Er – sur –

Mary Ruefle writes, in her book of “lectures,” Madness, Rack, & Honey: “I remember being so young I thought all artists were good, kind, loving, exceptionally interesting, and exemplary human beings.”

I was a child like that. It’s good to know there was at least one other. We grow up to know that such artists are far from common. But they do exist.

Each time I learned a “bad” thing about an artist, poet, or writer I loved, I felt a little deflated. Something was being taken away from my idea of the person who made such wonderful work.

Later, I rather empathized with Roland Barthes’ theorizing about the death of the author. Not because I was necessarily post-modern but because sometimes, I wanted the artist-as-person to be erased so that I could go back to loving the art-as-art. This was a juvenile way of thinking about both human beings and about art.

But: the lure of erasure…

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Ruefle muses about time, about art, literature, and the human being. Her assays to determine what endures among us often feel a bit cryptic or aphoristic at the first encounter. The wisdom in them, and the layeredness–and the awareness of what is “missing” in her texts–evolved in my own mind as I read her book, slowly.

She has used erasure as a means to expression and to beauty, as it happens. Examples of her erasure poems appear on The Poetry Foundation’s website here.

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The closing epigraph of Madness, Rack, & Honey (is it an epigraph if it falls at the end of the book?) is from Samuel Pepys’ Diary following the Great Fire “…an abundance of pieces of burnt papers were cast by the wind as far as Cranborne; and among others she took up one…which was a little bit of paper that had been printed, whereon there remained no more nor less than these words: “Time, it is done.”

Time.clock

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For Dave Bonta’s interpretation of erasure poems–based upon Pepys’ diary–see via negativa here.

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“Exhibit 13,” by Blue Man Group, follows an abundance of pieces of burnt papers cast by the wind, as well.

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Grief, poetry

I think it is important that people read Mark Doty’s deep and appropriate comments on whether (or, possibly, how) poetry can console “a grieving public.” It’s on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

Doty’s poetry has always struck me as particularly powerful at evoking, and embodying, the way the world that is (physical, phenomenological) intersects with the world of the mind (both intellectual and emotional). He is likewise an excellent, reflective, poetic prose writer and memoirist.

On this day, which still sears pretty heavily into the collective and individual consciousness of many U.S. citizens, Doty’s observations about public and private shared grief, and how we “process” such emotions are apt and compelling. Doty begins with Wislawa Szymborska’s heartbreaking, and controversial, poem “Photograph from September 11.” In his commentary, he asks, “What can the artist do, in the face of the dreadful, that which can’t be assimilated?” and says that

To name it is to diminish it and, in the process, to come head to head with the inadequacy of the tools of poetry to circumscribe such experience. It is a gesture recognizable from Neruda’s great poem occasioned by the Spanish Civil War, “I Explain Some Things,” in which he writes that the blood of the children ran in the street “como el sangre de ninos”—“like the blood of children.” There is no adequate gesture, nothing in the arsenals of figuration that will serve; only a terrible plainness of saying, or of pointing toward what cannot be said, can rise to these occasions.

He observes–and I have to agree with him here, “I understand the human need…to give shape to grief, but surely the first response to such a rupture in the fabric of the world ought to be a resonant, enormous silence. To come too quickly to words is, ultimately, a form of arrogance; the easy poem suggests that loss is graspable, that the poet has ready command of speech in the face of anything.”

Elegy takes me awhile. Silence and the awe of disbelief and the need to think come first; indeed, are necessary. For me, perhaps the most stunning September 11 “elegy” is, surprisingly, from Blue Man Group: the mostly wordless video “Exhibit 13.”

Doty moves on: he says, “All poems of public grief are private poems first. If, that is, they are any good, and not merely occasional pieces that serve to mark a moment and reinforce what people already think.” True. And then, these words, which artists are more likely to understand than no-artists, because there is potentially something “hard” in them–

The act of making a poem is a movement from private feeling and perception, the inchoate stuff of experience, into the shared realm of language. At some point along the way, the poet usually becomes less interested in understanding or naming experience, and more intrigued by the words themselves, by the patterned arrangement of sound and silence on the page and in the ear, the pleasures of giving form. And it is a pleasure, poetic making, even when what is being shaped is dreadful.

The aesthetic, the gorgeous, emerging from horror. Isn’t that almost–almost–manipulative? Doty recognizes and disabuses us of that notion by citing his own experience of writing about AIDS:

I was setting things down for myself because I needed to, and then experiencing…that progress toward impersonality which comes with the making of poetry. That must be among the strangest of poetry’s many paradoxes: that we are driven to write by fire and then must distance ourselves to a cool dispassion in order to make those flames burn for anyone else. That is not a heartless thing, or an opportunistic one, to turn your experience into art.

Yes, please read his essay if you are interested in what art is and what it does and how it relates to public experience of any kind.

“I think what the poet must do is pay attention to the nature of subjectivity, to the experienced, lived hour, and trust the paradox that if we succeed in representing that, we may approach speaking to our fellow citizens. I hope so.”  ~Mark Doty

More posts on grieving and art:  Despair&Fear, December 24