Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Readings: A Rouzing Vision

As I have previously mentioned, either here or on Facebook, my output of new poems has been unprecedentedly prolific during the past few months. This has been made possible by a mechanism that I have attributed to external help -- inspiration -- coming from the Muses, or the Holy Spirit, or perhaps sometimes from sources less wholesome. I will be reading a poem, or a prose text, and a word, or a group of words, will suddenly stand out from the original context to form the nucleus of a poem. The whole poem will be intuited -- nearly as a thing completed -- in this instant of awakening. In this process, I am left feeling as though I have been used as the conduit for the creation of a window to serve as a minor vision of revealed truth.

For this reason I was very taken by my reading of the first few pages of Christopher Rowland’s recent book, Blake and the Bible, in which he discusses William Blake’s creative methods:

Dr. Trusler had commissioned Blake to produce several paintings, but when he was sent the first for approval he took exception to Blake’s flights of imaginative fancy and the lack of naturalism, and demanded an explanation for the picture. Blake responded that he had ‘attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your Dictate’, but ‘have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led’. In other words, the ideas were the result of a supernatural impulse. In response to Trusler’s request for an explanation, Blake responded in one of his eloquent statements of his art:

I really am sorry that you are fall’n out with the Spiritual World, Especially if I should have to answer for it. I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art, & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other, namely Visions of Eternity. You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients consider’d what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato. [p.6]

On page 9, Rowland explains that “in Blake’s use of the Bible, the original context of the various allusions is almost completely left behind as the new narrative is woven together. In this kind of interpretation the Bible is a stimulus rather than a template.” [emphasis added]

Rowland goes on to say that for Blake “art is not something to be deciphered” and that “Throughout his work Blake challenged the hegemony of reason.”

In Blake’s own words, “Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably.”

The role of the poet, and the function of art, is to catapult the human mind out beyond the somnambulant state of ordinary consciousness, in order to ‘rouze’ an experience of the Real, which is the Eternal and the true Being of man. Exposing oneself to any true art, be it poetry or prose or visual, can excite the mind to participate in this process of creation.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Readings: A Nice Excerpt

This is the final stanza of a Charles Simic poem entitled "Solving the Riddle" from the book Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk. I like it:

Inside my empty bottle
I was constructing a lighthouse
While all the others
Were making ships.

I like it a lot.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reflections: Student Poets of the Mid-70s

I’ve been carrying a folded sheet of paper from a yellow legal pad around in a manila folder in my bag for a couple of months now, not quite sure what to do with it. I still don’t know, but what ever follows below will have to be the answer. Here’s the set-up:

In my job in the archives of the University libraries, I have what is sometimes the privilege, sometimes the tedium, of processing collections received from various sources, to be kept (more or less) in perpetuity. By “processing” what is meant consists mainly in evaluating, arranging, indexing (or inventorying), and describing the contents of a collection. The collection in question here is comprised of two small boxes of papers once belonging to faculty author, Walter Tevis.

Tevis taught in the English Department here, mostly in the 1970s. He was also a writer of fiction. I am very fond of his novels, about one of which I have written previously. He may be best remembered today through the film adaptations of three of his novels: The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler, and The Color of Money. David Bowie starred in the first of these films. The Hustler starred Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason; The Color of Money featured Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. In the early 1980s, Tevis resigned from the University, divorced his wife, and moved to New York City. He was about to become rich and famous when he died quite young of lung cancer. The few papers, about a part of which I will now be writing a few words, were somehow left behind here in Athens.

In processing the Tevis papers, I came across three or four manila folders containing student poetry. Since I write poetry, these interested me enough that I read them all. As I read, I realized that these poems, written by college students in the mid-1970s, were in many cases not what I would have expected them to be. I began to take a few notes, based on my shanghaied expectations. I don’t have any exact metrics. The first note at the top of the page is “over two dozen.” I think that this refers to the number of different students whose work is represented in the collection. As I remember, there were a few more females than males represented. Most of the writers had submitted multiple poems; a few names were represented by only one. It is not clear if these poems were submitted in response to specific assignments (“For the next session, write a poem concerning your family” or “Compose a poem expressing your feelings about your favorite season of the year”, etc.), or whether the students were writing about anything that they were moved to write about. The poems seem to have been written over the course of at least two academic years. Tevis may not have been the sole instructor. Some of the poems were clearly drafts which had been discussed in class. Some bore written remarks, presumably made by an instructor, in the margins. Here are my very sketchy notes, with a few brief remarks (in italics) about why I made each one:

1. They express pain

• loss to time
• lost love
• death
• separation
• dysfunction
• loneliness

That they “express pain” may be the least remarkable thing about these poems. Late adolescence/early adulthood can be a painful stage of life. The thing I found most remarkable about this aspect of the works is that themes such as “loss to time” and “death” do not strike me as being preoccupations of the young. “Lost love” I would expect, and “separation” and “loneliness” are cognates of that. “Dysfunction” is an aspect of the family life that is all too common, and not surprising as the central idea of the poem written by a college student.

2. Girls write about sex (2 incest); Boys write about love (usually lost)

What I found interesting and counter-intuitive here is that it is the young women whose poems about interpersonal, intimate relationships tended to expound (sometimes rather graphically) upon the passions of the flesh. At least two of the poems, by different women, in this small collection flirted with descriptions of incestuous incidents. The boys, on the other hand, tended to wax tender and sentimental on topics related to love. But maybe boys who write poems are not the posturing tough guys in our world?

3. Write about parents, grandparents, siblings, lovers

These relationships, providing the content of a large percentage of the poetry in the collection, are listed here in rank order. I would have expected the last (lovers) to be first, the first (parents) last, and the middle two (grandparents, siblings) to be all but non-existent. Although, grandparents, being less familiar, more exotic, and perhaps more “romantic,” due to their links to a past which seems quite distant to the young, might, for that reason, have been expected to out-rank parents.

4. Write about summers, autumn, winter (seldom), spring (not an issue)

I was very surprised to find that the seasonal poems concentrated heavily on summer, with autumn coming in second. I would have expected spring (with its traditional links to romantic love) to take first place; but it was not represented at all. I would have expected winter, with its easy metaphorical links to death, loneliness, and other obviously “poetic” themes to have been second to spring. Instead, we have summer in first place. The summer-oriented poems were primarily about family vacations at the shore, or at a cottage on some sylvan lake. They were not about beach blanket bingo. I found this surprising. Autumn, with its colors, and metaphors of the impending end of things, is perhaps not that surprising as a topic for college students (except that autumn is the beginning of the academic year…)

5. One about the Berlin Wall; one about the Birmingham bombings

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about a collection of poems written by college students from the period of the mid-1970s was the almost total lack of political themes. I found one poem about the Cold War, as represented by the still very intact Berlin Wall; and one poem about the church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama--an event which predated the immediate experience of persons the age of these poets.

This has been quite a long post, concerning things which may be of virtually no interest to anybody but me; and which may, in fact, be totally devoid of meaning. But at least I can now stop carrying that silly sheet of yellow paper around. I’m done with it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reading: Prophetic Prose

Last night I finished a very pleasant few days reading E. L. Doctorow’s collection, Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories. All six of the stories were well worth reading, but it was the title novella, Lives of the Poets, that I found to be particularly compelling. The first-person narrator of the piece is a writer. He has been successful enough to own a large house “in the woods” as well as a summer house. In addition, he keeps a studio in lower Manhattan. This studio is his sanctum sanctorum, from which his wife of nearly two decades is banned. The narrator muses on many things, but primarily on interpersonal relationships amongst the artsy-fartsy set of which he is a prominent member. We learn that our author is in love with a woman-not-his-wife, but with whom he also cannot quite connect. It seems that none of the persons whose love-lives are sketched in his thoughts can connect. In addition, American society-at-large is plunging into nihilistic decadence all around him.

Consider as exemplary of the entire work this passage excerpted from near the very end of the novella:

How do I feel? I don’t care anymore. Maybe like that poet in Yeats who lies down to die on the king’s doorstep because he’s been kicked out of the ruling circle. Yeah, that’s what this place is, that’s what I’m doing here, and if I die, let the curse be on their heads. What else can this mean except that I’ve been deprived of my ancient right to matter? Yes, you mothers, I ... a mere man of words, will sit once more in the councils of state or a dire desolation will erupt from the sky, drift like a fire-filled fog over the World Trade Center, glut the streets of SoHo with its sulfurous effulgence, shriek through every cracked window, stop the singing voice of every living soul, and make of your diversified investment portfolio a useless thing.

Now consider that this book was published in 1984.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Readings: Emily as Oracle

Sometime last week I read something, somewhere, that gave me what turned out to be the erroneous idea that today was going to be Emily Dickinson’s birthday. It is not—she was born in December. Nonetheless, I had already removed my copy of her collected works from the shelf in preparation for my decision that I would (on what I thought was her birthday) try to communicate with her, by using her poetry as an oracle.

I should probably mention that this plan was devised – almost certainly not coincidentally – with my having begun (under the influence of Facebook friend, Janette Tingle) to read A Course in Miracles. This I had to borrow from the public library, as it is apparently not the kind of book that a university library feels it necessary to acquire. (Well – as Steve Martin might say – Pardonnez-moi!) Having read the first two chapters, and the first section of the third, I find the book to be a repository of truth. It seems to support, among other things, my notion of the nature of Jesus’ mission.

Most people, in my experience, who are not able to understand Jesus as divine, consider him to have been a gifted moral philosopher. He was that, of course. But it has been my long-held understanding that strictly considered in his human aspect, and within the context of his earthly mission, Jesus was, above all, a psychologist. I believe that in our era he would have been at home in the school of existential psychology. But, perhaps more of that later.

Getting back to my plan to use Emily as oracle, this morning I opened her collected works at random to page 451, which contains at the top the following poem:


“Unto me?” I do not know you –
Where may be your House?

“I am Jesus – Late of Judea –
Now – of Paradise” –

Wagons – have you – to convey me?
This is far from Thence –

“Arms of Mine – sufficient Phaeton –
Trust Omnipotence” –

I am spotted – “I am Pardon” –
I am small – “The Least

Is esteemed in Heaven the Chiefest –
Occupy my House” –

The oracle, you see, delivered. Yes, it did.

UPDATE: It turns out that Emily Dickinson died on this date. Of course, she never really died, did she?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Readings: A Timely Piece of Work

So I got up this morning, having only yesterday received confirmation that a worst case scenario was indeed a reality. I picked up the copy of James Tate's Selected Poems that was sitting on the table next to my recliner. And I opened it to this:


Why should you believe in magic,
pretend an interest in astrology
or the tarot? Truth is, you are

free, and what might happen to you
today, nobody knows. And your
personality may undergo a radical

transformation in the next half
hour. So it goes. You are consumed
by your faith in justice, your

hope for a better day, the rightness
of fate, the dreams, the lies
the taunts – Nobody gets what he

wants. A dark star passes through
you on your way home from
the grocery: never again are you

the same – an experience which is
impossible to forget, impossible
to share. The longing to be pure

is over. You are the stranger
who gets stranger by the hour.

While this goes against the grain of the mindset that I've been struggling to maintain, I certainly can feel it. Way down in my gut, I can feel it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Religion: Some Thoughts on Epistemology

“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” ~ T. Aquinas

That pretty much sums the situation up, does it not? Having received a direct, personal revelation, Aquinas realizes that he didn’t really ever know what he thought he had known; or, to the extent that he had known something, that something was fit only for kindling, or to stuff a mattress.

Those of us who have received no revelation, who have only books, or the words of other men who have only books themselves, can only grope toward the truth, testing ideas one at a time, using our limited intellect, while trying–when we can remember to do so–to stop and listen for that still small voice that may guide our efforts.

To say that our understanding of reality is beyond revision is to claim ownership of something that we do not possess.

Readings: One by Collins

The Discovery of Scat

Long before Dizzy,
high on the rising tower at Babel

a bearded carpenter turned
to a stonemason

(barely able to see him
through the veil of clouds),

turned to ask for a wooden nail
and said something
that sounded like
bop ah dooolyah bop.

~ Billy Collins, Questions About Angels


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Reflections: Why Religion?

I have often been asked by smug atheists how I—a soi-disant intellectual—can give even token credence to religion. My answers have included such explanations as, “Because a universe populated by spirits is more interesting and entertaining than a universe constructed of dead matter connected by insentient forces” and “Because atheism is boring.” I realize that this isn’t actually much of a range. The short answer is that I choose to take an active interest in religion for aesthetic reasons. Most atheists will not have enough imagination to plumb the depths of that statement; but I have no intention of making their problem my problem.

Today, while reading a book review by Charles Simic, published in the year 2000 in the New York Review of Books, I came across the following excerpt which seems to give some support to my aesthetic rationale:

“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.” ~ John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles.

I guess that in the final analysis it takes a poet like Ashbery to see such possibilities.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Readings: Where It's At

Some classic Charles Simic, from A Wedding in Hell:


Every worm is a martyr,
Every sparrow subject to injustice,
I said to my cat,
Since there was no one else around.

It’s raining. In spite of their huge armies
What can the ants do?
And the roach on the wall
Like a waiter in an empty restaurant?

I’m going down to the cellar
To stroke the rat caught in a trap.
You watch the sky.
If it clears, scratch on the door.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Quote du Jour: Something for Young Girls to Keep in Mind

From Mary Robison's novel, Oh! sage advice from mother to daughter:

xxxMaureen said, "Always remember, Violet, that boys are incredibly stupid imbeciles who are liable to do anything to you at any time."
xxx"Why do they?" Violet said.
xxx"Because we girls' prettiness drives them crazy," Maureen said.
xxx"That's right," Lola said.