Sunday, March 27, 2011

Quote du Jour - Expert Advice

Here, in one succinct sentence from an essay by Charles Simic, is the very essence of what one needs to keep in mind, if one's project is create good poetry:

An archangel is much more interesting in the company of a pig than a saint in prayer.

Think about it. With whom are your imagined angels keeping company?


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Readings: The Cosmic Concrete

This poem by Charles Simic, from his collection My Noiseless Entourage expresses my attitude toward existence in the material universe, just about perfectly:


Never-yet-equaled, wide-screen blockbuster
That grew more and more muddled
After a spectacular opening shot.
The pace, even for the most patient
Killingly slow despite the promise
Of a show-stopping, eye-popping ending:
The sudden shriveling of the whole
To its teensy starting point, erasing all –
including this bag of popcorn we are sharing.

Yes, an intriguing but finally irritating
Puzzle with no answer forthcoming tonight
From the large cast of stars and galaxies
In what may be called a prodigious
Expenditure of time, money and talent.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said
Just as her upraised eyes grew moist
And she confided to me, much too loudly,
“I have never seen anything so beautiful.”

Both takes on it are mine, from one time to another…

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflections: Fighting the Blues

Looking at the date on my last blog post, I realize that I’ve been neglecting it for some time. There are multiple reasons for this. One reason is Facebook. Tending to the attentions of one’s Facebook friends becomes a time-consuming activity. It is pleasant, but it is a distraction from reading and writing. The site becomes a low and friendly fence over which one pleasantly wastes time gabbing with the neighbors. These things need to be consciously balanced, or things get out of hand.

Secondly, I’ve been spending a good portion of my free time reading the books of some newly discovered poets, Charles Simic in particular—as has been obvious both to my FB friends and to any other readers of this blog. But, in addition to Simic, I’ve been reading Mark Strand and Bill Knott. A Facebook friend also recently turned me on to Mary Oliver and I’ve been checking her work out online.

In addition to reading poetry, I’ve been writing a lot of it. I’ve posted at least one new piece every day of the week for several weeks straight. It has been an almost unprecedented burst of creativity for me—and I am grateful for it. Here’s a little exemplary tidbit:


He awoke
xxxxxxxxxxfrom a dream
xxxxxxxxxxin which
xxxxxxxxxxhe had been
xxxxxxxxxxto smother
xxxxxxxxxxEve's apple
xxxxxxxxxxa pillow.

Finally, however, for a complex of reasons which I’m not going to go into, I’ve also been battling depression for a couple of weeks. Some of the afore-mentioned Facebook friends have noted hints of this in the poetry I’ve been posting recently.

As so often happens with intensely directed reading, the reader will pick up a book and open the pages to find there exactly what his intellect, or his spirit, needs to find at that very moment. This happened to (or, more accurately, for me) recently, at the depths of my depression.

I previously wrote about my readings in The Philokalia (follow the link, if you want more information on that.) Feeling very blue one morning, I picked that book up for the first time in a long time, and on the very page I opened to, I found the excerpts which follow. I think it will be immediately apparent how appropriate they were (and are) to understanding the nature of my psychic affliction. That which Evagiros refers to as “demons,” we now have a variety of psychological terms for; but the psychic mechanisms are described by this 4th century Christian monk with truly mind-boggling accuracy:

Evagrios the Solitary (b. 345 or 346)

11. All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thought of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). Now if this demon attacks only to a moderate degree, he makes the anchorite more resolute; for he encourages him to seek nothing worldly and to shun all pleasures. But when the demon remains for longer, he encourages the soul to give up, for forces it to run away. Even Job was tormented by this demon, and it was because of this that he said: ‘O that I might lay hands upon myself, or at least ask someone else to this for me’ (Job 30:24. LXX)

The symbol of this demon is the viper. When used in moderation for man’s good, its poison is an antidote against that of other venomous creatures, but when taken in excess it kills whoever takes it. It was to this demon that Paul delivered the man at Corinth who had fallen into sin. That is why he quickly wrote again to the Corinthians saying: ‘Confirm you love towards him…lest perhaps he should be swallowed up with too great dejection’ (2 Cor. 2:7-8). He knew that this spirit, in troubling men, can also bring about true repentance. It was for this reason that St John the Baptist gave the name ‘progeny of vipers’ to those who were goaded by the spirit to seek refuge in God, saying: ‘Who has warned you to flee from the anger to come? Bring forth fruits, then, that testify to your repentance; and do not think that you can just say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father’ (Matt. 3:7-9). But if a man imitates Abraham and leaves his country and kindred (cf. Gen.12:1), he thereby becomes stronger than this demon.

These two paragraphs represent only those passages of the teachings of Evagiros on “dejection” which I chose at the time to copy out for the use to which they have now been put. I urge any person who values the contemplation of things psycho-spiritual to investigate the Philokalia and any other writings of the Desert Fathers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Readings: Still More Simic

I continue to be obsessed with both the poetry and the prose of Charles Simic. In his excellent book, The World Doesn't End, I found the following two passages, each of which seems to speak especially to me, and my present condition:

Once I knew, then I forgot. It was as if I had fallen asleep in a field only to discover at waking that a grove of trees had grown up around me.
"Doubt nothing, believe everything," was my friend's idea of metaphysics, although his brother ran away with his wife. He still bought her a rose every day, sat in the empty house for the next twenty years talking to her about the weather.
I was already dozing off in the shade, dreaming that the rustling trees were my many selves explaining themselves all at the same time so that I could not make out a single word. My life was a beautiful mystery on the verge of understanding, always on the verge! Think of it!
My friend's empty house with every one of its windows lit. The dark trees multiplying all around it.


The time of the minor poets is coming. Good-bye Whitman, Dickinson, Frost. Welcome you whose fame will never reach beyond your closest family, and perhaps one or two good friends gathered after dinner over a jug of fierce red wine...while the children are falling asleep and complaining about the noise you're making as you rummage through the closets for your old poems, afraid your wife might've thrown them out with last spring's cleaning.
It's snowing, says someone who has peeked into the dark night, and then he, too, turns towards you as you prepare yourself to read, in a manner somewhat theatrical and with a face turning red, the long rambling love poem whose final stanza (unknown to you) is hopelessly missing.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Quote(s) du Jour: Simic on Poets and Poetry

Some ratiocination of Charles Simic on the subjects of poets and poetry:

There are three kinds of poets: Those who write without thinking, those who think while writing, and those who think before writing.

Awe (as in Dickinson) is the beginning of metaphysics. The awe at the multiplicity of things and awe at their suspected unity.

To make something that doesn’t yet exist, but which after its creation would look as if it always existed.

The never-suspected, the always-awaited, the immediately recognized new poem. It’s like Christ’s Second Coming.

“What do poets really want?” I was asked that once by a clever professor of philosophy. It was late at night and we were drinking a lot of wine, so I just said the first thing that came into my mind: “They want to know about things that cannot be put into words.”

Metaphor offers the opportunity for my inwardness to connect itself with the world out there. All things are related, and that knowledge resides in my unconscious.

The poets and writers I admire stood alone. Philosophy, too, is always alone. Poetry and philosophy make slow solitary readers.

A recent critic has enumerated what he calls “the lexicon” of recent poetry. The words mentioned as occurring repeatedly are: wings, stones, silence, breath, snow, blood, water, light, bones, roots, jewels, glass, absence, sleep, darkness. The accusation is that the words are used as ornaments. It doesn’t occur to the critic that these words could have an intense life for a mind with an imaginative and even a philosophical bent.

[all excerpts from pp. 44-45 of The Monster Loves His Labyrinth]


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Readings & Reflections: Simic, Haiku, and the Blues

I plan to kill at least two birds with the one stone that is this post. Or rather, to eliminate the violent imagery, let’s just say that I plan to settle at least two perceived debts. (Fly on and be well, little bird!)

Item #1: I wish at this time to give an overdue plug to the beautiful blog, Life at Willow Manor, and to Tess Kincaid who writes it. It was this post at that blog which introduced me to the wonderful work of Charles Simic—an investigation that I’d been putting off for years. (At this point, I would usually find a link to a site somewhere dedicated to Charles Simic. But I’m not going to do that. Persons who take the trouble to make that inquiry themselves shall be doubly rewarded by encountering Simic, as well as by their sense of accomplishment in having made the effort.)

Item #2: I had stated to my Facebook friend, Phillip Maguire—after Phillip posted a haiku—that I would dig out some examples of haiku that I wrote years ago and share them. My primary reason for doing so was to provide a demonstration of why I stopped trying to write haiku many years ago. It was my contention that, as a Zen art form, haiku is beyond my ken. The Zen sensibility necessary to successfully and authentically work within the form is a thing which I do not possess, since I do not practice Zen. I have some intellectual knowledge of Zen, true. But I cannot claim to see my world through the eyes of a daily practitioner of that religion. I got some blowback on Facebook for voicing that contention, but not a whole lot.

Segue: Now here is how Items #1 and #2 come together: In the pursuit of my new-found interest in both the poetry and the prose of Charles Simic, I came across a short essay entitled “No Cure for the Blues” in the anthology of his “essays and memoirs,” The Unemployed Fortune Teller. [highly recommended] Consider the following excerpt from that essay in the light of the comments I just made above concerning haiku:

The blues prove the complete silliness of any theory of cultural separatism which denies the possibility of aesthetic experience outside one’s race, ethnicity, religion, or even gender. Like all genuine art, the blues belong to a specific time, place and people which it then, paradoxically, transcends. The secret of its transcendence lies in its minor key and its poetry of solitude. Lyric poetry has no closer relation any where than the blues…etc.

The key sentence here is, of course, the first, which would seem to proclaim “the complete silliness” of my expressed point of view regarding haiku.

However, while I must admit that it calls my perspective into question, I would still argue that my position is a valid one. It is not that my background is Christian while that of, say, Bashō, is Zen Buddhist, which makes haiku inaccessible to me. It is rather that the writing of true haiku constitutes actual practice of Zen Buddhism. It is not merely an art form within the context of a particular cultural perspective; it is an act of worship. I can, therefore, write something which looks like a haiku, but it will be a hollow form; an imitation.

In Western poetic forms, we are addicted to the practice of metaphorical observation. For us, a falling leaf is almost never merely a falling leaf. It becomes of butterfly, or a fleeting dream or aspiration; or perhaps a harbinger of impending death. The falling leaf is a piece of a puzzle which we are trying solve. In haiku, as I understand it intellectually, the falling leaf is Zen poet/practitioner, puzzle, and solution, all in one—but still very much simply a falling leaf. I can understand that intellectually—kind of—but I can’t do it.

Here are two examples (from a group of eleven) of pseudo-haiku that I attempted before I gave it up. Two will be more than sufficient to prove my point. In reading them, keep in mind that I had read (in English translation) hundreds of haiku by Bashō, Issa, and other Japanese masters, prior to making these lame attempts. I had also studied the Japanese language for a couple of years in college, and could add a patina of linguistic understanding to the purely aesthetic surface level:

xxxa blank sheet of sky—
distant wisdom of the crow—
xxxmy wife is sleeping—

This is terrible. Of the three lines, both the first and the second contain metaphors. The sky is not a blank page, presumably waiting for me to come along and fill it with my brilliant words. And crows have no capacity for wisdom. Or, even if they do, I have no way of knowing from its cawing that this particular crow is wise.

This one may be the best of a bad lot:

xxxbuds bursting sunward—
with a quick thrust a crow drinks—
xxxmy shoes bind my feet—

The primary thing wrong with this one is that buds “burst sunward” only over time. This line depicts an event which is not of the eternal moment, but of an elapsed time which does not fit into the context of essential immediacy demanded by a practitioner of haiku. It is an observation where an epiphany is called for.

So I rest my case with regard to the possible refutation of my position on haiku as embodied in Charles Simic’s praise of the blues. And I simultaneously affirm my complete agreement with Simic’s assessment and praise of the blues. Thank you— Charles Simic, Phil Maguire, and Tess Kincaid—for having come together to provoke these stimulating and enriching (for me anyway) thoughts and conjectures.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Rodak's Writings: Mojo

Got It Workin’ Now

up to my amygdala with
style-conscious placeholders
minds empty
as a dead man’s watch pocket
diminished sensibilities dried-up
like sterile ponds
stagnant at the blazing peak
of august’s hot contempt
for comfort
generating nothing but buzzing
flights of airborne irritants
reading well-wrought words faster
than a dog eats its kibble
swallowing without chewing

auugh! resentments like chitinous
facet-eyed arthropods
stalk and rattle in that dreadful
DMZ between my ears
much as rumors of bad weather
crackle through the static
of an am/fm philco slowly dying
in the faded dashboard
of a previously owned hatchback

(remembering now how
patriotic masses
once stood in their ranks
on the charcoal dark fringes
of their well-kempt lawns
cramping their denuded
necks stiff to catch a glimpse
of Telstar in twinkling transit:
brave new star in a slandered sky

sometimes i launch
a code-bearing satellite
of my own design
or just a weather balloon
that hangs up there
like a big spherical target
messing with the navigation
of brainless gray geese
in obligatory chevron
honking to hear themselves

but right now
mojo reckless
with a mercurial core
i am pleased to feel
myself becoming
nastier than a huge helping
of shit on a shingle:

shovel it in:
you know you love it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Quote du Jour: More Charles Simic

History is a cookbook. The tyrants are chefs. The philosophers write menus. The priests are waiters. The military men are bouncers. The singing you hear is the poets washing dishes in the kitchen.
xxx~ Charles Simic, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth