Thursday, September 30, 2010

Emily Dickinson for President!!!

Since truth requires Art, I’d like to talk about the relationship between politics and the Arts.  I believe the vituperative atmosphere of politics and punditry is partly and largely due to the absence of Art and therefore Truth and its pursuit in our daily lives

To turn on the TV is to hear countless people bawling out opinions as if 1) they knew something and 2) they are facts.  Neither is true.  Facts, whether true or not, are taken for Truth even by some very good people.  Freed of Truth, facts have devolved into name-calling and thoughtlessness masquerading as discourse, which, of course, it is not.

The absence of the pursuit of serious art—music, dance, sculpture, painting, literature—in our daily life and in the schools is the greatest problem facing America, perhaps the world, today.  The humbling honesty of Art and its pursuit bring wisdom, thoughtfulness and erudition to our tables.  Another by-product is a profound respect for the thoughts and opinions of others.  I hasten to add that the road to peace goes straight through the arts.  Without the lessons of the Arts, the schooling in our universal concerns and cares,  our deepest yearnings and how we deal with them, the notion of lasting peace is both empty and pointless.

Even the smallest honest poem contributes to mankind (Emily Dickinson comes to mind).  The study of any of the world’s great poetry finds the DNA of the human soul.  We all share it and participate in its growth.  Failing to be instructed in the Arts diminishes it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

“When it comes to the truth, to hell with the facts.” William Styron

William Styron said that in a lecture at Trinity College, Hartford, CT on the day he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.  It has been an important reminder to me of the not-that-obvious axiom that fiction deals in truth.  In fact, I am inclined to say that truth requires fiction.

 Fictions almost always inhabit poetry and those that do are almost always relevant to whatever truth the poet is trying to get across, and I say “get across” because the element of truth that makes fiction necessary is that it is unsayable and so we are always trying to get across the gap between truth and wherever we are.  This makes poetry sound impossibly difficult, which it is.  It is also impossibly alluring because we know that truth exists and that we want it in our grasp.

So, there I was writing all summer long about my sister dying and trying like the devil to speak the truth while knowing that I probably couldn’t and that I had to let the poem create its own fiction in service to the truth and my desire to say it.  Let me repeat, loudly:  I HAD TO LET THE POEM CREATE ITS OWN FICTION.

Often, our desire to say the truth, the facts, gets in the way of our art and it is art that points the way to truth, not fact.  We must sacrifice the facts about even our loved ones if we are to get at the truth we  want to write, the truth we want to honor them with.

It is up to the readiness of our craft to let the poem evolve as it wants to, to let the poem navigate its own way to the truth.  This is the point of yesterday’s entry about being ready to write about death.

I hope this hasn’t been confusing.  Or maybe I do.

So long for now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Being Ready to Write About Death

Salud!  I’m back after a summer of great discontent marked essentially by the sickness and death of my older sister, Alice, whose unsuccessful bout with uterine cancer, abetted by a host of other challenges, caused me to learn a number of things about writing.

I’ve said it many times before but WRITE EVERY DAY; that is, write lots, practice your craft.  Do not wait for inspiration.  Be ready for it.  Indeed, learn to create it.  By being in practice, by learning to write under any circumstance, you can be ready to write and write well even when most emotional and this is when you have the most to say because it is when you feel the most.

There is a problem at the juncture of deep emotion and the desire to write, especially if you are not prepared to write while under stress.  As poets we are trying to say what cannot be said and that challenge becomes greater the greater the emotion.  It ain’t for sissies, goddamit!  And you will lose the depth, the passion, if your craft is insufficient.

I was rewarded by having been in practice when Alice went into the hospital, when I first discovered she was gravely ill.  I started writing immediately and wrote daily just as I spoke with her daily until she could no longer speak.  Then I spoke with her husband.  As I wrote I realized that the stuff I was writing was pretty good.

I tracked the daily changes, tests and results, the fluctuations in my mood, her mood, the prospects of survival, the likelihood of death at various future intervals, the deep emotions that accompanied the fact that I was losing my eldest sibling, the first of us (five) to die.  When it got to the end I was able to write about her final hour, the first hour afterward.  Some of it was dour stuff but there were times of humor, joy and release as well.

The point is that I could write, distance myself enough from what was going on to reflect and (to cite Wordsworth) recollect in relative tranquility and to summon enough ready craft to do justice to the material.  I could not have done so had I not been in practice.

Next time, look for comments on fact vs truth.

So long for now.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sister Dying, Poet Writes

My sister is dying and I am writing about it.  This brings me to one of those approach-avoidance challenges that artists, especially poets (I would like to think) must confront because of what we do.  Here’s how it goes:

Workshops are rife with people who write as therapy; indeed this is how most of us started.  I think it was Auden who warned poets to leave the therapy out of the poetry and I agree with him.  Thus the challenge is to write while impassioned without descending into therapy.

We write in our teens because we haven’t got a clue and we need one.  It’s crap.  It certainly isn’t something recollected in tranquility because there is no tranquility for teens. Later when that bastard wrongs us or that bitch throws us out and life doesn’t make enough sense, we write to right things.  That too is crap.  These are what to leave out, burn, blow up, deep six, line the bird cage with.  And for God’s sake don’t take this stuff to the workshops—write Dear Abby instead.

By writing a lot and thus learning to write one gets to know her/his own voice and method.  If you recognize your own voice and method while writing under stress and with passion, keep on keeping on for you’re likely on the right track.  If not, write what you must and then get on with other things, but don’t mistake it for the poetry it is not.  It’s right to value it, but value it for what it really is.  We write for various reasons, one of which is to vent, and should learn to value it for its genuine value without foisting it upon the poetry world.

I find my poems to my sister are pretty good, well-formed and ringing with my voice produced in the way I normally produce.  And they seem to pass one of my acid tests for all poems:

Does the poet sound like he really means it?

I recognize that another reader will determine whether I am right about this but for now I think I’ve got the right groove going.  I add that this also comes after writing thirty poems to another sister just a couple of months ago and that exercise may have prepared me for this.  As I so often say—write a lot and stay in practice.  After a layoff of several months it has taken me a good two months of writing daily (nearly) to get back into shape.

So long for now.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Lie of the Art or How to Fail With Really Trying

Let’s see now--

*  Language is inadequate to Truth

*  There is probably no new Truth

*  Only a few very great writers have come near to Truth

*  Even the great ones have missed

*  The best art only implies Truth

Why should we care?  Why should we be careful?  Why not be the extraordinarily gifted monkeys we are and write willy-nilly all day long and at least have a chance that chance will be on our side?  (Given what I read that is currently taken for good poetry I’m inclined to think we’re already doing that.)

Here’s the case I make:

The inadequacy of the arts to truth is the very soil they thrive in.  As high as the bar is raised it will never be high enough and we, being who we are, will try for, must try for it.  We haven’t a choice.  By use of the carefully crafted and inspired implication we avoid the outright and specific lie.  We offer a general one.  The utmost care is taken so that we don’t damage the truth too much.  As poets aiming for truth we risk laying waste the grail by pursuing it.

Every word is a metaphor, an obfuscation of sorts.  The care we apply controls the unattainable some.  Our skill controls it some.  When we are successful we convey less untruth than is common.  It doesn’t sound like much but it is as great as it gets.

Consciousness of our certain failure should make us ever more careful to proceed with the greatest of care for in careless art, careless craft, lies the ruin of truth and you might as well be a politician and make some money.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Writer’s Block—Shmock!

I’ve been away and not writing and would like to speak of writer’s block by saying:


There will be times when you don’t write and the reasons will be legion.  I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of it All and lots of the old and new testaments of The Bible.  I have transplanted hosta from the back to the front, trimmed the forsythia, planted a moonflower and a morning glory, advertised an electric portable three-wheeled scooter suitable of an elderly person on Craig’s List and put an old PC on Freecycle all while lamenting that I haven’t written a decent poem for months, maybe all year.  I’m not blocked.  I am busy.  I am not writing.

If you believe you are blocked then you haven’t learned to write or you’re out of practice as I am.  I return to my mantra:  If you’re going to write, then write and write a lot.  Unless you are brain dead you continue to gather what will become your writing.  Your mind never stops journaling.  I you are reading, thinking, observing anything new then your mind is expanding, lubricating itself and will deliver when it can.

Do not afford yourself the luxury of writer’s block.  There isn’t enough time.  Our art is based upon the fact that we’ll never get to the truth—that’s why we try—and there is therefore no time to waste in self-defeating lament.  As the song (Desert Pete by The Kingston Trio) says:  “Have faith my friend.  There’s water down below.”  I hasten to add that whether you know it or not, it still churns.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Indian Summary

For reasons I’m unsure of I was recently moved to revisit Longfellow’s poetry, specifically “The Song of Hiawatha” which I had never read from beginning to end.  It is easy to dismiss Longfellow as a rhymey-dimey poet forgettable after high school and of passing interest as part of the line of American poets who interest us as in some sense ancestral to our own art. 

Well, I may be going soft but I found “Hiawatha” to be awfully good, occasionally moving and very, very interesting.  And I hasten to add that I am richer for the experience, hated to see the noble savage paddling westward at the end of the poem.  I really had no idea that he departed with the arrival of the white men, priests and the weight the moment carried as I read it.  Of course I’m influenced by my own understandings but I value that they must be entirely differrent from those of Longfellow’s contemporaries and are still valid, which is sort of the point of this post:

Whatever we bring to the poem today is valid and what we may intuit about the departure of Hiawatha upon the arrival of the white men is deep, profound and somewhat saddening in light of what we know today.  The bigger point is that the great poems stand the test of time and remain valid irrespective of who reads them and how time has changed things.  They are new because we are new.

And it took Longfellow to remind me of this.  Go read “The Song of Hiawatha” and enjoy!

So long for now.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

10,000 Hours to Greatness

If we can believe Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, then you’ll be an expert poet after 10,000 hours of practice.  This boils down to 19.23 years at ten hours a week or two hours five days a week.  This is a lot of writing but it gives you some idea of the amount of effort it takes to get to the top of any craft or art.  That’s part of the reason the air is so rare among the best.

I first began writing verse in high school and I got into it because I liked it and because I thought it was easy.  As time went on I was seduced away from my simplistic view of it and into poetry’s thrall and the wicked amount of work and study it takes to write real and really good poems.  If it’s easy, you ain’t doin’ it.

Hugh Ogden was both a mentor and a friend.  He was also an excellent poet.  Over lunch I asked him what the most difficult part of being recognized as a good poet was.  He replied that people didn’t appreciate the amount of time and effort it took to become successful; the amount of blood and sweat and disappointment that precedes good writing.

When I tell you to write a lot, I mean WRITE A LOT.

When I tell you to write often, I mean WRITE OFTEN.

When I tell you to read a lot, I mean READ A LOT.

Don’t wait for inspiration—it will come.

It is difficult to learn to let the poem have its own way, to let the gods lead and it takes a whole lot of writing to learn this.

Calculate how many hours you’ve spent writing and how many more it will take to get to 10,000 hours.  Don’t include pondering, planning, reading—just the time spent actually putting words to paper.  Then figure out how many hours a day you need to put in to get to that ten thousand.  Then do it.

The only way is to write, so WRITE AND WRITE AND WRITE, GODDAMIT!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Write, By God!!

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton lately and, while I don’t really find his poetry particularly interesting, I find his criticism appealing.  I want to look at one of his points:   That you are writing for God.


It is my experience that when the writing is right the conscious act of writing is only part of the process.  Look to Frost’s “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” to understand what I mean.  I’ve said and heard it many times:  The poem has a life of its own.  It’s true.

Merton tells us that we are writing for God and whether he feels a poet is genuinely writing for God has a lot to do with how he regards the poet.  Having said this I remind you that Merton is surprisingly charitable to many poets who I thought might not meet this standard.

I come down here:

When the writing is right, the gods will lead your work.  Whoever your gods are, they will lead you.  This brings me to Seneca the Elder’s wonderful:  “ The fates lead him who will; him who won’t they drag.”  If you will let the fates lead your poems, they will and you will be the better writer for it.

I have grown to greatly respect Thomas Merton for a variety of reasons but right now he ranks high in my personal pantheon for recognizing that the arts and the gods are intimately affiliated and that this redounds to the enhancement and glory (I hesitate at that word!) of both.

Monday, March 15, 2010

When It’s Hard, It’s Good

I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton lately and in The Thomas Merton Reader in the essay “Poetry and Contemplation” he is very stern about what poems should not be written.  Be advised:  He speaks of Christian poetry and I am speaking about poetry in general and thus expropriate his idea and apply it more generally than he might be expected to do.

Merton writes of poems written from mere intention-- that is poetry merely willed by the poet-- as being better off not written.  There is a necessary indefinable aspect of poetry without which it is not genuine.  This aspect is at once ineffable, inspired, Providential, unspeakable and without it the poem is inauthentic.  The poem simply cannot exist wholly at the will of the poetThe poem is beyond the poet’s control and until it achieves that, and the poet achieves the ability to let it happen, the result will be less than desirable.

Fortunately, it is the out-of-control part that makes continued poetic effort possible.  It is because the poet is trying to speak illimitable truth in limitable language that he must never be satisfied and will always know the joy of being unfinished, of being able to say it better.

Do not get me wrong—I strongly advocate practicing writing, practicing forms, writing a lot with or without inspiration because, as I have so often averred, the craft of the poet demands and warrants fully as much practice as the concert pianist who labors over his keyboard hours a day.  But, as with the great pitfall of workshops,  what is thus produced is practice, not the final product.

Without the practice you are unlikely to make the best possible attempt to at least believably indicate the presence of truth in your poems and, without the accretion brought to the poem by the ineffable, the poem will ultimately fail.

As Woody Guthrie shouts:  It's a-hard, and it's hard, ain't it hard, great God…

It’s hard and, by God, it’s great too.

So long for now.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ignorance of the Poet

There is a certain ignorance the poet must achieve if she is to write honestly; and it has various levels.  One is the ignorance of the outcome of the poem at the outset—the “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” Robert Frost tells us about.  This is axiomatic enough to be trite although we need reminding every now and then.  Another is the ignorance of truth as writeable—it cannot be written.

One of my pet peeves is the workshop leader who urges us to “write what cannot be written” and then lets us off as we think that the unsayable is something we’re merely afraid to say and that must be said.  This is therapy, not poetry.  Since the truth cannot be written, does not exist in words, what we try to do is create an experience of the presence of truth.  This is not doctrinal in any way although I do draw from Thomas Merton’s Inner Experience in my phrasing.

When I first read “time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea” by Dylan Thomas (in “Fern Hill”) I was gripped by the experience of truth and became a devotee of it on the spot (although I tried not to be for a long time).  I can break down the words and phrasing all I want, interpret the poem all I want but I cannot speak, put into words, the truth of the poem for it lies outside its own words.  This is true with every great poem, the ones that move us in ways we cannot and need not explain and understand.  At best, we can only be present with the poem—but that’s enough, in fact it may be all.

I cannot tell you how to achieve this in your own poems but I can tell you that in order to write you must write a lot.  You must write beyond therapy.  You must write until you are unconscious of your knowledge.  As Matt in The Fantasticks says, “I defy knowledge and achieve ignorance.”

So long for now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Witness This!

Although I write little of it myself, I often remark about poetry of witness, poetry that lives as a testament of something that is remarkable as it exists in the world.  I do not speak of poetry that takes a position, that is partisan, but poetry that looks at something and reveals it to us.   I site the poetry of Muriel Rukyser as an example—she is one of the great under-appreciated poets.

What little poetry of witness I have written is about war as I saw and lived it in Viet Nam and now we are engaged in war in Afghanistan and Iraq and with the access to expression so available in this electronic age an abundance of wartime literature is piling up.  Via two different sources I came to a NY Times story about contemporary war writing.  I urge you to pursue the link and the stories referenced.

It is difficult to write poetry of witness for it takes objectivity,  authentic knowledge and poetic skill.  It is not located close to inspiration on the spectrum of things that prompt us to write and so demands more conscious work at expression.   Yet, it is as witnesses that poets can be especially skilled; after all, observation is our thing although it so often is observation of the unseen.  Poetry of witness calls us to expose what is often readily visible but which remains seen by too few.

Much of the great value of this type of poetry is that it puts the poet at the center of society, a place poets have generally abdicated and, nature abhorring a vacuum, has been filled with less tasteful and honest literature.  So, I call poets to read the news, get into the issues despite the barbarous, despite the censure, despite the savagery of the opinionated who want to prevent us from revealing things as they are.

After all, what is your job as a poet if not to reveal?

So long for now.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Great Wisdom Other Side Reached

There are various translations of the  Sanskrit “mahaprajnaparamita”  and the one I prefer to consider now is “great-wisdom-other-side-reached”.  It may be wrong but I think we all journey toward the achievement of great wisdom and that, in a sense, it resides on another shore.  In my last post, We Each Become the Rebirth of Ancient Light, I referenced the source of art as the attempt to close the gap between ourselves and ourselves.  I believe the Sanskrit phrase refers to the same thing but with a difference.

Octavio Paz in The Bow and the Lyre discusses the Sanskrit phrase as implying that reaching the other shore does not necessarily mark the end of the journey and that as artists, poets, we visit the other shore via the process of making the art.  It is not about a permanent achievement or death.  We find the great wisdom on the other shore, we know it and although we cannot fully contain it within the boundaries of language, our art, phrases, poetry point to it and imply it efficiently enough to bring to others the knowledge that it is there and in them at the same time.

Without that outward connection, the pointing beyond, the certainty of great-wisdom-other-side-reached, the poem is hollow, a vacuum.  It may entertain, be filled with attractive craft, seem deep and complex but without the genuine and felt sense of great-wisdom-reached the poem is an exercise, practice.  The lightning strikes but rarely.

Despite being so, we must write the hollow, vacuous crap.  That is, we must practice the craft daily if we want to be ready and able to visit the other shore.  Herein is the value and cost of workshops:  On the one hand they teach some craft; on the other hand they imply that craft is enough when it is not (although it is necessary).  When not implying that craft is enough workshops, taken too seriously, tend to imply that the workshopped poems are better than they are, good even.  This is nice but not necessarily good.

So long for now.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

We Each Become the Rebirth of Ancient Light

“Man is never identical to himself.”  Octavio Paz in The Bow and the Lyre.  This is source of art, of poetry, which is in large part the attempt to identify the self, to unite with it, to close the gap between  being where we are and where we feel we want to be.  Having said that I can tell you what I really wanted to say:  that through poetry we  attempt to close the gap between what we are and what we are.

To close the gap is likely impossible since language  itself is an artifice—a damned good one but still artifice—in that the word “chair” represents a chair but isn’t a chair and is different  to each one of us although we all generally agree on what it is.  Nevertheless our natural tropism, our “ineluctable modality” of the invisible (a la Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses), is to close this gap we find as a given in life.

If we pursue a path designed to close, heal really, this gap and, given that there is a limited number of human emotions and that language is artifice, why the hell do we try?  Billions of men and women have failed before us, even the great ones.  Why do we bother to cry out?  The reason is that we each cry uniquely; our poetic DNA is unique to each of us.  Language may be artifice but, despite our general agreement about what words mean, it is flexible enough to represent the expression of unique individuals uniquely. Language is the tool of individuation.

Practically speaking the route to  individual expression stamped with one’s own poetic DNA is to practice writing a lot.  A real lot.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  You must write and write and write.  Write poetry every day.

Once your unique voice emerges you’ve finally reached the beginning; and the road goes on forever for “man is never identical to himself”.  But what a road it is.