eve:

There is a lot of writing (and filming) about the supernatural going on currently, nearly all of it cynical. It's cynical in the sense that the authors don't believe for a second that there really might be a vampire lurking in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., or that some large dog is possessed by the powers of evil. All they believe in is the marketability of plots like that. Such cynicism has a price. Almost inevitably their books and movies come out shallow.

What a stunning indictment of the entertainment industry. And a true one. It's very hard not to agree with Perrin when regarding the long list of current ultra-violent, ultra-graphic (Japanese-style-influenced) horror films. It's hard at times to tell who is more cynical, the producers of these films, or the viewers. The Scream group of films was a horror trilogy, but it was also a brilliant and funny send-up of its own genre, and quite refreshing as a result. Shallow, but self-aware of its shallowness, and toying with expectations as a result.

Serious writing about the supernatural is quite another matter. That can wind deeper and more powerful than almost anything else in our literature. The Divine Comedy. for example, or Beowulf. The reason is obvious. A universe in which the supernatural operates is a universe charged with meaning. And to invest action with meaning is perhaps the most important thing literature does.

Charles Williams' novel All Hallow's Eve is one of the most powerful works of supernaturalism to appear in our century. It comes, appropriately enough, out of the same nexus as many other such works: The Lord of the Rings, Perelandra, the Narnian chronicles. Williams was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—and when his work took him to Oxford during the Second World War, he promptly became the third central figure in the informal literary group known as the Inklings.

Williams is not so nearly well known as Lewis and Tolkien, and there are several reasons. One is that most of the time he is not nearly so good a writer. Another is that he's a much better mystic than either of them—and mystics make harder and higher demands on their readers than story tellers (Tolkien) and allegorists (Lewis). A third is that unlike them Williams does not write the kind of fiction available to both children and adults, but a kind available to adults only. . . .

Here I must somewhat disagree with Perrin. Perhaps I am showing my own mystic's bias, my sympathy to Williams' worldview, as I must place Williams in second position in the Inklings, above Lewis, in importance as a writer. Perrin is quite right when he says Williams is a much better mystic than either of them—and mystics make harder and higher demands on their readers. This is the crux of the matter.

Perrin rightly labels Lewis an allegorist. In even Lewis' best books, the scaffolding always seems close to the surface. His plots are driven by his philosophies, most notably his Christian beliefs which he held as strongly and implacably as most converts in adulthood do. There is always a moral, always a message. Lewis' characters are often just tools of the plot, actors to whom events happen, and who have little depth outside the plot. If you were to taken one of his characters outside the action of their story, it's often hard to know what they'd think or feel or do in a different situation. They are often ciphers of Lewis' philosophy-driven plots, and remain two-dimensional.

Williams, by contrast, gets us inside the minds and feelings of his characters. We identify with them, in his best moments we think their thoughts even as they do, and we feel how naturally their attitudes drive the action. Where Lewis is plot-driven, WIlliams is much more character-driven. We'll return to this later on.

I can agree with Perrin that Williams was not as consistently even a writer as either Tolkien or Lewis; but I don't agree that this was necessarily a fault. Rather, I appreciate that Williams took risks, and sometimes missed his target. Some of his novels, and there are only seven of them, are less well-written than The Lord of the Rings, while two are acknowledged masterpieces. Those two are All Hallow's Eve and Descent Into Hell, which some critics feel is his best novel.

Perrin summarizes the plot and characters of All Hallow's Eve, which I won't reproduce here. They do matter a great deal, but like any great novel, they are not easily summarized. I'm more interested in looking for now at Perrin's conclusions, the insights he gives us into the nature of Williams' writing, and the deeper themes of the novel.

About half of the novel takes place in what Williams

always calls The City, one of many mystical cities that coexist with the actual living London. . . . Most of the newly dead are in that City, though rarely present to each other, since for each of them it is a slightly different place, depending on what each valued in life.

The novel begins with the central lead character finding herself on Westminster Bridge in a quiet nighttime version of The City, and it takes some time and action before she realizes that she is in fact dead. And that's where the novel begins! Where it ends is in simultaneous salvation and damnation, following Williams' belief, exemplified in the parallel and divergent progresses of each character, that choice is essential to both. As Perrin notes,

One main theme in the book is the progressive salvation of [one main character] and the progressive damnation of [another] as they face what they were, and do or don't decide to change.

Choice is central to each character. Each of them are given opportunities to choose, and the choices they make determine their fate. This is a spiritual belief, almost a truism, that is echoed in many mystical traditions. Many of Williams' novels revolve around such choices on the part of a central character. In one or two instances, Williams' writing as a character chooses the Light becomes itself so luminous and bright that one must stop reading for a moment, dazzled and half-blind. If these novels are indeed "supernatural thrillers," one thrill to be found in them is descriptions of enlightenment and salvation poetically sublime.

Where Williams also succeeds as a novelist is that he shows us through action so character-driven and natural-seeming that the plot turns seem inevitable, although never predictable and never manipulative, arising out of the individual character of each player in the drama. Where Lewis, the allegorist, has a tendency to tell us what's going on, and what we should think about it, Williams shows us, and leaves us to understand on our own. You can read All Hallow's Eve purely as an adventure story, if you choose, and ignore all the extra layers of meaning that cluster around the narrative like the whispering dead. Both readings are valid, and both succeed, because they involve the reader in the story, rather than leaving us standing at one intellectual remove.

Perrin ends his essay on Williams' novel with a brief conclusion:

Philip Larkin speaks in his greatest poem . . . ["Church Going," which Perrin also discusses in his book] of people in the twentieth century surprising in themselves a hunger to be more serious than they are. For anyone with that hunger, All Hallow's Eve is a magical book indeed.

I very much agree.

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Life Beyond the Literary Establishment

Noel Perrin, writes in A Reader's Delight in 1988, a personal and informal compendium of "Forgotten Books, Remembered Books, Honored Books, Orphaned Books":

The standing of an American book tends to derive in the short run from the judgments rendered by the New York Literary Establishment—which these days is only about four-fifths in New York. It now has branches in Washington and California. This loose congeries of critics, editors, writers, and probably even a few agents tends to be liberal in its political and social views (which I like it for), insular and cliquey (which I don't like it for), and deeply respectful of publicity (which I feel ambivalent about). Publicity conferred by itself it tends to regard as the ultimate accolade. . . .

In the long run, a book's standing is largely determined by professors. Professors not only write the learned books and encyclopedia entries that keep authors alive or kill them off, they pick the literature that gets taught in college. Any generation is apt to know two classes of books: the current ones favored by the Establishment and the classics selected by professors. . . .

Most American writers, from Cooper, Poe, and Hawthorne onward, have been [romantics], and nearly all the novels in our canon are romances. This has advantages for teachers and students both. It's handy for teachers, because there is usually more to say in class about something rich in symbols and hung with cloudy portent. It is wonderful for students, because practically everyone is—and should be—a romantic at eighteen or nineteen or twenty. Clear-eyed realism comes later. Except, of course, for the considerable number of people who go directly from romanticism to disillusionment, and who thus become cynics. To them it never comes at all.

A wiser and more clear-eyed assessment of the literary game I have rarely encountered.

Of course, I expected little less, having years ago devoured with pleasure Perrin's classic study of Medieval Japanese culture, Giving up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879. That was another clear-eyed book about a profound upheaval in cultural values and traditions. Japan had gunpowder for centuries, thanks to their close ties to China: and they gave it up, for several compelling reasons. Perrin's narrative of this historical period is still required reading for any student of Japanese culture, in my opinion. Highly recommended, as is A Reader's Delight, from which I quoted above.

Perrin's assessment of the Literary Establishment remains accurate today, in general and in specific. Perhaps more now than ever, making Perrin's voice a prophetic one. The Establishment is losing their control over the gatekeeping aspect of publishing now, however, as the internet begins to rival print, or surpass it, for literary publishing and criticism. A lot of the flailing that is going on these days circles around the Establishment losing its monolithic power, and its fear of that loss. A lot of arguments I've seen that project one Literary Canon or another over others are transparent power-plays. When the times get turbulent, power-projection is a reaction against uncertainty and chaos.

Power doesn't interest me. (Especially power-over, as opposed to power-with.) Good writing does. I appreciate the fact that the gatekeepers of taste no longer have the control they once did. I appreciate the open-frontier aspect of the internet. I appreciate that the technology now allows many dedicated and smart people access to publishing that they were denied before, for no other reason than that they didn't have an agent who could connect them to someone in the Literary Establishment. You can get around all that, now. There are perils to either path, of course.

One argument the Literary Establishment uses, especially in its critical apparatus, is that without critical assessments that sort through the chaff to find the whole grains, no one can make any lasting judgments of quality. Simply put, there's ever more crap out there, and they claim to be the ones able to help you sort through it. There is some truth to this argument; but it's a limited truth. It is certainly true that, with easy access to publishing, a lot more crap is out there, which one must wade through. More bad poetry is published now than ever before. It is certainly true that it takes more effort to find the good stuff among the bad.

Where this argument fails is that it doesn't trust the average reader to make up his or her own mind, or be savvy enough to make their own critical assessments. Sure, sometimes the armchair critic will get it wrong. But the professional critics get it wrong so often, so glaringly, and they get it wrong so often for all the wrong reasons—as Perrin astutely observed—that the professional critics are often as taste-driven and wrong-headed as they claim the amateurs to be. They're wrong far more then they think they are, and far more often than they claim to be. It is shocking how many bad books get praised by Literary Establishment critics nowadays.

But that's always been the case. The gatekeepers' argument also fails because it ignores history. More bad poetry may get published now than ever before, but that's because more poetry, period, gets published now than ever before. The proportion of good to bad probably remains about the same.

Any quick analysis of the history of the arts shows that, far more often than not, many bad books get praised to the skies in the short run, by the Establishment, while good and enduring books often percolate up later. The flip side of the coin to this truth, as humorously detailed in books such as Nicholas Slonimsky's classic A Lexicon of Musical Invective, is how often critics have vilified and condemned artistic works that time has proven to be masterpieces. Beethoven often got very bad reviews; so did Mozart. Bach was unpopular in his lifetime. So was Melville.

Contrarily, I am often amused to see so many critics praise "modern masters of the novel" that I find singularly unimpressive, when set up against past masters. One often feels that critics continue to praise certain current novelists only because other critics have already done so—by force of habit rather than out of essential merit. I often wonder if reviewers have actually read the book, because they certainly seem to have read a book very different than the one I read that bore the same title. As Perrin wrote, Publicity conferred by [the Literary Establishment on] itself it tends to regard as the ultimate accolade. This is as true of Literary Establishment criticism (i.e. back-scratching publicity) now as it was in 1988; perhaps more so.

Time will tell, as always. The verdict of time is the final arbiter. Even the professors get it wrong sometimes; perhaps especially when they teach courses in contemporary literature. I applaud professors who are willing to teach contemporary literature, when they include books they assess as lesser, and are honest about saying so. Far too many contemporary literature courses are, instead, attempts at canonization. In this, the professors are trying to be Establishment critics. Since the vast majority of famous living poets nowadays are or were professors, one must often wonder about conflict of interest. One certainly feels that books that should be ignored often get over-praised simply because they're produced by the critic's friends within the poet-professor world. "You scratch my back with a good review, and I'll scratch yours."

This mutual praising happens more often than they'll admit to, of that there is little doubt. The problem is that it has a corrosive effect on criticism in general. Who can the reader trust?

I don't mind if a critic openly declares he or she likes something for a personal reason; in fact, I wish more critics would be open about their personal tastes and biases. Where Establishment critics fail, spectacularly, is when they canonize their taste (over your taste) into a rule or guideline or sweeping assessment. Thus are born literary -isms, fashions, and trends, none of them durable or very deep. In the short run, it keeps your writer friends employed; in the long run, it erodes away any trust the average reader might have once developed in Literary Establishment criticism.

Perhaps there ought to be warning signs posted at the header of every literary criticism column: Caution: All Assessments Contained Herein Are Provisional. Perhaps every review ought to require full disclosure of the reviewer's personal connections to the reviewed, revealing both back-scratching and axes to grind. Of course, you already know the Literary Establishment would reject out of hand this fantasy of a suggestion, as would most outsider reviewers who yearn to join or at least be respected by the Establishment.

So what is an unknown writer to do if you want your writings to be read beyond your small circle of friends? One can beat against the Establishment wall, pleading to be let in—occasionally that even works. One can circumvent the Establishment entirely and self-publish—traditionally considered vanity press publishing, which the Establishment will ignore or even disparage, but at least you'll be in print. One can do a complete end run and start up one's own mini-Establishment elsewhere—which has been done numerous times to eventual success, creating a local literary "scene" that eventually gets noticed by the national press and the mainstream literary establishment. And one can choose to self-publish on the internet, more or less for free, more or less at risk of never being heard or discovered. I write things here that no one in the Literary Establishment will ever hear or care about; nor am I afraid to bite (kilobyte) that hand, should it ever reach my way. It doesn't matter. Fame and power are not my motivation.

It's unwise to infer too much authority from credentials. It takes work to get a Ph.D., indeed, and one can infer that one is an expert thereafter on the topic of one's dissertation, having had to research and write in depth on that often narrowly-focused topic. But Ph.D.s are nowadays called upon by the media to opine on topics far outside their realms of expert knowledge. It seems like everyone likes to kowtow to authority, given a chance. The Literary Establishment has long relied on people kowtowing to their authority, perceived or actual. What they're complaining about most, nowadays, is that their authority is less actual, and mostly perceived. I revel in the fact that I have easy access to lots of great writing that the Establishment usually ignores or despises. I revel in the ease with which one can now participate in samizdat publishing, in stealth publishing, in below-the-radar publishing that still manages to reach your one true audience, the people who were destined to be your audience, who had only to discover your writings to be brought to light and life. Even the most obscure artist has an audience; all the work of publishing has always been about trying to make that connection.

Sure, some writers are going to abuse that power, their new-found microphones and soapboxes. That too has always been the case. Sure, it's going to take more effort to find the flowers amongst the weeds. But it is worth it. It's worth it when you discover a writer previously unknown to you who sets your mind on fire, who breathes life into yours, who awakens feelings in your soma that remind you that we're all in this together, and no one here gets out alive.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Abstract Realism in Photography 3

Turtle Creek floodplain, Wisconsin

a week ago two feet of snow on the ground
now two days of summer weather
everything melts, runs into the river
swollen banks overflooding
bridge underpass iceclogged
ground still frozen

lines of deadbranch trees flooded
reflecting in water's dusk mirror
tracing black parentheses over ice

lines, shapes, triangles
easy to see the fractal geometry of nature

as the river flows on
icefloes jammed together, buckling up
break out, melt, clump

till the icedam breaks and runs
till winter returns, undone

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Essentially Pagan Nature of Environmentalism

Last dream before waking: I am carrying a load of wood, long stripped pine logs, with others, from a forest patch to a trucking site down the road; our work group is two Native girls, a friend, and myself; we take turns carrying and maneuvering the load of wood, trying to get where we’re going; we get to talking about our motivations for why we have all become environmentalists; I talk about my birth and life in Michigan, how I felt directly connected to the land, how I still feel connected to the land when I settle some place; the older of the two Native girls, the one who talks, finds this a good thing, and close in kind to the values and feelings she herself has, and was raised to believe.

People need to always remember, the Earth will endure, even if we destroy ourselves. We could destroy ourselves, still, and the habitats we rely on for survival. But “save the planet” needs to be rephrased as “save ourselves.” We are the ones in danger. The planet itself is enduring, and will still be here even after we, as a species, have either died out, or evolved on to some other state, possibly a space-borne one, either technologically or inherently, or something wildly beyond imagining.

The dream, and the thoughts it springs forward upon waking, that I’ve written here, remind me of the essentially pagan nature of the thoughts and feelings behind the environmental movement(s). Pagan, in the original Latin, meant the people of the countryside, the pagani, as opposed to those who dwelled in the center of culture in the Big City. Pagan also meant the country people's little religions, the thousand little gods, the statues of Priapus in the village greens, and other fertility symbols, the old Dionysian/Bacchan rites, the gods and festivals that were tied to and marked the agricultural annual cycle. Pagan, once Rome became Christian, the Holy Roman Empire, who consolidated their power in the One True Church, as some have called it, also came to mean all the little pre-Christian, non-Christian belief-systems and local religions that institutional Christianity strove to supplant throughout Europe. Thus do the conquering monoliths of organized faiths label those they have supplanted, murdered, and exterminated: heretics, heathens, witches (which meant, originally, wise ones), pagans. During the Inquisition, which some scholars insist has never ended, women and men alike were burned as witches because their local wisdom was based on the local herbs and beliefs, not the One True Church. The shift in meaning of the word pagan to mean non-Christian was part of a method of centralized political control, of the consolidation of temporal power as well as religious domination. In which case, being the fundamentally anti-authoritarian beast that I am, it pleases me to be labeled, pagan, witch, heretic, faggot. I own all those labels proudly, in defiance of Church authorities. And my dreams, ever archetypal and resonant, continue to remind me of my own essentially pagan nature: my feel for the land, for the forces of nature, weather, time, erosion, wabi-sabi, the agricultural annual cycle, and the non-human beings that travel alongside us on this turning globe. There’s a squirrel bounding across the snow in the yard out back: gather ye nuts and berries while ye may.

I am not anti-human in the slightest, although I don’t think we’re the center of the universe, the measure of all things, or the end product of evolution. Evolution continues, and will do so when we're gone. If the theory of evolution is correct, our species like many other species has a lifespan of probably a few million years, at most. After that, we would not even recognize ourselves, if we are still here; we'll either have evolved or become extinct. The globe will circle our Sun for much longer than that. The earth does care about us, her wayward children, of this I have no doubt. Meister Eckhart’s comment about how we feel separated from the Divine, be it God or Gaea, is relevant here: God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk. In all of this I agree with Robinson Jeffers, in his oft-misunderstood philosophy of Inhumanism, which is not misanthropic but rather reaffirms that all things human are rather small, and not the center of the universe. I am not anti-human, but I am opposed to the excesses of some of the humanist philosophy, which at times approaches narcissistic self-regard at the level of solipsism. What I am for is including everybody else in our self-regard, not forgetting that we are all One, and that a good guest in a home doesn’t mess up the furniture or leave dirty dishes in the sink.

But perhaps selfishness is the only motivation that many people will hitch their wagons to. If you point out that the real truth of the environmental movement is not “save the planet” but “save ourselves,” maybe people will actually begin to pay attention, and wake up to the truth that it’s not healthy to shit where you sleep. The planet will endure, whether or not we do. If an appeal to enlightened self-interest is what it takes us to clean up our acts, literally, then I’m all for it.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

San Francisco B&W 2

downtown San Francisco, 2006

pattern, grid, layer
of reflection with translucence—
sky, see yourself looking

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San Francisco B&W

images from San Francisco, 2006, in black and white

City Hall at night

downtown from hilltop

Fire Brigade Band at the Embarcadero, on the 100th Anniversary of the great 1906 earthquake

Montgomery St.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

moon full on glass

almostfull blue moonlight
spill across kitchen counter
diagonal to knife and cutting board glass

skyshroud curtaincloudraising clear
bluelight fall water into blue
falling all over the land and river

fall like the ringing of light on stone
dustmote snow falling in the dark
on all the living and the dead


Friday, February 06, 2009

The Artist's Life as a Kind of Monasticism

Courtesy of Mark Vernon, and his sculptor friend Guy Reid,here's a quote from Thomas Merton:

Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity.

This speaks against the constant rush and acceleration of daily life, not only art. The century continues to accelerate; connections continue to be tied more tightly into knots; we all know more than we used to, but it's also shallower than it used to be; we all have massive amounts of raw data to hand, and no time to interpret or evaluate any of it. Life moves ever faster for most people, driven by technology and communications and the manifest activation of Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere and Marshall McLuhan's global village. Perhaps life moves ever faster especially for those who choose to move with the social or political whirls; the news-stream becomes their caffeinated fuel.

But the increasing speed of life guarantees neither depth nor wisdom. In fact, acceleration tends to lead to skimming: shallow perception of quantity, rather than slowed perception of quality. What happens to quality of life when the dominant cultural message is about quantity; specifically, consumer quantity? As every monastic knows, the path of contemplation leads to richness; and it is better achieved by minimalism and reduced means. The world and the world's trials can all be found in the monk's cell, where you have no option but to confront your own true self, without distraction. In the same way, there's a saying in Aikido that the mat is the world: all of life's issues appear on the mat, in the dojo.

And now my own life is slowed down, by circumstance, choice, and events. I've had no choice, at times, but to slow down; but it's a choice I've made before in life, even before I was forced to. I once lived for two years without a home telephone; which forever cured me of the urge to always rush to answer, especially in these days of anytime, anywhere cellphone conversations that most people seem to do without thinking.

I'd rather live a simpler life than one that means I have to juggle several plates in the air all at once. I'd rather have more time to do what I want to do, which is mostly to be creative daily, and less money that I don't have time to spend, only time to earn. The truth is, I was forced to slow down partly by chronic illness; one whose chief side effect in debilitating tiredness; I doubt I could work at a high-pressure fast-paced many-hours-a-week job anymore, my body just isn't up to it. When I chafe at that circumstance, it's because of financial fear, not because I'm restless to work at a job I don't want to do anyway. When I can calm the financial worry, I find myself very much at peace about my slower pace of life.

I would be lying if I said I'd never thought about the monastic life. I have, more than once. What holds me back is the obedience to the established rule of an established order: I would no doubt chafe, and would no doubt become an anti-authoritarian troublemaker. I've thought being a lay brother at a monastery. I've made retreats at two or three different orders' houses. I live alone for now, and I like the silence and solitude a great deal. I like being able to follow a monk's daily discipline, but with the flexibility to vary the details of my daily practice.

So I think also of Marsha Sinetar's essential book Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. Sinetar writes in her Introduction:

I call the monk one who had detached emotionally from a known, familiar and comfortable way of life in order to embark on an uncharted inner journey. The monk responds to an inner call, reinterprets his/her basic way of being in the world—which might include reinterpreting the way s/he relates to others, work, marriage, Church or other organizational status, and even includes a renewed definition of self and his/her basic place in the scheme of things.

And I mean more: I use the term monk without reference to gender, material statuls, occupation, or place of residence, and with full knowledge that some I'd call monks would not, and do not in fact, call themselves "monk." . . . I simply needed a word which embraced the imagery of silence, the dignity and obedience that automatically accompanies those who embark on an inner journey, whatever route that may take, whatever the costs.

Sinetar's book contains a lot of practical wisdom, mostly expressed by example rather than theory. Before the current wave of interest in voluntary simplicity, before the urge to slow down began to manifest as a grass-roots movement, Sinetar was interviewing and describing people who had already chosen the path of lifework as contemplation. Some of them lived off the grid, in more or less monastic solitude; others lived and worked in the hearts of cities, holding down high=pressure jobs, but their attitude towards life and work was a monk's attitude. One of contemplative engagement with the work; one of detachment.

I also think of the great avant-garde saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who was asked not too long before he died, now that he had achieved a pinnacle of creative, artistic and financial success, what did he want to do next? Coltrane answered simply: I want to become a saint. He took his time about it, and I think he achieved that goal.

Thomas Merton had much more to say on art, being a writer and photographer himself. He was a good photographer, although he was not known as one till after he died. He borrowed cameras from friends, and went through film roll after roll. He was friends with a couple of professional photographers who lived near the monastery, and who both encouraged his explorations in their medium, but also gave him creative feedback. Some of Merton's most lucid photographs are simple, plain images of brilliant afternoon light falling on the simple, plain objects in his hermitage in the Kentucky hills. Some of his most memorable photos are snapshots of the Spirit in repose or in motion. The best photos contain a great stillness. One can well imagine Merton taking his time, looking first, before making a photograph. He looked, he saw, he composed, and then he took the photo. As Minor White said about his own often very spiritual photography: No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.

So, a few more Thomas Merton quotes now. Spirit also stood still long enough for Merton to sketch its likeness into words.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

Do not depend on the hope of results. . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to that you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

requiescat in lux

two days, a loss, a burial, a marriage feast, refusal, the end of light
the still, nothing, still, still, the night still

bird over a churning sea under a calm sky
sunspark on wave, bellows of sand and surf

redbird in greentree, the ever sun spinning overhead
nick in carpet, nickelplating on hand and sunrefracted windowshine

I sit in the sunshadow of the stainedglass window
listen to your memorial service, gone friend, and remember

times for tea, for sitting on sunlit decks, for riding, eating road in
airflung golden sports car convertible roadster wheels spinning

the sun blasts gold through the top of the tall window
and a bare winter treebranch casts a thin black line on the glass

I've been here too often, this sad place, what endures is the laughter
what I remember is the sunlight and the smile under that sun

let the sunstruck light into our hearts, whatever gods may linger in us
let us remember not a sermon of fear but lessons of company comrade

let my eyes always lift to the windowlight, the blaze of gold
rather than bowing my head in unnecessary and unsought humility

because what we are, whatever god is, it's all in the light, that light, this light
here, now, still here, this light, filling me, gold on the glass ice of winter

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Happy BIrthday, James Joyce

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
Goldpinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores.
Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look: the bright stars fade. Notes chirruping answer.
O rose! Castile. The morn is breaking.
Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
Coin rang. Clock clacked.
Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter. Not leave thee. Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm. Sweetheart, goodbye!
Jingle. Bloo.
Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.
A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.
Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.
Horn. Hawhorn.
When first he saw. Alas!
Full tup. Full throb.
Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.
Martha! Come!
Clapclap. Clipclap. Clappyclap.
Goodgod henev erheard inall.
Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.
A moonlit nightcall: far, far.
I feel so sad. P. S. So lonely blooming.
The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each, and for other, plash and silent roar.
Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss.
You don't?
Did not: no, no: believe: Lidlyd. With a cock with a carra.
Black. Deepsounding. Do, Ben, do.
Wait while you wait. Hee hee. Wait while you hee.
But wait!
Low in dark middle earth. Embedded ore.
Naminedamine. Preacher is he:
All gone. All fallen.
Tiny, her tremulous fernfoils of maidenhair.
Amen! He gnashed in fury.
Fro. To, fro. A baton cool protruding.
Bronzelydia by Minagold.
By bronze, by gold, in oceangreen of shadow. Bloom. Old Bloom.
One rapped, one tapped, with a carra, with a cock.
Pray for him! Pray, good people!
His gouty fingers nakkering.
Big Benaben. Big Benben.
Last rose Castile of summer left bloom I feel so sad alone.
Pwee! Little wind piped wee.
True men. Lid Ker Cow De and Doll. Ay, ay. Like you men. Will lift your tschink with tschunk.
Fff! Oo!
Where bronze from anear? Where gold from afar? Where hoofs?
Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl.
Then not till then. My eppripfftaph. Be pfrwritt.

—the Overture from the "music hall chapter" (Scylla & Charybdis) of Ulysses by James Joyce

This still reads better on the ear and eye than most so-called Language poetry or post-avant poetry being made nowadays. Maybe it's that you can only imitate the innovators, not replace them. Food for thought. Meanwhile, Happy JimmyJoyceDay.

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Make a poem from this

to bed early, can’t stay awake

in early morning
in that place halfway to sleep but still awake
where visions leak from dreamtime into waking life—
as if that boundary was ever so solid

a doglike beast, grey lean animal with long terrifying jaws
pauses, almost docilely, in my door, as I lay abed

I pity as well as fear—all those extra teeth—
as it pads in and lays down next to my bed
sighs and falls too into sleep
as if it were my faithful dog

what rough beast, it's hour come round at last
has entered my chambered heart

surrounded by death again
pulled back down into some black bucket I only just began to climb out of

This morning I heard a family friend had died; it wasn’t unexpected, he'd been ill for some time, like my own Dad’s dying a year and more ago, but still shocking when it actually happens. This man, also a doctor, had become Dad’s best friend at the end of both their lives, when they were retired; they met through Rotary and soon became nigh inseparable.

A few days earlier, I heard the news that a good friend of mine a decade ago, who I’d lost touch with, had died at the same time I was coming home to take care of Dad. If I’d known, I could have said goodbye. Or at least gotten back in touch. They were all good friends who I'd been thinking about a lot lately, wanting to reconnect. Now it’s not exactly too late, but it’s late.

Now another, a poet friend, a wise experienced survivor, is home to die, entering his last days in this body, cared for by local hospice. His words run like blood luck from both hands. His shell begins to empty. I follow after, gathering words and songs strewn in his wake like fuel for an invisible fire.

this fine sunny morning
it’s always going to be this way, isn't it
friends and family falling by the roadside
till you die yourself, isn’t it?

doesn’t make the rest of life very pleasant
something to look forward to
now on from now

Is this hard part of life, filled with death, loss, and suffering, ever going to be over? It’s no wonder you turn more towards the Buddhist aspect your practice. No wonder.

not the first beast to appear and enter in
not the first to rise from some shadowed crevasse
arrive and take up lodging, change
as it happens to as it will become

what rough beasts live in us
waiting to be born


Monday, February 02, 2009

winter's road

endless white of sunset
iceplume heating night

fire of living alone on
the vast white tundra

isolate home under stars
cold bones of icefire

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