Sunday, January 03, 2010

Turning Away from Words 3: Nothing Engaged

Having recently written about turning away from words, and about refusing to write just to fulfill expectations, I notice now that when lured into critiquing a poem or other work of art, I find myself with little to say. Only one or two poems have lured me towards giving any response, lately. One of those was by a poet whose work I have dialogued with for several years, whose work almost always pulls me into itself.

The operative factor is a sense of engagement.

If something interests me enough to want to engage with it, I respond. Frankly, a lot of recent poetry just doesn't excite me enough to want to do anything but move on to the next semi-random constellation of words and phrases. At what point do we all recognize the characteristic alkali taste of artistic self-indulgence and narcissism? At what point do we realize that most every poem is about nothing? Especially those poetries most popular in the PoetryWorld zeitgeist nowadays, which has all the elements of that most postmodern of TV programs, Seinfeld: a show about nothing. That most poetry is about nothing is indeed the triumph of the post-modern. Well done, postmodernists: you've succeeded in making poetry meaningless!

I find myself interested in talking about poetry, about poems, about poets, about what makes a poem work for me, and what doesn't. But individual poems aren't holding my attention the way they used to. I've stepped back a level, perhaps, to overview a broader landscape. This is a flip-flop in my attention, which used to be focused on the poem, and nothing else. My unchanged opinion about poetry criticism is that it's supposed to be about the poem, nothing else. But I find my attention is not held, not engaged, by so many poems. Everything feels like surface anyway; so it becomes easier to skim.

Part of this is that I won't force my attention anymore. I won't force myself to be interested in a poem, if it's not getting to me. I've given a lot of bad poetry the benefit of the doubt over the years, seeking a kernel of good writing amidst the flab. I still tend to be more open-minded than not. And I give myself permission to choose not to give my time and energy to works of art that don't merit time and attention.

I can hear some wag declaiming I must be bored. But I'm not bored. I'm never bored: there is no such thing as boredom, it doesn't exist. What I am is disengaged. Some of this disengagement comes from an attempt, after many months away from all things PoetryWorld related, especially the poetry workshop boards, to see if anything has changed in my absence, only to discover that if anything, the situation is more dire than ever. It can be defined as: ever more heated arguments about ever less significant matters.

I like reading about poetry. I like reading what poets, and translators, have to say about poets and their poems. I like reading the ideas that poets have about their art. It might be strange to say, but at the moment I'm more interested in what most poets think about their art, than I am in their art per se. Heresy, I know. As if artists could be trusted to tell the truth about their own art!

I'm interested in the big picture, perhaps: the larger context within which an individual artwork happens. I'm sensing things happening on the larger scale, on a perhaps global scale, and I'm finding it challenging to have to focus down to the particular and local. When I read larger-scale criticism, or poets writing about poetry, from the best of these I get a sense of overview and proportion that is lacking in a great many individual poems, which all still seem to be about smaller and smaller things, to the point of being about nothing. None of which is engaging, or compelling, to my attention.

Words separate, divide and categorize but there is a reality beyond words. This is an experience of underlying unity, even beyond the idea of separation, which requires there be separate things to be connected!
—Jane English, Fingers Pointing to the Moon

There's a sea-change going on, somewhere in the depths. I have no label for it, and I doubt many recognize it happening as yet, beyond a subtle frisson of doubt about their purpose, a shiver of quiet skepticism about everything we thought mattered. I note the general tone of dissatisfaction behind much critical rhetoric, coupled with a certain sense of unconscious flailing in the basement shadows: there's nothing as yet to replace what everyone is tired of.

This is the void time: the period between the ending of an old paradigm, and its replacement by another. It's the in-between time, the no-place-between time. That's both empty, and infinitely fertile with possibility. The smile on the void is that the void is the place of birthing, not the place of death.

Coming into physical form, incarnating, is an experience of falling away from union with a perfection that is beyond light, but which is often spoken of as light. In retrospect, I see that I was unconsciously reaching back for that light in much of my photography work. I was mistaking the outer world light for the inner light. Often there has been a feeling of sadness or longing in my photographing. I believed that the light was out there separate from me rather than within.
—Jane English, Fingers Pointing to the Moon

It seems to me that there is a great tribal pull towards falling back into what we know well—the old paradigm—an almost tidal gravitational pull towards the known and the same. We repeat, and we refine in ever finer detail that which we already know, and we repeat those cycles of knowing until in our expertise we know everything there is to know about nothing. That this is a tribal pull is made known by so many who do it without question: unquestioned assumptions about the nature of reality are invariably tribal in origin; or, if idiosyncratic, anti-tribal rebellions.

For myself, I have been conscious for some years now that most of my photos are about light, or the sky, or the way the natural light falls on objects, places, and people. It's been a celebration of light, rather than a longing for a missing light: I've always seen the visible light as a metaphor for, and a reflection of, the inner light. That's a mystic's way of photography. (Minor White talks about this in his various writings on photography.) I certainly reach back towards that light of unity; and I have been able to capture my feeling and vision of that light in a few photographs.

The tribal pull down the gravitational well towards the already-known and familiar is why I don't feel engaged with a given artwork: it doesn't open up and out, and it doesn't open up anything in me. It doesn't activate my energy, if you will. I cannot care about a poem that doesn't activate my energy; and I won't force myself to care.

I have been listening to a CD of Toru Takemitsu's solo piano music today. The piece I've been listening to especially is Far Away (1973), which has been described as influenced by Javanese gamelan music. Takemitsu had recently visited Indonesia in the company of fellow composer Iannis Xenakis before beginning work on this piece. The piece begins very lightly, with lots of open space; gradually, it gains in intensity until it occupies the entire keyboard like a vast musical tapestry. I hear the influence of both Messiaen and Debussy in this piece, although it remains uniquely Takemitsu.

This music engages me deeply. I find myself growing ever more silent, listening. Music like this pulls you into its own sphere of silence: vast distances, far away, pointillistically speckled with small notes. I find something in this music that speaks to me as a composer; not only for the solo piano music I feel like writing next, but in terms of the larger scale of all music.

I also recognize that my current direction is generally away from words and towards music. I freely admit that turning away from words is necessary and sufficient for me at this time—and is another reason I can't seem to care about or concentrate on poetry critique. There is no loss for anyone in this turning away; and nothing essential will be missed, now or later. What I am seeking is something I still don't know how to describe—certainly not with words, although possibly with music—and putting it into words does not seem necessary.

Like a ship changing direction, slowly, to turn towards a new course across the ocean's open waters, we follow where the wind leads. And that is enough.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I like your use of ‘disengaged’ rather than ‘boredom’ although I’m not sure it applies in my case because I’ve failed to engage more often than not. As you know I was reading that biography on Bukowski over the holiday and now I’m wading my way through a 500-page volume of his poetry which I have to say I’ve quite taken to. He’s the first poet for decades that’s struck a chord with me and yet I’m not sure how good his poetry is. His ideas are good, clear, and accessible and I can see why he appealed at the time but a lot of his poems are really little stories with witty punch lines. Personally I don’t care what label you stick on writing. You either connect with it or you don’t. If you don’t then you move on. We’re not short of writers.

What I struggle with is the reading a poem or a book simply because it’s good writing. If the subject matter doesn’t interest me then I don’t care how good it is I’m not going to like it. Granted our tastes change as we age which is why every now and then I have a wee taster or something I didn’t take to when I was younger. Recently this has proved successful but I still haven’t acquired a taste for opera from any era although I can tolerate the odd aria.

Takemitsu I listen to every now and then, more often than Messiaen and a lot more often than Xenakis. I like the minimal nature of his work – some of it reminds me of Webern actually – but I can’t say I’ve connected with him, not yet. Not like I did with Feldman; he was real discovery and I’m sorry I avoided him for so many years. My most recent musical discovery is the Danish composer Langgard, not someone I would have jumped at in the past but I listened to some of his symphonies recently and something in them struck a chord. But then, and I’m sure you’re the same, I go through phases – yesterday was all soundtracks for example – but I have been rediscovering the Romantic composers of late, people I had difficulty in sticking with when I was young.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Lots of meaty thoughts there to reflect upon.

I basically agree with your assessment of Bukowski, and I think that is indeed why he appeals to many. I also agree, as you know, about sticking labels on writing, and how that's only sometimes useful. As for Bukowski, a lot of his poems do read to me as prose broken into lines; and I've never been a fan of punchlines in poems. So, I'm not sure how much of his writing I'd actually label as "poetry," not that it matters, but occasionally it's very good writing.

It's interested you connected with Feldman. I think there's a lot to Feldman that people don't realize, some real depths. I assume you know his various Beckett pieces? (Some settings of texts, and the string quartet.)

I'll have to look into Langgard. A brief scan of that website looks interesting. The Ives comparison is interesting, too. Ives was one of those composers who still engages my attention every time I listen.

I do agree about phases. There are times I listen to only one kind of thing, then don't listen to it for months. There are phases when I can only listen to my own music; anything else is irritating. That's not hubris, that's part of the creative process, I think: focusing on the inner music, for whatever is coming out next.

As for the Romantics, well, I grew up in a musical household. Mom was a music teacher and Dad was an opera buff. We listened to the Met Opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon that I can recall; sometimes I still do, although the list of operas that I genuinely enjoy enough to go out of my way to listen to again and again is very short. Lately I've been wanting to hear "Der Rosenkavelier" again.

I have listened more to those composers one could Late Romantic and Early Modern, on the margins of both styles. And for me, it's individual pieces that engage me, often more than a composer's entire body of work. Sibelius' Fourth Symphony is one of those; another is Rachmaninoff's Vespers, and his Isle of the Dead. It can be hit or miss. With Ives and Bartok I pretty much like everything they ever did.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My early music loves began with Rachmaninoff. I moved quickly onto Bartók and from there to Ives. Somewhere in the middle of all that I found Khachaturian’s Second Symphony which has always remained a favourite.

I only heard Rachmaninoff ‘s Vespers for the first time recently and it’s wonderful. I think my personal favourite piece by him is the first movement to the Symphonic Dances. With Bartók he just seemed to get better and better and I will always happily listen to his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta although so many conductors screw up that first movement and turn it into a dirge.

My favourite memory of Ives is asking to listen to Radio 3 when we were once out in the car. The piece was Central Park in the Dark and after a few minutes my mum started to complain about it, however, my dad came to his defence saying that that was just the orchestra tuning up. He was not impressed when I told him he was wrong.

Sibelius I like well enough – I have all his symphonies but I can’t distinguish the Fourth in my head. I’ll have to dig out a copy later. At the moment I’m giving Brian Ferneyhough a go, Etudes Transcendantes . (Carrie's out of the room but I'm still not sure I'll make my way all the way through it.) As you like Takemitsu you’d probably appreciate this. It reminds me of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht which I actually am strangely fond of for some reason. I saw a ballet based on it on the tele and connected with it. Most of it was done of a scaffold. No idea why.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" was running through my head as I typed my first reply to your comments, that sublime first movement. So I agree completely about Bartok. The first time I heard the last string quartets, it stopped me in my tracks. And I've played a few of the piano pieces; the simpler ones, not the really difficult ones; a few things from "Mikrokosmos," and a few other things.

Another composer who I've always liked very much is George Crumb. The whole cosmic thing that they talk about with Langgard applies equally to Crumb, I think.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I only know Crumb's Black Angels. By 'know' I mean I have a copy but I've only listened to the CD it's on twice since I bought it. The Wikipedia article is interesting so I may have a go at it tomorrow if I remember - it's getting too late tonight - besides I'm listening to Sibelius's Fourth just now.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I was thinking of the series of pieces Crumb called "Makrokosmos," punning on the Bartok series of pedagogical books. These are mostly for solo piano, although Makrokosmos III is for pianos and percussion. Each piece requires extended technique from the pianist, and the notation used is truly amazing. You could hang them as works of art, to be honest. And each of the series is 'space music" in the cosmic sense, of being about the transcendent, the space-borne, and the magical. Very beautiful music, with a lot of concept behind it.

12:12 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, thanks for posting that link to your original piece from August on turning away from words. I had missed it then, and reading it now for the first time I found it incredibly evocative and something important to think about. Of course, it's of a piece with your larger crop rotation metaphor, and as I've said before, you should count yourself lucky to be among those special people who express themselves in such varied mediums. Most of us only develop one, and thus count on that sole channel too much sometime, not unlike expecting a spouse or life partner to supply all your entertainment and emotional needs. It's asking for more than the medium can possibly produce.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for that, John.

I think that's a really good insight, your last two sentences: how people put all their eggs in one basket, as it were, counting too much, and depending too much, on that one channel, that one container. It is indeed asking too much, I agree.

9:55 PM  

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