January 28, 2012

In All, There Were Three Things by Fernando Pessoa

de todo, quedaron tres cosas:
la certeza de que estaba siempre comenzando,
la certeza de que había que seguir
y la certeza de que sería interrumpido
antes de terminar.
Hacer de la interrupción un camino nuevo,
hacer de la caida, un paso de danza,
del miedo, una escalera,
del sueño, un puente, de la búsqueda,...un encuentro

by Fernando Pessoa

In all, there were three things:
the certainty one is always beginning 
the certainty one must go further
and the certainty that one will be interrupted before finishing.

From the interruptions, to make a new path,
from falling, a dance step,
from fear, a ladder
from dream, a bridge, from search...the encounter

By Fernando Pessoa
Translated by Cecilia Ramon and Sheila Packa

Note: the original text was written in Portuguese

These words by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa express the frustrations of being a writer or artist. I post them here to remind myself of the fact that each new project has these three things.  Art is capability, and maybe the best art flourishes in the tension between failure and success. The writer or artist learns how to use limitations productively in the service of creating the new work. In my mind, the best artists and writers are always exploring  -- whether that is beings, objects or obstacles -- and learning new approaches, techniques, and methods.  I remind myself -- so easy to forget -- that my muse has a name: Seek. 

January 23, 2012

Quotes from the Masters

"Poetry is made up of nothing except beautiful details."   --Voltaire

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; prose—words in their best order; poetry—the best words in their best order.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk (July 12, 1827)

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
-- Walt Whitman,  from Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way.  --Emily Dickinson

In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions. The only danger is in not going far enough. The usable truth here deals with change. But we are speaking of the human spirit. If we go deep enough, we reach the common life, the shared experience of man, the world of possibility.  If we do not go deep, if we live and write half-way, there are the obscurity, vulgarity, the slang of fashion, and several kinds of death.
--Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry

Walking, like prose, has a definite aim....When the man who is walking has reached his goal...when he was reached the place, book, fruit, the object of his desire...this possession at once entirely annuls his whole act; the effect swallows up the cause, the end absorbs the means; and whatever the act, only the result remains. It is the same with utilitarian language: the language I use to express my design, my desire, my command, my opinion; this language, when it has served its purpose, evaporates almost as it is heard....The poem, on the other hand, does not die for having lived: it is expressly designed to be born again from its ashes and to become endlessly what it has just been. Poetry can be recognized by this property, that it tends to get itself reproduced in its own form: it stimulates us to reconstruct it identically. 
-- Paul Valery, "Poetry and Abstract Thought," The Art of Poetry

The difference between the action of a poem and and of an ordinary narrative is physiological.
--Paul Valery, "Remarks on Poetry," The Art of Poetry

January 21, 2012

Making Poems and Love

The Mother Tongue contains a middle section of erotic love poems.  Most of these are ekphrastic poems created in response to a traveling exhibit of black and white photographs of lesbian erotica by a Canadian collective Kiss and Tell. A postcard book was issued at the time, called Drawing the Line. 

The photographs are created by women for women, and the images are a sequence from sweet flirtation to sex to role-playing sex, gender-bending, then to nudes in outdoor settings on through images of sadomasochism. The exhibit posed the question: where do you draw the line?  The galleries and exhibit spaces placed writing utensils and paper on the wall for viewers to respond. The responses varied from pleasure to outrage.

If there is a connection between love and good writing, then it's the body.  Many poets write the erotic. This poem by Donald Hall (see the New Yorker January 23, 2012 for his wonderful essay about aging) creates a couple making love, and his focus on the color gold fascinates me.  It's as if he has set this moment in amber to keep for all eternity. The sense of enclosure is palpable, the walls of the room echoed by the sides of the clear bowl that holds the yellow roses.  The other focus is centers of daisies, the couple centered in the room, and the light.


Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

The stanza break in this poem travels forward in time, beyond the deaths of these two lovers in a fascinating and satisfying figurative leap, the "tiny identical rooms inside our bodies"
where gold light will remain.  The "o" sound resonates through this poem, solemn, orchestral, and extraordinary.  It is as if the poet were spinning honey. 

If there is one mantra spoken by writing teachers, it might be this: write with the five senses. If writers forget physicality, we forget the source of pleasure. This poem by "Little Lion Face" by May Swenson uses all the sensual and erotic possibilities of the body.  Here is an excerpt:
Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.  Now I'm bold
to touch your swollen neck,
put careful lips to slick
petals, snuff up gold

pollen in your navel cup.

There are two bodies connecting, interacting, in this poem. The narrator feels "barbs hooked to my hand, sudden stings," and the dandelion she has described with "swollen neck" and a "navel cup."  The entire poem delivers this level of intense connection. The sibilance, the s sounds, abound and the vowel sounds, or assonance, lends more richness. Later in the poem, echoing the succulent, the poet twice repeats the word, suck. And the erotic energy amazes, considering the topic is a dandelion.  She makes love with her words. The reader is transported. 

Transport is a very apt word. The use of figurative language, associational leaps of time and space, and ecstatic moments of being are the realm of poetry.  In another poem by Mark Doty, "A Display of Mackerel," we find a juxtaposition of mackerel at a fish market with a Tiffany stained glass window and jewels displayed in a shop.  The "iridescent, watery, prismatics" can transport us between the body of a fish, to a soap bubble, to gems in a glass case.

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window. 

It's a meditation on love and death, this meditation on mackerel.  Doty heightens the effect by
the use of high contrast. The fish are displayed on crushed ice, quickly followed by an image 
of sun on gasoline. The particular is considered along with the multitude. He puts no boundary
between the natural and the created, fish scale and jeweler's enamels, dead and alive. All is 
beauty.  "They're all exact expressions/ of the one soul..."  and 

Suppose we could iridesce, 

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer--would you want

to be yourself only
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost?  They'd prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

With mackerel, no less, Doty strikes at the fundamental questions of the individual and
communal. What is it for, he seems to ask, except for what he calls in The Art of Description,

Love, love, love. That's what all these poems are about. They demonstrate how poets enter 
writing through the body, explore with the senses, and leap into the figurative, reaching the 
metaphysical, all the while remaining connected to the physical body. 

Doty has a new book about writing, The Art of Description: World Into Word (Graywolf Press,
2010) that I recommend.  From a poets perspective, he examines splendid descriptive work
by various poets, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Swenson, and that of many
others beside an abecedarian guide. 


Kiss & Tell Collective. (1991). Drawing the line: Lesbian sexual politics on the wall. Vancouver,
BC: Press Gang Publishers.

n.a. "Erotic and Pornographic Art: Lesbian," GLBTQ. An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture.  2002.  Retrieved 08 August 2007. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/erotic_art_lesbian.html

"Gold" by Donald Hall

"Little Lion Face" by May Swenson

"A Display of Mackerel by Mark Doty

January 2, 2012

The Use of the Past: Reading Virginia Woolf's Sketch of the Past

Memory is a rich source of material for all poets and writers. It is the substance of memoir but also a major part of fiction and poetry. What we notice, what images resonate, what our mind fastens upon -- what fascinates -- changes over time. I've been reading a wonderful work about origins: Virginia Woolf, in "A Sketch of the Past," wrote:

"I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories -- what one has forgotten -- come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible -- I often wonder -- that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it -- the past -- as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There are the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start."

Each of us possesses those moments of great intensity that live in our mind, that actually illuminate and cast light on other events and become part of our perception. We listen to the past.

These moments make us who we are. Our listening to the past takes us back to events that are moments of intense sensation and awareness. Moments of being, Virginia Woolf calls them. And it isn't only events -- day dreams or night dreams like her own dream of the looking glass where she saw the frightening face of an animal in the background also create our consciousness. They are our dream of life.

Each writer has their own set of images, words, and sounds that are unique. These are repeated through one's body of work. Kate Green, a writing teacher, poet and novelist from Minneapolis, called these "totemic images" because they are very deep and they are in fact sources for the individual writer that yield again and again.

In writing, these are coordinates on the map that one might call the self. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch everything through these moments of being. It gives our work dimension and depth. Woolf said:

"I was thinking about Stella as we crossed the Channel a month ago. I have not given her a thought since. The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand time deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason -- that it destroys the fullness of life -- any break -- like that of house moving -- causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters. As I say to L: "What's there real about this? Shall we ever live a real life again?" "At Monk's House," he says. So I write this, taking a morning off...I write this partly in order to recover my sense of the present by getting the past to shadow this broken surface. Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream."

I write a lot, essay, poetry and fiction. It seems difficult now to distinguish kinds of writing -- memoir or nonfiction, fiction or poetry -- except by considering the external form, the writer's intent, and the purpose of the language. We want memoir and biography to be based on facts. of course. But it is a creation or a re-creation.

In fiction, the writer can create the facts to make a drama. Fiction captures the heightened moments of being and those other moments that mundane and the unremarkable in every life. "Non-being" according to Woolf -- "those moments lived not consciously." She said: "The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being."

Poetry (including prose poems) seems to have a shorter circuit, an immediate arrival at being, through its compression, physicality, language and music. Poetry has the capability of simultaneity. To me, it is the invention or device that Woolf wanted. Good writing does help us "plug in" and live our lives through from the start.

Schulkind, Jeanne, Editor. Moments of Being: Virginia Woolf. Second Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, San Diego, New York, London. c1985 by Quentin Bell and Angelica Garnett.