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Another passage from Christian Wiman* that speaks to poetry writing but could apply to all the rest of us who are inveterate makers:

Reality doesn’t need us. A poet knows this, and then, in the midst of a poem, when reality streams through the words that would hold it, doesn’t quite. W.S. Di Pietro, probably the most consistently compelling and idiosyncratic prose writer among contemporary poets, writes of the moment when one realizes that one’s “attempts to write poetry, with all its halting correctiveness and will towards coherence, is of no consequence to the starry sky.” And yet it was the starry sky that occasioned the poem, perhaps, that seems to be not simply its subject but somehow in the poem, of it. It is a calling, we say, trying to explain this need to make things the world can do without, as if the plain givenness of reality could ever be a call, as if a poem could ever be an answer.

The need to make things the world can do without. And yet.

Another great passage from Wiman.

*Other memorable passages from the poet Christian Wiman’s only prose book, Ambition and Survival are included in these posts:

Wimanian Wisdom
Wimanian Wisdom Part 2


Whether Utah (like this image) or Wiman’s West Texas, the desert can be a crucible for poets and pietists

This is a continuation of the theme from my previous post…Here are a few more passages from Ambition and Survival, Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman. His insights into creating—poetry and painting share so many aspects in that regard—as well as a childhood spent among fundamentalist Christians (I grew up in the Mormon faith) speak deeply to me.

On the discipline of preparedness:

I find I can get prose written in just about any circumstances, but I’ve never been able to write poetry, which I find infinitely more satisfying, without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers (even, at times, this one), doesn’t recognize as discipline. It is, though. It’s the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It’s the discipline of preparedness.

On growing up within the Christian fundamentalism of West Texas:

I grew up with a notion of radical conversion, a sudden, sometimes ravaging call for which the only answer was your life.

The religious extremity, the way some people seemed to have looked too long at God as into the sun, so that everything they saw subsequently both was and wasn’t that blaze. You must be born again. For most people this happened in puberty, and may be seen, of course, merely as one religion’s way of trying to restrain the animal volatility and confusion of that time, the body’s imperatives countered by God’s.

I’d seen my share of people…using God like a drug to both heighten and dull a reality that’s too ordinary and painful to bear, and i’d seen my share of people…who had turned his annihilating loneliness into a spiritual mission.

On moving beyond the religion of one’s childhood:

It seems that a god possessed ecstatically, as mine was in my childhood, not by books but in my blood and bones, would make a hard departure. I can’t find the scar, though, and I’ve done some serious searching. I’ve begun to wonder if doubt, like grief, is less one moment you can point to, one would you can heal, than all the moments of past and future, memory and imagination, into which that doubt, that grief, has blend. Iv’e begun to wonder if the god I knew so bodily and utterly in my childhood could ever be completely gone.

At some point, though, that whole visceral energy of image and language, that charge with which my childhood was both enlivened and fraught, became mere myth and symbol, as if the current simply went out of them. That is happened so easily, was so devoid of crisis, might argue that my faith had no real purchase on me; that I seem prone to periods of apparently sourceless despair might argue the opposite. At any rate, whether that loss is cause or effect, whether it has infiltrated my life in other ways or is merely one dimension of a wide loss, which I would call consciousness, the fact is I don’t give myself over to much. I don’t trust.

A ringing headache…persisted…as if my brain were a bell that God, running out of options, sometimes strikes.

Christian Wiman

I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.

Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.

There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:

Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.

There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.

What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.

If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.

Images of emergence: Hall’s Pond in January

The gestation of a project or a body of work—how it starts, forms and then comes into existence—is mysterious and unpredictable.

Some jump into their fullness quickly, in a flash. My poet friend Nicole Long describes this process as egg-like: A whole thing that emerges out of us only when it is complete and perfect.

Other birthings need to rattle around inside us for a long time. Some make a number of attempts to emerge, only to fall back into the inchoate place of churning restlessness. Then, at last, it happens. A final form manifests.

One of my favorite bloggers, David Marshall, published a post this weekend on Signals to Attend that speaks eloquently to this. In response to attending a reading by the author Chad Harbach, author of the bestseller The Art of Fielding, David had this to say:

The audience seemed most intrigued, however, by the history of this his first novel, and how it took almost twelve years to complete…for all that time, he carried his characters around. His account of those years brought to mind a man with a bag of snakes, thoughts crawling all over each other, knotting and unknotting and never taking a shape allowing him to withdraw them whole.

And the split of his life into “living” and “my novel” may have become an agitating status quo. Perhaps people casually asked him, “How’s the book coming?” but satisfactory answers couldn’t have been so casual. Maybe he just shrugged and said “Oh, good,” as, meanwhile, those snakes writhed…

Outcomes change a process. With art particularly, results often seem destined and make the making more purposeful and deliberate than it was at the time. When the work reaches completion, everything aimed at an appointed end. During composition, any sense of destiny relies on faith…Harbach couldn’t have believed in his book all twelve years, and a brain carrying plots, characters, scenes, images, and accreting fragments of prose likely became onerous at times. So much imagination imprisoned—how did he deal with keeping his written world secret? How do you coexist with an alternate reality that’s yours exclusively?

I wrote a previous post about Gillian Welch and the slow gestation of her award winning album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Here is an excerpt:

I was moved to hear Gillian Welch, musician extraordinaire, talk frankly and openly about times when her process just wasn’t working well. It’s a bit like a politician going public with an admission of depression for an artist to acknowledge that there are long, dry spells when nothing comes together. Her new release, aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest, was eight years coming.

Eight years. The thought of being in my studio, painting, and not feeling connected to my work for nearly a decade IS harrowing.

But Welch talks of this difficult phase of her life without drama. When asked why she felt stuck, she doesn’t have an answer. But she is forthcoming about her circumstances. “It wasn’t writer’s block. It was creative block. I was writing songs. I just didn’t like any of them.” She had to wait until she loved what she was writing again. The turning point came just last year. Something shifted and the songs just started to flow again.

“A creative dilemma is a spiritual dilemma,” says Welch.

Ah yes.

A close up view of Candara, from a painting series inspired by space and planetary bodies

Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something
That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how
Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.

Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows
The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head
Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out
Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead
Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.

But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies
And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.
She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,
Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something
Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?

–Excerpt from the poem, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

2011 will be remembered as a year with no novel deemed worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. But thankfully the poetry recipient, Tracy K. Smith, has the gravitas to hold her place singlehandedly. Her award winning collection, Life on Mars, is a rich inquiry, complex and yet accessible. She has said the poems were inspired by her father who worked as an engineer on the Hubble project, and a contemplation of space and our place in that immense order of things runs throughout the poems. In the words of one reviewer in the New York Times, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery.”

Hold Everything Dear

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe

and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent

in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light

that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky

and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning

the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth

one step ahead of time

the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together

clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug

carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking

the map of the palm held

in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days

as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words

the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together

animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

–Gareth Evans

So begins John Berger‘s book of the same name, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Written about a post 9/11 world, these essays are very different from the exquisitely written books about art and life that most of us have come to know during Berger’s long career—his canonical Ways of Seeing as well as The Shape of a Pocket, About Looking and Sense of Sight. This book is full of discouragement and frustration with the state of the world and in particular Middle Eastern politics, and Berger doesn’t mince or soft pedal his views. This wasn’t an easy book for me to read.

But I am reminded of what he wrote in Ways of Seeing over 40 years ago: “Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” That is evident in these essays.

But as for the poem, that’s a keeper.


If there is no spirit unfolding itself in history,
No gradual growth of consciousness
Beneath the land grabs and forced migrations,
The bought elections, the betrayal of trust
By party faction in the name of progress—
What about spirit in the personal realm
Unfolding slowly inside us, so slowly
That our best days seem like a holding action?
Seasons repeat themselves, but the tree
Shading the yard keeps growing.
Don’t be chagrined that the sadness you felt
This evening beside the bed of a friend
Who’s growing weaker wasn’t more profound
Than the sadness of yesterday, that you still
Can’t imagine a fraction of what he’s feeling
As the world he loves slips from his grasp,
No progress from your perspective,
But who’s to say what you might notice
If the scroll of the last few months were unrolled
On the table before you, how clear it might be
That your understanding of all you’re losing
In losing him has been slowly deepening?
Another day, you say to yourself, at dusk
As you climb your porch steps, which you notice
Could use some scraping and painting this weekend,
A fresh coat that with luck will last a year.

–Carl Dennis

The poignancy of this poem has stayed with me since I first read it in the New Yorker issue from October 24.

Carl Dennis is an American poet who has taught at State University of New York at Buffalo for a number of years. From The Poetry Foundation:

Dennis told Contemporary Authors: “I don’t see myself as belonging to any particular school of poetry. Yeats was the most important early influence, but I hope that his presence is now very difficult to detect. Like him I’m interested in making my poems sound like actual speech, something that one might actually say out loud to a single listener. In Yeats’s day this meant avoiding poetical ornament and mechanical rhythms. Today it also means avoiding poetry that is either too private (concerned with the play of the writer’s own mind and not with an actual subject outside himself) or too public (not concerned with the particular context of speaker and listener in a dramatic situation).”

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

T. S. Eliot

Harold Bloom first wrote about his now famous theory of the anxiety of influence in the early 1970’s while I was in college. Bloom focused on poetry and traced the complex challenge facing a poet in search of his or her own unique voice while being inspired—and intimidated—by a powerful precursor.

The concept of “anxiety of influence” quickly moved from poetry to every creative endeavor. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, like viewing the history of art through a Bloomian lens where every major breakthrough represents a step away from a powerful precursor’s domain. It also helped me see how certain eras speak to one generation and not to others.

A good example is the recent film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Light and entertaining, it embodied a fantasy that speaks directly to those of us who grew up in awe of a very particular era of time and its larger-than-life cast of characters—Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Luis Buñuel, et al. But for my daughter, 30 years my junior, the movie was a dud. It made no connection, offered no fantasy fulfillment. Unlike Woody Allen and me, she was not raised on the magic of Paris in the 20’s.

Another giant presence from my coming of age years was T. S. Eliot. (Where he sits in the consciousness of a younger generation isn’t clear to me. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section below.) But discovering his poems, particularly The Waste Land, was a watershed during my teenage years. William Logan‘s review of a newly released volume of Eliot’s letters, T. S. Eliot’s Rattle of Miseries, brought back that feeling of awe and fascination. It was also a sharp reminder of the tragic circumstances of the poet’s life. Of course when delivered up by Logan, gifted and insightful and also a poet, the telling is its own pleasure.

Here are a few passages for those of you who are also (and still) Eliotians:

Eliot’s criticism is now undervalued, dismissed by critics without half his sensibility or intelligence. The poems have so long been the foundation of modern anthologies that their reputation has almost as long worked against them (the one indispensable poem of the 20th century is still “The Waste Land”). Eliot’s best poems have almost disappeared beneath dust heaps of commentary, and the dust heaps that lie on those dust heaps. Much of his early work — “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, “Gerontion,” even “The Waste Land” — could be called urban eclogues, part of the turn in English poetry from the country to the city. It may take a long time to appreciate those poems afresh, after the poets who struggled against Eliot, whether as allies or enemies, are long dead; by that time his world will seem as out of date as Pope’s.

It’s possible to read “The Waste Land” not as a po-faced rattle of miseries by a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown but as a collection of mocking growls, often at his own expense — “rhythmical grumbling,” he later called it. The poem’s pitch-black despairs are leavened by the knockabout portrait of a workingman’s pub (reading the scene aloud, Eliot was mordantly hilarious), the cynical rendering of the typist’s sleazy liaison with the house-agent’s clerk, and the mortal comeuppances dealt to Phlebas and others. Emotionally, it is a shockingly cold poem. The famous notes, scribbled out to pad the American edition, are more like Pope’s cod learning in the “Dunciad” than the scholar’s self-justification for which they are sometimes mistaken (Eliot called himself ill-read). Eliot’s poems, especially the pre-Christian poems, have been so weighed down by the concrete overcoat of reputation, their terrifying humor has sometimes been forgotten or misread. With Swift, Byron and Carroll, Eliot was one of the great comic poets in English.

Knowing a man by the week-by-week crawl through his life is a bit like understanding a locust by examining the dried casing. Still, these letters do reveal the anxieties boiled down into “The Waste Land”…Together these volumes are like a long Russian novel that ends in midcareer, terrifying, humiliating and finally ­exhausting.

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.