Sunday, April 26, 2009

Words from the Wizard about Writing

If you go over to Ursula K. LeGuin's website, there's a section of quotes and thoughts about writing, surrounded by huge fields of thoughts and writings about many other things, as well as links to her published works, many of them never out of print. The Earthsea books are the least of it.

Here's something Ms. LeGuin says about writing, as though it came direct from the wizard's mouth:

A Few Words to a Young Writer:

Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.

This is the radical honesty of poetry laid bare. Don't forget that LeGuin is also a poet; her often dreamlike, mythic way of telling a story, of describing the details of its context, of the associative turn of thought that can turn a narrative suddenly into a new creature, are all present in her shortest poems as well as in her novels. There are many sections of poetic prose in her stories, that bring the language to a higher and deeper level. One of the tenets of wizardry is truthful speech, and impeccable care with words: say nothing that is false, lest it become true. If wrods shape your world, you are responsible for what you say. Sometimes silence is your best option: say nothing, damage nothing. Be still, send nothing astray.

It's hard to get writers to shut up, though, even as wizards tend to be rather laconic unless there's something really worth saying. If you notice in the literature, even the chattiest wizards use their voluble loquaciousness to say much of nothing; a smoke screen of small talk, if you will. Much smoke, concealing the fire behind the words.

That's why misuse of language is offensive to both writer and wizard. Gandalf, when condemning Grima Wormtongue as the liar and manipulator he is, says this in so many words; and by their own words have liars been known to manifest their own punishments. Caught themselves in the web of lies that they have woven.

There are also turns of plot in many LeGuin that shock in the moment, yet seem necessary and unavoidable after the tale is seen as a whole. The shock is the same surprise that life brings to us, in all its unpredictability and terrible beauty. Trust a poet to speak truly to this; trust a wizard to live as though this were foundational truth, not words but a way of being, of living. Such shocks in stories are realistic, lies that give us the truth. What is literary realism but the illusion of the lie being what seems to be like everyday living? There are so many kinds of realism.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean. I am always astonished when I interact with writers who seems to feel that being sloppy and imprecise in their communications is acceptable. As though being impeccable in their word was necessary only for their writerly products, and dispensable for everyday chat. I find it hard to trust such writers: If they're sloppy in this area, how might they be sloppy elsewhere? If they don't take care to be truthful speakers, how can you know that they know the difference between what can be said and what cannot?

Wizardry and writing are not that far apart, it seems. Trust a writer of tales about wizardry to know.

LeGuin has published a version of the Tao Te Ching, a perhaps unique translation of that classic. It reads more like poetry than philosophy in her version, which is what it was, originally: metaphors and analogies that reveal the truth of the Tao without ever killing it by speaking of it too directly. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. There is a resonance in this version that gives it buoyancy and lightness: the lightest of touches on its subject, the finest brush hovering above the scroll, barely tickling it.

In Earthsea, so much depends on the power of language, on the various languages used by characters in the books, especially the original language of the Making, which is the language of wizardry, of the dragons, and in which one cannot lie. Language is a central concern in Earthsea, too, because the proper naming of a person or thing gives a wizard power to know its essence, and be able to influence it. In 1985, a one-page LeGuin story appeared in The New Yorker, titled "She Unnames Them." This is one of my favorite short stories of all time. In it, Eve, starts giving back the names of everything that Adam has named. The story begins:

Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifference with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names. Whales and dolphins, seals and sea otters consented with particular alacrity, sliding into anonymity as into their element.

There is something so right and true about that: what we call those beings who have their own lives, indifferent to our own except where we might impinge on theirs, have no need for what we call them.

As the story progresses, names become less and less used: the writing style reflects the action of unnaming, both humorously and seriously. This is a bit of a writing tour de force: to speak is to do, to create and uncreate, and how rare it is to find a story that enacts what it describes, as it describes it.

As the woman once named Eve, giving her name back, says to Adam in her last conversation with him before leaving:

I resolutely put anxiety away, went to Adam, and said, "You and your father lent me this—gave it to me, actually. It's been really useful, but it doesn't exactly seem to fit very well lately. But thanks very much! It's really been very useful."

And the short story ends with:

In fact, I had only just then realized how hard it would have been to explain myself. I could not chatter away as I used to do, taking it all for granted. My words must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.

This enacts how not being able to name a thing sometimes gives one the gift of being forced to observe it just as it is, without labels that preconceive or veil understanding. This is the Zen master's and the wizard's eye: seeing what's there, and having to discover its name by seeing, by knowing. And to give a new name to something so familiar, that with its new name it becomes something entirely new, undergoing a sea-change into something rich and strange.

That's what poetry does, for me, as a poet writing a poem, and being the poem's first reader: find new names that are more true to the essences of what I see then the received labels that language has given me. Too often the nouns are labels that prevent us from seeing what's really there: we look at the luggage tag, and think we've seen what's inside the suitcase. it becomes too easy to quickly assign, categorize, dismiss, and move on. A little string of mind-forged luggage-tags that are signs that stand in for the actual thing without in fact encompassing or comprehending its true nature.

Both poets and wizards know that to truly know a thing, sometimes you must unname it first, before you can see it for what it truly is. And only then will it offer you its true name, in the language of the Making.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Words & Wizardry

The past few weeks, late at night, if I've been feeling sleepless, rather than poison my dreams with inane bursts of noise from the television, I've taken to curling up on the blue couch under a single reading lamp, and delving back into beloved works of high fantasy literature. Sometimes I've had the row of lava lamps turned on across the room; one lamp in particular casts light onto the blank white wall above it as though it were the sky filled with the aurora borealis. Or perhaps the gaseous shifting fringes of the sentient planet Solaris, from Stanislaw Lem's SF novel of that name. You take your solace where you can find it.

I've been re-reading, mostly by dipping in and out, and re-reading favorite scenes, sections, and segments of each book, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in a handy if huge single-volume paperback edition; Patricia McKillip's trilogy of The Riddle-Master (in a similar single-volume paperback), and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series, all six books.

Of the latter series, I have the original trilogy in a boxed set, with unified illustrations in every volume; I have the more recent books in their hardcover first editions, glittering with light and air and the coppery fire of the breath and scales of dragons. Dragons everywhere, changing back and forth in shape between human and dragon, never quite knowing which you'll meet today, always wild, fierce, and loving.

So my head is full these days of words and wizardry.

One of the tenets that all wizardry, and riddlery, appears to share is that, to name something truly is to know it, and to have power over it. To love something is to know its true name, yet let it be free and not seek to control it. Over and over again the lesson rings through that to try to control something utterly is to destroy it. Even the attempt to master death, to be immortal, causes more grief than solace. It's unnatural in the original sense of the word: to be natural in this creation is to be mortal. Even stars eventually die; some quietly, some violently and with spectacle.

But death isn't the end. R. Buckminster Fuller once said, to give solace to a friend whose beloved near-son had just died tragically, There is no death. There is only a change of state. It's a chemical, or alchemical, sort of comment to make, and it does bring comfort. It's the sort of wisdom a wizard might give at such a moment. I'm not the first to think of Bucky Fuller as a sort of modern wizard.

So death isn't the end. The story goes on, and stories do. We can make stories even for things we don't know about, which are important but which we can't understand. Some of these stories we call myth, which mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell once defined as The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Other such stories we call fiction, especially that sub-category of fiction with fantasy, or magical realism, or science fiction, or make-believe.

These stories are lies that tell more truth than so-called truthful stories. (Let's be blunt: there's no such thing as genre fiction, because in fact even non-genre fiction, so-called mainstream literary fiction, is just another kind of genre; so it's all one or it's nothing.) In each of them truth is revealed through narrative and dialogue, which are orderly lies we use to shape time into thought, to give comprehensible structure to an otherwise lumpy flow of chaotic memory.

Yet within the tenets of wizardry, words matter a great deal. Wizards are identified, in one sense, by the care and precision they take with how they use words. There is no casual or ordinary speech. That's a truth about life that we could all learn to live by, even as the lesson arises from fiction. Some days it's hard to separate what happens in fictional worlds from the so-called real world: which is, after all, a lie bound up in Indra's Net, what the Buddhists call maya, illusion. Ask a quantum physicist how real you are: you might discover you're not really here. Are the tenets of riddlery, or wizardry, then, so foreign, so fictional, after all? Perhaps they're more real than we think. Since, after all, words do have power to change the world; if not by magic, then by persuasion, by the magic of charisma and being in the right place at the right time, holding a long lever made out of great words that express great thoughts. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of a monumental edifice in our nation's capitol, and said, I have a dream! And the world changed. If the world is but a dream, maya, then we dream a world into being each time we think we wake to start our day in the real world, awakening from the world of dreams. Chuang Tze woke one day and said, I had a marvelous dream! In my dream, I was a butterfly flitting from place to place. Am I am man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming he is a man> Such are the tenets of riddlery: Answer the unanswered question, and the unanswerable questions. Who was Chuang Tze, and was he a butterfly indeed?

In no way is wizardry—or poetry, for that matter, that other art of words—about having all the answers. But it is very much about asking the right questions.

There are cardinals nesting in the thick pines beyond my window. Robins everywhere, more than you see in most years, building nests in the budding trees, scratching like chickens for seeds in the grass. Spring brings back to life what once had died.

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I heard today that a good friend of mine died unexpectedly yesterday. He collapsed suddenly and couldn't be revived. He was a math professor at Marquette U. in Milwaukee, but our circle all knew him as the Friday night jazz DJ on the community radio station, WORT-FM in Madison, WI, and as a great improvising bassist, and all-around good person.

And I knew him as a good friend and a great person. We were in a couple of bands, mostly in The Barbaric Yawps. We played a few other gigs together, in other bands, as hired guns. We meshed well as a bass-and-Stick rhythm section.

"Uncle" Larry Hancock was a great bass player, but he also had a real gift was making everybody laugh, sometimes really hard, during band practice and gigs. I loved trading solos with him. I'd take over the bass line in a piece while he soloed, then he'd drop back into the groove while I took my solos. I played Stick, he played fretless bass guitar. He could also play clarinet, while I played percussion. I suck at clarinet, bad. Unk had a really sly sense of humor, very sideways. The tone of his humor could be very cynical and pointed; but at the same time he was raising two adopted children, and doing other quiet acts of service to the human community. It was all nicely balanced. Sometimes Unk and I would get to trading puns during a break in rehearsal, making everyone else groan mightily. Trading solos got to be almost telepathic at times; he was a good listener, which all great musicians are.

For my own Sunday night radio show on WORT, Unk lent me some albums a couple of times from his huge library of vinyl. Some really bizarre stuff that he'd collected. My show was one of the Sunday night experimental music shows, one segment of my show was called The Difficult Listening Hour, and it was well-named. All of us Sunday night DJs played avant-garde and experimental music. One set of LPs Unk loaned me was a set of recordings of various kinds of calliopes, and home-made instruments like the car-horn organ, a home-made instrument consisting of 25 car horns played by a homemade keyboard, all built by Wendy Mae Chambers.

I was on the air for over 7 years. I programmed mostly experimental music, avant-garde jazz, and so forth. But I also did a lot of live radio-performance pieces. One annual show I did was a live performance of John Cage music on the evening closest to his birthday. It was a piece using Cage's methods applied to recordings of his own music, that I titled Collections and Re-Collections Re: and Not-Re: John Cage. It was usually a big audience hit. Once I played the Six Gallery recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem Howl while in the production room at the radio station I set up my Stick with my bass amp and speaker cabinet so that it continuously howled with feedback; which I mixed in behind Ginsberg's voice, reading.

Unk was on the radio much, much longer. His show was called Crazeology, and the thing he did was play jazz that had been recorded on today's date. So, if it was Friday, April 24th, all the music he played from 11pm till 5am was recorded on April 24th of various years. His knowledge of jazz was encyclopedic, but he always had a light touch on-air and in life. A very good soul, who never got too heavy. Something of an enlightened being, if I dare say.

I remember a few gigs we played in particular, in jazz clubs around Madison, and once or twice for the Madison Art Fair On The Square in summer. We also did a gig with the Yawps on the Madison community cable access channel, Channel 4. We had a lot of fun together. Lots of good memories. It's funny, I was just thinking about him earlier this week, thinking about calling up and saying hi.

I'm going to miss him a lot.

I'm starting to feel like this place I live now, this small town back in Wisconsin, is a place where I've come to watch everybody I know die. I feel like they're all going to go away, one by one, a few each year, till none are left, and I'm alone here. Maybe at that time, I'll move again. Or become truly nomadic, sell my house, and live out of a camper van. After a certain point in your life, the dominant themes being to change: one of the big narratives becomes death, when it used to be eternity each morning.

So be gentle with yourselves, and with each other. Anything can happen to anybody at anytime. The world has seemed to me a very fragile place, lately. Tonight even more so. Be good to each other. You never know what your last words to those you care about are going to be, or when. Make them good words.


I spent a couple of sleepless hours last night going through my archive CDs of the Yawps recordings we had made in the studio in 1997 and 1998. There may be some rehearsal tapes, in a box somewhere, that I might find another day. WORT-FM asked me to send them the Yawps music that I had, for part of their on-air memorial for Unk. I think I may have donated copies of our "official" Yawps CDs, From the Rooftops and Spiritcatcher, to the station's library years ago, but they may be missing; it doesn't matter.

Listening to that music again put me a really good mood. I remember how much fun it was to play it. There are other tunes I wish we'd recorded, I liked them so much; but I don't think we did. Much of the Yawps music was influenced by African or South American music, or other music from other cultures. Tom Lachmund would write out parts, fairly detailed, sometimes quite complex; but the mood was always raw, sometimes a little tribal, with a lot of energy and force behind it. The written music was really structured jumping-off points for a lot of free playing; at some point there was usually a groove section over which we would solo, sometimes appearing as a gap; for other pieces, we'd solo over the complex polyrhythmic structures. In jazz, you play the tune, called the head, then everybody takes solos over the repeating chord-pattern of the tune, called the changes. With Yawps pieces, we played the head, but it was not a traditional head, then soloed, then played the head again. Some few pieces were fully notated, with a section for this person to solo while the others played something notated; then there'd be another section for another soloist, with completely different supporting material. So it was both open and structures music. It certainly kept us on our toes as players. The group's strengths were thus both in complex notated music and in free blowing. It was a band that combined both, never letting go of a slight wildness; we rehearsed weekly, but even so we managed to preserve a rawness in performance—another kind of mix of structure and wildness. I listened through the recordings last night, including three tracks I'd forgotten that we'd recorded and mixed, but hadn't released on our "official" CDs, and the memories made me smile. A lot of great music in there.

For my own selfish part, I think that's what I'm going to miss most: playing music that was this much fun to play, with musicians that were this much fun to play with. It was a good period of my life, and I'm glad there's some record of it preserved in recordings.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Beauty Arouses

My new home's previous owner once planted a ring of daffodils (Family: Amaryllidaceae, Genus: Narcissus) around the base of the crabapple tree out front (a dark pruneria that produces deep pink rather than pure white blossoms), that have now opened their yellow narcissus eyes onto the world. Since the four days of continuous gentle rain earlier this week, all my plants have emerged, at last, or have taken on sudden growth spurts. Many will flower in the next few weeks. Today's a day that anticipates summer: very hot and sunny, but also humid, intimating thunderstorms in the near future. It's still too early in the year for the summer storm cycle to kick in, but it's not too early for storms to spawn under these conditions. Windows are open all over town, to let the fresh air pass through.

I spent time this morning reading Matthew Fox's book Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons for transforming evil in soul and society. If I had been asked what the book was about, as I sat there waiting for the mechanics to finish changing my truck's oil, I would have replied, it's a book on the theology of embodiment. (Ignoring for the moment the raised eyebrows one sometimes gets reading such a book in such a place.) That's a dire oversimplification, of course, as everything Fox writes is multi-layered, multi-viewpoint, and pulls in a lot of thought from many different wisdom traditions in a kind of Deep Ecumenism. He has a knack as a writer for reviving the mystical viewpoint in the modern era, and showing how needful it is, more now than ever.

Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh is a deeply corrective book. Fox's message is that what we think sin is, or was, has become so corrupt as a concept that it has been reversed: what we thought was up has become down. This is a book about sin—but sin is not what we thought it was. As Fox writes:

Getting the context right is very important for dealing with sin. Too many theologians have derided our goodness in favor of railing about our evil. In doing so, they paint an inaccurate picture of who we are and what we are. And they pull us totally out of context, oblivious to where we came from, forgetting the creation story that in the Bible itself begins with praise. (Psalm 104 is all about the praise of creation, while Genesis itself begins with the stories of the goodness of creation and culminates in the very goodness of it.) My experience reading about the goodness of the body and its marvelous organs and capacities, then reading theologians about sin, confirms the methodology of this book. Consider, in light of reflecting on sin, the words of the poet Rilke: "Walk your walk of lament on a path of praise." The lament we rightly feel for our transgressions as individuals, as groups, and as a species must itself be contextualized by a deep meditation on our goodness. Praise what is good about us, then work on how to heal the imbalance. (p. 92)

Fox writes a little bit later, in a chapter on the fires of our human spirit:

To bring blessing back to our awareness of body is to bring power back—healthy power, not power-over or power-under but power-with. Because each chakra is about power—getting it right and taking it back—chakra work is very political. We are all meant to share in the power that chakras are about—we all have bodies with spirit-energy yearning to be unleashed in them. There is something democratic about this common unfolding of common power. (p. 98)

Some recent conversations have bounced between the poles of desire and rejection, appreciation and disdain, the distance between the poses of the aesthete and the hip ironic cynic, and the question of whether beauty is what we seek or if it's what arouses us to seek.

I rather think beauty arouses. I think it also makes us seek out more of it.

As an artist, I don't set out to self-consciously create beauty, I set out to say something true. I don't write to intentionally make beauty, but I often write in response to an experience of beauty. Beauty can be a trigger for contemplation. What turns me on and makes me feel fully alive: these experiences live to be shared. Poets praise because they want others to see what they have seen, and also be moved towards praise.

I rather think that the chic ironic bitterness, the elegant misery, so commonly on display in literary criticism makes this same mistake of railing about the negative and ignoring the positive. It's as though criticism is supposed to only be critical, rather than to critique, to tear down rather than be constructive, creating a context in which the beginning critic assumes that accentuating the negative is the one true road to acceptable critical writing. The entire milieu thereafter decomposes.

Some literary critics and reviewers have intimated that they find it hard to write in praise of those books they appreciate, even love. I don't find that difficult at all; I find it easy to praise. (Perhaps as a critic I remain a poet, having taken Rilke's advice, to praise, to heart.) I regularly write appreciations of books and writers that have given me deep life-lessons, deep experiences of embodiment, and more. Why should being honestly enthusiastic about what one likes cripple one as a critic? Why should harsh judgment be seen as more objective, while liking something is seen as purely subjective? These attitudes infest contemporary reviewing and criticism. They're the underlying assumptions behind most literary criticism, the elephant in the room no-one talks about it. What was up has become down.

Any writer who has been through a good writer's critique group, who has learned how to honestly and accurately critique writing, both their own and others, will be able to speak as clearly about what works as what doesn't, in a given piece of writing. Anyone who has graduated from such a critique group will understand that objectivity lies in clearly seeing all the elements of writing in play, without being filtered through an a priori ideology.

I think a lot of critics think they're supposed to be negative, even mean: as though rage were more honest than love, no matter how watered down those two principles are, with ironic distance thought to be more honest than sentimentality. In truth, both are false. Chic ironic bitterness is a corrosive pose. Yet so is sentimental nostalgia. Both the ironic hipster postmodernist and the nostalgic sentimental conservative literary critics do literature no good whatsoever; because their poses are ultimately passionless, detached for all the wrong reasons, and rarely say anything meaningful enough to risk being thought wrong. The sin here is disengagement, of whatever variety; the cure is to embrace.

This sin of criticism furthermore expresses itself in how we give awards to books (and movies) we think are more honest in their depiction of our world—because they are more violent, more negative, more alienated, more brutal. We praise what shatters us over what heals and rejoins. We give awards to books that promote the pornography of despair, the minute analysis of the unthinkable, the piping of apocalypse. (And of whatever apocalypse is fashionable at the moment: the legacy of puritanism expresses itself as harsh critiques of beauty if making that beauty is seen as exploitative. The environmental preservation movement contains as many fulminating puritans as does the religious right; they even find common ground on occasion, mutually shaking their fingers in condemnation of the rest of us, those more fallen then they.) Many of these award-winning books (and movies) are crap. Well-made crap, perhaps, but crap. We sneer at books which don't try to make us feel worse than we already do. We give even more contempt to books that try to uplift. That Cormac McCarthy's deeply sado-masochistic novels are given more honor than Matthew Fox's creation-centered books whose purpose is to redeem theology gone astray is surely a sign that what was up has become down. (Of course, apocalyptic doom-saying has always sold better than praise-saying: it's more titillating.)

And this is why post-modernism doesn't really exist, because it's still Modernism that's being dealt addressed, not anything that might have come after. We've had just over a century of Modernism, and whatever we claim to be doing, artistically, that's still what we're responding to. The ironic distancing, the alienation, the isolation even in the midst of the crowd: that's the Modern condition, first recognized in and by the arts over a century ago, now, and still regarded as the core truth of life, still accepted as the new creation story, the myth of separation amongst the fallen. Even in cosmological astrophysics, where entropy is oft regarded as an ultimately unbeatable foe. We're still stuck in the poetic truth of World War I, that Wilfred Owen, poet fated to die in that war, stated as, "All a poet can do today is warn." I say post-Modernism doesn't really exist because it's a rebellion against Modernism—to be blunt it's often more anti- than pro- any given position—but Modernism remains its central focus and idea. If post-modernism were truly to be something after Modernism, it wouldn't use that "M" word in its very label. If anything, post-modern critical theory tends to push the questions raised by modernism to their ultimate extremes, highlighting and accentuating them, making more of them than modernism ever chose to, to probe without restraint into all the dead-end alleyways of alienation and totalitarianism.

There's something rather repellant about this project. Wilfred Owen told the truth of his time, of his life and death. But to continue the exchange of the context of uncreation for the context of creation is perhaps modernism's and post-modernism's defining sin: the substitution of praise with not lament, but annihilation. (A word I can never spell correctly without looking it up; perhaps some part of me doesn't want that word to invade my vocabulary.) Ironic detachment was never meant to become a permanent lifestyle, a totalizing filter through which to view all art and living. No more so was narcissism. Yet narcissistic self-regard is the flip side of ironic distancing: it reveals both a fear of getting hurt by becoming too attached, and a solipsistic tendency towards regarding oneself as more real than any Other.

And the answer is not to roll the culture back, reverse the clock, pine for a golden pre-modern age that never was, that never existed except in the dreams of conservative nostalgia. The answer is to back out of the dead-end alleys where we find ourselves, find that road that leads towards the omega point of un-alienation, and get back on it. Not looking back to see where we've been, but taking those lessons with us as we fly forwards. Literary conservatism is at its finest when it works towards conserving what is good, in the sense of "conservation," of preserving what tradition gives us that is of enduring value; it is at its worst when it becomes regressive and unfeeling towards the bodies and lives of its critics.

Back in confirmation class in the Lutheran church my family attended, I heard our insightful pastor state that the key part of the word "sin" is the letter "I" in the middle of everything. If writers suffer from an overabundance of personality-ego, of narcissistic self-regard, so also do their critics. Literary criticism is at its least convincing when the critic strives to raise his own self-esteem by tearing down the artist's work under review. The symptoms of narcissistic self-regard in literary criticism are fairly easy to spot: The need to always have the last, definitive word, on any subject; the defensiveness aroused when a critical assessment is disagreed with, which often leads not to dialogue intended to probe closer to the truth but to argumentative restatements of fixed opinions; and, the escalation of attack, from critiquing an interlocutor's logical inconsistencies, to ad hominem bullying. I read many critics who seem to have this near-pathological need to have the last say in every sort of discussion, even outside their admitted expertise; that I don't share this need to have the last word seems to be regarded as a sign of weakness (as though pit-bull aggression were the only acceptable style of discourse), or of myself being a lesser writer therefore. So be it.

I've had to laugh more than once when some fulminating moralist of a neo-conservative neo-formalist poet pointed in pulpit-pounding horror at one of my more experimental writings and proclaimed, That isn't poetry! I use the analogy to fundamentalist religious rhetoric quite deliberately here: the attitudes, and the theology of lament, are identical. To be sure, I have myself speculated at times if those experimental "new" poetries often lumped together taxonomically as "post-avant," notably Language Poetry and its affiliates, don't suffer from the sin of foregrounding the means more than the ends, creating a de facto theology of grammar and syntax while ignoring what grammar and syntax were born to praise; in other words, the sin of being surface-oriented and attracted most to shiny reflections, rather like magpies. If you were to look at the techniques used in some of my more exploratory poems, such as broken syntax, dream-grammar and dream-association, or the parataxis involved in unitary visionary states of consciousness, you'd probably ally those poems with the most current avant-garde poetries; yet I'm rejected by those camps for the sin, in their eyes, of violating their theology of grammar in favor of using words to convey actual meaning, to embody experience, rather than purely surface sensation. (Or sensationalism.) What was once up has become down, again. Critical vertigo is perhaps understandable.

In the eyes of fashionable, chic critical cynicism, and equally in the eyes of regressive neo-conservative criticism, I am guilty of the sin they define as caring about what I'm saying deeply enough to want to say it well. The neo-formalist attacks on my more experimental writings have never been able to decimate my program on technical grounds, so their attacks have been largely moral and definitional. They un-define the work as non-poetry. Likewise, I am not ironically distanced enough from life and its embodiment, rather I embrace it. I practically wallow in it, to be blunt.

But beauty continues to arouse. My ardor responds to beauty with art-making. I sing to praise the chants of other singers.

The true sin is not to praise. If a critic is ashamed to praise, has taken on the attitude that praise is amateurish and unseemly, not to be taken seriously, or has become so indoctrinated with this attitude that holds praise in low regard—that is the world fallen into its own egotistical self-regard, that is the Fall.

To authentically praise is not to ignore the flaws, the little toolmarks left over from the crafting and shaping, or the ways in which a book fails to engulf the reader. To authentically praise, as poets praise, is not blind sentiment, not nostalgia for some mythic time when literature meant Something More than it does now and authors were both more gifted and brilliant.

To authentically praise, as poets praise, is to see everything in the clearest sunlight available, as flowers turn to follow the sun, and neither disguise what fails nor dismiss what succeeds. There is no pose, no distancing, no chic turn of phrase, merely an unveiled eye staring steadily at what it sees.

And being allowed to praise what beauty we find is to bring blessing back, to bring original blessing back to a context that has veered too far towards seeing only original sin. And that is why it's not difficult to write about what we love, and why.

With thanks to Lee Lowe for the instigation.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Emergence, longing, a grass bow

The church of the redwing blackbird. Those first signs of spring, suddenly there, singing from vertical perches at the ends of dried cattail reeds. Some robins never go south, now, hovering at the ends of open water where the warm creek flows into the iced-over lake. Once I startled a tree full of robins in a blizzard in January, by that lake-meeting point. Suddenly brown leaves stuck to winter branches exploded into a cloud of whirring. When the redwings are suddenly back, singing, that's the first true sign of spring. Everything else was presumptuous. Now the greening emerges from the dark, cramped soil under the dead oaks by the river. Now the dessicants revive. Now every psruce awake with cardinals, becomes shelter for signs. Last year's nests revealed at the top of the crabapple, before the tree leafs out, before its tenants return. I look at the scattered remnants of an old life underfoot, gathering memories and music like fuel for a bright, cool fire. The world seems so fragile, and I wander through it, not daring to touch. What's been broken might be mended now, but will it break again, and how. You hold back from daring to hope, from collapsing into assumptions, even easterly assumptions, not quite able to believe in resurrection. You bend your shoulders to miss the ice-crystal branches, afraid to break their brittle edges. You must go forward nonetheless. And the church of the black-eyed waterbirds, singing cousins of crows, takes light behind trees filled with tapestries of thread and age. I don't want to thorn the roses anymore. I want that echo between tense shoulderblades to escape, buddha-like escape, to shape wind, billow spears of light, break the molds that cling to treeshadows and lichen themselves to the slow air of granite forks under sun dreaming amber pink dry feldspar snows. And fly home, bright-shouldered birds with scars of ancestry on their wingtip shoulders, like mine blooming with aspiration. And dare to trust.

Redwing Blackbirds    

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Rumors of Spring

The farms in the area are starting to get in gear. I drove the backroads a couple of days ago, the air heavy with the smells of fresh-turned earth, manure, and fertilizer. Today was the second-warmest sunny day so far this spring. I brought out the garden hose, swept out the garage, and planted another rose bush. Tomorrow will be for planting lavender and wildflowers in the beds on the sides of the house, then waiting till they emerge.

Rows tilled and plowed in the black earth. Ridges of earth. Nothing yet emerged. Soon the corn and soy and wheat and other crops will green the fields. Earth still wet from heavy spring storms.

Clouds till the sky, making rows that dissolve, reform, and fly on. Now heavy with more rain, now light and airy, nothing to touch but evaporating mists.

Sky turns in on itself, becoming memory and expectation. We wait and watch, desire for gentle winds rooting us by the budding trees.

Pretend it's all ceiling. All you have to do is reach up to dip into it, long fingers trailing wakes in a fast stream. The willow have turned golden raking the sunset from their hair.

And then come the days of wheat and sorrow. Feathers blow from wind-socks in the long-grass scarecrows. Soon, another storm will rise, and fall again.

It's time for more plantings. I'll air out the house, once the days turn predictably clear and warm. One day soon, roses shall bloom and perfume the evening's peace. Meanwhile we still huddle under the eaves, tend the fires of waiting, and harp our melancholy songs into the dark.

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The Prism Chronicle


The Prism Chronicle folded almost immediately, under stress from several directions. That's too bad. Nonetheless it instigated a new direction of writing for me, that of being a rural gay artist and musician, so I've taken the material I originally wrote for TPC and have started a new blog: Rural Gay Artistry. I will continue to add older material to that blog periodically, in addition to new material. I plan to continue to write on the topic from many directions, something I haven't done much with publicly before now, and post those writings over there.

So, stay tuned.

I am now going to be writing a regular column for a new rural LGBT e-zine named The Prism Chronicle. My first column is titled Out Here. The feature article in the lead issue is the first part of a three-part article is on rural religion and gay life, based on extensive reporting and interviews.

I will also be doing some book reviews for them, from time to time.

I also have a couple of photos in this issue.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mathias the Painter

I first encountered the painter Mathias Grünewald via Paul Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Mahler," from 1934, which was based on themes from his opera of the same name; the opera was premiered later, in 1938, due to several controversies. Hindemith was one of the composers of the first half of the Twentieth Century who changed the face of contemporary music, though he is now often given credit than he deserves. As a composer he combined traditional tonal elements with more experimental elements in his music, to create a distinctively modern sound. Yet it was as a teacher and music theorist that he influenced many other composers. HIs theory and method books were much sought when he was at Yale in his later career.

I began working through Hindemith's theory method books when in my teens, long before I went to music school. By then I had already studied a lot of Debussy, had a teenage fling with Sturm und Drang in the Romantic composers (my two favorite Beethoven symphonies being the Sixth and the Ninth), and wanted more than traditional tonal music. I had already started to explore John Cage's musical ideas by then, and also Steve Reich's, and had had my hands on tape recorders and electronic music instruments; my junior high school actually owned a suitcase Moog synthesizer. Hindemith provided an alternative to both traditional tonality and to Schönberg's serial atonality; neither of which spoke to me as a composer. I recall being introduced to modes and modal composition; to polychords; and to open, non-triadic voicings in counterpoint. Later on, in music school, I was drilled relentlessly in 18th C. counterpoint, notably Bach's voice-leadings, Heinrich Isaak, and much more. It was a good grounding, but Hindemith's ideas about opening up music theory beyond strictly tonal possibilities had a stronger influence on me. Hindemith prefigured a fair bit of jazz music theory, although I don't know if he was aware of this; on the other hand, I recall reading somewhere in a jazz history book that some influential jazz composers had read and absorbed Hindemith's theory books.

Hindemith's Symphony "Mathis der Mahler" can be thought of as an orchestral suite of themes developed from the opera; although it stands alone as a symphonic work, and is probably Hindemith's best-known work at this date, the programmatic origins of the music should not be forgotten. Each movement of the symphony is a musical response to a painting by Mathias Grünewald: each depicts a painting, or the meaningful response to the painting. The music, therefore, is simultaneously contemplative and ecstatic. There are moments of great dynamic force, of relentless motion; these are side by side with moments not of tranquility but of revelation.

Grünewald's most famous surviving work is the Isenheim Altarpiece. it was originally painted for a chapel hospital serving patients afflicted with St. Anthony's Fire, a neurological syndrome scholars now believe was caused by ergot contamination of rye, a fungus that grows on the grain and produces a poison.

The remarkable starkness and cruelty of the Crucifixion that Mathias depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece has been much discussed; less remarked upon is the context of naturalism that Mathias was depicting within the context of his commission: the horror of the Crucifixion was no doubt felt directly and personally by the patients who might have viewed the paintings, suffering as they were from ergotism and perhaps plague. The stark naturalism of the painting thus connects the viewer to the Christ of the miserable, the poor, the forgotten, the diseased. It tells no lies about the hard facts of life. Death is not made pretty or easy. Mathias' depiction is remarkable in part because of its heightened drama, created by its technical ultra-naturalism, remarkable for tis time. In fact, still remarkable, still unique.

There was a tradition in Medieval and Renaissance painting to be darkly horrific when depicting the Crucifixion. Death was quite familiar, and fear of death, and fear of damnation. Remember that Medieval art was visual preaching: sermons in sculpture and paint. Even some of the landed gentry were quite illiterate, and the Church conducted its offices in the learned tongue of Latin, not in the vernacular. This tradition of painting has doctrinal origins, obviously. A great deal more art historical study of Medieval art focuses on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection: in part because it was more often depicted in art. Again, there are doctrinal and dogmatic reasons for this. These visual sermons were intended to get sinners to repent, by depicting the horrors of death and damnation. They were meant to inspire, if only by fear, good behavior.

When the three wings of the painted altar are fully opened, there is a bit of gilded peace: the presence of St. Anthony, the balm and protector of those with the fire in their flesh. The altar wings open through layers of art and thus layers of meaning. It's a very poetic artwork, full of deep symbolism, each opening layer reflecting upon the others, making a complex sermon indeed. The patient viewing the altar might be led through a connection of their personal suffering to Christ's suffering, through to their personal relief of suffering: they might achieve consolation.

I remember from when I studied art history and Medieval art, that several art historians have noted that, since the Middle Ages, the emphasis has almost always been on death over resurrection: it's a more emotionally powerful image, as it leads them to contemplate their own mortality. At its crudest, it keeps the flocks in line with threats of death and damnation. The crucifixion makes people aware of their own immortal souls, and they might be reminded to repent of their sins. There's a special area of study in Medieval art history on this topic.

Artistic images of death remain more common, even today, than images of transcendent overcoming. We still think this way. I've read more than one book analyzing our contemporary culture as death- and pain-obsessed. We market everything with sex, while our stories, our fictions, our contemporary myths strongly emphasize death and violence over love and overcoming. We can show violent bloody deaths on television every night, but we still can't show people making tender love without getting censored.

In art, another factor in play might be that it's very easy to sentimentalize the resurrection. It takes a very great artist indeed to effectively paint, or sculpt, ecstatic experiences. There are some great resurrection poems; perhaps it's a topic that easier to talk about than to directly experience. Many of us never rise above the pain of life; we remain mired in the woundology of crucifixion. It's difficult to depict transcendence without becoming clichéd, or using symbols that are so familiar that they don't pack the same emotional punch as images of death do. (BTW, that emotional punch is one reason Sigmund Freud decided that the death-fear was so central in his model of the unconscious. I don't agree with Freud that it is of primary importance; but it is present nonetheless.)

Joseph Campbell wrote compellingly about the death-and-resurrection mythos. So did Carl Jung. You have to die to be reborn: and each of us experience smaller crucifixions in our lives, which to overcome we too must be reborn. It's part of the Hero's journey pattern, and goes back very far in Western culture. The goddess Innana, from Sumerian myth, died and was reborn; the trope is also in the Gilgamesh myth.

Death images contain drama, high drama, high emotion; we're all afraid of death, to some extent. But not all of us experience the ecstasy of rebirth: it's a fundamentally harder topic to relate to, personally, for most people. There are some great artworks depicting the resurrection, including some from the Middle Ages, but they're usually sublime rather than dramatic, so to be blunt they may not hold the attention of the average viewer quite as powerfully as death images do.

For me, the most remarkable panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece is the Resurrection painting. As has been remarked by more than one art historian, depictions of the Crucifixion, of the Suffering, far outnumber depictions of the Resurrection. This painting is thus both amazing in its own right, but extraordinary in its context. There is nothing at all sentimental in this painting: it's as stark, as super-naturalistic as the Crucifixion, in its depiction of its theme. It's one of the most potent Resurrection paintings I've ever seen, one of the most memorable.

The resurrection panel depicts Christ literally exploding out of the tomb, blasting out of the earth, flying above the landscape as though an angel or a rocket, enveloped in a sphere of glowing luminous light. His flight from death is the point of light illuminating the darkened landscape. Ordinary people on the ground, mostly covered in shadow, avert their gaze, the Light is so bright; or perhaps they have been knocked off their feet by the wind of the Christ's passage. There is in this painting a sense of immanent power, overwhelming force. Nothing can stand before the conqueror of death, without being utterly transformed.

Light itself has often been used as a symbol of resurrection and transcendence. The light coming in the Medieval cathedral windows was a symbol of God, who is Light and Radiance. The radiant light surrounding the Christ in this painting is both explosive and sublime: a continuous explosion that never ceases, that never ceases to renew itself, and goes on and on. The rocket analogy seems natural to me here, because, in essence, a rocket is propelled by continuous explosions that thrust it forward through space.

To contemplate a painting so transformative for a long period of time does make changes in the viewer. Perhaps one feels a peace arise within, knowing that the fear of death is not so important after all. Perhaps one is led into a direct experience of the Light, in one's own self: an experience recorded by many mystics from many times and places is of feeling illuminated from within. Of being lifted up, and plunged into a Light-filled space in which all shadow is scoured away. Perhaps one can hear a lingering trace of that continuous explosion in the music of the heavens, which in this pocket of the Light suffer none of the chaotic failings of entropy. The conqueror of death conquers time, as well.

Hindemith's music, in the Symphony, reaches this sublime level more than once. There are moments when one hears that continuous explosion in the orchestration: a lot is going on in one part of the orchestra, while an immanent, continuous theme floats above it. The music mediates upon the paintings, each containing a fragment of eternal Light, and becomes itself transcendent.

(With thanks to Dave King for inciting this meditation.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

A Rose Ramble, a Rose Rent

I was digging in the garden plots around the back porch yesterday, taking ownership of my home. I still feel like I'm just staying here, much of the time, not like I own my home. I'm still getting used to the idea. And I am restless, and wanting to travel again soon. I planted a new rose bush behind the porch, where, when it eventually blossoms, the scents will come into the porch on the evening breeze.

The earth my home was built on is old glacial outwash, once farmed, long empty before the builders came. It is hard-packed clay, mixed with rounded gravel and river-smoothed stones ranging in size from pebbles up to boulders. Farming here must have been hardscrabble. The clay packs so tight and hard that rain can run right off it rather than soak in. I was trenching out the empty spaces between those bushes planted by the previous owner. I am making flower beds, and creating new topsoil. Dig out the old, put in a new mix of softer, water-absorbent soil, a mix of peat moss and potting soil and some of the original dirt. I've got a few trenches dug, and some new rose bushes put in, with plans to do more as the weather finally warms towards spring.

My father was always a gardener, it was his major hobby, his relaxation, his therapy. He loved bright flowers, especially tulips. Red in all its varieties was his favorite color. I remember from when I was a boy: when my father was working as a doctor, he would come home after work, change into old clothes, and go out and work in the garden for awhile every evening before dinner. I learned early in life that this was a kind of healing magic for him, although he would have just called it relaxing. I understand earth magic in my bones: kneading bread and digging in the dirt are both earth magic. My father would go out into the garden for awhile, shed all the cares and worries and bad experiences of his work day, literally put those emotions into the dirt; then he would come in for dinner happy, his sense of humor restored. My dad was renowned for his sense of humor, and this is how he balanced it, I now know.

When I moved into my new home last year, one thing I did was to transplant some of my father's flowers and other plants. I transplanted some bulbs, and a couple of hosta from under the old pine trees. I brought over the pink rosebush that he had grown out in front of hte house for many years. Whenever it produced a blossom, he cut it and gave it my mother. He did this even after we'd had to put her in the Alzheimer's care facility; he cut the rose, put it in a little vase or glass of water, and drove it over to her. So that rose bush remains very special to me. It is a memorial now to both of my parents. It lives near the foot of the crabapple tree shading my front walkway.

I've loved roses forever. As plants they fascinate me, and as scent-givers they fill the air with intoxication. I remember: Visiting the Berkeley Rose Garden in its amphitheater in the hills above the Bay, spending an afternoon making photographs, the attar was overwhelming, even consciousness-altering. As symbols, roses carry more meaning and history than than can be ever listed. They are life itself. The bees tell the news to the roses, every summer, and the roses waft it on.

Thus it was that I purchased new rose bushes and planted them here last spring. One of them died over the summer, never very hardy; yet the other rose thrived, and produced many blossoms. My father's pink rose bush, which I tended with care over the summer, and which I thought would need a year or two, to recover from being transplanted, before it produced any new blossoms, actually did produce a bud near the end of October. If we hadn't had our first frost right after All Hallow's, last fall, I would have had a rare November rose. Thus does life go on, even in the darkest of days.

So, now I've got two rose bushes that I mulched and protected over the winter. Even though the crocuses are now coming up, and so are the other bulbs I planted last fall, the rose bushes look dry still. Roses require patience: they look dead in spring for some time; then you see green start to creep up the branches, eventually filling out their tips with new tendrils, and here a bud, there a blossom. Roses need to be pruned in fall, not in spring: by year's end, you know which of the branch-posts have no life in them, and need to be removed to strengthen the rest of the plant. I'm told I must pinch off any bulbs on the new roses this year, to firm up the roots and fill out of the leaves; but I don't know if I have the strength to put off seeing the new roses bloom till next season. I struggle with that kind of delayed gratification, regarding this flowering heaven I am trying to create around my home.

I will this month plant several more roses around the house, especially around the porch sides, so in the autumn evenings, if they bloom this year, they'll scent the air as I sit out there watching the sunset light fade to pink and purple. This is the festival of the changing of the light.

Each rose plant is a different variety, giving me a range of colors and odors. They are all bush roses rather than climbers. My father's pink rose is a tea rose, I believe. I don't know much about varietals yet.

I'm not going to be a rose breeder, cross-pollinating and nursing new varieties, pure or mixed. That's a time-intensive hobby in which I have no interest. All my garden plants need to be durable, not finicky. I travel too often. The plants need to be able to withstand benign neglect. I don't even know all the names of their varieties, or what's available. First-time home-gardener's ignorance is a factor here. My inexperience leads me towards sensuality, a garden ramble, rather than towards mastery of any rose's intentioned rent.

Rose Red

For me this is all about stopping to smell the roses along the way. it's about creating a place where I can stop and smell the roses as much as I desire.

Now I more deeply understand what my father's gardening meant to him, and what it gave back to him. Gardening is still a new practice in my life. I've never owned a home before, or had my own flower beds that I could do with as I wished. I've lived in many apartments, I've been homeless or traveling a lot, I've lived on the road, I've lived in trailers, in spare rooms, in the back of the truck, in a tent. I'm a nomad by nature, I have the wanderlust, the restless feet. I'm semi-nomadic even in the toughest times. I've never been able to create my own gardens before now. I'm discovering gardening's sensual pleasures and rewards. This is my home base here, for now, for who knows how long; thus my goal is to make it into some place I want to come back to, each time I return. The beauty of these gardens is part of that design.

I'm also making stone feaures in the garden, a little bit like a Japanese Zen garden, and a little bit like a modern sculpture garden. Think Isamu Noguchi, think Henry Moore, think Andy Goldsworthy. I continue to build and add to the stone features in my garden plots. I've already placed stones gathered from many favorite places, sacred places, gathered during my travels: pink granite from the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming; a slab of green serpentine from coastal California; red quartzite from Devil's Lake in Wisconsin; dreamstones from Cailfornia, Oregon, and Michigan. Some of the rocks my mother gathered are also being worked into the garden.

The goal is to be able to sit on my steps or my porch and look at the stone patterns, the flowers, and be at peace, be tranquil, be in beauty. One of my favorite Navajo prayers, a long excerpt from the Night Chant, concludes: Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to my sides, beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty all around me. It is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty, it is finished in beauty. That's one of my life-long favorite prayers, sending out for the gods to hear what I most deeply value. Beauty, harmony: hozho.

I remember: my father had a strawberry patch at our home in Ann Arbor. It was in a raised bed between railroad ties in the back corner near the fence. We all loved strawberries. My father had a serious sweet tooth. Strawberry shortcake with cream or ice cream, made with his own home-grown strawberries, was sheer bliss. I still love strawberries, but am content to get them at the farmer's market, rather than try to grow them myself.

I live next to the woods, shading the floodplain of Turtle Creek, with deer and rabbits passing through every night. To grow vegetables or fruit would require fencing the garden beds, and I'm not ready to do that just yet. Because my photography and other creative work takes me on the road several times a year, I am garden for beauty and durability, so perennial flowers are the main thing for now, including the roses. When I pull into the driveway, returning home after a road trip, the bright colors will be there, in summer, surrounding my home with beauty in the sun and wind.

Stone and flower and water and light: the elements of the garden. It is finished in beauty.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Dramatic Skies

photo sequence: clearing late winter storm, an afternoon in March, southern Wisconsin

March (and sometimes April) is hard in the Great Lakes/Great Plains region, because of the waiting: it’s a time between late winter and true spring, when one is constantly teased by warming weather then tumbled back into cabin fever when good weather is taken away again. It’s sunny and warm one day, but the next it could be cold, rainy, windy, and wintry yet again. The garden is green one morning, white the next.

It’s been a year of intense changes in my personal life: a lot of heavy internal weather. Only a year ago I bought my new home; I haven’t lived here a full year as yet. I don’t even have a full year’s occupancy, because I traveled for so many weeks last summer and autumn. As I will again this spring and fall, if I can.

I’ve been feeling incredibly cooped up and burdened with restlessness. I know I’m on edge about life, but also about the turn of the year. I’ve been cold for months; now I relish being warm again, warm all the way through to my aching bones.

The bulbs I planted last fall are beginning to emerge from beneath the soil, mulch, or carpet of leaves. By month’s end some will already have bloomed, and be fading. Spring comes quickly, when it chooses at last to arrive. The garden is white one morning, green the next.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

What should we teach our young critics?

Andrew Haydon raises the question, referring to young theatre critics in Britain, and what they should or should not write as criticism; what form it should take, what style. Haydon raises valid questions about the tyranny of habitual format and approach.

This was brought to my attention by Frank Wilson, who comments: How about nothing. . . . Shaw, Beerbohm, Agate—fine theater critics all—never went to any workshops. It is workshops—and journalism schools—that account for the mediocrity of so much that makes it into print these days. I tend to agree.

I wouldn't "teach" our young critics anything.

Rather, I would insist that they read the best published criticism they can find, and learn how to do it by example. That's the best way to learn how to write poetry, and it's also the best way to learn how to write poetry criticism. I would require young critics read a list of great critical writers, poet/critics, journalists, and authors.

A lot of criticism is rationalized justification of gut reactions; I would have these young critics read criticism by writers that do not try to conceal this in their own essays and reviews. I would require our young critics to write down their first responses to a given work of art, as well as the opinions they arrived at after some contemplation and reading. Enthusiasm is not a sin; neither is contemplation.

I would steer young critics away from ideological criticism, which tends to promote both bad writing (even if the ideology itself is sound) and lock-step (Us vs. Them) critical attitudes. Sometimes these can be fruitful discussions, but they are rarely great models for young critics to learn how to write, stuffed as they are with prescriptive criticism rather than descriptive. Ideological criticism can be very tempting to young critics, precisely because it seems to provide a complete set of answers and instructions for evaluating art. This is a brittle approach, however, that will inevitably fail when it encounters exceptional works that can't be explained under its rules. Deviations aren't really tolerated, and must be explained away. (Which shows how much ideological criticism shares the same psychology as religious fundamentalism.) Ideological criticism can, of course, provide an example of what not to do, so long as the young critic reads it from that perspective.

I went over to my own bookcases and pulled some examples, at semi-random, of what I feel is great critical writing, on numerous topics. I'm sure others can add to this list, or improve upon it. Students are not required to agree with every opinion they discover herein, but they can learn a great deal from reading these critics about how to write criticism.

Please note how diverse in style and approach many of these critics were and are to their subjects; there's an answer to be found therein to Andrew Haydon's concerns about the tyranny of the familiar format.

So, young critics, here's your reading list, in no particular order, to make of it what you will.

Conrad Aiken, Collected Criticism
Alistair Cooke, Six Men
Terry Teachout
Edwin Denby, the dance criticism
Robert Bly, American Poetry: Wildness & Domesticity (which really takes poetry MFA workshops to task, BTW) and Leaping Poetry
Jonathon Williams, The Magpie's Bagpipe
Hayden Carruth, Selected Essays and Reviews and Sitting In
Jim Harrison, Just Before Dark, notably the section titled "Literary Matters"
Clayton Eshleman, Companion Spider (essays)
Robert Peters, Hunting the Snark (a hilarious and nasty book of classifications and commentaries of American poetry at century's end)
Philip Larkin, Required Writing
Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life
Thomas M. Disch, The Castle of Indolence
Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates (essays)
Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (ex)plain(ed)
Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage (present on this list as media-savvy meta-criticism)
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (present for the same reasons as McLuhan & Fiore)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cezanne
Sam Hamill, A Poet's Work and Basho's Ghost
Noel Perrin, A Reader's Delight
William Maxwell, Outermost Dream
Eliot Weinberger, Outside Stories
Octavio Paz, one of the greatest critical essayists of the 20th C. on 20th C. art, poetry, and history; I recommend starting with The Other Voice or On Poets and Others


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Unintentional Surrealism

I find I don't need to go looking for surreal moments in life, or play any of the Surrealist Games, in order to have such moments. They occur naturally. All you have to do is pay attention: life is constantly throwing absurd jokes your way, odd little anachronisms and inappropriate juxtapositions.

What Surrealism was always intended to do, although it eventually became an artistic movement that was just another -ism, was to activate the unconscious. Surrealism as an -ism became far too self-conscious, in the way teenagers are self-conscious about their appearance and their sexuality, and eventually fell apart because the last thing that was going on, was anyone's unconscious becoming activated. It became a form of ideology that dictated what could and could not be a valid Surrealist Artwork: dictation, rather than revelation. Although Surrealism began in revelation, by exploring methods of unlocking the power of dreams, automatic writing, and other ways of bringing forth the contents of the unconscious self—in ways that the conscious, controlling mind cannot dictate—eventually it became a movement of artists rather than of discovering art. Surrealism was partly triggered by Freud's work in discovering and identifying the unconscious aspects of self—the phrase "subconscious mind" is deceptive and misleading because we're not talking about "mind" here, but other aspects of self that literally undermine the conscious mind. Nonetheless, many of the Surrealist Games were invented as ways to short-circuit the conscious mind, and release the power of the unexpected; and many of them worked, as such, while they remained fresh and uncategorizable. Many were designed to be able to limit the artist's will and control, so they contain elements of concealment and randomness that succeeded, for awhile, in shaking things up. The problem with Surrealism as an artistic movement is that, like any other -ism, it's tropes and patterns can be appropriated and diluted by those followers and borrowers whose aims are often shallow and commercial. A lot of advertising uses easy surrealism to raise an eyebrow or make a joke, which some art critics now call "soft surrealism."

But the aspect of the river of power that runs under our selves, that is the power of life, that buoys us up, upon which we float, the aspect of that river which is one of the substrates of Surrealism is available anytime, anywhere, if you just look for it. It can be very sly, very funny. It helps to have a sense of humor that does not shy away from the absurd. It can be deadpan dry in its delivery, which is in truth a mask behind which churns edgy and amoral chaos. This river of unnamed power is what Conrad Aiken was referring to when he wrote about his fellow poet, Federico Garcia Lorca: To call him a surrealist is a mistake, for to be a surrealist is to be something else than a poet, something less than a poet: surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. Surrealism is perhaps one of many names, merely, for the substratum out of which poetry is made. Aiken knew his Freud, and that knowledge appears in both his criticism and his poetry. But he also knew that there was something even deeper than those aspects of the self that Freud described; Aiken did not name those deeper aspects, although Freud's breakaway heir and disciple Carl Jung did. Jung took Freud's ideas deeper, and more astutely, in the shadows of the self; what he brought back was alchemical gold.

But when you go spelunking in the dark, wet caves of the self, what you bring back is often oddly distorted, a little off-kilter, a little fantastic and mysterious. The power it contains, that demands our attention, is numinous by definition. And it can be humorous, odd, strange, somehow perfectly wrong yet also just right: surreal.

i believe the best puns are accidentally discovered, not planned out. I think those moments of encounter, out there in daily life, that are most surreal, most resonant, most weird, are also stumbled over, discovered, revealed to us. Going looking for something weird tends to become mannerist: it holds no power to activate the unconscious because it's well thought out. Dali's paintings can powerfully change the way you see the world; but his verbal expectations can block that activation, by being distractions rather than enhancements.

So I prefer unintentional surreal moments to intentional ones. I spend a lot of time looking sideways at life, because that's one good way to encounter the unintentionally surreal, the slightly absurd and silly yet also profoundly meaningful: by looking at life from a slight angle. E.M. Forster described the poet Constantine Cavafy as "standing at a slight angle to the universe." That's it exactly.

Poetic language is much better than technical psychological language to describe these moments of encounter, usually. The exception are those psychologists who are willing to write poetically in their texts; or who understand the necessity of oblique approaches to mythopoetic and archetypal materials.

Walk out into the world and expect to be poetically surprised, and thou shalt be. Close your mind to the possibility and of course it won't arise. Notice and observe, and let those archetypes bubble up around you, and soon you'll begin to see little else. The random universe suddenly takes on profound meanings. You become required to abandon the word "coincidence" entirely: because everything seems charged with meaning, and eager to speak to you. Everything wants your attention, and usually it's to tell you something of profound importance, which is simultaneously all a big joke. The paradox is where meaning hovers: not in resolution and certainty, but in that dynamic balancing act on the cusp of collapse.

Look closely: Something's trying to tell you somebody.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

How Can You Call Yourself A Poet?

When mired in the conflict between what is poetry and what isn't, when feeling attacked from many directions because of critical expectations rather than astute observation, when dismissed because no one understands your work or process, what are you to do? Are you to bow to the pressure that demands you explain and justify yourself? Are you to ignore everyone and just quietly keep doing your art, no matter what? Are you to try to find a middle-ground in which talking about your art doesn't keep you from actually making it? Or are there yet other ways to safely pass through these tides of distraction?

It is valid response is to ignore everyone, and keep doing what you do, regardless of notice, acclaim, rejection, or puzzlement. It has risks, and a price you might be willing to pay. Just stay your course and follow your inner voices, no matter what. Poet-painter Kenneth Patchen went his own way, never changing the center of his ideals or vision, struggling with it to make his art/poetry—and it is as difficult to separate his words from the images they appear with, as it is to regard WIlliam Blake's poetry without his printed illuminations. There are times when I feel as if Patchen repeats his message and style as though he were a one-trick magician; at other times he startles by overcoming even his own habitual tricks, and transcends his own limits. That's the risk of going off on your own, of course, or working in splendid isolation: your work might need a little more revision than you sometimes give it, so that it can more often rise above its own limits.

And there are those among the critical elite who would ask both Patchen and Blake, "How can you call yourself a poet? How can you call yourself an artist?" As is often the case, though, the poet doesn't call himself a poet, only other people do. A mistake both poets and critics regularly make is to believe that dialogue between their factions means anything, or has any substance. If the artist is often too inarticulate, the critics are too often egotistical.

As an artist, you never signed a contract demanding that you Explain Your Work—although many will demand that of you, without even knowing why the demand arises—and it's not your job to give lectures on your art, it's your job to keep making it. If you can lecture articulately about the concerns and instincts that arise, that your work sometimes encompasses, all the better—plain self-awareness is never misspent, unless it tries to cage one's own mysteries—but feeding the curiosity of the audience isn't in your job description. You're supposed to feed them your art, not your biography.

As a critic, your job is to help us understand, to explore, to respond, to discover, and to report back. This is best done when there's no personal agenda, no theoretical axes to grind, no fame of your own to engage. Critics get paid to write about creatives, not about themselves. In literary criticism, the quality most often lacking is humility. Grand pronouncements are given instead, sweeping overviews that might explain, but cannot contain. Who can contain Patchen or Blake within a simple critical assessment or single theoretical overview? No one; it cannot be done. Critics need to preserve their own first responses of high emotion to a work, be it awe or disgust, and not forget those first responses even if, in the end, they are not trustworthy. Critics are not bodiless intellects hovering above the created landscape, completely objective and emotionless—although I appreciate Salvador Dali's performance-art-like response to this assumption by always taking interviews yet rarely explaining a painting the same way twice. It doesn't hurt a critic to be reminded that they're also human, just as the artist is, and to admit that they've been wrong. A fixed opinion is a brick in the foundations of hell.

Creative ego can make you a target. If you wear "Poet" on your name-badge at a cocktail party at some hotel conference, don't be surprised when you're challenged. It may not even be your fault; but inevitably, some lout will dare you to prove it. If you demure, you're mocked, even though you haven't lost your centre. If you give in, you will risk always being kept onstage forever after, as some performing monkey, a creative light-switch to be turned on at whim. You will forever be expected to perform at some level of wit and danger as exemplified by Edmond Rostand's hero Cyrano de Bergerac, who tosses off exquisite verse as he duels a knave. Well, louts and knaves will oft surround you, Poet; it's a fact of life. You don't need to respond in kind; there are higher roads. And satire is often the best revenge, for the artist.

Is it better to keep silent, keep private, and do your creative soul-work in isolation, silence, and in secret? To avoid being a target of criticism? I don't know. I have mixed feelings. It's a balancing act, a dangerous one: If you fall too far of your centre of balance, you can tip into self-aggrandizing secret-keeping that makes you smug and proud in hiding, looking down on everyone else because you know something they don't. If you tip off-balance in another direction, you can end up being hungry for acclaim, hungry for recognition, hungry for attention of any kind in fact, and get lost among the cycles of fame and the forgotten.

Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. Few things kill the muse like celebrity or intoxicated celebrity. Writing remains a solitary act, not a public performance. (With rare exceptions, such as Harlan Ellison occasionally writing a story in a bookstore window.) Painting can be a public act, but imagining what one sees on the finished canvas before applying one drop of paint remains a private act. (Again, there are rare exceptions of painters who could actually improvise, such as Keith Haring.) Music performance is a public act, but music composition and improvisation are not required to be; it's optional. What matters is the moment: losing oneself in the music, whether or not an audience is there.

Artists do need to feed their art, by getting away from it, from time to time. Obsessive self-absorption is almost guaranteed to lead to social retardation. Although you may, as an artist, need to be completely absorbed in your art in order to do it—rightly so—if you sacrifice all human contact for the sake of your art, it's all too easy to fall off a cliff. Artists are people, and people need to sit and have a beer with friends, even if they're other artists. At least periodically, you need to go off and do something completely unrelated to your art, or have a deep and fulfilling conversation of an evening in which no one, including you, talks about your art, not even once. Come up for air, everyone. Take a deep breath, and realize the world goes on, and will continue to go on, no matter what we do.

Critics, if similarly obsessed, lose perspective. One on level, art is the most important thing in the Universe—it echoes the action of Creation. Simultaneously, art-making is ephemeral and momentary and culturally-bound. A wise critic is always conscious of history, of context, and skeptical of the fashion-driven cycles of marketing hype. It's hard to take seriously any critic or reviewer who parrots the opinions of others, even those he or she agrees with. If you don't arrive at your conclusions via your own roads of independent assessment, don't expect me to be impressed. Critics are even better than artists at bullshitting the rubes: rhetoric is their valid tool, even if it is not always wisely used. Again, humility can save the day.

And art-making does have temporal and cultural limits and contexts, even as great art transcends time and space to become universal and timeless. I don't make art the same way Leonardo da Vinci did, because we have different tools, and live in different times. (Though what he could have done with Photoshop!) I have recently begun making photos of male nudes in my photography studio; after a hiatus in which I had no access to studio settings and tools, now I've made my own. In that, Leonardo and I share common ground, in both subject matter and the making of tools. La plus ça change, la pllus meme chose. I have in my pool of options everything Leonardo did, but also what the Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists did. Leonardo's genius was in part that he was an inventor, a maker, one who was able to create a tool or technique that was needed even if it didn't exist. I make no such claim for my own abilities, although I have learned a great deal from studying Leonardo.

Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. That may be where the balance stands on point. To make no public proclamations of your own genius and originality—since most claims by artists are hubris, again with rare exceptions—but to just keep making your art, and let the verdict of history decide. Note, I say, to let history decide, and not the judgments of critics alive today who respond to your work, pro or con. Ignore that, if you ignore nothing else. Let your self-esteem be bound up only with how you feel a given work of art to be successful, on its own merit—not on what anyone else says about its merit. Measure your own work with ruthless honesty, though, and a skeptical, detached eye. You'll rarely experience loving your own favorite children as much as you do, for the same reasons.

Perhaps it's simple self-protection. Don't make a target of yourself, by calling yourself a Poet. Be circumspect. Be stealthy. Publish anonymously! Well, that's probably too radical for most poets: there are few who can detach so well from their ego-driven hunger for acclamation. (Note that I do not exclude myself from this pernicious tendency; although I do consciously strive to minimize it.) Your name may be your marketing, but don't let it be your branding, lest you begin to take yourself too seriously.

If your name is to be attached to your work, let it be done as the mark of a craftsman, a signature of quality workmanship, the mark of an artisan who seeks to be hired by other clients in future, to build their cathedrals as you have built the one you just keystoned and signed. Your mark is your your copyright, to be sure, and warranty against imitations of lesser quality.

Be an artisan rather than an Artist, be a poet rather than a Poet, be the stoneworker who can enter the cathedral, cock a gimlet eye, and say "I bloody did that!" with quiet pride, yet leave his mark hidden or entirely absent. We think of Leonardo now as a genius Artist; but he thought of himself as an artisan, a craftsman, an inventor; his impatience with the world was because the world was too slow, not because he believed himself to be too fast: he did everything he could, after all, to bring the world up to his own level, which is a sharing borne from loving the world as his home, not despising the world as its superior master.

Write your poetry, even if no one notices. But don't call yourself a Poet. You'll only be asked to prove it.

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Photography As Seed for Contemplation

Three Circles

In going back over my archived photos of the past three years, searching for materials to work with now that I might have overlooked previously—as time gives perspective to quality—I find myself pulled into photos I had forgotten I'd taken, forgotten were there, in one or two cases forgotten where they were made until I looked at the context.

I often take photographs of interesting scenes or found arrangements, knowing I might use them as elements later in a digital artwork. Sometimes I never use them; sometimes I have a vision for a piece right away, and use them immediately. Some elements have been recycled through more than one digital artwork.

For example, a photo of a seagull in flight—a motion-blurred closeup, taken at the beach near Ft. Lauderdale, FL, in 1993, when I was there for an academic conference, giving a paper, and stole away with some others to the beach for an afternoon—has been used in two or three pieces, as it was the most evocative bird-in-flight image I had, that I could call my own. From the beginning, it was important to me to use my own photography as elements, rather than clip art or stock photos taken by others. A point of pride, orbiting concepts of originality, rather than a copyright issue. Photos that were entirely mine, that I didn't need permission to use; certainly some recreated what I'd seen in stock photo books, or concepts seen in surrealist advertising images, and elsewhere: but entirely mine, made by myself and my camera.

White Bird/Badlands

Nowadays, having traveled much more since then—my semi-nomadic lifestyle not manifesting itself as fully-alive until a decade later—I have many more such images to choose from. By continuing to shoot elements, one gradually builds up one's own personal stock library. Still, whenever I'm out making photos, and I happen to see a similar bird-in-flight image to be made, I do so. The next photo of the same subject might be better than all the previous ones. You might get lucky, or get it just right by intention; either way, it's worth pursuing. Over time, as I have become a better photographer—and I feel as if the road trip out West, last late summer and early fall, pushed me into a new level of quality in my photograph that I'd never achieved before—I still return to many of the same subjects that compel my interest, always trying to do better each time, hoping each time for a new image even better than all the old ones ever were, on that subject. So I always keep my eyes open, and my camera near at hand. Capturing the moment is a discipline of readiness, of being mindful and of having one's tools close to hand, cleaned and prepared and ready to use.

Making a poem is exactly the same thing, for me: readiness, preparation, combined with openness to experience, to seeing what's around one, and being prepared for the poem to come at any time. I'm never without a small notepad; there's one in the outside pocket of my camera case; there may also be one in a shirt pocket; there's one in the backpack, another clipped to the truck's overhead visor; and so on. Readiness is all, when a poem can come to you at any moment.

Making a drawing or painting is more deliberate, It requires more choice, more will, more deliberate intention. At this point, making a photo is often effortless, the camera is the end-extension of one's hand-eye coordination. All you have to do is turn the camera on, bring it up, frame the image, and shoot. It can less time to do it than to tell about doing it. Starting a drawing means I need to open up the zippered case in which I carry some colored pencils, a sketchbook, and some other small tools; I need to pull out the sketchbook, grab a pencil, and get to work. It's becoming more natural, as I progress along that road of teaching myself to draw; it goes faster, and can be more compelling; but photography remains the most effortless of the visual arts I engage with, the medium that requires the least consideration before execution.

So, drawing and painting still require intention, if only for the time it takes to set up the tools. Photography is becoming increasingly unintentional, unwillful, and egoless. Poetry likewise. I find myself wanting less and less to include any part of myself in a poem, but only to be the receiving pipeline via which the poem happens. And they do seem to just happen, often enough. I freely admit I'm not very good at intentional poetry, anyway: sitting down to try to write a sonnet, or a sestina, or something similar, is certain to be an hour wasted in which I could have done something better; and the artistic product of such intentional sessions, the poem itself, usually is a lesser vessel, for me—never one of my best efforts. Usually too far unbalanced towards the cerebral.

I freely admit to some impatience about feeling like I'm wasting my time when asked to do certain activities. Why don't I attend writing workshops? While I might gain some new insight or technique, most such workshops are geared towards beginners and intermediate writers; if there were an advanced workshop that would really push me, creatively, I'd consider attending. But 99 percent of all seminars on any creative topic will give you the exact same teachings and lessonings—rephrased through each teacher's individual experience, and useful to the extent that, if one way of talking about a perennial principle doesn't excite you, another will—and you'll repeat yourself a lot. I can do "writing exercises" on my own—études, scraps, and finger-exercises—without paying someone to lead me through them. (There are plenty of free-to-read craft-polishing websites available, too.)

To be clear, in no way am I sneering at workshops of any kind. I disdain nothing. There are always people who need them, and for whom they are life-changing and revelatory. For some of us, though, we take the lesson and move on to the next, without needing to repeat it endlessly. It's not a question of workshops being bad, it's a question of needing another level of workshop than is generally available. And at a certain level, you're teaching yourself, anyway: it only requires realizing that that is what you're doing, and that hand-holding is no longer even emotionally necessary. Perhaps it's a sign that, after all those years of struggling and repetitive practice, progress has actually been made.

Why don't I teach a workshop, then? Actually, I already have, on the community college level. It was a popular course, too, the few times I was asked to teach it. I don't claim to be a gifted teacher—although I will certify that I'm rather good at "translating" complex concepts, without oversimplifying them, into forms understandable to many beginners. I certify only because students have so testified. Actually, I do enjoy teaching. The problem I usually have is with the administrators, rather than the students: I tend to present concepts from outside-the-box, oblique angles. I like to do so precisely because it's a sideways approach. I use musical analogies when I teach photography; I use poetry to talk about dance; I use cinema to teach poetry. I would teach a workshop on what I've learned, over time and experience, any time some group paid me to do so. It's a great pleasure to pass on what I've acquired. It might also be of the nature of a duty, on some deeper, archetypal level. Readiness is all, and willingness treads not far behind.

Devil's Tower, WY

When I look through these past few years of photography, in which my travels and experiences, and some of life's evitable dramas, have pushed me to continue to improve as a photographer, artist, writer, and human being (the true work, the real opus, always a work in progress), what I see in the photos is a record of my own progress. No, it's more multiplex than that: my improvements technically often feel serendipitous to me: accidents that I learn to repeat, mistakes that yield fruit when repeated: my evolution via experience as a pilgrim whose Way is the artist's way as much as the spiritual-technology way: as though those could really be separated: are perceivable as punctuated equilibria proceeding by fits and starts: up a bouldered volcanic throat rather than a smooth incline: whole months of photos bland boring and repetitious: followed by a sudden leap into a vision never quite so clearly seen before: as though the eye itself had caught focus as the world catches light. The path of progress runs along a fractal coastline, twisting back on itself on many scales, infinitely recursive while still proceeding along a path towards resolution and escape.


The photographic image is whole, but is also made up of its elements. Zoom into a photographic print past the resolution of imaginary meaning, and one approaches the veil between matter's solidity and its representation as vibration locked into habitual electronic forms: the singing of the atoms, the music of the spheres. How can one separate the paper from the image, the dancer from the dance? Even the gods have habitual opinions, endlessly repeated across the narratives of myth. The bright deities in their own way as inflexible of purpose as their darker cousins, their blooded emanations reflecting in the burning glass. Only when reborn as human is there a chance for change, the power to choose, and choose again. The way of heaven, the river of stars, the bloody road, the six paths and the four ways of meifumado.

And so one progresses, artistically and humanistically, paths braided upon one another as a pebbled stream. In reviewing life and work, it's tempting to become a tracker, reading sign in the trail and assembling a narrative from it. All narratives are invented, usually in hindsight: memory is not different, even with reminders. We make something coherent out of something incoherent, scattered, and momentary. What endures, other than the photographs, is what we choose to keep—apples chosen from the bushel for freshness—and what makes demands on us, even against our will.

I find photos, in my review, that are compelling now, although at the time they seemed forgettable enough. They call in voices louder now. Ripening to fruition over a months, or years, to focus attention on themselves where previously unremarked. An emergent process of contemplation: what once was overlooked becomes sublime.

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