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.