Sublime beauty

In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:

The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.

I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.

Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.

In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)


This, too:

“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…”   Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)


“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.


In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:

A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.


I stand on my back porch; I am small and negligible, the sky is large and Sublime.

Tai chi [crane pose]

A memory of my undergraduate days: I was wrestling with indecisiveness, both academic and personal, and consulted a professor who sometimes acted as a sounding board for me. What should I do? Here was one option, here another, no way to decide how best to proceed. I felt mired in uncertainties.

She listened compassionately to my dithering and then replied by telling me about a Buddhist saying: “When leaning left, lean left. When leaning right, lean right. When wobbling, wobble.”

I felt relieved. All my life, I had been criticized for my indecisiveness; here was a person who allowed me to accept it as another way of being. There was also the implication that I would not be wobbly forever. Eventually I would bear enough in one direction to proceed. Meanwhile, I was granted a kind of grace–a moment of compassion for my wobbly state of being–and all I need do was to wobble mindfully.

[Admission: I have never been able to confirm that this actually is a Buddhist saying, or for that matter a Taoist or Confucian saying, and I think perhaps she invented it.]


Yin-YangI recovered the memory above while trying a move in my rather new practice of tai chi.

One may infer that I am less than steady on my feet, particularly when required to stand on one foot, as necessary for “crane” stance in the tai chi form I am learning. So, I try to be mindful of breathing while attempting crane. And I wobble, but I try to wobble slowly and mindfully.

I am, however, fairly good at leaning. Standing on both feet while placing my body’s weight on one leg comes naturally to me, whereas the groundedness of the horse stance takes more concentration.

“When leaning, lean.” I can do that.


Once again, as per my last post, establishing that middle way–though it is not easy, and it is not hard–doesn’t come naturally, especially when I feel spread a bit thin in other areas of my daily life.

Therefore: “When wobbling, wobble.”


From KHHuber’s blog, here’s a lovely photo of (egret? crane? white heron?) steadily elegant on one leg: Photo KM Huber

If only…

The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.


water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.


This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here:

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here:

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.


So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…


Autodidact as adult student: Goddard & me

In a previous post, I mentioned my peculiar undergraduate experiences at alternative institutes of higher education (The New School) and how being a book-loving autodidact influenced, perhaps even configured, my approach to education. My favored learning strategies led me to a non-traditional graduate school program, as well. Reflecting upon my higher education, I realize that every institution I attended chose alternatives to standard pedagogy–and I am grateful that such colleges exist. The world needs outliers.

A kind of heaven.

The New School’s pedagogy for the “Freshman Year Program” was seminar-based. That worked very well for me. Classes were small, discussion-centered, predicated on the reading of significant original texts–no textbooks. The professor was not a lecturer but a participant-coach and mentor.

The program was only a year long, however, so I had to transfer. There were a number of experimental college programs in the 1960s and 1970s; without the miracle of internet searching, however, they were not easy to locate. I did not find out about St. John’s College, Reed, or Evergreen, for example. I stumbled instead upon Thomas Jefferson College (now defunct) in Michigan.

I completed my undergraduate studies without ever seeing a syllabus. Yet I read more books than the majority of my standard-pedagogy-educated peers and discussed classic and contemporary texts, science and history and literature, in depth with my peers and with scholars. I wrote a lot and did hands-on projects, independent studies, experiments and interviews. TJC drew criticism for its ‘flakiness’ and ‘lack of oversight,’ (some of which, I can attest, was deserved); however, the former college president “described TJC as perhaps too far from the mainstream, but attracting excellent students, noting that ‘Thomas Jefferson College…was sending a larger percentage to graduate school than the College of Arts and Sciences.'” Yes, but in my case it took awhile to get there.

Much water under the proverbial bridge: suffice it to say that in 2000, I returned to college to pursue a masters degree…and I wanted to learn in the kind of environment that suited my style. There were other factors then, as well: two children, for example, and responsibilities I had not encountered as an undergrad. On the other hand, by 2000 I was an adult and more motivated and disciplined than I could ever have been at age 19.

I chose Goddard College for a number of reasons, foremost its small seminar-style instruction, its mix of workshops and instruction, its focus on readings, annotations, mentoring, and community-building among students and faculty–reaching outward into the world at large. The low-residency format only works if the student is independent and self-directed, which–as a returning, “adult” student–I certainly was. I appreciated the school’s more interdisciplinary approach to the creative writing program. We didn’t have to face off, pegging ourselves as poets or fiction writers. And creative non-fiction was taken seriously as a genre to develop voice, style, and depth…it could be studied and parsed. That endeavor of interdisciplinary arts education is true of a few institutions now but was rather new among MFA programs in the late 1990s.

Another college without core requirements, without syllabi, without standard formats. But, like New School and TJC, Goddard offers excellent professors dedicated to students’ intellectual enrichment and personal transformation, small-group discussions, and narrative evaluations. I knew how to balance life’s responsibilities when I enrolled, and I knew what kind of teaching I’d respond best to. How did I learn that? See above. Suits my philosophical, bookwormish, autodidactic approach to–well, practically everything!

Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.


Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”


In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”


He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.



Irritation, explanation, interpretation

I had another testy conversation about poetry analysis recently. Hence, this brief explanation, rationale, and license to interpret.

Feeling a mild irritation...

Feeling a mild irritation…

I truly sympathize with people who prefer to avoid any sort of literary analysis; so many times, it is such a badly-taught subject. Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to refuse to learn about something thanks to one or two negative experiences. If that were the case, no one would ever learn to walk (we fell down, we cried, we refused ever to rise up and take another step).

First, let go of the idea that the purpose of literary analysis is to understand exactly what the writer meant. Second, let go of the idea that poetry contains a symbolic hidden meaning.

Instead, recognize the following fairly obvious observations:

1] the poet wrote what he or she meant; the reader can interpret on the reader’s terms.

2] the meaning is in the poem itself.

Poetry is a form of communication, and it is not a detective story. The poet said what he or she said because the poet determined that was the best way to communicate the experience.

Problem: You, the reader, fail to understand the poem. All that means is that you and the poet may be speaking in different terms and that, to you, the poet’s determination of the best way to say what he or she meant does not convey much. Welcome to the world of human interactions.

The reader has choices: turn the page, for example, and ignore the poem. Or read the poem and find its sound or rhythm entertaining. Or read the poem for its summary–the top-line story, if there is one. Or relish the poem’s mood or use of language. Or its images.

Or throw the poem across the room in frustration or anger. Poetry is powerful enough to evoke such responses.

You could also try to examine the poem, look at how the poet uses rhythm or sound or language or image or metaphor or rhyme…you might learn something about how a writer puts a poem together; and even if you do not manage to shoo the “real meaning” out from under a chair, you may be able to come to terms with the poem in your own way.

You are permitted to interpret what the poem means for you.*


*CAVEAT: This approach may not get you an A on your analysis paper (though it might), but it will serve to enhance your lifelong appreciation of the poetic art.