Living with history

It’s complicated, history. It engages with things I love, such as art, in complex and often contradictory ways. How did a person with such fascist tendencies write such enduring, challenging work? How could such a misogynist womanizer create paintings of surpassing depth and beauty? Why was a person who was so concerned with the welfare of others so neglectful of his or her family?

Alex Ross, writing about classical music in The New Yorker‘s September 21 issue:

“The poietic* and the esthetic should have equal weight when we pick up the pieces of the past. On the one hand, we can be aware that Handel invested in the business of slavery; on the other, we can see a measure of justice when Morris Robinson sings his music in concert…there is no need to reach a final verdict–to judge each artist innocent or guilty. Living with history means living with history’s complexities, contradictions, and failings…Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register….Because all art is the product of our grandiose, predatory species, it reveals the worst in our natures as well as the best.”

People are complicated and contradictory. None is perfect. The worst in our natures can be compelling, even inspirational.

Even in history, where it’s famously said the victors write the verdicts, such verdicts can be overturned, the stories made new, retold from different perspectives, satirized. I love that Ross calls humans “grandiose and predatory” but notes our capacity for creating beauty nonetheless. Rings true in my experience, and sounds a lot like what poets do.

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*The terms were coined by semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, with poietic referring to the productive process of art (its creation) and esthetic with the receptive process (its impact upon the listener-viewer-reader).

If you are curious, you can see and hear Morris Robinson singing the bass in Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony on YouTube. (I couldn’t find him singing Handel online).

Wish, will, motivation

Lately, I have been turning my mind to thoughts about what we human beings mean by “will” and how closely will coincides with, or basically means, consciousness. I think Kant defined the difference between wish and will by saying that the latter involves action–people wish for peace, but will leads them into war. Maybe I am perpetuating a too-simplified (or simply wrong) concept regarding Kant. I should look it up before posting. Anyway, consider:

Suppose I wish I could win $50 million in the lottery. I may wish to win as much as I like; but while buying three $1 tickets doesn’t increase likelihood of my winning by much, it is nonetheless an action that moves me from wishing to possibility. (Very small statistical possibility, but better than buying no ticket.)

Voting, for example, is an act. An act of will. Though I may wish to have had other choices on the ballot…

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“What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?” (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781)

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I am much more familiar, though not intelligently conversant with, Kant’s writings on art and aesthetics. It does cheer me that he posits poetry as the “greatest” art because it expands the human mind through reflection, stimulates the imagination [not that I am at all biased about poetry, myself].

Much of Kant’s thinking about what is provocative, expressive, and beautiful in art seems logical on the page but does not quite feel true to my experiences of art, however; except that it does feel true that creating art is an act of willing, not wishing, and that art emerges from the will to express.

Is what philosophers call “will” the same as what psychologists call “motivation”?

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How about this statement, which I hear frequently from students and which I readily admit to having uttered: “I wish I were more motivated.” Is that wishing to have the will, but lacking the will to have the will?

(No wonder learning English is so difficult.)

Perhaps needless to say, these past few days I have been feeling a lack of motivation.

astronomy clouds dark evening

Photo by Tomas Anunziata on Pexels.com

 

“Star light, star bright
first star I see tonight
wish I may, wish I might…”

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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.

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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?

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Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

cloudsketch

mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

Connections

 

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August has arrived and a few of our incoming freshmen are on campus already, as well as students on various fall sports teams who need to get a jump on the competition season. It was quite awhile ago that I was a teenage person entering my first year at college, but each year our students arrive with the same anticipation and excitement I felt. They’re ready to exercise a little responsibility, a little freedom, and to make the kinds of connections–personal, emotional, and intellectual–that will affect the rest of their lives one way or another.

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In the 1970s, science historian and television broadcaster James Burke created and hosted a show called Connections. I was a fan of the series because I loved the surprising ways discoveries, events in history, people, and accident led to innovations and the criss-crossing of continents and ideas. The interdisciplinary aspect of human culture, of science and the arts, fascinated me as a teen. Those networked ideas have shown up many times through my life.

Connections: The photo above was taken by my fellow student Steve Lohman when we were freshmen. Steve later attended Pratt School of Art.  We lost touch for a long time, and–I have forgotten how–I found his metalwork while I was looking for cover art for my book of poems The Capable Heart.

 

running_horse

Running Horse by Steve Lohman

Connections: I liked Steve’s wireworks, but I remembered him as a photographer. Granted, what a person pursues at age 17 or 18 is easily liable to change–but I was curious about how he started doing sculpture. When he mentioned he’d attended Pratt, I asked if he had ever met Toshio Odate, who taught there for years. “One of my favorite teachers!” said Steve. “I loved his class.”

Connections: My spouse took a job writing for a woodworking magazine, where he met Toshio, who wrote about Japanese tools and woodworking techniques. Meanwhile, Toshio was creating his own works of art at his home as well as mentoring many students. He’s now a long-time friend of ours. (Photo of Odate’s “Pride of New England,” below, by Laure Oleander).

toshio-pride copy

Connections: Neural networks, the embodied mind, the ways writing assists in psychological healing, the twists in a good novel’s plot, the turn in a poem, metaphor, surprise. The unexpected thrills us–unexpected connections fill us with curiosity and a kind of joy, as does the closure.

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Connections: The commercial creation Thinkhub, invented for teaching, offers yet another example of connections. A cultural thinkhub project based in Toledo, midstory.org has produced my poem “River by River” as a soundscape: click here.

The project researchers found my poem in the anthology I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio. Look around, folks–connections are everywhere, and we learn from them.

 

Seemingly small stuff

Things to view, things to think about.

Sub Rosa’s post on floral aesthetica here.

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Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, thanks to Harvard (it takes a few seconds to load) here.

qalace ed

William Bartram‘s 18th-century drawings of American flora.

bartramx

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Lovely words from Lesley Wheeler, and so true for me, too: “…reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.”

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.

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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.

 

Haiku, moon, peony

During busy times, we may need a few moments of solitary reflection.

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Full moon moonlight
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-V1
10/800s, f 2.8, ISO 100, 7 mm

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flower moon
fireflies enlighten
the pear tree
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I’m currently reading David Bayles’ and Ted Orland’s encouraging little book, Art & Fear. Nice reading to tuck around the edges of a few full weeks.

 

Blogs

The snow’s receded, and the crocuses open; yet another wintry storm looms. Nonetheless, the past three days have felt less like thaws and more like spring itself. Today, I’m listing some great blogs to browse, breeze through, or peruse…as I am at present falling a bit behind on the Blog Tour (among other things).

muscari

 

There may be a hiatus to follow…in the meantime, follow these!

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Good blogs on what it means to be a poet, in or out of academia, and to keep slugging away at the job:

Jeannine Hall Gailey, who has a new book about promoting & marketing one’s poetry (available from Two Sylvias Press): http://webbish6.com/

Diane Lockward: http://dianelockward.blogspot.com/

Lesley Wheeler: https://lesleywheeler.org/author/thecavethehive/

Grant Clauser: https://uniambic.com/

Donna Vorreyer: https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/author/djvorreyer/

Kelli Russell Agodon: http://ofkells.blogspot.com/

Dedicated poem-a-day or nearly a-poem-a-day bloggers who actually write good poems:

Lou Faber: https://anoldwriter.com/

Luisa Igloria, whose fine book The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having a Mid-life Crisis just came out from Beth Adams’ (15+ years of blogging! @ Cassandra Pages) Phoenicia Publishing: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/luisa/

And Dave Bonta, also 15 years blogging, who does a mighty job of crowdsourcing poetry and poets: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/dave/

Then these blogs, which often blend visual art with poetry, or poetry with visual art, such as:

Marilyn McCabe: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/

Art critic and artist Sigrun Omstreifer: https://omstreifer.com/

Artist Deborah Barlow: http://www.slowmuse.com/

And finally, a field biologist (specialty: entomology, bees in particular, but she photographs omnivorously) who loves poetry and posts the occasional poem amid her informative essays on birds, bugs, landscapes, hikes, travel, dogs, and all things lively and worth investigating: https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com

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That should keep readers busy for National Poetry Month and beyond!