Sunday, February 19, 2006

Speaking of Saints



I just watched the most amazing film: The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Dreyer. It's bitter cold tonight, single digits, and we heat only with wood. The house has been cold all day. Allen went to bed just after midnight. At around one a.m., I wrapped myself in a blanket and had a cup of homemade cherry wine in my hand. I clicked "play," not really expecting to be transported by the experience. I just had a mild curiosity, that's all. I haven't been feeling well the last few days, and I thought it'd be a good way to spend some time. My eyes were tired from reading and I felt plain tired all over.

I'd bought the film several weeks ago and was saving it for just the right time. I knew almost nothing about it, but on the strength of the reviews and my interest in mythology and saints, I took a chance.

If I could have only one word to describe it, I would use: "Arresting." The film was made in 1928. It's a silent film. My version has music from "Voices of Light." The music draws from the writing of women mystics, including Joan herself.

The film shows a true female hero who passes through her ordeal in such a human way, showing her terror, her faith, her temptation, and her final act of defiant love. The camera work is expressive, and the imagery potent. Masterful! I am in complete awe as I write this entry right now.

I know this is a film I will watch again and again. Please, if you've never seen it, buy it, rent it, borrow it, or steal it. Get the DVD version, from the Criterion Collection.

If you're a poet, story-teller, or novelist, you will be deeply inspired by this film. The experience of watching it is like being witness to a grand myth unfolding before your eyes. (Not myth as in lie, but myth as in a timeless heroic story).

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Poet-Seer: In Defense of Dickey














"Remember: our life does not turn on trivialities, but on the stars."

My, I can see I unleashed a little firestorm with my last post on James Dickey. A debate has arisen concerning Dickey's view of the poet's status in the universe. Does Dickey think he's superior to others, or not?

First, I think I may have done Dickey a disservice, posting that speech without providing relevant commentary. I'd like to provide some now, although I will admit, I'm dealing with some pretty heavy material in my studies of Agee, Wright, Bly and Dickey, some big thoughts that I haven't managed to completely wrap my mind around yet. Which is probably why I didn't include commentary on the Dickey speech in the previous post: I hadn't absorbed it yet. In other words, without being quite aware of what I was doing, I was posting Dickey's words so I could truly see them and reflect on them. I hadn't considered they could actually offend my readers' sensibilities.

Second, I think it's important to reveal at this time that I came to Dickey through reading James Wright's letters. Some of you recall that I took a river journey this past summer which lasted two months. One of the stops on the journey was Martins Ferry, Ohio, where Wright was born. I took Wright's collection of poems with me on the trip and bought Wright's letters when I returned home, after seeing the letters reviewed in The New Yorker. Wright's and Dickey's correspondence intrigued me. I was impressed at the volume of the letters they produced and at the quality of thought in them. I recently found the collection of Dickey's letters on Amazon and have just started reading them.

Third, Dickey's letters come to me at a time when I've been searching for what it means to be an artist. Those of you who have been following my blog know that I've been wrestling with my thoughts on writing and the creative life the whole time I've been blogging. I'd been wrestling with these thoughts much longer than that. At least now I've decided that I am indeed "an author," but what does that mean? What is the artist's relationship to the world? To understand the role of the artist, I've been avidly reading what artists have had to say on the matter.

My point of intersection with Dickey is in how he viewed the poet's work as a divine act. In my reading of Wright, Dickey, Bly, and Agee, I've come to understand they were very serious about their art. Wright, Dickey, and Agee were troubled men. They all drank heavily and suffered all manner of depression, alienation, and heartache. I don't think it would be exaggerating to say it was poetry that gave these men the only sense of freedom they had ever known. They were not religious in the conventional sense, but they felt the divine through their art. It's frankly quite amazing to me that I could have anything in common with these hard-living, driven men. I once thought my attitude of art's connection to the divine was feminine or soft. Seeing the attitude expressed through a strong male figure like Dickey shows me my thinking was wrong.

For these men, the poetic consciousness gave them a faculty through which to perceive the spiritual world. It gave them, they thought, an inkling into a world of "Divine Wisdom"--the world of the Sophia. Their work looked into the darkness, and, like Novalis, they saw in this darkness the great mystery of life. Their art was their way of overcoming death because through their art, they believed they had tapped into something eternal.

Novalis was a German poet living at the end of the 1700s. He had a spiritual vision at the grave of the woman he was to marry, and in this vision he came to understand the value of darkness and the mystery of life. Novalis wrote:

...then, out of the blue distances, from the hills of my ancient bliss, came a shiver of twilight, and at once snapt the bond of birth, the fetter of the Light. Away fled the glory of the world, and with it my mourning; the sadness flowed together into a new, unfathomable world.

I think Dickey, Wright, Bly, and Agee also had this vision. They may have experienced it in a different way than Novalis did, but their insights were hard won through a series of falls, sufferings, and finally a kind of resurrection through their art. Certainly, Dickey and the others were drawn to poets like Novalis, de Nerval, Neruda, Trakl, and Vallejo, poets who had entered this darkness either through suffering or madness, sometimes both.

This, I think, is what Dickey means when he says the poet is elevated. This poet-seer, through art, has access to the great mysteries of life, what Dickey refers to as "the secret." It's this mystery that Dickey elevates above the trivialities of culture, the schlock culture, along with its "general icons." It may help to know that Dickey worked in advertising for a while in order to pay the bills. In one letter, in fact, he draws a distinction between a Coca Cola ad he was working on and Shakespeare. Coca Cola is a general icon. Coca Cola is schlock. It isn't on the same plane as Shakespeare, or de Nerval, or Novalis. Coca Cola is not divine, in Dickey's view.

"Away fled the glory of the world," Novalis wrote. In other words, Novalis had seen "the secret" and nothing could compare.

To further illustrate what Dickey may have meant by poets being "up there" and general icons being "down there," consider something that Wright wrote to Robert Bly: "You know, I sometimes try to escape the thought, but it returns and returns and returns: that some day I shall rise at morning and simply walk outside and away, leaving everything behind, like Buddha. Yes, I shall be killed by a runaway checkbook or an insane life-insurance policy by the time I get two blocks from home."

I speak of Wright, Bly, and Dickey almost interchangeably because they were poets during the same time and were great friends who corresponded about art over a long period. They helped sharpen each other's thoughts. Wright made the comment about Buddha and life-insurance, but Dickey could just as well have. The runaway checkbook and the insane life-insurance policy are those killing forces Dickey was talking about. They are "down there," that is, trivial considerations compared to "the secret."

In Dickey's own work, his poetry and his fiction, we see a that mystery being played out through encounters with nature. Deliverance is the example most people will remember. In that novel, the river is a force that humans seek to "beat" or to "control." But Dickey believed the mystery could not be controlled, and only those who didn't understand the mystery sought to control it. Humans try to put themselves above the mystery, or "the secret."

At the beginning of this post, I included a quote from one of Wright's letters, a letter he wrote to a despairing friend. Wright and Dickey wrote many such letters to poet friends, letters of encouragement.

Wright wrote to his friend: "Remember: our life does not turn on trivialities, but on the stars."

I think this is what Dickey was saying.

There's poetry in everything. A poem isn't just a series of words, lines, or stanzas on paper. The river is poetry; a potato is poetry. A tree, a rock, the sky, a crow, a mermaid, the turkey shit my mother used to spread on her garden (which, by the way, she said was "like gold.") If you could read Dickey's letters, and Wright's, I think you'd see the absolute humility they had when it came to their role as artists. They were in complete awe of poetry and felt their inadequacies acutely.

I hope I've clarified a few things for my wonderful friends and readers. Like I said, I've only begun to scratch the surface of these mysteries myself. The picture of Jesus is one I've posted before, back on my AOL blog. It was posted on one of the first entries I did. When I posted that picture of Jesus so long ago and called it "My Writing Life," I had only the vaguest notion of what the implications of that picture were. I think I'm getting closer to understanding what "My Writing Life" does indeed mean. Bear with me as I continue my search.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Value of Poetry






Today, after teaching, I delved into a book that just arrived in mailbox today, a book of James Dickey's letters. The book is called Crux, after the title of the book Dickey was working on when he died. (Many people will remember Dickey as the novelist who wrote Deliverance.)

In the Introduction to the Dickey letters, the editor, Matthew J. Bruccoli reveals the last words Dickey spoke to his poetry composition students before he died, just two days later. I want to reproduce Dickey's last words to his students because I need to type them out. When I type passages out, they become a part of me. And I think some of my friends in the blogging world will be moved by Dickey's words. So many of us are striving to give ourselves to our creative lives. It's wonderful, then, to read the words of someone like Dickey, who loved poetry as he loved life. (I think you can use "poetry" interchangeably with any artistic endeavor, any act of creation).

In reading the following passage tonight, I was struck by how similar my thoughts are to Dickey's. I have discussed in my blog many times how I think art and religion are the same for me. Dickey also thought the creative life was connected somehow to God. He said the following life-affirming things even as he knew he did not have long to live. So one of the last things he talked about was the importance of poetry. Here is what he said:

When we get started, I want you to fight this thing through. Fight the thing through that we start with your own unconscious and your own dreams and see where it comes out. That's the excitement and the fun of it. Deep discovery, deep adventure. It's the most dangerous game and the best.

Flaubert says somewhere that "The life of a poet is a hell of a life. It's a dog's life. But it's the only one worth living." You suffer more, you're frustrated more. All the things that don't bother other people. But you also live so much more. You live so much more intensely and so much more vitally and with so much more of a sense of meaning of consequentiality. Of things mattering instead of nothing mattering.

This is what's driving our whole civilization into suicide. The fear that we are living an existence in which nothing matters very much or at all. ...A sense of non-consequence, a sense of nothing, nothing matters. No matter which way we turn it's the same thing. The poet is free of that. He's free of it.

To the poet everything matters, and it matters a lot, and that's the realm where we work and once you're there you are hooked. If you're a real poet you're hooked more deeply than any narcotics addict could possibly be hooked on heroin. You're hooked on something that is life-giving instead of destructive. Something that is a process which cannot be too far from the process that created everything. God's process. ...

What this universe indubitably is is a poet's universe. Nothing but a poetic kind of consciousness could have conceived of anything like this. That's where the truth of the matter lies. You are in some way in line with the creative genesis of the universe in some way, in a much lesser way of course, because we can't create those trees or that water or anything that's out there. We can't do it but we can recreate it. We are secondary creators.

We take God's universe and we make it over our way and it's different from his. It's similar in some ways, but it's different in some ways. The difference lies in the slant. The slant that we individually put on it and that only we can put on it. That's the difference and that's where our value lies. Not only for ourselves but for the other people who read us.

The other people who read us. There's some increment there that we make possible that would not otherwise be there. I don't mean to sell the poet so long or to such great length, but I do this principally because the world doesn't esteem the poet very much. They don't really understand where we're coming from. They don't understand the use for us or if there is any use. They don't really value us very much. We are the masters of a superior secret, not they. Not they. Remember that when you write. You are at the top level and they are down there with ... the general idols of the schlock culture we live in. ...

My grandmother was born in Germany and she used to quote from Goethe a lot and one of her favorite sayings was, "Whoever strives upward, him we can save." ...we must find some way to write as though our hands were the hands of someone miraculously superior to ourselves. This is what we aim for.

So when you begin to say things you didn't know you knew or you never had any idea you had any notion that you knew, then maybe you're getting somewhere you should be as a poet. Not invariably, but it's possible under those conditions. It's possible. ...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Ambergris

My collage: Wholeness ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Commenting on my previous post, Mcfawn said: Sometimes a person's limitations or incompleteness are actually what's most interesting about them...because they have to develop other (sometimes sublime) qualities in other areas to make up for what they lack. Being un-whole might have its advantages.

In my current reading, I am reminded of this idea of limitations and incompleteness again: "But the greatest treasure was to be found in the whale's gut: ambergris, a foul black liquid that oxidizes when exposed to air and becomes a pleasant-smelling wax that, once refined, was used as a fixative for perfume." (Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work).


The greatest treasures often reside in our darkest and dirtiest places. And our limitations, so-called, are often what make us "sublime."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Exile

My collage: My Castle

This is a collage I have needed and wanted to do for a long time. I mentioned to Judith Heartsong many months ago that I'd started on a collage about my healing from my surgery of 2002. I told her that I needed to finish it (she has been an inspiration to me and has given me the courage to express myself through visual art once again). I never did finish that collage I spoke to Judi about; but this one is perhaps better at expressing my feelings.

My Castle isn't based on a particular piece of Kahlo's artwork, but it is done on a card with biographical information about Frida Kahlo on one side and her signature (plus a drawing of her head and shoulders) on the other. My Frida has no arms or legs and she is being burned at the stake. She has wings, but she cannot fly. (Think of an insect that has been tortured by a cruel child.)

I have titled this post "Exile," and if you go through my AOL Journal, you will find at least three entries on the subject of exile. This is because I have begun to see life as a series of "Falls" from one state of being into another state of being. This fall is very painful. For a while, the loss of "paradise" is almost intolerable. That is what this collage represents; the feeling of helplessness resulting from being exiled from one's "castle" (self).

Exile, in days of old, was no small matter. To be locked out of the castle and cast out beyond the walls of the city meant certain death. Of course, modern life has its own forms of exile. Nothing, to me, is more frightening than exile.

Christina asked a question in her comment to my former post: why do I return to Gauguin again and again for my imagery? I think it is because his paintings represent an attempt to find paradise, to find wholeness, and that is what my life search is about, trying to find wholeness. Erin also mentioned in her recent post something about the changes she is noticing in herself, in the way she sees the world. She wants to embrace these changes, yet at the same time she mourns what she has lost: she mourns "the fall."

The reason this collage is so disturbing is that my Frida has been deprived of her arms and legs. She is missing her hands which express compassion and grace and also help her to complete her creative mission; she is missing her feet, through which the soul enters and leaves the body. Her organs are exposed. Anybody who has ever had an operation will relate to the feeling of being invaded, exposed.

Yes, this Frida is in real trouble. She is exiled from her castle and is burning at the stake. The writing on the postcard is from a story I wrote about my surgery. This is how I felt: like this burning Frida.

*Important: I am okay now. I am healthy and am on track both physically and emotionally. I am dedicating myself to my creative life with even more passion than I did before my operation. So everything is good!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Eyes of Apollo



I did this collage around Christmas. It was my 4th collage since I vowed to begin doing artwork again. I didn't post it then because I didn't think it turned out very well (I wasn't very happy with the composition), and it was created out of a lot of pain that I wasn't ready to share yet. It's based on Gauguin's painting, The Little Black Pigs. Gauguin's painting shows a hut with animal life and people outside the hut, going about their daily activities. I decided to put most of the activity inside my house. The house is my body. There is Daphne, turning into a tree in order to avoid Apollo's romantic advances. At the time I made the collage, I was thinking: How nice it would be to turn into a tree to avoid my troubles. Look at all the eyes. Those are the eyes of Apollo (the sun), and the introspective eyes of the artist. Clearly, I felt a lot of conflict between wanting to run away from my problems and wanting to look deeply into them. On another note, I've worked all weekend on two short-short stories I plan to enter into a contest. I feel good about the stories, and I believe one of them may be the beginning of a novel. Our weather turned very cold over the weekend. Quite a bit of snow, gray sky, and cold wind. Just the right kind of weather for introspection: I love it!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men


Some of you who used to visit my AOL Journal (before AOL tacked Ads on our journals and many of us left), may remember that I did an entry on James Agee. In that entry, I wrote of how I'd loved his novel, A Death In The Family from my first reading of it when I was 13. I'm writing about Agee again because I've just finished reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which can be bought in a gorgeous Library of America edition. This edition also includes A Death In The Family and other Agee writings.

The blurb on the back of the book says: "In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee invented a new genre to convey his stark vision of the lives of Alabama tenant farmers." We are all used to blurbs being exaggerations; however this claim "new genre" is not an exaggeration. I have never see anything like Famous Men before.

I implore you, do not, do not be swayed by the negative reviews of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. If you are looking for a book that is deeply engrossing, challenging, different, and enlightening, then this is a book you should read. It's not for the squeamish, nor for those who don't like to pry up the rotting boards and peer into the darkness.

In Famous Men, Agee addresses the difference between fiction and non-fiction by saying: "In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger." It's perhaps this interest of mine in the craft of writing itself that has made Famous Men so fascinating to me. This is at once a book about the tenant farmers and a book about the difficulty of writing about them.

Another thing: In the beginning pages, Agee writes with absolute humility towards his own writing and his subject matter. This was stunning to me, because I've also read Agee's movie reviews, and in those writings Agee is witty, merciless, honest, and very confident in his own opinion. In short, they are some of the best movie reviews I have ever read.

However, Famous Men is another kind of writing altogether. As Agee admits, his efforts to capture his subject matter through words were a failure. Words are inefficient, inadequate in matters so huge. He wrote: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement."

That Famous Men is not more popular does not surprise me, nor was Agee surprised, I think, when the book got bad reviews and suffered poor sales. Famous Men, I think, is not the sort of book that would ever gain wide acceptance. It is a flawed masterpiece that takes a lot of work to absorb, but well worth the effort. I don't know the extent to which Agee may have been devastated, nonetheless, at the way America turned its back on his masterpiece. I do know that Agee seemed to suggest in the early pages of Famous Men that the worst thing that can happen to any artist is mass acceptance.

Perhaps mass acceptance is something the writer both wants and fears; I don't know. But Agee does say in Famous Men that he felt that as soon as, say, Beethoven's music is used as a form of relaxation or as a background to the mundane activities human beings inevitably become so wrapped up in, then the music has lost its vitality.

That is why Agee suggests in Famous Men: "Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down onto floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it."

The same might be said for Famous Men. If you concentrate, you will hear Famous Men in your whole body. And if it hurts you, you will be glad.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Growth and Change


A butterfly created by Walt Whitman ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I recently mentioned something in one of my posts about my writing going through a change. I believe when I said "change" I left the impression that my writing was going through a period of positive change and growth. I hope this is true, but I might possibly be moving toward a dead-end, too. After I made that post, I found the following quote by James Dickey, who wrote Deliverance and who was also a very fine poet. The quote made me think about "change" versus "growth." I know there have been many times when I've tried something new and it didn't work out. I've chalked it up as a failure. Writers are hard on themselves like that. However, I like the way Dickey thinks. I think I'll adopt this attitude from now on:

When you've published as much as I have, and you get to be my age, there are going to be people who want you to do what they are familiar with. They inevitably say, "He's slipping, he's not as good as he used to be," or "His early work was much better" ... But I don't really care about being as good as, or not as good as, or better than...My primary consideration is to change. I dare not use the word grow; there may or may not be growth, but to change. To still keep that openness, that chance taking-ness as part of the work. Not to be afraid to make a mistake, even if it's a long and costly mistake. --James Dickey in Night Hurdling, his book of essays and interviews, published in 1983.

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Northwest Ohio, United States
"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken

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Fave Painting: Eden

Fave Painting:  Eden

Fave Painting: The Three Ages of Man and Death

Fave Painting:  The Three Ages of Man and Death
by Albrecht Dürer

From the First Chapter

The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

My Original Artwork: Triptych

My Original Artwork:  Triptych

Wishing

Wishing

Little Deer

Little Deer

Transformation

Transformation

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Looking Forward, Looking Back
CURRENT MOON

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