Thursday, September 15, 2011

Notes to Overcome


As much of my poetic juice as I'm pouring into writing song lyrics for the new music commission, I'm also writing these other poems as they come to me. Which they have increasingly been doing, again.

Remember, one of the rules of creativity is: The more you do, the more you do. The more you do, the more you are able to do. It's anti-entropic: it feeds itself, it starts to run under its own power, like the ancient dream of perpetual motion. One of the reasons you know that the creative process is divine is precisely because it's anti-entropic. Doing work over there feeds work over here. Being in the flow means that everything is flowing, the river of creative force is available to feed all the various media that you might work in. Activity here increases activity over there, because the floodwaters are non-specific. Everything feeds everything else.

Also, these other poems serve for me a different purpose than the lyrics written for the music commission. The song lyrics are specific stories, specific narratives about one part of my life and the lives of others like me. These other poems, especially the Letters series poems, help me cope with my own very personal narrative of recovery, grief, suffering, PTSD, and the daily need to find a meaning in life, a reason to keep enduring what is occasionally unendurable. They too are anentropic, if not overtly anti-entropic, in that they help me be able to not slide down the gravity well into acedia or despair. They become part of my self-healing process, a necessary response to what has ben going on in my life, medically and psychologically. I began writing the Letters poems, after all, as a response to encounters with personal mortality, as a response to almost dying, as a way of pulling my head out of a morass of confusion and despair. You need to vent, to get it out of your system,, to get past it. As I've said before, Making art is the best revenge. Revenge not on people for supposed harm done to oneself, but against the entire systems that try to destroy us, and fail. I never expected to write so many of these Letters poems; I never expected to have the need to. What I try to do is turn raw feeling into art: so that these are not raw screaming into the journal, are not merely venting and shouting and yelling at the walls of life's limits, but that something artful, more permanent, more transcendent might be made. They are fueled by painful circumstances, and sometimes reflect that more than not; but I don't want them to be merely a cry of pain. I want them to map the way out of pain, not merely recite its effects.

There is a scene near the end of Shakespeare's The Tempest, where Prospero realizes that revenge, that inflicting suffering on those who caused his own suffering and exile, will do no good: he must either forgive and let go of his righteous rage, or he will destroy those things he most loves, beginning with his daughter Miranda, and ending with his own honor, his own sense of self. It's a scene where suddenly the tone of Prospero's speech changes from verbal fireworks to calm self-knowledge, rooted acceptance, and powerful self-confidence that needs no more artifice to be self-sustaining. It is a moment of anti-entropy, when Prospero chooses a path of perpetual service that needs no more rough magic. First he releases his anger and desire for revenge. At the last, he releases the spirits he has mastered—however lovingly, they were kept as slaves to his unrealized passions—and drowns his books of magic in the sea. He remains an extraordinary person, an exceptional man, who has been tempered by exile and suffering into a man who make a fair and just ruler, a king whose reign shall be praised overall.

That is an example of how to make a good life out of suffering. It's a template for overcoming pain, obstacles, and the personality-ego's desire for revenge, for lashing out to create suffering in response to its own suffering. It is a template for how to break the cycle of hate, revenge, judgment, and guilt. It leads to a greater wholeness in the person who makes such anti-entropic choices as serve the highest good. The genuine essence of wizardry lies not in the personal power over matter and energy that one has gained, but in choosing to expend one's power in the service of life itself. Prospero leaves the island at last to go serve life, and no longer requires the external trappings of magic, or wizardry, because he has at the last learned to master himself.

I do not compare myself to Prospero, although I do aspire to attain something like that service of wizardry. I make art in part as an act of self-mastery. These poems in the Letters series, as diverse in content as they have been, as similar in tone and style as they might be, all serve my own need for self-mastery. They give channel and direction to energies that would otherwise flail in every direction, and splash over their bounds with perhaps destructive force.

Remember, another rule of creativity is: Use the power, lest it use you. Use your creative process as well as you can, live within it as consciously as you can, or it will use you instead. Serving its own need to be used, to be released, it will exit through whatever channel is provided—which might be your own darkest Shadow, if you give it no other channel. Creative force will out, no matter what. You have a choice about how that happens. With self-mastery comes self-knowledge, and a greater awareness of your own energetic anatomy—including this truth that creative force will out, no matter what else you might hold true. So far better to choose where and when.

Remember, one rule of psychological repression is that whatever you suppress over here will pop back up over there, often inappropriately. The energetic force of the psyche will out. It's up to you where and when it comes out. Sometimes you can measure how self-repressed a person is merely by observing how much is inappropriately leaking out over there, in ways seemingly beyond that person's awareness, or control. Judgmental, self-righteous rage is often a clue towards denial of one's own shadow: and when someone responds with righteous rage to being told the truth, what is happening is that they are fighting hard to remain ignorant, to retain their subconscious denial, their not-knowing. I have encountered artists whose paintings are blatantly, toxically pathological (in one case I recall, psychosexually dysfunctional), and who go through their lives suffering one toxic relationship after another. Yes, art can be a tool for personal therapy: but it can also be a barometer of personally willful, self-ignorant denial. It can be a tool of suffering or of redemption; it can drag you into a shared hell, or it can transcend.

Sometimes both, as another rule of art as life is: Sometimes the only way out is through. Sometimes when you find yourself in deep water, you have to become a diver, and go deeper into those waters, to come out the other side. First you go through the agony in the garden, then the crucifixion experience, whatever narrative form that takes for you, and only then can you see again the light of heaven.

And, sometimes your art is more personally powerful, and more universally meaningful, for having gone through hell to get there. What you make is tempered by what you have lived through. So it is with these other poems, whose writing has helped me cope with overwhelming emotions, with a life-threatening medical situation and its aftermath. They help me get through one more day. They help my recover my life. I still don't know who these Letters are written to; I may never know. Writing them is more important than sending them out. I don't even know if they are artful, or good art, or decent poems—although I do feel that at least some of them are. I don't know if they will ever have an audience—although some of them are probably worthy of being shared. In some ways, writing this other series of poems, these Letters poems—which has been going on in continuous, sporadic parallel to everything else I've done creatively over the past year and more—is an act similar to Prospero writing his books. Releasing these poems into the world is like drowning them: I give them to the sea, and see what changes. No other act of self-mastery will suffice, to keep my own head above water. The more you do, the more you do.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

While Carrie was in the States (she got back this afternoon) I didn’t have my usual TV schedule to adhere to – with the exception of Doctor Who which I had no problems watching twice (everything we usually watched got saved for her return) – I had to resort to other forms of entertainment when I was incapable of working any longer and one of these entertainments was the 2010 version of The Tempest. This would have been my fourth viewing if you include Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books – the other two being the BBC version from 1980 and a live performance by none other than The Royal Shakespeare Company who were touring the provinces. The new version makes a radical change in that the lead is played by a woman (Helen Mirren). This is not the first time I’ve seen this done – the excellent Fiona Shaw took on the role of Henry II – but although I was impressed with Mirren the rest of the cast were fairly lacklustre and I wasn’t impressed with the direction which a reviewer on IMDB had to say:

‘Taymor's work is an "acquired taste" as the euphemism goes, another way of saying "go in at your own risk". The wild takes on set-pieces like the ship-crash, the trippy-hallucinogenic visions of characters, and the eccentric acting turn the Tempest into a curious delight, but you need to expect something like that. This is Shakespeare for the Modern Museum of Art group, not for stuffy intellectuals looking for Masterpiece Theater.’

He is, of course, entitled to his opinion but I couldn’t get into it and only watched the first half.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"Prospero's Books" has long been a favorite film of mine, on a number of levels. (Not least the live calligraphy.) So was Derek Jarman's version of The Tempest. One thing that brought The Tempest to mind is that I recently found out about Julie Taymor's new film version, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera—an idea that I think will work brilliantly, considering that Helen Mirren could read the phone book and I'd watch her do it. (I recently picked up the first Prime Suspect on DVD and have been waiting for a time when I could really watch it and savor it all over again.) Of course, I don't expect anything from Taymor but what it sounds like the film does do—her strength is her visionary side, her imaginative reworkings of things. So I look forward to seeing it when I can get ahold of it.

4:09 PM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

Loved the comment: "Making art is the best revenge. Revenge not on people for supposed harm done to oneself, but against the entire systems that try to destroy us, and fail."

I'm in the middle of completing a long letter-poem as well: six months of drafting and redrafting all the emotional reactions towards a former lover who died suddenly.

Glad to see you used the Prospero connection. I echo Jim's comments about the films. It is interesting that you touched upon an interesting cycle of artistic thought by calling out Prospero: creation, recording, sacrifice.

The older I become, the stronger I feel a kinship with Prospero's actions.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Some art, and some artists, become more personal with age. There are writers who I think are brilliant, but nobody under 40 will get much out of them, not because they can't but because more life-experience gives more resonance to the writings.


5:19 PM  

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