Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Tissue of Experience

The poem has to be saturated with impulse and that means getting down to the very tissue of experience. How can this element be absent from poetry without thinning out the poem? That is certainly one of the problems when making a poem is thought to be a rational production. The dominance of reason, as in eighteenth-century poetry, diminished the power of poetry. Reason certainly has its place, but it cannot be dominant. Feeling is far more important in the making of the poem. And the language itself has to be a sensuous instrument; it cannot be a completely rational one. In rhythm and sound, for example, language has the capacity to transcend reason; it’s all like erotic play.
—Stanley Kunitz, poet

How indeed can experience and feeling be absent from poetry without thinning out the poem? But that's exactly what we're told to do, these days, in this late-stage postmodern mannerist period in PoetryWorld. Anyone who objects to this trend, with the exception of elder statesman such as Kunitz, gets laughed out of the tangled labyrinths of academic poetry and criticism. Sincerity and meaning are forbidden as unfashionable. The current fashion is precisely what Kunitz above says does not work. And don't forget the required dash of irony.

I enjoy Kunitz' final note about transcending reason and erotic play: that's the real poetry. When poetry stays all in the mind, when it's about nothing but reason, when there's no eros in it, it fails. Poems written only from the head ultimately fail.

Poetry proceeds from the totality of man, sense, imagination, intellect, love, desire, instinct, blood and spirit together.
—Jacques Maritain, philosopher

The French philosopher and writer agrees. Bloodless poetry, overly rational poetry, is incomplete. A poem that hasn't been bled on, at least a little, is not a whole experience. How can we expect poets to be able to change the world in any way when we also expect them to be passive, intellectual, and bloodless? There is no equation that adds up.

It is quite evident that a barrier must be cleared in order to escape the psychologists and enter into a realm which is not "auto-observant," where we ourselves no longer divide ourselves into observers and observed. Then the dreamer is completely dissolved (fondu) in his reverie. His reverie is his silent life. It is that silent peace which the poet wants to convey to us.
—Gaston Bachelard, philosopher, The Poetics of Reverie

Another French philosopher and writer. The Poetics of Reverie was a book I first read decades ago, when I barely had enough life-experience to understand it. But Bachelard was discussing the connection between dreaming, the Dreamtime, and creativity, which I already knew was there. He was articulating something I already knew to be true. So I pursued reading the book, even though it had little clarity for me till some years later. that silent peace is something I have always known, often wordless, always immersive, the very essence of what Kunitz calls the tissue of experience. That silence upon which all words are founded, which they all arise from and all fall back into, that silence is the very fabric of existence.

An artist says, "I started being an artist when I was five years old." Well, so what? So did everybody. At that age, everyone's an artist. What makes you an artist is that you keep making art when everyone else stops being an artist. You keep going, while they don't.
—Vic Muniz, artist, in an interview

I did stop making art, for awhile, earlier in life. I didn't stop being creative, as I was still writing and making music, but i did stop making visual art. Then I started again. Photography is and always has been the core of that. I started making mature, decent photographs, when I traveled overseas, specifically in Indonesia. Each time I travel, still, I get better as a photographer. Photography and Photoshop was and still is the artistic tool, my palette knife as it were, that got me going, that liberated me technically, that allowed me to make the images I was seeing in my head but didn't have the manual skills to draw or paint.

There's no separation anymore. On the world's most difficult day, I can still make something, eventually. I might fight against it all day long, exhausted and spent by other things, and finally at the end of the day, with the last ounce of strength, then it's done. Tonight the moon was riding above white cumulus clouds; now it's hovering, half-size, above the backyard pines. How do you fight the tendency for art to crystallize and turn solid, and loose its fluid life?

Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.
—Allen Ginsberg, poet

Ignore the party line. I don't think poetry is only self-expression, and neither did Ginsberg. But he did think it could be used to express parts of the self the tribe would perhaps rather we didn't express. Poetry is transgressive, not tame. Poetry that is tamed, as Kunitz says, is reasonable, rational, powerless. Ginsberg at his best was all about re-empowering poetry: not the poet, but Poetry. The rational poets would criticize Ginsberg and his ilk as being too self-indulgent, too ecstatic, too unpredictable, too vulgar—by which they meant that he was not to be tamed, and he did not toe the party line. There are several party lines these days in Poetryworld, but most of them are inherently tame, and aren't going to break free of anything, or into anything.

The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect, between life and death. When literature becomes too intellectual—when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions—it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer, novelist and storyteller

This is Singer agreeing with Kunitz, though it's likely they never heard these sentiments directly from each other. Great minds think alike, come to the same conclusions, and say some similar things. Singer acknowledges the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian, the left and right sides of the brain (mind, really, but let's use the conceptual cliché for the moment nonetheless), and expresses that tension as a conflict. But like Kunitz, Singer also implies that it's in the union of emotion and intellect, of passion and craft, that real art comes into being. So much contemporary poetry lacks substance precisely to the extent that it stays in the intellect and ignores the passions, that it is not poetry of the soma, of the whole body. Other poetries, unfettered and cloven-hoofed, march across the dreamscape and send shivers up the playground. Those are the poetries I feel aligned to, allied with, attuned to. Images and sounds and movements that rise irrationally from those parts of the self neither intellectual nor rational.

The imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality.
—George Mackay Brown, poet

Architecture unfetters us as well. A beautiful building breathes with light and air, it brings us into the space it defines as a living thing. The deliberate geometry of a pure space opens the heart as well as the mind. Years ago, when I was studying modern dance, we went out as a class from the mirrored classroom to the open courtyard of a modern building on campus, and danced there. Passersby stared, most not stopping. There was no music, other than the sounds of hands and feet slapping the concrete of floor and walls, the wind, the distant traffic sounds. But I was filled with sound, just filled with it. As we continued, for several silent connected minutes, a few walkers did stop to watch and become part of the landscape. And then we were done, the late afternoon sun was warm, and we went back, aglow with the pleasure of the dance. It was a moment when we lived the saying "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture;" having done the latter, I feel just fine when doing the former.

So, the tissue of experience made into art, poetry, music, dance, is all of these. It is one seamless fabric, not a series of separate, discrete, rational little envelopes. We are all of a piece, all one fabric, one force.

Oh God, save me from being profound! Save me from those who are carefully literary!
—James Broughton, poet, filmmaker, all around wizard

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Blogger Danish dog said...

I agree with everything you say, Art.

To add some interest to what would otherwise be rather a banal comment, here's a link to a recent guest blog post of mine:

In the wake of this I started a blog of my own:

Happy days!


3:32 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments and links.

I posted a comment to the thread over at Scarriet, basically repeating some opinions about poetry and songwriting that I've posted here before. As a composer, songwriter, and poet, I have thought about the topic a lot, for a long time.

What's intriguing to me is the ever-present hostility and name-calling among online poets. LOL That's exactly why I left all those poetry critique boards behind some time ago. Just too much ego-bashing and not enough good thinking.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Danish dog said...

Thanks for posting there, Art!

Thomas Graves (aka. Tom Grady) is rather idiosyncratic, and his crusade against modernism does attract a lot of negative comment. He believes allowing venom is better than censorship, a choice between two evils. Much of the venom often falls flat on its own face. For example, In exhibiting the very intolerance that I've pointed out, Marcus Bales actually proves my 'thesis'. And it’s ironic that he says I'm whining when in fact he's the one that's whining most.

I seem to have been given the role of mediator in this life. First it was mum and dad, then England and Scotland, now poetry and song lyrics. I know there are big differences between poetry and song lyrics, but I see no reason they should be asked to be such rivals that their common ground cannot be explored.

All the best

3:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. Hmn. Interesting. I generally prefer open comments rather than censorship myself. I draw the line at ad hominem personal attacks—but then, ad hominem attacks are the last refuge of those who know already, on some level, that their arguments are mush and doomed to fail. LOL

I agree about common ground, between poetry and song lyrics. I just don't confuse them as the same art form, the way many poets do. They have different intentions and follow different rules. There is common ground, yes, which is mostly based on the truth that both use words as their expressive means, but there are also things that are unique to each form.

9:13 AM  

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