Observation, memory, & art

Simon Watts has died. Probably you have not heard of him. His father, Arthur Watts, was a talented illustrator for the British magazine Punch, among other publications. My readers are unlikely to be familiar with him, either. His sister, Marjorie-Ann Watts, is an illustrator, novelist, and memoir-writer in the UK. Her books are not readily available in the USA, so my readers probably do not know of her, alas. Simon’s maternal grandmother was Amy Dawson-Scott, aka “Sappho,” poet, novelist, and British literary hostess who founded English PEN. If you have not heard of her, you may have heard of PEN International, a major writers’ organization.

Oh, such interesting relations and associations!

Simon, who turned 90 a week ago, needs an elegy–but I cannot write one, at least not yet. We have been friends for 35 years; and even though he hasn’t lived nearby, we will miss his presence in our lives because he corresponded well. He sent letters, and emails with memoir documents attached, and photos. He kept up with our children even into their adulthood. He called us. We visited. He told the best stories–always mirthful and full of twists. He wrote articles on sailing, boatbuilding, furniture-making, and sent little essay-type memories to his friends and family.

He hailed from England, emigrated to the US in the 50s, and loved Nova Scotia, San Francisco, and Portugal. He has family in the US, Britain, and Australia.

~~

I was scouting about the internet looking at his work and his family’s stories and came upon his father’s article on drawing in black and white, written in 1934 about a year before Arthur’s early death (he died in an airplane accident). This section struck me as so relevant to my own understanding about both sketching and writing–good writing, poetry, journalism–is also, foremost, about observation and memory.

Speaking of memory and observation, how much I wish that I had trained mine more. How I wish I had employed that excellent method of looking at an object, going into another room to draw it, returning to refresh my memory, and so on, until that drawing was completed without it and the object ever having met, as it were. What a training for an artist interested primarily in character, who sees for a minute a face which, if he cannot draw from memory, he will never draw at all!

I believe I am right in saying that, ages before such a thing as photography was even guessed at, this was the method by which Chinese artists were taught … So developed did their powers of observation and memory become by this training that by shutting their eyes, opening them for the fraction of a second, and shutting them again, they could keep in their minds the visual image of what they saw long enough to be able to transfer that visual image to paper. It was in this manner that they were enabled to draw insects and birds in flight, and it is an indubitable fact that, when the camera was invented and ‘instantaneous’ pictures were produced, it was proved by comparison that these artists’ memorisations were perfectly accurate.

Stacks Image 61

I tried that method myself, but, having no stern master to goad me on and, alas that I should have to say it, being constitutionally lazy, dropped it; for it is the most exhausting form of study that I know.

~~

Simon Watts, the son of this artist (a man he barely remembers), inherited somehow–though expressed in an entirely different way–the recognition that we ought to note carefully and recall the world around us, revel in our memories, and share our knowledge and wonder in whatever ways we can.

He saved historic wooden sailboats by carefully measuring them, building his own versions, and reproducing his designs for others to build.

In the photo below, my daughter, at age 14, happily sails the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia in the boat that graces the cover of his plans for Building the Norwegian Pram.

 

alice-pram 2004

Such memories fall into the category of immeasurably valuable. Right now, this photograph takes the place of any elegy I could compose. Sail on in peace, Simon!

 

Peace & starlings

The new year has certainly begun with bangs and whimpers.

During the strangely mild weather, as snow geese and buzzards return but before the juncos leave us, I have been watching the flocking behavior of starlings.

For lack of anything more relevant to write at this time, I’m posting here my poem “Liturgy,” circa 2002 or 2003, from Small Things Rise and Go.

Peace.

~

LITURGY

We will not know peace.
Hay clogs the thresher,
Snow stoppers thruways.
Starlings haggle out the morning.
Red fox probes her muzzle
Into the voles’ weed bunkers;
Harrier screams over moors.

We will not know peace.
Here, the caterpillar
Tires chew fields into slog;
Here a child’s toy erupts
Into a village of amputees.
Sands shift under an abstraction,
The sea grows warm.

We will not know peace,
During our lifetimes, the tines
Break, the cogs slip,
Polluted slough impedes
Our efforts at contentment.
Our own natures
Bully us down: Peace—

Peace to those who do not know peace.
To the fieldhand knee-deep in grain.
To the broken doll clasped by a broken child.
To the small-time fisherman far at sea.
To my mother with war scrawled through her
To the empty church, the hill of snow, evening—

That may never know peace.

Colourful_starling.jpeg [image: Wikipedia]

Practice & Muse

For people active in the arts, “creators,” the concept of the Muse is familiar–we read or hear about her often, sometimes in laments bemoaning her abandonment of the artist. May Sarton mentions needing a Muse to write poetry; in Sarton’s case, the Muse had to be an actual person, someone intellectually and sensually stimulating. For other creative types, the Muse is metaphorical, or acts as an aspect of a ritual to invoke inspiration, or as a method of removing writer’s block.

I rather like the idea of the Muse, as myth and metaphor; sorry to report, though, that I cannot recall a time when I felt I actually had a Muse. For writer’s block, I might have turned to Lord Ganesha, Remover of All Obstacles–but as I age into confidence as a writer, I find more patience with myself when the words don’t flow as rapidly.

dancing god ganesha

Dancing Ganesha. [wikimedia/creative commons: 123rf.com]

I seldom think of myself as “blocked” anymore. During the times I compose less poetry, I can revise and rework older poems. I can gather completed poems together and puzzle over making the next manuscript. Or I might be busy writing various genres of prose, such as this blog or work-related articles and proposals.

Writing, for me, requires constant practice. It has little foundation in inspired revelation or appearances of the Muse. I do like prompts and challenges, though, for motivation and to pique my curiosity. My latest challenge-to-self is to write a screenplay. It’s a new form for me and I have to learn how to write dialogue and setting and to think in scenes. The only past experience at all similar has been my work on opera libretti, fascinating and, for this particular writer, extremely hard to do at all–let alone to do well.

Colin Pope writes, in a recent essay on Nimrod‘s blog, that he believes “poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations…”

In my case, muse is a verb:

muse (v.)

“to reflect, ponder, meditate; to be absorbed in thought,” mid-14c., from Old French muser (12c.) “to ponder, dream, wonder; loiter, waste time,” which is of uncertain origin; the explanation in Diez and Skeat is literally “to stand with one’s nose in the air” (or, possibly, “to sniff about” like a dog who has lost the scent), from muse “muzzle,” from Gallo-Roman *musa “snout,” itself a word of unknown origin.

 

Thanks again, Online Etymology Dictionary!

~

Worth reading for the consideration of grief as a kind of inspiration: Colin Pope on Nimrod’s blog– “Every Poem Is a Poem about Loss.”

 

Type

 

I was looking in my archive files for something I didn’t locate, and I happened upon this.

In 1981, I was a typographer; actually, I was a typographical proofreader who often stepped in when we needed another typographer (or, in a real pinch, typesetter) during rush times. This is one of the many style guide pamphlets the type designer-producers gave out to sell their fonts and as demos for set style and sizing.

When I was working in that field, I loved experimenting with the way words looked in different fonts. Sometimes I’d typeset my poems, or other people’s poems, to get a sense of how they would read on a “real” page (rather than as typewritten text; this predates word-processing and desktop publishing software). Those experiments led me and David Dunn to establish–briefly–LiMbo bar&grill books as an independent arts small press in 1982. I designed and typeset the books with help from my coworkers at various typography companies, and David did the editing.

I still love print text for the feel and look of how different printing and design choices affect the holistic environment of the page. Paper texture. Type size and choice. Gutter width. Titling. Binding, covers, front matter.

At present, I’m not yet a significant consumer of ebooks, so I can’t say whether similar design choices affect the reading experience. Surely there are differences, subtle and obvious. For the experience of reading poetry, from what I’ve seen on ebooks, I prefer print when reading poems. Technology may eventually change my point of view–I’m aware of that and open to it.

Here’s a poem from Red Queen Hypothesis (due out in 2021), designed appropriately as a bookmark by designer Ric Hanisch.

berthold005

 

 

 

 

Journals

While re-reading May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal, I recalled reading this essay about the book, by Jeffrey Levine, in June. I first read At Seventy when I was, I think, 40 years old…I recommended it to my mother-in-law, who–like Sarton–lived alone and loved to garden. I now recognize in Sarton’s journal aspects of life and aging and creativity that I had not thought much of when I was younger–at 40, I felt envious of her freedom as a single woman. I was raising young teens, managing a busy household, working on a master’s degree, feeling I had no time to myself.

One thing that interests me about Sarton is her decision to keep journals intended for publication, beginning I think with her journal about recovering from cancer, though she had written at least one memoir before that journal.

Another poet who wrote journals intended for publication was the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki. Perhaps his most famous diary (in the West, at least) is “The Verse Record of My Peonies,” thanks to a translation by Earl Miner. Shiki kept writing haiku and haibun, as well as reviews, for the newspaper even as he was slowly dying of tuberculosis. His journal entries (there are others) were intended for readers.

My journals (and I have kept one ever since I was ten and read Harriet the Spy), however, would not make good reading; I would be embarrassed if they were published, especially unedited and unrevised, and no one would feel inspired, delighted, or edified by them. The concept of writing a daily journal intended to be read seems either brave or a bit dishonest, like a persona. Then again–many early weblogs were exactly that: daily public journals read by whatever online audience stumbled upon them. And perhaps this blog acts as my public journal, mostly about what I read, what’s in the garden, and what I’m teaching. Those pursuits, made public, do not mask who I am. They are the things I choose to reveal.

I don’t know if that’s different from a social media persona. But here’s a sleeping cat to look at while I ponder.

IMG_6587

Praise

 

Scent of needles & sap, the green of early winter.
pond ripples hurried & flattened by the fast cold
wind harsh enough to scatter the mallards
from water’s rough-textured surface. They leap
& flap & huddle on muddy grass, clustered, quacking.

Midday the clouds morph from one grey-white
shape to another, shadows strong, drawn from tall
pines onto the unpaved road. What hours lie ahead
we never know. No Terce or Compline ring here,
no call to prayer but antiphon train horn
& the disturbed ducks.

If I do not bow my head or bend my knee nonetheless
I praise. I praise you in and of this moment
whatever it is you are.
~

Comfort zones redux

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.imagesAEC

Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.

And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.

I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

~

In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.

Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?

~

depositphotos_55589581-stock-illustration-danger-crocodiles-no-swimming-sign