24 December 2005

Apple Dropping into Deep Early Snow

A jay settled on a branch, making it sway.
The one shriveled fruit that remained
gave way to the deepening drift below.
I happened to see it the moment it fell.

Dusk is eager and comes early. A car
creeps over the hill. Still in the dark I try
to tell if I am numbered with the damned,
who cry, outraged, Lord, when did we see You?

~ Jane Kenyon

16 December 2005

García Márquez involved in peace talks

Peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government began today in Havana, Cuba. Gabo has gotten involved in these historic meetings:
The Government, the Eln and citizen guarantors agreed yesterday on a list of those attending the inauguration of conversations they will hold today in Cuba, among them the Nobel Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Additionally, delegates informed the three parties set the start of the "formal exploratory meeting" that seeks to initiate a process of reconciliation, for 5:00 in the afternoon. Delegates of the three parties will attend the inauguration, plus Cuban Government officials, representatives of the accompanying countries.
Colombian newspaper El Tiempo has more (includes photo):
“Estoy pesimista como siempre, pero optimista como cada vez que hemos empezado estos esfuerzos”, afirmó el Nobel.
("'I'm pessimistic as always, but optimistic every time we have begun these efforts,' affirmed the Nobel.")

Deserving writers

Yet one more reason to love the litbloggers! The Underrated Writers Project is a necessary antidote to those end-of-the-year lists that tend to blur into one another. Jeff and TJ (of Syntax of Things and Creekside Review, respectively) have compiled links and info on 55 writers that are very much deserving of your attention. The suggestions came from
15 different litbloggers who hailed from four continents (North and South America, Europe, and Australia). Of these 55 writers, we had only two who received more than one vote. In addition, the writers ranged from obscure Brazilian poets to a surrealist painter to young adult science fiction writers. Some names are familiar; others we're sure you won't recognize.
Feel free to take a look around and add your own comments and recommendations (plus, check out my own picks).

15 December 2005

The Poem as Mask


When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, god-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself.

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued child
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

~ Muriel Rukeyser, born on this day in 1913

08 December 2005

Wind inside a letterbox

Hunter Davies remembers...
The first memory that always comes back is swimming in John's pool at his house in Weybridge. I'd gone to spend the day with him, but when I arrived, it turned out he had decided it was a day for not talking. I walked round his garden with him, not talking. Cynthia made lunch and we ate it, not talking. I sat with John in his cramped little den, under a sticker saying "Safe as Milk" while he watched children's television, not talking.

Then we had a swim, round and round in his pool, not talking, but while we were swimming, we suddenly heard the noise of a police siren floating up the hill from Weybridge itself. It was giving that familiar two-note wail - Ah, ahh, ah ahh, ah, ahh. John started playing with the two notes - humming them, while not actually talking.

Then he went inside, went to his piano, till he had turned the two notes into a song, or at least half a song. John was very good at half songs, quickly growing bored, often needing Paul to coax the other half out of him. A lot of their joint working sessions were like competitions - to show the other what they could do, or make the other do better.

That particular tune didn't appear on any record till Let It Be, when I recognised it on "Across the Universe".

07 December 2005

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.

~ Wallace Stevens

(A friend asked for my view of this poem. I'm no Helen Vendler, but I'll give it a shot.)

Robert Pack notes that Stevens "dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully." This would be a perfect analysis but for that last phrase--I think it's quite the opposite. Once divested of mind, of the intrusions of personality, the scene can finally "exist fully."

He goes on to explain,
We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification.
I'd change that last word to "unification." Deep understanding requires more than mere identification. It isn't empathy for the snow man that occurs (or for winter, emptiness, deprivation, loss), but a process of becoming. A transformation into what is initially perceived erases distinctions between "cold" and "warm," "bare" and "full." This lack of differentiation produces "nothingness"--or, at least, its illusion ("the nothing that is").

On a purely subjective note, the poems speaks to me of the nature of grief and the resignation that follows loss. It is only with time that things become bearable--not because grief fades, but because the self conforms to it until perception is subsumed completely. I'm reminded of Emily Dickinson's lines,
After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--
It isn't a negative process, it simply is.

UPDATE: Anne offers some lovely thoughts re. Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf on the consolation found in turning to the Greeks: "What Penelope, Antigone, Electra, and Clytemnestra all show is the power of inconsolability, the fidelity and courage of a mourning that never ends."

Necessary absurdity

Umberto Eco on the decline of religion and the ascent of credulity:
I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together - as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions - which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

06 December 2005

All things are poetical

Yesterday I received the latest newsletter from my new favorite website, the Poetry International Web. It features an insightful interview with Chandrakant Shah, a Boston-based Gujarati poet:
The rhythm of life became my writing, and my writing became the rhythm of life. I love that line from Longfellow: “As to the pure mind all things are pure, so to the poetic mind all things are poetical.” [...]

The form of poetry nourishes our roots; it sustains us in elemental ways. We grow up with poetry, starting with lullabies, farming songs, songs hummed on the streets, nursery rhymes. Some people abandon poetry as they grow up while others carry it with them. [...]

If I didn’t live in the US, I suspect I’d never have written my long poem, ‘Rear View Mirror’, which is a comment on desi (local Indian) life in America. Many Gujarati critics shy away writing about my poems because they can’t understand where I am coming from.

My poetry emerges from long drives, speeding tickets, golf lessons, river rafting, gambling on football in Las Vegas and standing endlessly on the sidewalks of Manhattan. I write while driving. The faster I drive, the better I write. Most of the Blue Jeans collection was written at the steering wheel of my Honda Accord.
The site also features "six young new urban Marathi voices, and an Italian poet writing on Japan while living in Paris."


In today's column at Inside Higher Ed, Margaret Soltan pinpoints the source of decay in current English departments and posits a solution--a return to the "direct experience" of literary texts:
The political and more broadly theoretical abstractions that have been thrown over the artwork from the outset, as it’s often presented in class, block precisely this complex, essentially aesthetic experience. This experience, triggered by a patient engagement of some duration with challenging and beautiful language, by entry into a thickly layered world which gives shape and substance to one’s own inchoate “cravings” and “longings,” is the very heart, the glory, of the literary. Students — some students — arrive at the university with precisely these powerful ontological energies. Certain novels, poems, and plays, if they let them, can surprise these students, both with their anticipation of particularly acute states of consciousness, and their placement of those consciousnesses within formally ordered literary structures.

One of the noblest and most disciplinarily discrete things we can do in the classroom is to take those ontological drives seriously, to suggest ways in which great works of art repeatedly honor and clarify them as they animate them through character, style, and point of view.

One of the least noble and most self-defeating things we can do is avert our student’s eye from the peculiar, delicate, and enlightening transaction I’m trying to describe here. When we dismiss this transaction as merely “moral” — or as proto-religious — rather than political, when we rush our students forward to formulated political beliefs, we fail them and we fail literature. Humanistic education is a slow process of assimilation, without any clear real-world point to it. We should trust our students enough to guide them lightly as they work their way toward the complex truths literature discloses.

04 December 2005

Remembering Rilke

"It is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything. I am not able to begin. I simply skip what should be the beginning."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke,
born on this day in 1875

Selections from Letters to a Young Poet (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

"In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn't matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn't force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!" ~ 23 April 1903

"If you trust in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." ~ 16 July 1903

"And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, when ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn't it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? Or don't you think that someone who once had him could only be lost by him? - But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride - and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him - what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost? Why don't you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are?" ~ 23 December 1903

"It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation." ~ 14 May 1904

"We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." ~ 12 August 1904
Poems are not . . . simply emotions . . . they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things . . . and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you have long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained . . .; to childhood illnesses . . . to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel . . . and it is still not enough. -- The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

"It would not be enough for a poet to have memories," said Rainer Maria Rilke's protagonist and oracle, the young poet Malte Laurids Brigge. "You must be able to forget them." His author lived by that credo, saving and storing each life experience before expunging it with cold dedication.

It is not difficult to imagine a setting for these remarks: the dingy room on the Left Bank of Paris by the flickering kerosene lamp, the poet's pen scratching on paper pulled out of stacks heaped on table and chairs; or perhaps, as so often in the Bibliotheque Nationale, amid silence, clearing throats, and shuffling feet; or a few years later in a cottage near Rome, or later still in the dying Swedish summer, under a beech tree.

Until the end, the poet knew that real life finally exists only within, waiting to become something other than itself.
~ from Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke by Ralph Freedman

(After Rilke)

Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
From viewing things already too well-known,
Lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
And put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
Then close your eyes and gently set it free.

~ Dana Gioia