Breaking, breathing

For now, I will be taking a break, putting on the brakes, pausing for a breather. Briefly, though! Blogging has been not just a good discipline for writing practice but also for thinking practice. It has offered me a place to “bookmark” books that matter to me and to reflect on my teaching, my environment, my garden, and on The Big Stuff–consciousness, values, aesthetics, culture.

Urged along by other poetry bloggers (see Poetry Bloggers), I have posted 60 times in 2018. I felt quite disciplined about that feat until I looked at my WordPress statistics and learned that, for example, in 2014, I wrote 74 posts. This year I was no more or less active than usual (say the statistics). My average number of posts per year over the decade is pretty close to 60. Respectable enough–there are other things to do.

The college semester has closed. We are now “on break.” And I want to take advantage of the gap by making a break with our family tradition, just this once, and to relish the pause my job contains when the students are off campus. I’m especially happy to be breaking bread with Best Beloveds this holiday season. Before the year closes, I plan to enjoy long breaths in high altitudes and to look at the Milky Way.

May your breaks and breaths be of the best and most nourishing kinds.


Dave Leiker photo
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Influences, personal & poetic

Someone recently asked me what my poetic influences were. I admitted to some confusion about the meaning of “influences” in this question. “Do you mean which poets wrote work that influenced my writing style, or do you mean what sorts of people or experiences or art had an influence on the things I write about?” I wondered. Or maybe which poets’ lives influenced me somehow? There are so many ways to interpret that question.

I did assume the person meant the noun form of influence:

influence n. [ C/U ] us /ˈɪnˌflu·əns/

Cambridge Dictionary of English

the power to have an effect on people or things, or someone or something having such power. The kid next door is a bad/good influence on Kevin. She used her influence to get her son a summer job.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word was originally an astrological term (13th-14th c) that described how stellar positioning acted upon human destinies. It designated a “flow” from the stars, but also “a flow of water, a flowing in,” from Latin influere “to flow into, stream in, pour in,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” (from PIE root *en “in”) + fluere “to flow.” What star streamed its power to me or exerted its effect upon my writing?

When I read a wonderful poem, I do feel the piece has exerted its power, that language, words, imagery have the strength to sway my emotional field. After reading an entire collection by a good writer, I sense a resonance–intuitive, unsettling. Sometimes, the work evokes in me a desire to do what that writer has done. That’s one type of influence. The list of such writers would be lengthy indeed.

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Other influences, though–amazing works of art, thrilling architecture, deeply moving music or dance–I could not exempt those as streaming into my consciousness, awakening me to something new. Or human beings, especially those I love best.

And places. Environment matters to my poetry. In the city, I wrote city poems. In the country, I write country poems. After I’ve traveled somewhere new to me, I conjure the place in my mind and it exerts its own kind of power on me.

Influences, in my writing life, are generally bound to experiences; I’m not a very imaginative writer. “A change in the weather is sufficient for us to create the world and ourselves anew,” wrote Proust. I am not contradicting myself in this paragraph. But I think I will have more to say on this topic soon, once I mull it over a little longer.

Conditioning

In regards to my last post: I’ve conferred with some people who knew Jack Fisher, and I may have mis-remembered parts of the story. Although those who knew him agree it sounds like something he would do, no one else can place the painting that I recall. His daughter says it’s possible I saw a sketch or preliminary painting that Jack never completed. (She definitely recalls how much he abhorred the water tower!) If so, perhaps his talking about the possibilities of the composition made an impact on me, even if the work itself was a watercolor sketch that never made it to canvas. Entirely possible.

The point of my post remains the same, however–that “ugly” things can be understood in ways that may offer new perspectives on what we consider beautiful.

I guess what I am trying to get to qualifies as a kind of conditioning. That’s now a therapeutic approach to teaching people how to overcome, say, a phobia of airplanes or elevators. You put your toe in the water, so to speak, or learn about the thing that causes fear. And knowledge can overcome fear. Not always, but often.

Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.

famous photo construction workers

‘Lunchtime Atop A Skyscraper’ Charles Ebbets, 1932

My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.

It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.

Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.

I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up…    [yikes!]

 

Aesthetic “therapy”

I have been musing on Rebecca Solnit’s text in which she writes about the Romantics’ “new” appreciation of Nature. I was particularly struck by her research about how in Europe, and among the Eurocentric American colonizers, pre-Romantic era society considered mountains not only dangerous but also “ugly” (in Wanderlust: A History of Walking). Aesthetics began to change in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. Walking the natural world for something other than pure transportation from place to place altered our social ideas about what’s “beautiful.”

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“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”  —John Cage

 

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This train of thought reminded me of Jack Fisher’s water tower. Jack was a friend and extended-family member who who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania from the 1940s until his death in 1999. He was an architect, engineer, teacher, builder of many things, and an artist.

Often when we were visiting, Jack would show us a painting he was working on. On this occasion, he told us how annoyed he had felt at a new condo development; the big, aqua-colored water tower rising from the housing campus especially irked him. “It’s so ugly!” he said. “So ugly, and I was feeling so mad, I decided to do a landscape painting of the damned thing. And here’s what’s funny–I kind of like the composition here, and the colors. What do you think?” He was right. It may have been an ugly water tower, but it was a lovely painting.

Unfortunately, I do not have an image of that painting except in my memory; here, however, is a painting of Jack’s that depicts the fields in Bucks County, PA, which he considered beautiful.

jackpainting004

Suber’s Field with Clouds, Jack Fisher, oil, 1998

Imagine a water tower here, and a sea of peak-roofed condominiums. And a balanced composition, and a deft use of colors.

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Looking closely enough at something to find that you no longer see it as ugly requires an almost meditative change in perspective. It’s been an approach useful to me as a poetry prompt and as a means of more closely appreciating the world and everything in it. I don’t mean that I identify with the 19th-c Romantics, though I eagerly trod where Wordsworth trod when I visited the Lakes District a few years back; I don’t. My view of nature is really with a small ‘n’ and is pragmatic and scientific, among other things.

But: John Cage’s question to himself is a reminder to be compassionate, to observe with openness, information, education, perspective, and loving-kindness…while walking through the world.

 

Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.

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Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smalls

This week in the blog tour, both Kelli Russell Agodon and Lesley Wheeler (poets) blogged about smallness, small things, smaller lives.

And a lovely (small) erasure poem by Dave Bonta got me thinking about ‘little things’:

in the night bog
I part with my road
curious about other things

I lack philosophy enough
to understand bread
or the question of touch                                            —Dave Bonta

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iris reticulata

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Just yesterday, these tiny iris reticulata bloomed along the woodlot’s edge. This evening’s forecast is for a nor’easter and up to 8 inches of snow. So long, for now, little irises. During the brief time I observed you, beauty entered my day.

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Can we even understand such small and usual things as bread? As touch? As the winter’s blossoms? Could we entertain an aesthetics of small things?

Or do I lack the philosophy for that?

 

Begun in reverie

 

wooden fishing boats

Near Aviero, Portugal; photo: David Sloan

Today, I was thinking of Portugal. Nice memories. I went through my digital photographs, found this one, and fell into reverie. It is amazing how images enhance memory or enable us to embellish it. Sometimes, that is where a poem begins.

When my physical body walked upon this sand, beside this bay, the encounter was a mix of new–a place I’d never been before–and familiar or expected: smell of brine and fish, the feel of breezes in my hair and on my skin, of damp sand underfoot. I recall my delight at seeing the vividly-painted wooden boats, though I had certainly seen paintings and photographs of similar fishing crafts, so their appearance was not surprising. That’s because I have a friend who is an expert in wooden boat-making, Simon Watts; he has been around the world examining wooden boats and had told us to watch for these along the coast of Portugal. Simon is a teller of stories, as is his sister Marjorie Watts. So many hours Simon has regaled us with tales of the writing life, the sailing life, the traveling life, the woodworking life, his forays in Portugal…

Back to Portugal. I think of a most pleasant week there, not so long ago. Mind hums with possibilities. With images. With words.

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This post is an effort to illustrate how image, memory, sensory experience, stories, human connections, and activities bounce around the neurological synapses while a person experiences reverie.

It isn’t reverie, of course, because I am writing; true reverie seldom includes much activity. Let me suggest the paragraphs and picture are somehow analogous to the reverie process, which often leads to imagination.

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Next stop: Imagination! train 1And perhaps even a draft for a poem.