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Alfred Kazin (Arnold Newman/Getty Images)

I’ve only read a few essays by the heralded critic Alfred Kazin, but what I have read I found brilliant. A new biography of Alfred Kazin (by Richard M. Cook) was reviewed by Brian Morton in the Sunday New York Times. Some memorable gems are worth highlighting:

A representative essay by a New York intellectual (Philip Rahv, say, or Irving Howe) is a nimble and intricate blending of literary and political analysis. A representative Kazin essay is something else. His essays often start in the same place — he could tease out the delicate ties between art and politics as deftly as anyone — but then he’ll take a sharp turn, striking off for a territory of reverence and rapture, of awestruck contemplation of the sheer mystery of being alive. In an essay on Thoreau’s journals, seeking to capture Thoreau’s uniqueness as an observer of the natural world, he quotes Simone Weil’s remark that “attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” In an essay on Emily Dickinson, after examining the poem that begins with the line “Because I could not stop for Death,” he comments: “To write of death with this wonder, this openness, this overwhelming communication of its strangeness — this is to show respect for the lords of life and death. This respect is what true poetry lives with, not with the armed fist of the perpetual rebel.”

“Attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” Simone in one of her moments of genius.

Morton knew Kazin personally and isn’t altogether convinced that Cook “gets” who Kazin was. I love the following passage in that regard:

The biographer attributes the critical indifference that met the 1984 publication of “An American Procession,” Kazin’s account of the literary scene from Emerson to Fitzgerald, to “the risks incurred when a critic relies wholly on his own personal impressions and reflections,” rather than on the work of other critics. The book, Cook continues, “is a very personal work. Kazin keeps other critics out to get more of himself in. He insists on being alone with his writers — one-on-one, writer-to-writer, taking their measure according to his lights, his experiences, his prejudices.”

Coming upon this passage, the reader may be tempted to deface the margin with a comment like “What the hell should he be doing?” Being alone with writers is what any good critic does, what any good reader does. It was precisely through his deeply singular, deeply personal relationships with “his writers” — Melville and Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson — that Kazin produced such indelible criticism.

In his essay “The Writer and the University,” Kazin himself made this point as well as anyone ever has: “Above all, the writer does not work with anyone; he is not a collaborator, he is not cooperative; and it can be to his very peril as a writer if he sacrifices the excruciating precision of his vision.” It’s hard to understand why a biographer who does not instinctively rejoice at the example of a critic who “insists on being alone with his writers” should have wanted to take Alfred Kazin for his subject. For Kazin, you could say, being alone with his writers was “prayer in its supreme form.” At times, one almost gets the sense Cook is embarrassed by Kazin. If this is so, it’s easy to see why. Kazin was passionately “personal,” passionately excessive; he was a virtuoso of the art of going too far. You can see it even in the titles of some of his books. The volume of excerpts from his journals, for example, is called “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.”

Excess. A “virtuoso of the art of going too far.” Now that’s an approach I can relate to.

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I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

**
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

**
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

**
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

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”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times

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Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, was reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen in the New York Times on Sunday. (I have an excerpt from this excellent review on my filter blog, Slow Painting, if you didn’t catch it.) Hartigan’s book is the catalog for the show that just closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was previously at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts (and which I wrote about on this blog last summer.) This is the first volume about Cornell that captures some of the magic that happens in the presence of a real life, breathing Cornell. Hartigan keeps a respectful distance from Cornell’s quirky, complex internal life and avoids the proclivity to psychoanalyze, a tendency in hagiography I find particularly irritating.

Hartigan’s closing paragraph is a strong statement of Cornell’s unique approach to art:

During a lifetime that coincided with an emphasis on change for the sake of change, theory and art as ends unto themselves, and upheavals in technology, science, and international relations, Cornell deliberately chose to make art as a life-affirming act of communication and educational outreach. In describing his purpose as “making people ‘at home’ with things generally considered aesthetic,” he sought beauty, wonder, spirituality, and humanity as the outcomes of his invitation to journey with him into diverse arenas. First and foremost, Cornell–navigator of the imagination–was idealistic, radical and contemporary in embracing the prospect of endless transformation while honoring the thread of history and the revolutionary strength of objects.

I’ve been burrowed in my studio for several days, getting work ready for an upcoming show in San Francisco. For the first time in nine years there is no heat in my studio on weekends, so I have had balance and moderation forced on my otherwise excessive self.

I’ve missed the introspection and insight that both writing posts and reading others’ blogs brings to my life. And what a welcome surprise (and compliment) it was to find this after several days of heads down studio marathoning: “TIV”, Maîtresse Extraordinaire of the wild colony of blogs camped out around The Individual Voice has awarded me a purple lion. Instructions include the tagging of five other bloggers whose work inspires me and to share three shards of advice about writing.

I’m going to break ranks on this and tag five individuals who do not currently have blogs but whose written language skills thrill, delight, inspire, provoke, instruct, evoke and fill my email inbox with the best kind of writing.

In no particular order:

1. Andrew Kimball. A friend for nearly thirty years, Andrew’s weekly e-newsletter is sent out to a select list every Sunday morning at 8am. It is a running history of his life and the lives of his large family of six children. He combines the personal with the larger arc of existential meaning like no one else I know. His wordsmithing is so rich and redolent, I have saved every one he has sent to me.

Here are a few samples:

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But of course there are a thousand ways to fail, most of them available at any age. The thousand people at last Thanksgiving’s AA meeting in Marin County struggle to endure, just 24 hours at a time, so sufficient to each day is the evil thereof. Meanwhile standing unseen and ministering amidst that great congregation crammed around cafeteria style tables and so caught between bodily weakness and wings of desire, are the somber comforting spirits, without voice or body, that strive to bless us.

**
My college friend Tom: “One year ago yesterday my mother died, exactly on the date of giving birth to me. I gave a eulogy and began closing a book that seemed to have not been completely written. But, as they say in my profession, “pencils down”. Left alone we could design and redesign and explore yet another concept to see if some geometry or set of relationships not yet recognized might still be found by our relentless searchlight.

**
One year later, something significant is simply over. At this point, I now realize, life is increasingly about things that are “over.” Until life itself, in our last abilities to move about, laugh, grow enraged, feel hurt, feel loved and rise up in the morning convinced that every day above ground is a good day, is over.”

2. Paul Barbuto. I have known Paul since my first days in New York City. He drove a cab and would stop by my Chinatown loft at odd hours, always toting a strange and arcane book under his arm. I knew he had a poet’s soul when I handed him a volume of poems by Wallace Stevens. Stevens is a poet who typically requires a more academic orientation rather than the intuitional. But Paul “got” Stevens immediately, without intermediation of any kind.

We have reconnected after many years of being out of touch, and our coming back together has been one of the greatest gifts to me during a difficult year of loss and grief.

A few samples:

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I told GW about a short poem I read in a book of Robert Bly translations. It was from a Japanese poet. It goes “inside one potato there are mountains and rivers.” I felt it summed up everything I had ever learned or ever hoped to learn about poetry. It was all there: the actual & the imaginative, the everyday & the strange, consciousness & dream, etc etc. It tells me how to see and experience things.

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Gary Brown had the fastest mind-to-word ratio I ever heard. He was (and must be, today) the best slash and surprise guy that ever spoke. Every sentence had a wonderful and surprising punch. There was no one like Gary Brown.

Reading Denis Johnson this week brought Gary to mind. Denis Johnson, like Gary Brown, has that magic sudden turn in every sentence. After reading Jesus’ Son I decided I would never write another word. I will read and I will point and I will click and if need be I will make my “x” on the line. But I will leave the words to Denis Johnson (and Gary Brown whose spirit is a mighty sword).

One line that amazed me was the opening sentence of Dirty Wedding. “I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long. I liked it when they brushed right up against the building north of the loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a –wham, the noise and the dark dropped down around your head–tunnel) actually lived there.”

He takes my mind just ahead of the words. When I arrive at the words they tell me what I just saw. How does he do it?

3. Elatia Harris. Elatia is an artist and a writer, and exceptionally gifted at both. While she does not have her own personal blog, she writes regularly for the highly respected blog, 3 Quarks Daily. You can go there and search her articles. Each one is a flotilla of brilliance, written in a style that is florid, seductive, erudite and very funny.

4. George Wingate. My first roommate when I arrived in New York City with $200 in my pocket and a few names scratched on a napkin, George is an exceptional artist but his mind also finds words as playful and malleable as wet paint on canvas. His e. e. cummings-esque emails are treasures of unexpected, quixotic, timeless insights.

Examples:

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lots of things to consider.

the smile, not of reason….

the big-mouthed smile of the computer screen: the primal screen

save me

at least we’re having fun.

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first look at your blog
blog…
can’t hardly accept the word…blog…
and i heard chris lydon champion the word early-ish

and i’m trying, just as i ‘m trying with the computer

YOU are not a trying individual you are a doing individual who doesn’t try me at all. keep it up and you will wear down my resistance.

5. Matt Thomas. Married to my niece Celeste, Matt teaches high school in Utah and has a mind that deserves a larger audience than his lucky students. He does maintain a classroom blog, but oh would I love to read what he’s thinking when he’s not confined to lesson plans.

As for the shards of writing advice, I have to think about that.

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Cold Mountain 3, by Brice Marden

Here’s a thoughtful and provoking passage from one of my favorite blogs, Joe Felso: Ruminations. He references Han-shan, the same poet who inspired Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series of paintings, who feels similar in spirit to my earlier posting on Master Linji, also from the Tang Dynasty:

I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths that approach revelation. Sometimes a little simple human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry by Han-shan, poet of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see the way he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor of failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, threatening but also ludicrous. The poem may not be oh-worthy, but the speaker is fully present in these few lines…

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. I’m happy Han-Shan reappeared at this stage of my writing—he tells me to pause and listen to how silly I sound.

In responding to my previous post about theory and art making, Elatia Harris left a comment that is so full of potent issues I felt it needed to be brought forward, into the headlights. She touches on issues that many visual artists (including myself) mull over, struggle with and voice frustration about. I don’t necessarily agree with Elatia’s conclusion, but I also don’t have a hard and fast answer that satisfies me.

So much has been written about authenticity in aesthetic philosophy in all its various meanings, but here I am referring specifically to the use of the term that speaks to Peter Kivy’s definition of authenticity–faithfulness to the artist’s own self, original, not derivative or aping of someone else’s way of working. In this definition, authenticity is being committed to personal expression, being true to one’s artistic self rather than to the precepts of a particular tradition or -ism.

With as open-ended a definition as that, it is still fair to ask, What IS authenticity? How do you know when you have it and when you do not? There’s no answer that satisfies that question for me. I put it in the same category as a question that is often asked of painters and poets and that cannot be languaged: How do you know when a work of art finished? (Well, it feels balanced. It stops complaining. It hums. It radiates. What can I say?)

Similarly, authenticity in all its inchoate splendor is as close to a religious creed as I have when I’m in my studio. Like a lot of things in life–love, grief, ecstasy–we keep being tempted to define these powerful experiences in language, but they will not abide.

Here’s Elatia’s comment:

For my painting career, I tried to remain outside theory while including it in my awareness. I didn’t want the pigeon-holes for myself, and wondered why anyone would tolerate them. This is quite different from failing to value consistency or vision, and it also never left me feeling at an emotional disadvantage when I painted or thought about painting. After all, if you cannot or will not say what you are as a painter or how you are affiliated with other painters doing work like yours, then you are trusting your instincts, and instincts tend to be rather unfriendly to theory.

But I have to look at where all this got me — all this rejecting of -isms and refusing to be an -ist. I created a great deal of confusion in the minds of viewers — critics and other intellectuals, friends, gallerists, potential clients. I seemed never to represent any “flavor of the month” they could believe in, or to be a part of what they could understand as the coming thing. And I misunderstood how much the classification mania of the art establishment drove the career progress an artist could make. Perhaps one can’t ever truly be outside the system — only irrelevant to it. Post-modernism engineered a slow breakdown of these taxonomies, but then became, itself, theory-ridden.

I saw the way I negotiated all that as the price of being authentic, and even from this distance I still see it that way. Authentic, yes. Intelligent, no.

Vespers

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

–Louise Gluck

“I am responsible for these vines.” That line has been echoing in me today. A quiet contemplation of which vineyard, where, and what is needed. And an answer to that question that changes every day.

Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

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I love this guy.

Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.

Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.

Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.

The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.

Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:

In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.

And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:

It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.

–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

Lifelong friend Liz Razovich sent me a list of words culled from a book that I ordered for myself: The Meaning of Tingo, by Adam Jacot de Boinod.

Here’s a sample:

Tingo: A Pascuense language word from Easter Island that means borrowing items from a pal’s house, one by one, until there is nothing left.

Kummerspeck: a German word that literally means “grief bacon” but refers to the excess weight gained from emotion-related overeating.

Bakku-shan: Japanese for a woman who “seems pretty when seen from behind but not from the front.”

Ulykkesbilen: Danish for an “ill-fated car.”

Nakkele: From Tulu, India, this describes a man who licks whatever the food has been served on.

Drachenfutter: A German word that is “dragon fodder” when translated literally, but means the peace offerings made by guilty husbands to their wives.

Backpfeifengesicht: German for a face that cries out for a fist in it.

Jacot de Boinod perused over 280 dictionaries and trawled 140 websites to prepare the book. “What I’m really trying to do is celebrate the joy of foreign words (in a totally nonjudgmental way) and say that while English is a great language, one shouldn’t be surprised there are many others having, as they do, words with no English equivalent,” he says.

Some of the reviews of the book on Amazon are a bit harsh, accusing him of a “casual” approach to the translations and research. But Jacot de Boinod hasn’t lost any time creating an entire franchise around this one idea. Hey, all the more power to him. The book is fun, and I’m always on the look out for that.