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Wasatch Mountains in Utah (October 2011)

Writing about writing poetry: It soothes my soul the way reading scriptures comforts believers. In an earlier post I referenced Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield (here), an inspiring and thoughtful meditation on how poetry comes into being.

And now I have another to recommend: Recklessn ess, by Dean Young. Young’s approach is, as the name suggests, wild and full of unexpectedness. But this small book is delicious at every level. Where Hirschfield’s approach is methodical and carefully constructed, Young’s is more rhizomatic and unstructured. It feels like he took the topic and then turned it inside out—a riskier ride, but full of memorable passages. Guidance for beginners (Young is undoubtedly a great teacher) is particularly inspirational as is his thoughts for us old dog veterans. This is a book I could send to just about anyone who is a maker and know they would find easy entry.

This book was my steady companion during a recent visit to Utah, the kind of book buddy you need when you venture into a culture that is starkly different from the one you have claimed for yourself. Young’s book was my pocket sized guidance system. This, plus the backdrop of freshly snowed mountains and the discovery of Les Madeleines‘ heartstoppingly delicious Breton confection, the Kouing-aman, made navigation easier than I had expected.

I’ll share a few passages here now, a few more later on.

***
For Western culture, the movement towards/return to the primitive is lastingly vigorous from the early twentieth century on. Beginning in painting but extending into literature, music, and dance, the artist turned from mastery of illusion and technique to a more unmitigated, raw relationship with the basic materials of the medium, and, at times, a spiritual even mythological assertion of the rights and perils of the artist and humankind.

***
Purposelessness is not meaninglessness. I wasn’t put on this planet to explain myself. The variety of nature is too astonishing to explain as a form of utility, it’s just not necessary. Functional concern does not look for plethora, it looks for single solutions. god must have loved beetles, Darwin remarked of their astonishing array. Myriad minded let us be.

***
People use language for two reasons: to be understood and not to be understood.

***
Some things must be made opaque to be seen.

***
John Ashbery writes in “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.”

***
I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just try to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.


Les Madeleines’ exquisite Kouing-aman…


…which can be transported to your home in a nifty Saarinen-inspired travel boite

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The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.'”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

***
Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

***
Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

There is much more to share which I will over the next few weeks.


The light in Canada

Politics and art have been combined and comingled in the past, producing work that is powerful and provocative. Goya. Guernica. Beckmann.

But that isn’t the case for me and my way of working. In fact mixing the two is a toxic brew. Over the last week I have had to conscientiously firewall my studio from the acidic cloud emanating from Washington and polluting the summer skies in every direction.

So thank you Whiskey River for posts that helped me look out beyond my bunker. Maybe the water level rises a drop at a time.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

— Pablo Neruda

Burlap Sack

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thick ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

–Jane Hirshfield

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