Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Did You End Up Here?

The tendency to make lists is an attempt to impose order on chaos. I was reading Jim Harrison's memoir of being a lifelong writer, Off to the Side, in which he makes many memorable and pithy comments, but few lists. Last night I read the section about his early career as an academic, to which he was entirely unsuited. As almost an aside he commented how writing memoir is a way of imposing narrative order on chaos; that in fact life is very accidental, even good luck and bad luck are accidental. As we go through life, flailing about to find some security which we never fully achieve, everything seems incredibly chaotic. The only narrative order we can create comes later on, in retrospect or hindsight. The steps in life you took to get where you are today may seem incredibly clear, even fated, when you look back on them from today. But the illusion of narrative comes from having walked the roads, in the order in which you walked them, to get where you are now, on this road, today. It's very much an illusion. There was no prior determinant, in most cases, no guiding hand apparent beforehand, so that twenty years ago you could have predicted where you are now. Many people I know have expressed amazement, later in life, that things went the way they did: I never imagined I'd end up here! Any self-aware writer should know better than to believe life is anything more than a chaotic mass of accidents, synchronicities, and miniature set-pieces.

Nonetheless, one can examine the set-pieces and events that did happen. Memory, for the most part, is reliable when dealing with one's emotional and intellectual histories, and while most memoirs could never completely stand the interrogation of the rules of evidence of our legal system, there's truth even in the lies we tell ourselves. Often fantasy and fiction can tell more of the truth than the pure facts ever could.

So while it's interesting to me to read other writers' lists of influences—those books and/or writers who turned them on when they were young, who excited them and inspired them to try writing, too—it's a sort of list-making that I prefer to regard as entertainment rather than essential. If there is a necessary aspect to making a list of one's own influences, it is powered by the Socratic dictum to Know Thyself!, which I heartily approve of. Self-reflection and self-knowledge are important to anyone, perhaps especially to artists and writers. We mine our lives for our material, including our pasts. It is essential to know who you are, and how you got to be that way. Without that essential knowledge, change and growth are never choices but have all the appearance of outside forces of nature.

Carl Jung wrote: When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate. The truth of that is doubly important to the artist. Paradoxically, the illusion of narrative that is made of accidents and synchronicities is also determined for us by our own inner selves; what seems to be our fate to fail at one thing only to succeed at another. Jung also wrote: The more one sees of human fate and the more one examines its secret springs of action, the more one is impressed by the strength of unconscious motives and by the limitations of free choice. We call the unconscious nothing, and yet it is a reality in potentia. The thought we shall think, the deed we shall do, even fate we shall lament tomorrow, all lie unconscious in us today. The work we do on ourselves, the work we do as artists, cannot be compartmentalized. This doesn't mean that all art-making is therapy (even when it is in fact therapeutic), but rather that all that we do is one work, one body of work. Making a life for oneself is a work of art, haphazard and hapless as it might often seem. Which is stronger, our intentions and willfulness for we want, or our deeper selves that actually have more a clue about what's going on? Jung comments: Consciousness succumbs all too easily to unconscious influences, and these are often truer and wiser than our conscious thinking. Also, it frequently happens that unconscious motives overrule our conscious decisions, especially in matters of vital importance. Indeed, the fate of the individual is largely dependent on unconscious factors. Becoming conscious, learning to live consciously, becoming aware of one's own driving forces, mastering impulses, innate tendencies—that's the road to actual will, genuine choices made out of awareness rather than by accident. One last, very relevant, comment from Jung: The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose through him... it is sometimes so heavy a burden that he is fated to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being. It is a fundamental error to try to subject our own fate at call costs to our will. Our will is a function regulated by reflection; hence it is dependent on the quality of that reflection. The right way to wholeness is made up of fateful detours and wrong turnings.

So, how did we end up here, anyway? What got us here, to be the artists we currently are? There's an exercise I've seen around lately in which poets try to list the books and/or authors that inspired them to become poets. It's an interesting exercise, in that it provides an opportunity for looking within. It's wise to keep in mind, however, that such lists are historical fictions—as we said before, narratives imposed upon lives which are always chaotic. It's also wise to remember that such lists might change; if you do the practice of making your lists of influences every ten years, it might change. The one exercise among all these lists—and the urge to make compile lists seems to be an innate function of ordering and categorizing one's life—that seems least likely to change every ten years is the list of books that got you going, that first turned you on. Just keep in mind that you might not like some of those books anymore, now; and that that's okay.

The best way to teach yourself how to write poetry remains, and always will, the act of reading lots of poetry. Read, read, read, absorb, read, write a little, read some more, read, read, maybe write a little, but never stop reading, reading, reading. Your best teachers are those mentors who you may never come to know personally but whose writings have awoken in you a physical response, a shortness of breath, a pounding heart, an emotional surge, a spine tingling hair raising response. Your best mentors are those other writers who have gone before you who somehow seem to speak directly, across any distance of time or place, to your innermost self. What is universally human is what connects us all to each other; the arts are one way we connect and speak to each other, across all barriers.

I sometimes think poets whose success comes too young—and by "success" we might simply mean getting published at all rather than some level of financial support—get stuck more easily. The temptation becomes to repeat oneself in order to repeat one's successes. If you look at many of the winners of the Yale Younger Poet award, many never evolved or grew in their art past a certain point. While it is good to encourage younger artists with recognition, there's also an inherent shadow of failure implicit in artists who get too much recognition too quickly. One lesson many of these never seem to learn, that early success does not teach, is how to pick oneself up again after an inevitable failure. No artist ever creates at the top of their game 100 percent of the time; every career has slack points and failures. Early success can lead to early failure, and artists who have had little life-experience as yet can be fragile. They fall apart. They get stuck. The shadow side of early success is that it can lead to a short career: more like a shooting star than the moon's constant glow.

Far better, perhaps, for an artist to be "discovered" later in life. Most "overnight successes" that extend into a durable artistic career happen to artists who have already spent years, even decades, doing their art, doing their work. For one thing, they've learned how to survive failures, they don't success seriously as a goal in itself (although it's certainly worthy of being enjoyed!), and they're more detached, more steady in their gaze at the whirlwind of fame and fortune. If success suddenly vanished, many would shrug and keep on doing what they did all along, making their art. The whirlwind of fashion is no safe ground upon which to stand.

Where am I going with this ramble? How did I end up here? This meditation on list-making as memoir was triggered by seeing a lot of lists going around lately, specifically, poets making up lists of those books that inspired them to try writing their own poetry. Again, it's an interesting exercise, and I intend to get to it.

And I want to be clear that the list of books that inspired me to write poetry, the list of favorite books, and the list of life-changing books I've read, are not the same list. There is overlap, but each is a unique list. Each list provides a slightly different set of insights into one's own wellsprings and sources.

Each list is also provisional, always to be revised. The vagaries of memory, like the vagaries of memoir, as such that one almost always remembers something later, when doing the dishes for example, that one should have added to the list. One must revise. One remonstrates oneself with a slap to the forehead, virtual or actual, and a cry of How could I have possibly forgotten that book! So the process of making such lists is both open-ended and an occasional source of low comedy.

The provisional nature of such lists should also make it clear that these lists are personal and idiosyncratic. They are not lists of recommended reading, they are lists that mattered to you or me, but not necessarily to anyone else. People usually tell you what they think you should do, rather than what they've done. Lists are often used as proscriptions, as advice, rather than as maps for territory already discovered. Or, This is what worked for me; I'll share it with you, because it might work for you, too; but I don't assume it will. Find out for yourself. That's the attitude I prefer.

People will tell you where they've gone
They'll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know

—Joni Mitchell, Amelia

I'm stalling. It's hard to compile a list of books that inspired to try to write poetry. Some of those books are still favorites, of course, but others are harder to remember because they've fallen to the wayside, have not been re-read in years. One moves on. Here's that fictional narrative again: I'm trying to reconstruct that time in life, when those fires were lit. But in the fog of memory it can seem as though those fires were always lit, always burning, and just looking for an outlet. It's hard to find precise moments to label as beginning-points for things that seem eternal, even predestined—fated, in hindsight—and might even go back before this one lifetime into something much older than one's personal self or recollections.

In the case of one book in particular, I can definitely say that the book gave me permission to bank my fires in the direction I wanted to go; it gave me permission to write the kind of poetry I wanted to write, in the kind of style and voice that seemed most natural to me at the time. It gave me permission to write the way I wanted to write, rather than have to follow someone else's idea of poetry "should" look like. In later years, I wrote a letter to the poet about her book, telling her all this, and received a very nice note of appreciation in response. The book in question is Jean Valentine's Ordinary Things. It remains a touchstone for me, as a poet; a rooted placed to return to, if I feel I have strayed too far out, and lost my way.

One last detour before I force myself to reluctantly execute my actual list. It's important to say that poets should read a lot more than just poetry. It's always been interesting to me that many physicists of high stature have often been interested in literature and the arts, while the reverse has not often been true. Far too many writers think they can get away with reading only within their own domain. They don't read outside the kind of writing that themselves want to do. Well, poets definitely ought to read lots of poetry; but they ought to read a lot more than just poetry. A lot of bad poetry is obviously insular and blinkered in its sources. And a lot of bad poetry also comes out of not really having lived life to the hilt. If you look at the resumés of most poets these days, you don't see the long lists of part-time jobs used to see; nowadays you mostly see their academic credentials, especially their MFAs in poetry. I still think the best writers are those who've lived enough real life to have something to say—all the poetic craft in the world means nothing if you don't really have anything to say.

So on my list of books that inspired me to try to write poetry you'll find books that aren't poetry. You'll find books that aren't even considered literature by the Literary Mainstream. But they each and every one lit or banked those fires. They got me going, and inspired me to try my hand, to get busy, to jump off the cliff and see if I could fly. It's important to remember that poetic writing can occur in prose, in essay, in fiction, in ways that can inspire a poetic response, as a poem. Categories like "prose" and "poetry" often seem to break down, in my mind, when the writing is at white heat, ecstatic, exalted, no matter what literary form it takes.

Here then, in no particular order, is my idiosyncratic and probably atypical list of circa twenty books that inspired me to try to write poems myself:

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things

John Cage: Silence and A Year from Monday

Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, ed. by Howard Foster Lowry and Willard Thorp (1935 edition)
Either my parents had had this book for awhile, or I bought it used as a boy. I don't remember which. There is an inscription on the flyleaf that shows the book was once owned by a family friend, who was also a well-known Ann Arbor businessman with an eponymous store, John Leidy. So I don't know anymore how the book came to me, and I can't remember a time when it wasn't on my shelves.

Allen Ginsberg: Mind Breaths and Howl
Apparently I'm unique in that Howl wasn't actually the first Ginsberg I read, or the first poem of his that really excited me. When a book is so famous that everyone claims to have read it even when they haven't, I get a little wary. I often wait till later, despite scores of recommendations, till when the pressure's off and I can read it with an open mind and no prior expectations. This is also probably why I didn't get into Whitman and Dickinson very passionately until much later; although I read them, and knew who they were, they didn't directly inspire me to write poems at that time. Indirectly they did of course, via Ginsberg, who also indirectly gave me a William Blake influence.

Conrad Aiken: The Jig of Forslin

Ursula K. LeGuin: Wild Angels (Capra Chapbook Series edition, 1975)

George Mackay Brown: Fishermen With Ploughs
Truly, I discovered GMB through musical settings of his poems by his close friend and frequent collaborator, Peter Maxwell Davies. My first introduction to GMB was in hearing Davies' piece for mezzosoprano and guitar, Dark Angels, which just knocked my socks off.

Federico Garcia Lorca: Gypsy Ballads and Poet In New York
Again, a musical introduction. I first encountered Lorca's words via their settings in pieces by George Crumb such as Ancient Voices of Children. It was an immediate sense of magic in the world that I was compelled to seek out and learn. More than once in my latter teens, when I was already a composer mostly interested in avant-garde contemporary music, did I discover a poet through a musical setting.

Jerome Rothenberg, editor and commentator of two seminal anthologies of world poetry: Shaking the Pumpkin and Technicians of the Sacred

Miguel Serrano: The Ultimate Flower and The Serpent of Paradise: The story of an Indian pilgrimage

Nikos Kazantzakis: Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises

Carl Jung: Mandala Symbolilsm and Answer to Job

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Book of Images and New Poems (1907, 1908)
Actually it was my encounters with individual poems, and with the Letters to a Young Poet that inspired me. I heard a vast cathedral of silence and natural light open up inside me when I read Evening or The Panther or Archaic Torso of Apollo. The individual poems, anthologized here and there, were what inspired me, and also led me to go much deeper into studying Rilke. The one book that probably had the most responsibility for setting this off was Robert Bly's Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Yang Wan-Li (trans. by Jonathon Chaves): Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow
This Song-Dynasty poet was so important to me, his voice so distinctive and as I felt then personally speaking directly to my own life, that I read this book several times in a row, when I first got it in the late 1970s.

A. K. Ramanujan, trans.: Speaking of Siva
This is an anthology of free-verse lyrics by four major saint-poets of the 10th century bhakti protest movement in south India, the place I grew up. The lyrics were considered radical because they broke away from traditional poetic forms while at the same time philosophically rejecting tradition and ritual. The poets of this movement concentrated on the subject rather than the object of worship, writing passionately and personally of their relationship to Shiva, which was direct and unmediated. These are poems of mystical union with the divine beloved, and bhakti was a word that means direct worship and direct contact with the Divine. The implication is a personal relationship rather than one mediated by the priestly caste with their formal rituals and ossified traditions. Very radical poems in their context. To me they symbolized breaking free of formalism and tradition, and like Jean Valentine's book, mentioned above, gave me permission to write informally and directly.

You may have noticed that a few of these books have a strong Indian connection; I was in my late teens and early twenties trying to reconcile my Indian childhood with my American young adulthood, and working towards integrating those very different aspects of my experience and my self. This is what led me to discover Miguel Serrano, mentioned above, and later, Octavio Paz.

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, trans. by Ivan Morris

C.A. Patrides, ed.: The English Poems of George Herbert
Again, a poet of direct, sometimes violent, personal confrontation with the mystical and the Divine. I related much more to Herbert's violence and restlessness than to most of the other so-called Metaphysical Poets, who (except for Donne) all seemed rather too cerebral and dispassionate for my taste.

Are you seeing a trend yet? I certainly am: I was trying to understand my own visionary experiences, figure out who I was and how to deal with them. Poetry was for me a better road towards understanding than any scripture from any established religious tradition. This also led me to discover Rumi at this time—but I was not inspired by Rumi to write poetry by any of the translations I could find at that time; that came later, when Coleman Barks began publishing his luminous versions of Rumi.

Samuel R. Delany: Babel-17
A brilliant science fiction novel about language, poetry, love/sex, telepathy and consciousness. That's a bad synopsis of a novel too complex to easily describe. The main character was a poet, lover, and adventurer, who I came to identify with. Delany's prose has always inspired me towards poetry. It stands as a landmark example of "poetic prose."

Robert Bly, ed. News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness
A poetry anthology as seminal to me as Rothenberg's, and another early encounter with Rilke, Lorca, Rexroth, Jeffers, and Neruda, among others, who I later sought out and studied more deeply.

Lucien Stryk, Takashi Ikemoto, Taigan Takayama, eds. and trans.: The Crane's Bill: Zen poems of China and Japan

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep in Thunder
A young adult novel, the first in a trilogy, based on Navajo cosmology. I found it in the grade school library when I was ten or eleven, and it knocked my socks off. It's partially what got me interested in Navajo myth, language, and cosmology. Moon was a Jungian analyst and poet, who wrote both scholarly studies and personal essays as well as poems.

Dorothy Berkley Phillips, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, Lucille M. Nixon, eds.: The Choice Is Always Ours: An anthology on the religious way.
I first read this anthology when I was 16, at the same time I was reading Huston Smith's classic The Religions of Man. What makes this anthology unique and accessible is that's about one-third poetry. It was another early encounter with Rilke, as well as my first encounter with Meister Eckhart, almost my first encounter with Jung, Thomas Merton, and Paul Tillich. It's a book you dip into rather than read linearly; you can let it fall open to almost any page and find some kind of insight or solace. Much of the prose by the more mystical writers is again very poetic prose.

That's enough for now. No doubt I could list more, if I spent more time looking back in memory or over my bookshelves. I'll let this stand as testament, though. What I learn from doing it, at the moment, is that some themes in one's life and one's writing seem to have always been there, coming into fruition and deepening with time, more reading, and more experience—but they sustain themselves throughout one's life as long echoes and durable interests. Some early interests and fascinations—a lot of this was autodidactic reading, too, not directly prescribed by school studies—are in fact life-long interests. Some themes seem bone-deep and eternal.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Far too much to pass comment on here but I will say this about lists, it puzzles the hell out of me that I don't get a kick out of them. If people ask me then I'll have a go - it was one of the things Carrie and I did when we were getting to know each other (Name your top ten films ... and I'd have to stop at thirty or forty because I couldn't decide) - but it was only good as bases for conversation. There are a few things that keep cropping up for me, but I think the honest truth is that I'm not so much influenced as encouraged by those who have gone before me. And that list would be a very long one. It might even include you because despite the huge differences in our approaches to writing one has to tip his hat to anyone as dedicated to his craft as you.

3:51 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm with you on lists. I've never really understood the appeal. They often seem reductive to me, even simplistic. I guess it's one rhetorical way for organizing thoughts, if you treat it like an outline. I also agree that "Top Ten" lists are ridiculous because I can always think of more than ten items, like you.

Encouragement rather than influence: I like that. That's a neat way to think about it. I may need to think about that some more, from that perspective.

And thanks for the compliment, too. It's mutual.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I realized after awhile that I'd previously addressed the idea of encouragement, if only obliquely. I think there's more to say about your idea of encouragement rather than inspiration, but I need to muse awhile. Meanwhile, I wrote about responses to other art here:


11:20 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Yes encouragement is a good word for it...and in some of mine I made reference to that (Roger McGough 'whispering' in my ear, for example...obviously he never really did that....).

I didn't mind this list task. It's not something I would have done without the prod but since someone did...I thought about it and found it a good way to sort out some ideas and bits and pieces that were floating about anyway. And I have enjoyed looking at some of the others (like yours). Basically if I like someone (or some of their work or ideas) then I am kind of interested in their interests and tastes. It's not a bad way to pass on ideas for new/different reading either.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Rachel—

I agree it was an interesting exercise in sorting out some ideas that had been floating around a lot. Yours was the fourth or fifth such list I'd run across in less than a week, so I gather it was a meme going around the net. I'm also still going through a life review, I guess is the best word for it, in the wake of the all big events that have happened over the last couple of years. I'm still figuring things out, and don't mind at all going back in time to look at my younger self and figure things out.

And yeah, I do think that sometimes a recommendation from someone whose taste you respect carries some extra weight. I've been getting some ideas off other folks' lists, indeed.

9:29 PM  

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