Some days in our Essay class, we'd get two essays in one packet. These two essays by Chinua Achebe come from his book Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. Both essays cover Western ideas about individuality, which track nicely to our current conversations and struggles in the Age of Narcissism.
Essay one: “The Writer and His Community”
Achebe says, “One of the most critical consequences of the transition from oral traditions to written forms of literature is the emergence of individual authorship.” He talks about the physical transformation as well: “…a story that is told has no physical form or solidity, a book has: it is a commodity and can be handled and moved about.”
Igbo artists “are always careful to disclaim all credit for making.” Achebe quotes Herbert Cole as saying, “A former onyemgbe fears that he might slip up and say, ‘Look, I did this figure.” If he [says] that, he has killed himself. The god that owns that work will kill him.”
John Plamenatz is quoted as saying, “The artist ploughs his own furrow, the scholar, even in the privacy of his study, cultivates a common filed.’" Achebe continues, "It has been said that the American Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to use the word ‘individualism’ in the English language, rather approvingly, as a definition for the way of life which upholds the primacy of the individual.”
“Western man [has] made the foundation of his philosophical edifice, including the existence of God, contingent on his own first person singular!...Perhaps it is the triumphant, breathtaking egocentrism of that declaration that occasionally troubles the non-Western mind.”
The west “prompted the view the view of society and of culture as a prisonhouse from which the individual must escape in order to find space and fulfillment….when people speak glibly of fulfillment they often mean self-gratification, which is easy, short-livid and self-centered. Like drugs, it has to be experienced frequently, preferably in increasing doses.”
“Fulfillment is other-centered, a giving or subduing of the self, perhaps to somebody, perhaps to a cause; in any event to something external to it. Those who have experienced fulfillment all attest to the reality of this otherness.”
It’s interesting to contemplate what this means for our philosophy of living, but this essay is actually asking us to consider our ideas of the self when we write or create art pieces.
“…resulting art is important because it is at the centre of the life of the people and so can fulfill some of that need that first led man to make art: the need to afford himself through his imagination an alternative handle on reality.”
It's true, however, that the Igbo community supports its artists. They won't starve by creating art for the community for free. But I think Achebe is not necessarily talking about support as much as he is referencing the credit we seek or demand, the ego that wants to place yourself into the creation story.
Essay two: “The Igbo World and Its Art”
Igbo African art is “never tranquil, but mobile and active, even aggressive.” Apparently there are no private art collections among Igbo people. Art is always spiritual and public.
So last December our living room flooded. Last week we had to move everything for some new flooring. While I was putting stuff back I decided to revisit these Stones from the Muse, basically a bag of rune stones for jumpstarting creativity.
A book comes with a bag of stones and in the book there are configurations for types of stone pulls you can do.
I chose to work with the Conscious and Subconscious configuration first. I pulled these stones:
Seed (ideas) (Conscious)
The book reading for this stone said my mind is a compost heap. It develops its own heat. It’s a fertile bed of ideas that come from everywhere. I have to nurture it, turn the compost heap or it will get stinky and stagnant. I must make choices or the heap will choke anything I'm trying to grow. I need to thin out the heap sometimes.
(The book didn't say this but I also think it helps being organized.)
Eggs (potential) (Subconscious)
I need to start working more fully with my mind and heart. If I'm blocked, I need to give something up: a chore, a defense mechanism, an idea about my persona. I need to schedule time, if even 15 minutes to make progress. What’s in the way of my going deeper or doing something different? I need to make some purposeful mistakes to see what happens.
Tidbits from The Atlantic
I'm getting to the end of reading through my 2016-7 gift subscription to The Atlantic. A few mentionable literary pieces:
IN Mark Twain's book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the printing plates was vandalized pre-publication and a plate-designer gave Silas the preacher an erect penis (which the illustrator didn't illustrate). Much money was offered as a reward but none of the 50 pressmen would fess up to the alteration of the plate. Door-to-door salesmen of the book were asked to rip the illustration out of their copies. This reminds us Twain's novels were one of the first great American lit books sold door to door. Read the full blurb.
And Beowulf is being revisited for lack of transcendence and the story's attraction to pop re-tellings.
You may have seen this video by Gary Turk about disengaging from technology. It was recommended, ironically, by someone high up in our IT department.
Which is amazing in and of itself. This is the same person who told us last year to stop emailing each other so much and pick up a phone. I think people (even in tech) are starting to see the damage that tech can do to social engagement and work processes.
Another amazing thing: I took me a minute and 40 seconds to realize the video was a poem!
There's some great shots in the video, especially the time progression of the poet standing looking at his phone while tons of life passes him by unseen.
I found a not-so-nasty but rebuttal of a parody: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jhd3HXcaEk
Although the parody is too dismissive of the problems in tech-dependency, it does make some good points. Like when your bike breaks, you can learn to fix it on YouTube. My family leaned on Zoom technology this weekend to enable more family to attend my aunt's funeral in the time of Covid-19. It's not all bad. It's just bad if you can't stop.
Good albeit old news. I'm in the not-so-latest issue of Blue Unicorn, February & June 2009 issue!
(not the same cover, left)
Back in 2008 I lived in Venice, California, with Mr. Cher Scholar and had the poem "Bluestone" from Why Photographers Commit Suicide accepted by this journal. But then we moved to Redondo Beach in early 2009 and it's possible my contributors copies did not forward.
Anyway, I assumed the magazine folded or they changed their mind. But years later I found a spreadsheet of my acceptances and I was reminded about this one. So for ten years my to-do list has included the task of researching the missing contributors copies.
I tried to email the magazine years ago but the email bounced. I tried again last month and they responded. And sent me my belated copies! Whoo hoo!
Inside is one of my many name experiments: I'm listed as Mary Elizabeth Ladd.
My big stack of essays came from a class I took once at Sarah Lawrence College back in the 1990s, a class on reading and writing poetry essays and we also did a Wen Fu project, which is basically a set of ars poetica poems or poems about writing poems, essentially a poetry essay in poetry form. Suzanne Gardiner taught the class and I loved it. But not all the essays where technically academic essays. Some were news articles and book chapters.
Here is an example of one of the pieces that defies categorization, a more creative pieces about the creative process, almost a memoir about process. It’s short and I probably find it more interesting now than I did back then when I first read it in my 20s. What an unusual way to explain poetry, of being “tired of beauty” and then falling for it anyway or like a rezzcipe…and how its all delivered almost like from a barfly bending your ear over a night of regrets and hard booze. The best part:
“I’m kind of a conceptual storyteller. In fact, I’m kind of a conceptual liver. I prefer the cookbook to thee actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the reader and say, “Reader, you go on from here.” And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader.”
This week's essay is more of an online article on Literary Hub but it's really good: "Unsilencing the Writing Workshop" by Beth Nguyen.
I was resistant to these ideas about restructuring the writing workshop at first. After decades as a student, I had grown accustomed to the imperfect edict of staying silent while other writers critiqued my work. Always, some responses were completely self-centered (“I’m just not into this genre you’re doing...I would switch to this genre that I like") and comments were often conflicting. But on the other hand, poets talking about their own work in a workshop can get unproductive and highly defensive themselves. Some poets tend to do more talking than listening. They enroll in the workshop seeking praise and glory and, if it's not forthcoming, try to talk everyone into giving it.
But Nguyen makes a very good point about the need to eliminate conversations that plummet down rabbit holes, confusions that can be easily fixed if writers could chime in even briefly. Much time is wasted “talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended.” And eliminating these pointless distractions would leave more time for substantial structural conversations.
There’s a fine line between a writer mistakenly forgetting crucial information in a piece and a reader who wants to be coddled and not have research any detail. It's true, as Beth Nguyen says, no one can agree on what constitutes basic knowledge. In her example, the idea of dim sum took a workshop discussion down an irrelevant path because some readers didn't know what this dim sum was. She illustrates how basic knowledge falls along cultural groups.
From Nguyen's comments, it occurred to me that the current workshop process (with its silent authors) follows the New Criticism's austere paradigm. And it is a political, biased and very outdated paradigm. As Nguyen insists, “a text doesn’t exist without its author or without the time, place and circumstances—political, cultural, and more—in which it needed to be created.”
This is my problem with New Criticism in a nutshell. In this blog, I've compared it to Hercule Poirot refusing to see any other evidence but what is found at the scene of a crime. Who would do that?
“Workshops are always personal,” says Nguyen. Sad but true. Readers can’t check their biases outside of premiseses of a workshop. They just can't seem to do it.
Nguyen says opening workshops to comments from the authors created an uplifted mood in the classes. Authors were able to discuss their intentions and help the group refocus. That led to less off-base prescribing and more open-ended questioning in the class.
Yesterday was the end of NaPoWriMo 2020. I’m sure coronavirus made these poems bleaker than normal. I’m also sure my zapped energy levels made some of the poets a bit Wallace-Stevensish and too vague on certain days.
The month sped by however. Each year feels like it's a shorter time span of work.
Notes on my process this year: the only thing I researched ahead of time were the list of self help topics. Each morning around 8 am I began to work out a poem with some raw notes. Then I’d log onto my computer and draft the thing out, polishing it as much as I could before I ran out of time and had to start work.
Here is the full set:
The Death of Self Help
This week's essay is Stephen Dobyns’ “Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory” which can be found in his book, Best Words, Best Order.
This is a great essay if you’re into metaphorical writing. If you’re more of a language poet, not-so-much. Dobyns refers to symbolist poets who feel a poet is a “bright light” but disagrees with them and believes a poem should communicate something to readers.
If you’ve read Dobyns, he’s not an experimental, language poet. He seeks communication and for him the metaphor is a big part of that explosion of understanding between two people.
The essay is full of declarations about what poetry is:
“..if the poem is incapable of establishing an intimate relationship with is audience, then it simply isn’t a poem.”
He does invoke Gertrude Stein and her theories about cliched metaphors. He attributes this to sophistication in readers. For example, readers today are too smart for old metaphors that connect the loneliness to the moon. I see the issue as more that metaphors have overstayed their welcome and become a tiresome guest, or maybe have been so fully swallowed up into our subconscious metaphorical thinking they're not surprising anymore. In a sense, these dead metaphors have just sublimated themselves into everyday language.
Later Dobyns says, “A poem should obey the rules of simple discourse: information must be exchanged and understood.”
This sounds like a challenge that language poets would be happy to take up. Poetry is impressively evasive of “shoulds.” On the other hand, poems about the gaps in communication are getting pretty long in the tooth themselves in these days of propaganda and misinformation. It feels like we’ve willfully weakened a collective communication muscle.
This is going to sound strange, but I kind of feel a mental-orgasmic pleasure at conceptualizing metaphors and don't quite understand people who have a distaste for them. Sometimes I wonder if those people might have fewer metaphorical taste buds or sensations, or are just no good at metaphorical mapping…or maybe they have too many taste buds and are overwhelmed by the concepts. Nothing wrong with that. If you don’t enjoy logical, analytical thinking, you won’t enjoy metaphors.
But this essay is about metaphors and poems seeking participation from their readers and how the connection can be aided with metaphorical language, including simile, allegory, analogy, to use Dobyns’ examples.
Dobyns says, “...the actual subject of any poem is the reader. The poem should be where the reader sees himself afresh, momentarily freed from the trappings of the world. But for this to occur, the reader must be able to find his way into the poem as a participant.”
He names types of recognition which he says should be balanced in a poem: intellectual, physical and emotional.
He likes open-ended, somewhat mysterious metaphors and he gives a treasure trove of great examples, which would be useful for classroom instruction I would bet, my favorite being, “A liar is like an egg in mid air.” He also uses many full poems as examples, including Tomas Transtromer’s “Face to Face,” M.W. Merwin’s “When You Go Away,” Jean Follain’s “Signs,” Michael Ryan’s “Consider a Move,” the old poem “Western Wind,” Stanley Kunitz “My Sisters,” James Wright’s “Outside Fargo, North Dakota,” and Wallace Stevens’ “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.”
He defines mystery vs. vagueness which only ever leads to dead ends and he puts early Imagist poets in the vague cateogry in a convincing argument. There needs to be sufficient information for possible comparison and he says, “Imagist attempted to erase the comparative role of the image.” Which, yeah…they kinda did. But they wanted you to supply the second half. In a way, that can be seen as more participatory. Although he’s right, it limits communication between poet and reader regarding the exact same idea. In the case of these Imagist poems, they’re like exercises in a workbook; what the reader comes up with the poet will never know.
The essay also talks about the metaphorical plane of reference and the plane of feeling. There’s a great section about how our mind might understand metaphors subconsciously before we assemble them consciously.
I just finished iPad reading this interactive novel called Weirdwood Manor. Although the word finished is relative. After spending money for 6 books in the series, I got to the end only to realize the end hasn’t been written. I was so pissed off. There was no warning about this fact when I purchased the first 6 “books.” It’s like buying a novel and then getting to the end to find out you need to buy another novel that contains the real ending.
There were some good things about the story: it's a good example of narrative gaming (happily more heavily on the narrative than most) and it’s all about the love of books. There is a good system of hints to help you find every hidden thing, although you can’t easily get back to items you’ve missed unless you reread the entire book and touch all its hidden areas again, which is crazy. Since there wasn’t much payoff for peaking behind every hiding place, I stopped trying to go back and get a perfect "score." I also got tired of the puzzles after a while; they took too much manual dexterity for me (an old fart who never plays online games) and I can only imagine how kids with disabilities would do with them.
The music is great and the story is full of fun allusions to other fairy tales. But the end dissolves into a tangle of imaginative theory about the nature of imagination.
Next book release date? Nowhere to be found doing a quick Google search so I’m moving on. Hope it all turns out.
I'm halfway through National Poetry Writing Month for 2020. It's been quite a struggle to do these poems this year for some reason, maybe because the topic is kind of cerebral or maybe it's Coronavirus. Yeah, that's surely making the set a bit darker this year. Not just the virus itself but the politicization of the situations by people who are the primary victims of self-help mythologies.
Yeah, that doesn't help.
Read the poems here: https://www.marymccray.com/napowrimo-2020.html