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Studio view, South Boston

Art making is, for me, a zone of inchoate nonlinearity, one that does not have the Wallace Stevensish delineations* to mark direction or any measure of “progress” (a word that, these days in particular, seems to always need to wear a pair of quotes.) Mostly I am thankful for having worked that portal for so many years that the path in is a well worn one.

But there are times when a little more form can help, and a deadline serves that purpose. So I’ve been in the studio nonstop for the last 2 weeks, coaxing “works in progress” to consider changing their status to “named and signed.” It’s still uncertain how many made the jump.

There are moments in that full immersion when a glimpse of existential detachment emerges and asks with some harshness: Why you are doing this? What does it mean? There’s the personal answer (which is quite simply, I can’t NOT) but I was heartened by a reminder of the larger answer. Thanks to Maureen of Writing Without Paper whose energy and intelligence fills her blog with the useful and the inspirational, I was led to a memorable post on Venetian Red. Referring to a recent address by Bay Area sculptor Bruce Beasley at an Art in Action event, the post recapitulates the societal value of making and viewing art including pattern recognition, whole picture viewing, more multidimensional decision making.

These are topics I’ve written about here before. (Here’s a sampling: Thoughts about the work of Ellen Dissanayake, Finley Eversole and Ralph Waldo Emerson.) But timely reminders are a good thing.

In the meantime (and in the future), it is just chop wood, carry water.

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*By this I am referring to the last two stanzas of my all time favorite poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” by Wallace Stevens:


Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.


Listen, Tell, Draw at Bergamot Station

Another memorable exhibit seen while we were in LA: This one was at Bergamot Station (in Santa Monica) although not inside any of the many galleries at that location. Sponsored by the Santa Monica Museum, the installation featured the art of children responding to Wallace Stevens’ poem, 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird*. “Listen, Tell, Draw” is a project by installation artists Kim Schoenstadt and Rita McBride. They presented Wallace Stevens’ famous poem to classrooms of elementary school students and then asked them to tell the story “telephone” style. The works on the wall are versions of the original poem several iterations removed.

The work is so fresh, so engaging. Each child’s column felt uniquely rendered and non-derivative. Very cool.

Interestingly one of the most common “errors” promulgated somewhere in the listening and the telling was the one geographic place name referred to in the poem (see below). For these California students, Connecticut frequently transmogrified into Kentucky. Face it, when you are a child viewing the country from that western edge, things get bunched up as you look east. (This is like the west coast’s answer to the famous poster from the New Yorker, “The World As Seen From New York’s 9th Avenue.”)


Partner turned art maven Dave in front of “Listen, Tell, Draw”

*I have referenced Stevens’ legendary poem in earlier postings here and here.

The full text:

13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

shadow

I’m still combing the beach of Bly’s small book, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. In some ways this is a sequel to my earlier posting, The Thatness.

Bly is so open about his woundedness, in person and in his poetry. I don’t think I know of another poet who is so unabashedly brought to tears by the intention and influence of poetry and poetry making. Going to a Bly reading is like watching the street fill with water from a high pressure hydrant that has burst open. So no better voice to dig into this issue of shadow than his.

The last chapter of Bly’s book focuses on Wallace Stevens. Sigh. In many ways Bly comes down hard on Stevens’ later work, insisting that the later poems are as “weak as is possible for a genius to write.” His claim is that Stevens, for whatever reason, could not integrate his shadow into his proper, insurance executive, buttoned down self.

Here is Bly’s case:

There are some good poems, but somehow there are no further marriages in his work. Yeats’s work picked up more and more detail as it went on, the sensual shadow began to rise, the instinctual energy throws off its own clown clothes and fills more and more of the consciousness..

Why that did not happen to Stevens I don’t know for sure, but I think we have to look at his life for an explanation…We have the sense that Wallace Stevens’s relation to the shadow followed a pattern that has since become familiar among American artists: he brings the shadow into his art, but makes no changes in the way he lives. The European artists—at least Yeats, Tolstoy, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rilke—seem to understand better that the shadow has to be lived too, as well as accepted in the work of art. The implication of all their art is that each time a man or woman succeeds in making a line so rich and alive with the senses, as full of darkness as : “quail/Whistle about s their spontaneous cries” he must from then on live differently…

Wallace Stevens was not willing to change his way of life…He kept the house fanatically neat, evidently slept in a separate bedroom for thirty or forty years, made his living through the statistical mentality, and kept his business and poetry life separate—all of which amounted to keeping his dominant personality and his shadow personality separate in his daily life.

This willingness to allow life to follow where the art making goes speaks to the two quotes in the post just below as well. There is something undeniably irrevocable about descent, about the willingness to step into the forbidden territory that is the shadow. Bly makes reference to the 17th century theologian and philosopher Jakob Böhme who started one of his books by advising the reader to not go further unless he or she is willing to make real changes in his/her every day life. Otherwise, says Böhme, this book will be bad for you. In fact, dangerous.

Bly as the crotchety old guy he can be, claims that a whole generation of artists have come into being and have never faced this very personal and very particular dilemma. Is it the absence of some serious skin in the game? I see a lot of visual art that has made no demands on the artist’s interior life whatsoever. For this approach to visual expression (and one that is becoming the de rigeur approach of contemporary art pedagogy), the approved loci for work is the detached and depersonalized arena of politics and/or social commentary. My poet friends may have a similar map of how contemporary poetry migrated from where Yeats and others were heading.

No answers here. But the provocations are hefty.

MTAuburn
From a distance

arboretum
Closer still

I’ve been in a silent streak these last few days. Is it because the fall is so exceptionally beautiful this year that I am feeling even more speechless than usual? Perhaps. But also I think it is because I’m deep in a dig. This time it is a new curiosity about shadow. You know, that incorrigibly vague term that can mean anything from our darker impulses to that which we cannot see or accept. What I’m looking for is vague but it has something to do with art making, creativity, sourcing, the interior archaeology. That’s about all I know so far.

Robert Bly’s slight volume, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, is a brisk short walk with Bly’s poetic sense on the topic. As is my usual response to Bly, there are times when his take on a thing grabs hold of me with its authenticity and won’t let go, and other times when his flailing just floats out of earshot. The chapter on Wallace Stevens has attached itself to me for several days. He has strong opinions about how my favorite (and extremely complex) poet navigated (or failed to navigate) the shadow in mining his poetic gifts. I’m still sorting through what I’ll keep and what I’ll give away on that subject. But here’s a passage that has resonated with me since I read it:

William James warned his students that a certain kind of mind-set was approaching the West—it could hardly be called a way of thought—in which no physical details are noticed. Fingernails are not noticed, trees in the plural are mentioned, but no particular tree is ever loved, nor where it stands; the air in the ear it not noticed…Since the immense range of color belongs to physical detail—the thatness—of the universe, it is the inability to see color. People with this mind-set have minds that resemble white nightgowns. For people with this mind-set, there’s not much difference between 3 and 742; the count of something is a detail. In fact the number they are most interested in, as James noted, is one. That’s a number without physical detail.

Bly turns to Steven’s poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico” as a way of freeing one’s self from this mind set and avoid being “murdered” by it:

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

Trees. Tree. Leaves. Leaf. All. Nothing. Everything.

berries
Increasingly granular

vendler-600
Wallace Stevens, right, with Robert Frost in Key West, circa 1940 (Photo, Alfred A. Knopf)

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler reviews the first edition of Wallace Stevens’ poetry to be published in 20 years. This new volume is the work of John Serio, editor of the Wallace Stevens Journal and by Vendler’s assessment, a person of “unerring taste.” I have an admittedly endless appetite for anything Stevens, so of course this is good news.

And Vendler’s review is worthy of a full read. The Stevens who was famously proper and private (many a graduate student tried, and failed, to pry some of the personal out of him) gives way to a man who, like the rest of us, struggled with life and experienced profound sadness. He was estranged from his parents and unhappy in his marriage. As Vendler notes, “because of his fierce reticence (rather like that of Emily Dickinson, whom he admired), Stevens wrote symbolic rather than transcriptive poetry. How differently might a reader take in ‘Burghers of Petty Death’ if it had been called ‘A Son’s Lament for His Dead Parents,’ or ‘The Snow Man’ if it had been called ‘Stoicism in a Failed Marriage’?”

As many times as I have read and recited “The Snow Man”* (it was one of several Stevens poems I memorized it when I was still a teenager), I did not think of those words as a reference to Stevens’ loveless marriage. Read with that as the context, the poem takes on a sense of the profoundly grief-filled exposure that exists in both the internal and external landscapes.

I also admire the way Vendler identifies the polarities that exist in Stevens’ work, a tension in his poetry that I find so compelling: “Stevens’s poetry oscillates, throughout his life, between verbal ebullience and New England spareness, between the high rhetoric of England (and of religion) and the “plain sense of things” that he sometimes felt to be more American (and more faithful to reality). He would swear off one, then swear off the other, but each was a part of his sensibility.”

Vendler also steps out to view his work from the larger arc of 20th century life:

Stevens’s conscience made him confront the chief issues of his era: the waning of religion, the indifferent nature of the physical universe, the theories of Marxism and socialist realism, the effects of the Depression, the uncertainties of philosophical knowledge, and the possibility of a profound American culture, present and future. Others treated those issues, but very few of them possessed Stevens’s intuitive sense of both the intimate and the sublime, articulated in verse of unprecedented invention, phrased in a marked style we now call “Stevensian” (as we would say “Keatsian” or “Yeatsian”). In the end, he arrived at a firm sense of a universe dignified by human endeavor but surrounded always — as in the magnificent sequence “The Auroras of Autumn” — by the “innocent” creations and destructions within the universe of which he is part.

A poetic sensibility of the both/and, and one that continues to feed, inspire, provoke.

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* Here is the full text of the poem which many consider to be the finest short poem ever written in English. (There’s lots of commentary on this famous work, but you can read a short one by Jay Keyser on NPR.)

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

375px-William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Elegy_(1899)
Elegy, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) who was in fact the most successful and popular painter of his era, the very embodiment of everything the Impressionists were fighting against.

I’ve had some provocative back and forths with Lisa the Poet regarding what poems can and cannot do. Poetry that is about poetry: Valid? The abuse of “poetic language.” What topics are acceptable for the poetic form?

As is often the case, something invariably crosses my screen that sheds some light on a particular subject that is provoking my thinking. Grabbing an issue from my “it never seems to get any smaller” pile of Times Book Reviews, I just read through one dating from March of last year where I found a review of Elegy, a volume of poems by Mary Jo Bang, written by David Orr.

Bang’s book deals with the death of her son. Orr’s discussion of the limits of language—in particular, the language of poetry—as well as the concept of the elegy and how those issues are play out in that form proved to be very helpful. I don’t think this is a question that has answers, but I found Orr’s insights deepened my own sense, as inarticulate as that may be, into what poetry can and cannot do.

Here’s an excerpt from that review:


“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop tells us — and yet artistry can often seem the least appropriate response to the misery of loss. When pain is primitive and specific, as it is after the death of a loved one, then we don’t want an exquisite performance filled with grand abstractions. What we want is to go beyond art, beyond society and beyond speech itself, as Lear does when he enters carrying the body of his daughter and crying, “Howl howl howl howl!” We want heaven’s vault to crack. We want the veil parted and the bone laid bare. This is what Tennyson meant when he wrote in Canto 54 of “In Memoriam,” his tribute to his friend Arthur Hallam, that his grief left him “no language but a cry.”

Still, “In Memoriam” is over 1,000 lines long, which is a lot of language any way you slice it. This points toward one of the central paradoxes of the modern private elegy. The closer a poet is to the subject he elegizes, the more we expect him to respond in ways that aren’t “poetic” — but it takes craft to make a poem seem uncrafted, and it takes words to show how short our words can fall. As a result, the elegist is forced to go through increasingly complicated contortions in order to sound sufficiently simple. He finds himself in the awkward position of orchestrating a death wail. Now, one might respond that many (too many) poems meditate on the limits of speech, and that would be true. But it’s equally true that nobody reads a poem about Lacanian theory the same way one reads a poem about the poet’s dead child. Any elegist must confront this fact.

That confrontation can be especially problematic for a certain type of contemporary poet. Stevens accused Frost of writing about “subjects,” to which Frost retorted that Stevens wrote about “bric-a-brac.” The dominant contemporary American style, with its self-conscious intellectualism, evasiveness and preoccupation with “language itself” is firmly on the side of bric-a-brac. This style, like all styles, may be put to any use, but it will always approach its goals through the backdoor via head fakes, double bluffs, rope tricks and an elaborate system of pulleys. It’s a strategy poorly suited to “subjects” in general, let alone the intractable subject that haunts an elegy.

But the best stylists thrive when challenged. This is perhaps why Mary Jo Bang largely succeeds in her new book of elegies for her son, called, simply enough, “Elegy.” Bang’s previous four collections are polished and frequently interesting, but they also contain more than their share of overwrought and overthought poetry about poetry. Sure, a poem might be called “Open Heart Surgery,” but by Line 14 we’d discover that “all the while, the ghost of Gertrude Stein / was whispering in my ear.” Bang’s last book, “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon,” consisted entirely of poems about other works of art (“Always asking, has this this been built / Or is it all process?”), which for a bric-a-brac poet is the equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie about a troop of overgrown adolescents who collect meerschaum pipes and have mommy issues — in other words, pretty much what you’d expect.

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently with other bloggers (as well as some committed non-bloggers) about the pros and cons of what this thing is that so many of us are collectively doing. So finding this quote in the “Up Front” section of the Sunday Times Book Review seemed well timed.

Leah Hager Cohen wrote the cover review ov The Mercy Papers by Robin Romm, a memoir about the death of Romm’s mother. The Book Review editors added this sidebar about Cohen herself:

Cohen has written extensively about her mother on her blog, Love as a Found Object, which she started in 2006 “in a state of serious mortification, giving in at last to my agent’s urging. I hated the ugliness of the word ‘blog’ and the kind of self-involvement I associated with blogging. But then I found myself wondering whether it could be a space for playing and working with the idea of my mother’s illness.” Cohen pointed out that Romm uses the metaphor of death as a boat trip, as the dying person floats away: “It’s funny because I often think of my postings as little paper boats. I launch them when I click ‘publish,’ and then they float off, beyond my control, perhaps to capsize or disintegrate. I find this loss of control only slightly scary, and vital.”

I resonate with a lot of what Cohen says. I hate the word blog–it IS ugly. And I remember when the self indulgence, “love me, love my dog, and every stupid detail of my life as well” impression of blogging drove me from engaging for several years. My feelings changed of course. Now I view this ever expanding, loopy, overpopulated cacophony of voices that is the blogosphere as an endless beach where you go to find the treasures that float in.

Cohen’s little paper boats work just fine with that image. In my mind I see exquisitely crafted, delicate vessels, with lights that flash on and off at night, filling the horizon with wonderment. And oddly enough, all that imaging brings me right back to some of my favorite lines in all of poetry (thank you, Wallace):

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh, Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

boats

One of my blogging heros and friends is G at Writer Not Reading. She has invited her readers to post their favorite poems so of course I will post mine here since I am always eager to share it.

Stevens has been my favorite poet since I was 17, the same year I memorized this poem. It’s still in me. Reciting it to myself over the years has brought me solace hundreds of times.

Be advised: It is much better spoken than read.

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

–Wallace Stevens

amory2w.jpg
Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

amoryw.jpg
View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand