What is a Digital Poem
I want to start this digital catch-up by saying I’ve been thinking a lot about what separates digital poetry from digital art which happens to be using words as material. I think this is the main point of contention for paper poets around pieces labeled digital poetry, especially when few if any of the aims of poetry-as-meaning are involved. Many digital artists use words as material and since there’s no narrative element to the thing, they want to put it in the digital poetry bucket (as if poetry is just that nebulous thing that is not narrative or sensical, which is a pretty small view of what poetry is).
So I’ve been trying to come up with some parameters in my own head just to understand it myself. And here’s what I’ve come up with:
We’re almost done with the conceptual essays about computers and it looks like we’ll be going into actual essays about art and hopefully examples of interesting things. These two by Marshall McLuhan and you know we’d have to pass through McLuhan because he’s the one who famously said, “the medium is the message” which has digital art all over it.
The introduction to two of his essays talks about what the “medium is the message” means, that the delivery medium of any content influences our understanding of it in profound ways we do not often realize. (You can see this clearly with social media arguments on the internet; the internet medium had transformed the way we argue and the ways we tolerate ((or don’t)) opinions that differ from our own).
But McLuhan’s statement was made for television not the internet and his examples go back to the first printing press and how mass-produced books changed the way people thought about...well everything. The introduction also quotes Neil Postman (who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death) who said, “the clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.”
The first essay is “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of the Mass Man in an Individualist Society” (1962) where McLuhan talks about “sense rations” and changing patters of human perception, using William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and how our imaginations acclimate to new technologies, how they change how we think, how technology actually facilitated changes from gothic to renaissance to realism in literature. The printing press (or the idea of a popular press) brought to us the idea of a mass consciousness, a group vision, the lack of one single vision, and that all endeavors became “a mosaic of the postures of collective consciousness” and then we started to question, ‘what is truth?’ and then the sheer volume of voices gave us “mental anguish.”
The task of the individual artist became to “tap into the collective consciousness” even if the forms were individualistic and private. He says this occurs both with music and writing technologies. We “behold the new thing” and are “compelled to become it.”
And then he goes into capitalism and market economics and self-regulation of markets and feudal societies confronted with technology. But then he comes back around to how technology can isolate the senses and hypnotize society. How we become what we behold as we are swept away by the novelty. He says, “the most deeply immersed are the least aware.”
We are often lured by the idea of an improved future. And in some cases the new technology does provide improved future (think of the washing machine, for example). Another example is the printing press which brought us the novel itself and the sustained tone of a long story which produced in readers a “feeling of living in the world.” Not too shabby.
The invention of the novel lead us to study the new reader which led to Edgar Allan Poe writting "The Philosophy of Composition" and inventing the detective story (all good there), then symbolist poetry, the reader as co-author, and the nineteenth century mass surrender of unique selfhood, the assembly line, the unconscious, the non-logical.
So that happened.
His second and famous essay is “The Medium is the Message” (1964)
“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividng all things, as a means of control, personal and social consequences of any medium technology is an extension of ourselves.” He says machines usually fragment and decentralize.
Interestingly, he talks a lot about the invention of the electric light, pure information without a message. And he uses this to launch into talking about how the content of the medium is just another medium when you pull back the layers. Writing is really a medium for speech, which is just a medium for our thoughts, which is then a medium for our nonverbal impulses.
Technology changes the scale, pace, and pattern of human affairs. The railroad accelerated time and enlarged the scale of previous human functions. New kinds of cities came to be, new kinds of work and leisure that evolved to be independent of location. Then the plane came and dissolved the railway city.
There are independent consequences in the use of any technology. Again his example of the electric light: what it’s used for is irrelevant; it dramatically changed our lives and our behavior. "Content tends to blind us to the character of the medium." Content is a distraction.
He quotes something my father used to always quote to (probably the original 'thinking outside the box' idea) because he worked for IBM for many years, "IBM is not in the business of making machines, but in information processing."
And McLuhan inssits light is a communication medium and it's no coincidence they called it“light and power." Electric light eliminates time and space just like the radio, the telegraph, the phone, the TV (and now the internet).
He criticizes technology apologiests for being disengenous when say technology is the scapegoat for the sins of the world. It's like saying “apple pie is neither good or bad. It is the way that it is used" and "guns don't kill people..."
There are consequences of innovation. These apologists speak "in the true narcissistic style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form."
But it's more complicated (as it always is) than good or bad. The printing press gave us trashy novesl and nationalism, but, he says, it has also gave us the Bible (and Choose Your Own Adventure books). Movies brought a world of illusions and dreams, point of view, then cubism happened, the idea of perspective, the interplay of planes, contradictions, instant sensory awareness of the whole...
Like all cultural things, it's not always easy to unravel: “Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs.”
That's a lot of omelet to chew right there.
Soo...I was doing something I definitely shouldn’t be doing...and I came across this very cool website called Poetry Atlas. You can look up poems connected to or referencing cities and towns around the world. You just type in the city and you're off to the races: http://www.poetryatlas.com/
This week, I used it to look up poems about the city of my birth.
(An aside, I was the one-hundredth baby born at a white skyscraper hospital in downtown Albuquerque called St. Josephs, which is now a brown medical building called Lovelace. My parents got a steak dinner. My brothers were born across the highway at Presbyterian and there were no steak dinners for them.)
Anyway, two really lovely poems about Albuquerque are on the site. And I think they resonated with me for a few reasons. One is that New Mexico in general and Albuquerque specifically can be a very harsh place to live. Even today. It’s a tough city and it can be a rough place.
A lot of people are drawn to New Mexico for the natural formations and the spirit of the place but it's not for the light of heart. The weather can be harsh. Half of us are allergic to the Chamisa and the juniper pollen. The spring winds can drive you mad (or if you're like my grandmother you can become addicted to them and forever need the sound of a draining wind to fall asleep). Medical care here is absurd. The public schools aren't very good. I guess there are some building codes. And mañana is the motto of the land which you will either learn to love or not.
And I am made of this place. These are my people. And the word love doesn’t quite express my connection to the rocks and trees and mesas and people here. It's really, really foundational for me. But sometimes I wonder if humans were meant to habitate this place.
My big family loves to say wherever they live is "God's country" and my little nuclear family loves to laugh about that. My grandparents and parents and brothers have always believed New Mexico is God's Country. Living far away in St. Louis, that is what we always said to each other. And when I found myself back here about 12 years ago, it dawned on me what that really meant was: 'good lord' and 'for the love of God' and 'for Christ’s sake!"
Sometimes you need poems to remind you what you love about the flawed city and country and world you are from.
And I must say, in reference to the first poem below, Albuquerque's airport is one of its lovliest things here, as airports go.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
"If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately."
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. "Help,"
said the flight agent. "Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
"Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, "No, we're fine, you'll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let's call him."
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
"Passing Through Albuquerque"
by John Balaban
At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.
A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.
Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.
Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.
In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle
playing "The Mississippi Sawyer" inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.
We're getting down to the bottom of the essay stack--lots of little pieces down here. I found four in a row on the topic of revision. Three of them begin with basically the same idea:
I'm always surprised when I talk to writers who hate the editing part of the process for some reason or another. Editing has always been one of my favorite parts. You've regurgitated the raw material into a formless shape and the shaping part is effort for sure but that’s where the magic starts to happen.
It's also where the sweat happens and without the idea of work, writing would be too fluffy to me. Besides, if I wasn’t wanting to do the work, I'd rather stretch out on the couch and read the fruits of someone else's hard labor, which is a lot less work.
I feel writers tend to fetishize first thoughts. But thinking is bigger than first thoughts, awesomely less simplistic that first thoughts. A first thought is a seed. And if you’re satisfied with seeds over flowers…
Editing is long process that happens over a lifetime. Editing is also relationship-building, not just with your first readers, but with yourself, all your other self(s).
The first of these five notes on revision is of unknown origin. I think an old friend of mine went to a workshop one day and gave me a copy of their notes but I'm not sure. It's a one-sheet thing about how revision is a "re-visioning" or a "re-imagining."
Get some distance from the poem, a "half-forgetting" distance that disconnects you from "the initial impulses" so you can see what "the poem is revealing." Then ask these questions:
The second sheet is also a mystery essay but along the margins is written Best Words, Best Order which is the title of Stephen Dobyns' popular writing guide. This sheet asks a few other interesting questions:
The next essay is "Household Economy, Ruthlessness, Romance and the Art of Hospitality: Notes on Revision" by Richard Tillinghast from the book The Practice of Poetry. It begins with a quote from Dorothy Wordsworth in 1800, "Intensely hot, I made pies in the morning. William went into the wood and altered his poems."
Along with his comment about poetry-as-therapy, he states, "the impulse to improve is also a sign of humility" which he admits is "naturally rare, particularly among young writers, for whom the value of doing something remarkable is vastly increased when they can say it only took them fifteen minutes."
He talks about Elizabeth Bishop's worksheets and Robert Lowell's drafts and how there were "few sparks of genius, few notes of originality or distinctive voice" in them and how different their initial thoughts were from what the final poems ended up to be. A perfect poem could have started as "a series of dispirited and formless reflections."
Tillinghast advises to "apprehend the poem's field of energy...Get a sense of the poem as something not defined by or limited to the words you have written down...a good poem, even in a potential form, has a shape, a life that floats above the words: 'the light around the body,' as Robert Bly put it."
He says, "savvy writing is a way of staying flexible." Metaphors he uses to describe the process: (1) getting off the freeway and going through an unknown neighborhood, (2) entertaining like a good host.
He also says revising is a "revision" but one that doesn't "knock the bloom off your original excitement." Give it just enough distance to "allow the poem to suggest new moves."
"Revising," he says, "is not so much a task as it is a romance." But he doesn't go on to define what that means. He just lays that out there.
The next mini-essay is "Waiting and Silence" by Susan Snively also from the same book, The Practice of Poetry. She starts like this:
"Franz Kafka is said to have kept a sign above his desk that read WAIT. Kafka's sign could serve as both the first and the last word on the subject of revision. But it is not a command to be passive. On the contrary, waiting is an active state of mind in which important work may take place--perhaps the most important work in the life of a poem. The most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment in a poem's composition comes when the first draft is done."
She talks about the discipline of "leaving the poem alone" and how "no rules exist for how long the poet must stop fiddling with the thing." She suggests, like many do, reading the poem out loud to find "awkward enjambments, unwitting repetition and accidental howlers. Casting a cold eye on mingy little words (and, it, but, which, that) shows how to clear the underbrush from the living roots. Keeping both eye and ear alert for dead phrases and cliches."
She admits it could take months and years to finish a poem and recommends David Kalstone's Becoming a Poet. She ends with the following questions:
"What am I not allowing myself to say? Should it be said? Why do I want this poem to end? Is it a false resolution?"
In any case, she says, a poem can be "rescued by silence and waiting."
Addonnizio is such a great teacher (a very popular teacher) because she operates on both the mechanical and mysterious levels, where many poems believe you have to choose between the two ways of thinking. (Why should we have to choose?) She's also very cool and so when she says something, (I've seen this at writing festivals), the students lean in.
"A lot of people get hung up on revision," she says. "How can you be objective about your work, so you can figure out what it needs? How do you know what to let go of and what to keep?...How do you keep from losing interest in the process that felt so great at first, but now feels like you're hacking through vines with a butter knife for a machete? Welcome to the jungle."
"It's not so much a process of editing as of making unexpected discoveries."
Editing helps you build your decision-making skills, how to take what you need from books, from the "contradictory suggestions" of your readers. You can revise toward mystery; you can revise toward clarity. Here are some guidelines she's come up with:
Things she suggests trying:
Work through a few of these exercises even if you don't feel like it, she says. The point is to jumpstart your mental processes.
You'll find your dead ends, she says. She talks about the editing "comb-over" that is "taking thin areas and adding in more texture, more detail, more energy of language."
The part you can't teach, she says, is the mental leap, the epiphany that sometimes comes from playing around (editing). Her final advice is to "learn strategies, be stubborn, and wait--pray--for the leap."
So there was this kind of event that happened at Sarah Lawrence when I was there where fellow poetry students would put out flyers for little gatherings outside of classes and workshops, like impromptu discussions. I went to two of them, (that I remember anyway). One was on making a living as a technical or business writer organized by the poet Ann Cefola. I never did persue a professional writing career, (as soon as I discovered I had quite limited amounts of creative energy reserves), but Ann I became friends at that event and have remained supportive colleagues ever since that day. The other gathering was organized by a poet named Karl. I still have his flyer: "The Common Table: The Prose Poem." A bit pretentious sounding but I was always curious about prose poems and how they diverged from fiction shorts or shock fiction. At this event we were to determine the borderlines were actually very fuzzy.
The flyer quotes Charles Baudelaire, (considered the first prose poet and the one who coined the term), and his preface from Petites Poemes en Prose about the "miracle of a poetic prose...supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses."
Oh la la. The flyer then goes on to talk about this "confounding form" that is not an "unstructured monster" but "subtle" and how "you know a prose poem when you find one."
Or write one. I have written many pieces over the years I consider somewhere inbetween prose poems or fiction shorts. I've also been known to perform prose-poem opportunism, like for this poem "Orgasmic Orange" which is truly a three stanza lyric poem but here is masquarading as a prose poem.
And then I have many, many poems that intially came out as prose but they don't seem rightly prose and so were changed into verses (sometimes going back and forth a few times to figure out what they really were). "Fortune" is a recent example of a poem that initially came out like a longish prose poem and then was shaped back into tighter verses. And I think "tight" or "loose" here are my personal keywords when determining which direction to go in.
But nobody seems to agree on what the rules or the tools are or how to define the prose poem.
There's an excerpt in this packet from Introduction to the Prose Poem: An International Anthology edited by Michael Benedikt who agrees we are "in the midst of" an exploration on what prose poetry is," a genre "self-consciously written in prose" and forgoing the device of the line break. He says a key word for him is "intense," and says the form has a structure with its "own independent internal logic...metaphor and analogy" using "a music more internal" and "subtle" where the "line is not present to underline musical effects."
He notes that some of "the major poets in verse" worked with prose poems toward the end of their careers "when their command of poetry and their sense of its possibilities were presumably at their most practiced and acute:" Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Valery.
The packet then includes a deep dive into Michael Benedikt's poem "The Meat Epitaph" and how he drafted versions. He was very organized and kept each draft coded in file folders! My notes on this section quote Princeton Encyclopedia's definition of the prose poem as a form of contractions that undermine the action, how over time, poetic devices have become less effective and what does a line by itself mean; often it contradicts the sentence it is in ," [which is what I've always liked about it].
Anyway, Benedikt talks about the contradiction he was working with in his poem: how an "impious human" can write "morally concerned...poetry without betraying either the impiousness of the Self or the seriousness of the subject."
Benedikt talks about aspects of his process and whether prose poetry is "freely associative" and how structure finds its way into free verse and what poetic divices are still in play in the prose poem but that prose poems often read with a kind of "flat" style and borrow qualities from the surrealists.
My marginalia from the conversation has extra definitions:
We also talked about how pieces like "A Potato" by Robert Bly have a kind of fable-like quality, that these pieces are not always linear, not always "about something" or to "further some idea."
One question remains for me based on one note toward the end of the conversation: "form of prose poem is rectangle (box); pack only essentials."
Is this true? Or is there room for more superfluous storytelling in prose pieces than verse? Because usually when I convert something back into verse, a lot has to go and I shave out quite a bit. So are prose poems more economical than verse poems? In some ways they might need fewer words than a long-form poem but have more breathing room than a short lyric poem has or a haiku obviously.
At the meeting, Karl also provided a bulleted list of poets who have tried the form, a list which is too long to recreate here but here are some highlights not already mentioned above:
I would add to this list:
The next essay is a bit of a departure from the other SLC class essays, It’s the preface and two chapters from The Untouched Key, Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness by Alice Miller (translated from German).
In the book, psychologist Miller explores the way childhood events affect paitners and writers and how she can see childhood influence in pieces of art. She considers these clues to works “lost keys.”
The first chapter is on Pablo Picasso, particularly his “late works in Basel” painted when “he was 90 years old.”
She talks about how he “disregarded all convention as well as his own technical ability and attained what he had wished or all his life: the spontaneity and freedom of a child, which his perfectionism robbed him of in childhood…I seemed to be sensing a man’s last strenuous efforts to express the most hidden secrets of his life with every means at his disposal before it’s too late, before death takes the brush from his hand.”
Miller says, “a great deal has been written about the sexual themes…attributed to his declining libido” but she feels the sorrow exhibited in his late work reaches back to childhood trauma and not “an aging man’s regrets at his waning sexual vitality.”
She sensed this, she says, from “the themes," “the force of the brush movements,” “the vehement way he sometimes applied the color and conjured up new feelings that had to be given form,” his “haste to produce the unsayable, to say it with colors.”
But then again, these things could indicate almost anything.
But Miller continues, “since the efficiency of defense mechanisms decreases in old age, since repression works with less ingenuity, it was possible, I thought, that traces of childhood trauma not evident before might become visible in his late works.”
And the trauma Miller explores was based on his intense “reluctance to go to school” which was presumed to have been caused by a 1884 earthquake in Málaga when he was three years old. His parents had to flee with the family and the stress of the escape possibly caused his mother to go into premature labor days later before the family could safely return home. She sees implicit support in a poem Picasso wrote in 1936 about a cacophony of screaming (children, women, birds, flowers, beams and stones, bricks, chairs, curtains…paper, etc.) Miller sees a visual depiction of the earthquake (as seen by a child) in Guernica (1937) with its “horror, terror, and helplessness…total destruction…he even painted himself over to the right as the bewildered child in the cellar.”
Miller says Picasso “always abandoned a style once he had developed it…but the theme of the distorted human body haunted him all his life.” She says “little children often express their traumas in a painting….it took forty years before he was able to paint like a child, that is, to let his unconscious speak.”
She admits most biographers gloss over Picasso’s childhood in total, and this earthquake’s significance in particular.
I’ve been exploring childhood myself (in some subconscious ways, too) so this was an interesting topic for me. But like all things, I half believe it and half don’t. She’s probably right in general but she simply doesn’t have enough evidence in Picasso’s case to make a definitive, convincing case; so she just rehashes the same arguments multiple times and across many pages as if rewording the few pieces of evidence will prove a theory to be true.
Very sketchy biographical information does not equate to threads drawn out from years of therapy. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, Miller would know this.
In the other chapter included in the set, Miller talks about an exhibit of Chaïm Soutine. She draws parallels between the childhood's of Soutine and Hitler and how one man became an artist and the other a despot.
She talks about Soutine’s paintings filled with “strange, twisted, tormented figures…houses, streets, and squares…that looked as though they might start to quiver at any moment...I asked myself whether the extremely threatening situation of the Nazi Holocaust had motivated, or even compelled, Soutine to paint the work as shaking and falling apart.”
She talks about how Soutine and Hitler were both punished severely with “brute force” for wanting to become artists, Soutine because his family were Orthodox Jews and Hitler because his family was totalitarian. In Soutine’s case, he had an advocate in his mother which helped “him develop a sense of justice.” Hitler had no advocates.
Miller then goes on to talk about the childhood of Paul Celan and “the witnesses who rescued him” from his yard-locked life where “the world lies on the other side of the chestnut trees” and Dostoyevsky whose father “treated his serfs with such cruelty that in 1839 they murdered him” and Stalin and his childhood of extreme poverty not dissimilar to Charlie Chaplin's but whose “experience of being loved can be sensed in all the Chaplin films. In spite of hunger, misery, and calamity, there is always room for feelings, for tears, for tenderness, for life.”
Miller says, “the truth won’t allow itself to be silenced completely, even with the help of poetry, philosophy, or mystical experiences. It insists on being heard, like every child whose voice has not been completely destroyed.”
It’s possible these conclusions are too simple in the face of an annoyingly tangled and complex lives. But that doesn’t mean her ideas might not be on to some clues regarding these artworks or that we can’t use this to explore our own ideas and executions, to explore our own childhoods.
Over a year ago, my mother sent me a box of things she had collected from my childhood. Confronting that box was a bit shocking and eye-opening for me. It opened a door to my childhood that is still bearing fruit. And it also has me thinking about the ways in which childhood and young adult events are still shaping my behavior and reflections today.
The last time we discussed haiku we were working through 52 weeks of haiku meditations (and that seems like a lifetime ago!).
I have no idea where this little packet came from, I'm guessing not from the Sarah Lawrence essay class, if only because it's not an essay, but the introductory chapters of The Essential Haiku, Versions of Bashō, Buson and Issa by Robert Hass. It could have been distributed at a poetry conference workshop from somewhere or even from another class somewhere. Not sure. But it's in the essay stack now so...here we go.
Robert Hass did a lot of work to reinterpret the haiku tradition and this book has been a popular place to dig into haiku traditions.
The packet includes the full Introduction chapter and then the separate biographical pages introducing each poet, along with some curated poems from whomever put the little packet together. I’ve culled a smaller set in each section below.
All of these poets spent "years in travel, sleeping at monasteries and inns...[as] poet-wanderers...for whom travel and its difficulties were a form of freedom and a way of disciplining the mind...All three became teachers of poetry."
Hass explores three core Buddhist metaphysical ideas about nature:
Many of the season references reflected "a Japanese way of thinking about time and change." For example, snow itself had many associative meanings particular to Japanese culture having to do with exposure and bareness. Spiders were a "traditional mid-summer theme." Seasons gave "a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world. If the first level of a haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature. One of the striking differences between Christian and Buddhist thought is that in the Christian sense of things, nature is fallen, and in the Buddhist sense it isn't."
Hass explores three core Buddhist metaphysical ideas:
What appeals to us, Hass says, is the "quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it....this mysteriousness...they don't generalize their images...mysteriousness of the images themselves." Hass quotes Roland Barthes in noting the poems' "breach of meaning" as post-modern objects, as "deconstructions and subverters of cultural certainties" and the "silence of haiku, its wordlessness."
Hass then talks about how in particular Zen Buddhism "provided [these poets] training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing, like bush warblers and snow fall."
Individually, the poets break down like this:
Bashō was the calm ascetic and seeker who wrote what was then called hokku. Many of his poems dealt with "the transience of things" and "spiritual loneliness...profound loneliness and sense of suffering." His poetry centered on "a sense of sabi...loneliness, or aloneness, or the solitariness akin to no-mind, which gives intense concentration, and curious lightness, and a tragic sense to the work"
Bashō "insisted on poetry as a serious calling...that it amounted to years of immensely subtle thinking about how to give resonance and depth to the image"
He was credited with reinventing the form and studied Chines poetry, Taoism and Zen. One of his students brought him a gift of a banana tree (bashō) from which he took his name. In a big city fire in Endo, his house burned down.
"He thought about giving up poetry, but confessed that he couldn't do it."
how does he live, I wonder?
An autumn night--
don't think your life
Even in Kyoto--
hearing the cuckoo's cry--
I long for Kyoto.
of the peony.
on the half-finished bridge.
Bunson was an artist of painterly precision who loved the of materials of art and color and the shape of things, according to Hass. He was a distinguished and successful painter and his poems Hass describes as painterly, "visually intense" with a "aesthetic detachment…in love with color. There is a sense in them also of the world endlessly coming into being."
Hass says Bunson’s haiku are like early poems of Wallace Stevens ("The Snowman" and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.") Buson was critical of contemporary haiku masters and said:
"These days, those who dominate the kaikai world peddle their different styles, ridicule and slander everyone else, and puff themselves up with the title of master. They flaunt their wealth, parade their ignorance, and promote themselves by arranging their students' innumerable wretches verses in anthologies. Those who know better cover their eyes in embarrassment and are ashamed of such behavior."
So not much has changed.
Hass says scholars like to compare the objective Buson and the subjective Bashō.
in both stirrups.
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell.
His Holiness the Abbot
in the withered fields.
The mad girl
in the boat at midday;
it draws her eyebrows
A gust of wind
the water birds.
The owner of the field
goes to see how his scarecrow is
and comes back.
the caterpillar's hair.
a fish leaps--
Escaped the nets,
escaped the ropes--
moon on the water.
The old man
bent like a sickle.
Calligraphy of geese
against the sky--
the moon steals it.
Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
Issa was the humanist of pathos and humor and anger.
Issa means "a cup of tea" or "a single bubble in steeping tea." He has been described as "Whitman or Neruda in miniature" and has also been compared to Robert Burns and Charles Dickens with his "humor and pathos, the sense of a childhood wound, the willingness to be silly and downright funny, and the fierceness about injustice." He could also be "didactic and sentimental" but in his best work he was "quite unlike anyone else, the laughter cosmic, the sense of pain intense...with no defenses against the suffering in the world."
Like Buson, he was a Pure Land Buddhist and he could be "inclined to moralize" but that there is an "edge of rage in his poems, something very near cynicism." He often wrote about "the smallest creatures....flies, fleas, bedbugs, lice" and his work has been described as "countrified haikas" with "vernacular language" and "local slang."
As it happened his house also burned down.
Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house
(For many years I had a NYC Metro placard with that poem on it, which I picked up one night from a stack of donated Metro posters at a poetry event in NYC.)
New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Climb Mount Fuji,
but slowly, slowly.
Under my house
measuring the joists.
I'm going out,
flies, so relax,
Even with insects--
some can sing,
Don't know about the people,
but all the scarecrows
Blossoms at night,
and the faces of people
moved by music.
The gorgeous kite
from the beggar's shack.
in a scarecrow's belly.
it's no light thing
being born a man.
The holes in the wall
play the flute
this autumn evening.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Last time, I think,
I'll brush the flies
from my father's face.
a small boat
drifting down the tide.
the snow falling.
Insects on a bough
floating down river,
These two deleted poems were vulnerable for replacement for various reasons, maybe I didn't feel they were finished or they were missing some element or I wasn't really that attached to the song itself (although a feeling of incompleteness surely applies to many of the existing poems too, just not as strongly, including one of the replacement poems that I never was happy with; but that particular song asserted itself somewhat strenuously).
In any case, I was reminded of one of the poems this morning because another song by the artist came up on my android shuffle while I was on the treadmill and I was reminded how much I do like Dana Glover. In this case it was the definitely the poem, not any blasé feeling about the song.
My friend Christopher used to spend hours perusing CD stores in LA to cull out all the cut-outs, discounts and failed attempts. He probably had thousands of them at one point and he gave them (and still gives them) out at Christmas and birthdays with detailed post-it note descriptions of why it was a crime the artist never made it big. I've saved all the post-its completely disassociated from their CDs and they're still pleasant to read like random enthusiasms.
Anyway, Christopher gave me this album (I'm assuming quite inadvertently) right before my wedding, which was not lost on me at the time. We both loved this song and talked about Glover's talents and assets quite a lot back then. My first draft of the poem, due to its theme of being unable to think clearly in the middle of an emotion, is probably what made it difficult for me to critically solve the poem's problems, which today looked like the first two stanzas.
I reworked it this morning. It was in the April 19 slot before getting shown the door by REO Speedwagon.
So Many Thoughts
from “Thinking Over,” Dana Glover
Glover’s inquiring notes climb up my tributaries
like feels. And when I’m feeling, I stall;
I can’t think. The muscle halts.
The machine jams.
And I forget how pretty she is
when her long wail sweeps me up
to its crest. This beautiful girl
who is thinking everything so
dramatically, thoroughly through.
What a lucky turn for her,
this ability to reason through swales
and careening buckles,
ripping out a seasick howl
in the middle of a capsize.
She's like a mermaid
whose heart and mind and soul
are all the same thing.
It’s possible I sorted these essays together one day when putting them away or they’ve surreptitiously found each other in the stack like long-lost frenemies: “The Limited Value of Master’s Programs in Creative Writing” by Jay Parini from The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 23, 1994) and “In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes” from the book The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. In any case, they were not submitted by the same students. I only know this because “Robert/Ray” is handwritten on the Hugo essay and not on the Parini essay. So this must have been an essay argument occuring within the essay class while we were all working our ways through the $$$ Sarah Lawrence MFAs in Creative Writing. It doesn’t surprise me that the “Robert/Ray” packet was in support of MFAs as the Robert refers to Robert Fanning, the poet who would go on to become a creative-writing professor.
Both make their case. Let’s start with Parini:
“How does one learn to become a writer? The answer now put forward by many universities—and one that that I must question—is: Enroll in a masters-of-fine-arts program in creative writing. The old answer, of course, was that you learned the writing trade in the marketplace, under conditions that forced a certain economy of style and fostered self-discipline.”
Parini mentions journalists like Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Updike. He also lists poets who had what we would think of as ordinary jobs: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Frost, and poets who found “shelter in universities and colleges” -- Nabokov, Roethke, Saul Bellow, Malamud, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell. (Every respectable literature department needed to boast a famous writer after all.)
He says there's “nothing intrinsically wrong” with the “tour d’ivoire.” He quotes Saul Bellow in saying defensively, “the university is no more an ivory tower than Time magazine, with its strangely artificial approach to the world.”
Parini talks about the incompatibility between literature departments and creative writing programs that live within them, “hermetically sealed” where students “sign up in droves.” They do.
Parini asks an important question, “Is what students demand actually being supplied? If not, should universities be held responsible for failing to practice truth in advertising? Given the extra time and expense of master’s programs, I doubt the M.F.A. degrees in creative writing are generally worth the investment.”
Now Hugo will go on to argue that students don’t get what they demand, but they do get something valuable. Like Tom Lux on our first day at Sarah Lawrence when he told us quite brutally that the best we could hope to get out of the program would be a circle of friends who would be our lifelong readers.
Parini argues for writing classes at the undergraduate level instead (as where he teaches). He says in undergraduate writing classes are like piano lessons are to music appreciation. “There is something about actually trying one’s hand at a sonnet, for instance, that makes one appreciate exactly why Shakespeare’s are great.”
“Let us assume (generously) that a hundred people in any generation become poets whom someone might want to read a hundred years from now. That leaves a lot of others writing poetry for their own ‘self-development,’ as we say…[however] few students enter such programs for spiritual nourishment. They hope to improve as writers, to be sure, but they also want to get a leg up in a the world of publishing and…acquire a credential that will be of some use when they apply for a job as a teacher of creative writing.”
“An M.F.A may help someone find a good job once in a blue moon, but I would never send one of my undergraduates on for the degree…so that he/she might wind up employed as a teacher of creative writing. Such advise would be tantamount to malpractice, since the chances of [them] finding employment in this field are minimal.”
And do the programs even produce good work? No, Parini says, they produce
“perfectly competent but essentially uninspired poems, stories and novels…often between hard covers…selected by prize committees established by the M.F.A. programs themselves, so that their graduates can have an outlet for their work…It may well be that graduate study in creative writing actually damages potentially good writers, making them too aware of what is fashionable and too fearful of developing in the idiosyncratic ways that make for genuine originality, if not greatness, in a writer.”
Learning to write, Parini says, “takes a lifetime, as it is always difficult, and the rewards are ultimately personal. All that matters in the end is that you find a language adequate to experience, and that is terribly hard to do.”
Next we move on to Richard Hugo’s chapter of defense in The Triggering Town. I think it’s mildly interesting that Richard and Ray thought to put their names on the essay but not Hugo’s. If you have The Triggering Town (which lots of poets do), I guess it’s considered self-explanatory.
Hugo says Ezra Pound successfully taught Eliot, Williams, Hemingway and Yeats and says it’s just a fact of life, “as long as people writer, there will be creative-writing teachers. It’s nice to be on the payroll again after a century or more of going unemployed.”
And like Parini, Hugo draws some stark differences between literature/English departments (which are so critical and expository) and creative writing classes. He says lit departments take good writing for granted and often produce theoretical papers with very poor writing (if you’re a nerdy member of JSTOR you know this for sure). “I’ve seen sentences that defy comprehension written by people with doctorates in English from our best universities.”
Good reading and good writing can be related, Hugo says, but are not always related. Creative writing “feeds off its own impulse….sometimes I talk about a triggering subject…the impulse to the poem” but there's also “a genuine impulse to write…so deep and volatile it needs no triggering device” (no reading to inspire its creativity), nothing but an “urge to search [that comes] from need, and that remains mysterious…”
Hugo sees actual “contempt for good writing among some scholars…common to hear a published scholar who wrote clearly referred to as a popularizer.” Writing, Hugo says, is not a “natural reward of study.” It takes work and practice.
“We creative writers are privileged because we can write declarative sentences and we can write declarative sentences because we are less interested inbeing irrefutably right than we are in the dignity of language itself…to use language well requires self-sacrifice, even giving up pet ideas.” We are “cavalier intellectuals” and “scholars look for final truths they will never find. Creative writers concern themselves with possibilities that are always there to the receptive.”
In direct contradiction of Parini, Hugo says he has about 40 ex-students “now publishing” and that many teachers can list more than that.
Hugo is a bit worried though: “I’m not sure the sudden popularity of creative-writing courses is a privilege. It may be our ruination. It is becoming a sore point in English departments. The enrollment in creative writing increases and the enrollment in literature courses is going down. I‘m not sure why and I’m not sure the trend is healthy.”
He says many theorize this is due to “the narcissism of students, the egocentric disregard of knowledge, the laziness, the easy good grades to be had in the writing courses.”
“If I had to limit myself to one criticism of academics it would be this: they distrust their responses. They feel that if a response can’t be defended intellectually, it lacks validity. One literature professor I know was asked as he left a movie theater if he had liked the movie, and he replied, ‘I’m going to have to go home and think about it.’ What he was going to think about is not whether he liked the movie, but whether he could defend his response to it. If he decided he couldn’t, presumably he’d hide his feelings or lie about them. Academics like these, and fortunately they are far from all the academics, give students the impression that there’s nothing in literature that could be of meaningful personal interest….
I still consider academic professors indispensable to an English department. Whatever the curses of creative writing, it is still a luxury. If there’s a choice between dropping Shakespeare studies or advanced poetry writing, I would not defend retention of the writing course.”
He then lists problems of graduate writing programs, including how to judge students for acceptance, “I think Yeats was right when he observed that what comes easy for the bad poet comes with great difficulty for the good” and that “a piece of writing is a hard thing to judge” and “most writers haven’t learned to submit to their obsessions” at that level.
And here is the meat of his argument where he explains what programs can do: “A good creative-writing teacher can save a good writer a lot of time. Writing is tough, and many wrong paths can be taken…we teach writers to teach themselves how to write.”
One of my favorite paragraphs was this:
“It is a small thing, but it is also small and wrong to forget or ignore lives that can use a single microscopic moment of personal triumph. Just once the kid with the bad eyes hit a home run in an obscure sandlot game. You may ridicule the affectionate way he takes that day through a life drab enough to need it, but please stay the hell away from me.”
He then makes a good case for narcissism (at least against a dehumanizing system):
“You are someone and you have a right to your life. Too simple? Already covered by the Constitution? Try to find someone who teaches it. Try to find a student who knows it so well he or she doesn’t need it confirmed.”
“In the thirty-eight years…I’ve seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don’t matter [This was published in 1979]…modern life says that with so many of us we can best survive by ignoring identity and acting as if individual differences do not exsit. Maybe the narcissism academics condemn in creative writers is but a last reaching for a kind of personal survival. Anyway, as a sound psychoanalyst once remarked to me dryly, narcissism is difficult to avoid. When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don’t matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters. Your life matters, all right. It is all you’ve got for sure, and without it you are dead…Oblivion needs no help from us.”
I will pay off my 30k Sarah Lawrence creative writing MFA shortly. But then I chose Sarah Lawrence for its proximity to New York City. Was it worth it? Possibly. It did change my life in ways that are still unfolding. Do I wish it had been cheaper? Definitely but then I haven’t exactly had to starve myself paying it off. Are my parents disappointed in my creative writing MFA (that I paid for) and the much cheaper English BA (they paid for). They unfortunately are.
But here is where I would quote Philip Levine (who I’m in the middle of a long journey through) from his essay “Class With No Class.” He talks about not following the family business like his twin brother did and his mother’s joking admonitions that his life has proven the case for social mobility (in a downward sense). I agree with Levine whole-heartedly, especially where he talks about ‘blessed time.’
“I am pleased I did not fulfill the expectations of my class…my years in the working class were merely a means of supporting my own. My life in the working class was intolerable only when I considered the future and what would become of me if nothing were to come of my writing. In once sense I was never working-class, for I owned the means of production, since what I hoped to produce were poems and fictions. In spite of my finances I believe I was then freer than anyone else in this chronicle.
In order to marry and plunder a beautiful and wealthy woman I did not have to deny I was a Jew; for the sake of my self-esteem I did not have to reign like a chancellor over my family and my servants; in order to maintain my empire I did not have to fuel it with years of stifling work; in order to insure my legacy I did not have to drive my sons into the hopelessness of imitating my life.
Of course it meant years of living badly, without security or certainty, what I have called elsewhere ‘living in the wind,’ but it also meant I could take my time, I could take what Sterling Brown called my ‘blessed time,’ because after all, along with myself, it was the only thing I had.”
Creative writing programs are, in no small sense, buying time. And I’m often saying I value this blessed writing time above money, so much so that it’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen.
This is an interesting little essay that kind of messed with my head yesterday. It looks like it was an essay from a long-time writing group I’ve been in from college and not the essay class of Suzanne Gardinier. I can only tell from the marginalia notes. One member has noted that this is Chapter Eleven from Muriel Rukeyser's book The Life of Poetry. Another person has noted the essay is dense and annoying, from a fascinating book but not warm and inspiring. At the end another member of the group said they had to work too hard to get there.
Even I joined in saying Rukeyser sounded "so full of herself" and "what does it all 'mean?" I've added a new note on re-reading this essay 25 years later: "so was I apparently." [What a shit!]
The interesting thing about this group is how stranded I feel from the other members. In a recent experience, we were reading a Haruki Murakami book that just blew me away and moved me a great deal and before the group met to discuss the book, I discussed it with my old boss and friend Kalisha (who has worked with me on some recent poetry projects and who picked the book as one of her favorites books last year). I told her I anticipated, with some heartache, that my group would not like this book. We had come to appreciate books very differently and I wondered if this was because my life experiences had been different than theirs or if, like for this particular book, maybe you had to live through something similarly difficult and painful (something hard to write about). Could someone appreciate his nuanced take on tangled love relationships without having felt them? Which is not to say members of the group haven’t felt love pain in relationships, but maybe just not Murakami’s particular type of relationships or maybe not a pain of just loving, but a pain of loving and being loved. I'm not sure where the disconnect is, but it's somewhere in there.
And just what I expected happened. The members were unenthused about the book. One of the them called the book flat linguistically and emotionally. Which is the opposite of what I experienced. I then went back to Kalisha to report that I felt maybe some human subtlety had been missed because I found it all very moving and piercing. Kalisha said, "Yeah, I found the muted, emotionally detached aspects of the characters touching and often devastating. He does that so well."
And now I can’t help continuing to feel a bit like an outcast in the group since I agreed with them 25 years ago when I read this essay here for the first time and today it seems painfully clear to me.
The essay is about the exchange of energy between people who write and read poetry.
"Exchange is creation. In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions...the gift that is offered and received..."
I'm sure 25 years ago I was like WTF does that even mean? Today I'm somewhat awestruck by the idea.
"...the symbols themselves are in motion...we have the charge, flaming along the path from its reservoir to the receptive target. Even that is not enough to describe the movement of reaching a work of art."
Rukeyser talks about how how poetry (and all arts) have become compartmentalized and intellectualized:
"We have used the term 'mind' and allowed ourselves to be trapped into believing there was such a thing, such a place, such a locus of forces. We have used the word 'poem' and now the people who live by division quarrel about 'the poem as object.' They pull it away from their own lives, from the life of the poet, and they attempt to pull it away from its meaning, from itself...prepared to believe there was such a thing as Still Life. For all things change in time; some are made of change itself, and the poem is one of these. It is not an object; the poem is a process."
She quotes Charles Peirce in saying, "All dynamical action [dynamical?], or action of brute force, physical or psychical, either takes place between two subjects...or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs."
Rukeyser corrects this to say a poem is a "triadic relation. It can never be reduced to a pair...[but is instead] the poet, the poem and the audience."
And then she goes on to define what she thinks of as 'audience' as 'reader' or 'listener' or better yet 'witness' with its
"overtone of responsibility in this word...not present in the others; and the tension of the law makes a climate here which is that climate of excitement and revelation giving air to the work of art, announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done of the self. These three terms of relationship--poet, poem and witness--are none of them static. The relationships are the meanings, and we have very few of the words for them."
She's trying to locate where poetry is here, where it is located, not in the words but in the relationships between readers and writers.
She talks about the oddness of personality tests, Rorschach tests (which since this essay have been fully discredited). She says that instead we need a test where "we could begin to see how changing beings react to changing signs--how the witness receives the poem."
It's like stepping outside a very limiting matrix. She says we are like a "juvenile learner at the piano, just relating one note to that which immediately precedes or follows. To an extent this may be very well when one is dealing with very simple and primitive compositions; but it will not do for an interpretation of a Bach fugue."
She talks about how the witness of a poem is "the entire past of the individual" and how the reader experiences a poem with their entire past.
She talks about running a workshop with a group of students where they try to locate where a poem exists. She has them start with a blank piece of paper "with its properties and possibilities." She talks about the "process of reaching a conclusion." She asks a volunteer poet to create a poem "on the spot" in their head, to remember it and recite it to the group. Then the poet leaves the room to write the poem down on paper in the hallway. So the group has heard an early, unwritten version of the poem. She then asks the class whether a poem has occurred and where the poem exists? What is the poem made of, what material?
The student poet returns and reads the poem as composed on the paper. It was remarkably similar, Rukeyser says, maybe one word was different. Then she asks the poet to tear up their poem into small bits. "Now where is the poem?" she asks.
The group thinks the poem lives in the imagination of the poem and the group. Rukeyser asks if the poet had died in the hallway, would there have been a poem?
"We have all gone through an experience," Rukeyser says. "We have seen something comes into existence."
So it was here that I stopped reading for a while. Rarely do I finish an essay in one or two sittings or days. But after putting this essay down, my mind was hot with an idea that I didn't know where to place. So I wrote this:
This is going to make me sound crazy but I feel I am in the middle of something bigger than I can fully comprehend yet, something powered by art and words and music and feelings and technology. It’s come to feel like a whirling cyclone of all those things; and one of its most amazing features is that it's unfolding right out in the open and nobody knows it's happening.
Rukeyser is saying that art is life and that possibly a life of the mind is not a full life, one that is missing the electricity of feeling and, most essentially, its feedback [feedback is actually a word Rukeyser will use later in the essay].
Most creative people I know (including once myself) tend to compartmentalize life and art and relationships, as if art is a reflection of this or that, a commentary to the side, appreciated as distinct experiences with distinct goals and motives. But when you see them all binding up together in your own life, it's shocking and you are no longer able to discern the borderlines.
Life and art are directing each other and technologies are getting tangled up in there.
This definitely refers back to my struggles with the writing group and not all of us being able to see similar things happening in the same piece of writing. Not everyone can see it. Which is, on one level, very crazy-making. But on another level its what Rukeyser is talking about, something that is happening not on paper or in a text, something not in any one thing but in a realtionship between certain writers and witnesses.
And you have to get to the other side of the phenomenon to understand it.
Yeah, so those were my notes to myself halfway through re-reading this yesterday. Now we continue with Rukeyser:
"The process of writing a poem represents work done on the self of the poet, in order to make form...the process has very much unconscious work in it." [I feel like a lot of my work of late has had plenty of unconscious aid as well.]
She talks about various 'surfacings': (1) the initial idea "which may come as an image thrown against memory, as a sound of words that sets off...meaning;” (2) another deep dive, stillness; (3) making notes of images, a first line, final self-work; (4) the actual writing; and then you change to a witness to do the (5) rounds of editing.
"We know that the poetic strategy, if one may call it that, consists in leading the memory of an unknown witness, by means of rhythm and meaning and image and coursing sound and always-unfinished symbol, until in a blaze of discovery and love, the poem is taken. This is the music of the images of relationship, its memory and its information."
That is...like crazy.
She then quotes Norbert Wiener's book Cybernetics [whom we've just been talking about discussing digital poetry!] who talks about "problems of entropy and equilibrium...and she talks about some stuff about particles and containers that is above my head, but she brings it back to poetry:
"Now a poem, like anything separable and existing in time, may be considered a system, and the changes taking place in the system may be investigated. The notion of feedback, as it is used in calculating machines and such linked structures as the locks of the Panama Canal, is set forth. The relations of information and feedback in computing systems and the nervous system, as stated here, raise other problems. What are imaginative information and imaginative feedback in poetry? How far do these truths of control and communication apply to art? The questions are raised...like Proust's madeleine, still setting challenges to the sciences."
I can't fully get my head around all of that, but I can see clearly that technology and feedback are a big part of it. And human technology.
"The only danger is in not going far enough," Rukeyser says. "The usable truth here deals with changes. But we are speaking of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility."
"If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion and several kinds of death. All we can be sure of is that our art has life in time, it serves human meaning, it blazes on the night of the spirit; all we can be sure of is that at our most subjective we are universal; all we can be sure of is the profound flow of our living tides of meaning, the river meeting the sea in eternal relationship, in a dance of power, in a dance of love. For this is the world of light and change: the real world; and the reality of the artist is the reality of the witness."
Oy vey. And I didn't realize this yesterday when I read the essay but last week I wrote a poem after a visit to Chama, New Mexico, for a future print book. It's a poem about "living tides of meaning, the river meeting the sea" (!) another magical spark of serendipity that has occured in this essay that is a bit astonishing. I'll preview it here:
If You Want To Know
If you want to know where I’m going,
I’m going with the river.
I will not be pulling out water with a bucket.
I will not be swimming upstream like a salmon.
If you want to know,
I’m going with the river.
I won’t be standing on the bank like a bystander,
(Well, I mean maybe literally but not figuratively).
If you want to know, I’m going with the river
and at the end we will come to the ocean
and the ocean will push us back, push us back,
push us back until we are ready,
until the ocean is ready
and then we will be gone.
It's getting very hard to distinguish between art and life (and essays about life and art) right now.
I haven't done an essay in a few weeks because this particular essay took forever to read. Partially this was because I had company coming and I only clean the house before company comes so it took a while to get the house up to my mother's standards even though she's not the company coming.
Then there was the dry, academic essay itself. Then there was the fact that the Sarah Lawrence student who photocopied it from a book back in the early 1990s didn't notice there were unreadable words at the bottom of every page due to their bad copying job. (It was also maddingly stapled so that you have no idea which direction you should be going turning pages). This didn't stop me from reading it, however. It just made me stop after every three pages and take a brain rest.
The essay is an introduction called "The Idea of the Modern" by Irving Howe, most likely from his book The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts (1968). And it is good summary of what modernism is. But the essay was very interesting to me for another reason.
First I want to say there's always been something that has bothered me about modernism and I've never been able to put my finger on it (its un-scalability??) Although I did (as I was taught to) love many of its practitioners. I've felt this way for as long as I've known what modernism is/was (I think like we're still obsessed with it), going back to college or back to when we read "Prufrock" in high school.
I absolutely cannot read this essay and not think about the vitriol of politics today and how what was once a modernist fringe point of view has become a mainstream way of thinking. So the challenge for today's essay is to read it on two levels: (1) historical modernism and (2) listening for things you've heard people say on Twitter, Facebook or protest rally signs or the crazy Uncle or Aunt narc-splaining at holiday dinners or wherever you hear these basically nihilistic spews.
This is en example of how dry the thing is:"...historical categories are helplessly imprecise and that the unified style or sensibility to which they presumably refer are shot through with contradictions."
Any sentence with contains the phrase "to which they presumably refer" is a little soul crushing. But we slog on! Because we're literary warriors!
Another one, "Historical complexity and confusions are seldom to be overcome by linguistic policing." Who could argue with that? Except the linguistic police. "...the important thing is not to be 'definitive' which by the very nature of things is unlikely, but to keep ideas in motion, the subject alive."
I actually agree with the sentence but I've spent no small time wondering about how 'the nature of things' works.
The whole essay is about the "sensibility" and signs of modernity, which "seems willfully inaccessible" with its "unfamiliar forms" and "subjects that disturb the audience" and "threaten its most cherished statements."
This is what we like about it, it's revolution and irreverence. From 2022, however, we have what I would call 'mercenary modernists.' They don't care about the struggle. They're professional disturbers and threateners. In some cases they've picked a side to work for and they don't even know what the issues of the struggle are. Or in some cases, they're just trying to draw focus back to themselves for purely narcissistic reasons.
This is why we can't have nice, revolutionary things right now. Think about the caricature of the angry white male (or female) in America as you read the rest of this.
"The prevalent style of perception and feeling....is a revolt against the prevalent style, an unyielding rage against the official order."
"A modernist culture soon learns to respect, even to cherish, sigs of its division. It sees doubt as a form of health."
"It cultivates, in Thomas Mann's phrase, 'a sympathy for the abyss.' It strips man of his systems of belief and his ideal claims, and then proposes the one uniquely modern style of salvation: a salvation by, of, and for the self."
"Subjectivity becomes the typical condition of the modernist outlook. In it's early stages, when it does not trouble to disguise its filial dependence on the romantic poets, modernism declares itself an inflation of the self, a transcendental and orgiastic aggrandizement of matter and event in behalf of personal vitality...freedom, compulsion, caprice."
"Modernism thereby keeps approaching--sometimes even penetrating--the limits of solipsism."
There you go. He just said it. And then goes on to quote a prediction from Herman Hesse:
"a whole generation caught...between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence." And Howe emphasizes, "Above all, no simple acquiescence." Howe says this "posits a blockage, if not an end, to history."
"The consequences are extreme: a break-up of the traditional untiy and continuity of Western culture, so that the decorum of its past no longer count for very much in determining its present, and a loosening of those ties that, in one or another way, had bound it to the institutions of society over the centuries."
That doesn't seem all bad though, right? Some of that traditional unity was kind of sexist and racist. But there's that scary law of unintended consequences...
"Culture now goes to war against itself, partly in order to salvage its purpose and the result is that it can no longer present itself with Goethian serenity and wholeness. At one extreme, there is a violent disparagement of culture (the late Rimbaud), and at the other, a quasi-religion of culture (the late Joyce). In much modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and limiting assumption of rationality. The mind comes to be seen as the enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation. In the work of Thomas Mann, both what is rejected and what is desired are put forward with a high, ironic consciousness: the abandoned ceremony and the corrosive revelation."
I'm getting exhausted reading this.
"But if a major impulse of in modernist literature is a choking nausea before the idea of culture, there is another in which the writer takes upon himself the enormous ambition not to remake the world (by now seen as hopelessly recalcitrant and alien) but to reinvent the terms of reality."
Here we go. We are there. Politicians are doing this as we speak.
"...the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs has charged, "modernism despairs of human history, abandons the idea of a linear historical development, falls back upon notions of a universal condition humane or a rhythm of eternal recurrence, yet within its own realm is committed to ceaseless change, turmoil and recreation."
Ceaseless change, turmoil and recreation. In business-speak this is called 'disruption." It makes me so tired I need to go lay down for 30 minutes.
Ok I'm back. Howe says, "...always the hope for still another breakthrough, always the necessary and prepared for dialectical leap into still another innovation." The "predictable summit...violates the modernist faith in surprise" so "culture must all the more serve as the agent of a life-enhancing turmoil."
And then we have our modernist ideas of the artist, the Genius,
"...declares Hegel in a sentence which thousands of critics, writers and publicists will echo through the years, 'it must be the public that is to blame...the only obligation the artist can have is to follow truth and his genius."
Stick a fork in it.
Modernism, Howe says, is devoted to raising questions, not answers. "We represent ourselves, we establish our authenticity, by the questions we allow to torment us." We embrace uncertainty, "the makeshifts of relativism" because "men should live in discomfort." He quotes Eugene Zamyatin: "Revolution is everywhere and in all things; it is infinite, there is no final revolution, no end to the sequence of integers."
He then lists some basic attributes of modernism:
Ok, so that's all very heavy and depressing. But Howe predicts a kind of vague end to all of it. "How do great cultural movements reach their end? It is a problem our literary historians have not sufficiently examined, perhaps because beginnings are more glamourous."
What will end modernism, Howe says in his closing sentence, is "the kind of savage parody which may indeed be the only fate worse than death."
Fingers crossed. Taking another nap now.