Unknowable

While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.

Key images

I had intended to post on Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution; and I will (I suppose) at some point, because I enjoyed it immensely. Looking through my files, however, I found the transcripts from the initial interview Karen Jogan and Hernán Pereira conducted with me when they were compiling the book So Far…So Close and realized that my answers to some of their inquiries connect with my last post about poetic voice and Kunitz’s thoughts on key images. (The longer, but edited, version of the interview appears in the book).

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  1. What colors or aromas remind you of your childhood?

Cinnamon toast, mown grass, onion grass (wild garlic), lily-of-the-valley, cedar-water and pine trees, the scent of a muddy river in summer, wintergreen, play-dough, school paste, steam-irons, fresh peaches, campfires, burning leaves, talcum powder, Pepto-Bismol, air-dried clothes and linens, mimosa blossoms, roses, strawberries.snowdrops

  1. Describe yourself as a child.

I wonder from whose perspective I should attempt to answer this question. I know from others that I was considered to be shy and polite, talkative when comfortable, imaginative. I certainly felt uncomfortable among groups of people, preferring small groups of friends with whom I played make-believe. I made up stories which I told my sister and brother, and when I was old enough to write I made little children’s books that I illustrated and bound in cardboard.

My sister was my best friend, but I spent a good deal of time all by myself. When alone, I walked my dog, climbed trees, played on the swings, sketched and painted, and read books. I really was a bookworm and spent many happy hours with books and in libraries. Being alone was, and still is, deeply satisfying for me—it helps me regain creative energy.

  1. At what moment in your life did you begin to write?

I don’t remember when I began writing. My storytelling began early, and I suppose the writing developed from there. The first story I recall writing down was about a princess; I was in second grade. I felt proud of myself, even though the story was only about three sentences long. Apparently, the poems started when I was about nine. I don’t remember writing poems then, but I recently found some that I had composed and typed up (I was fascinated by the typewriter), and my mother’s notes said I was nine when I wrote them. What I really wanted to be was an artist, but writing seemed natural to me. I started keeping a journal when I was ten…

9yroldpoems010

Rhyming and typing and illustrating and bookmaking– at nine years old.

  1. What influences have been important to you?

Other writers, naturally, but first of all, visual art. From the time I was very small, I’ve loved paintings and sculptures and architecture. Church hymns and Bible verses and nursery rhymes were influential to me, as well as folk music and the lyricists of popular music when I was growing up. I am also influenced by non-fiction work, especially in the sciences, and philosophy. My early poetry influences were Donne, Shakespeare, Blake, and the King James Bible; but then I fell in love with contemporary women writers, then surrealist poets, then Latin American writers, then Asian poetry, then contemporary lyric poems…it goes on and on. It might be easier to say what I have not found particularly influential!

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With further reflection, I could go deeper about early images that have become, for me, “key” aspects of my writing voice…a particular landscape, the feeling of an empty nave, bees and birds, milkweed, cloud patterns, my parents singing, my little sister beside me in our shared bed, the sound of a symphony. They may not appear in my poems as such, but these images connect with me in ways I probably don’t understand. What do such keys unlock, I wonder?

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Voice

I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

Lyric time

I’m currently savoring–as slowly as possible, as it is a short book–Mark Doty’s “World into Word” essays in The Art of Description. The text has been gently pushing my thoughts back toward matters of poetry.

I always think of Doty’s style, in prose and poetry, as precise and almost studied, though the studied-ness doesn’t feel overbearing but reflective; a naturalness remains that keeps the poems “hospitable” (as he puts it).

In his essay on Bishop, “The Tremendous Fish,” Doty examines the various forms of observation and focus or perspective that contribute to any work of art, although here he is of course honing in on the lyric state of mind. These passages seem to me to hearken to Bachelard (see here and here) on the temporal:

What is memory but a story about how we have lived? …there is another sort of temporality, too, which is timelessness. In this lyric time we cease to be aware of forward movement…it represents instead a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reveries. This sense of time originates in childhood, before the conception of causality…

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson days, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

fest7~

This is, in addition to relating to Bachelard’s concepts on reverie, a form of mindfulness that would not be out of place in Zen and would be recognizable to any artist familiar with the creative “zone.”

I’m reminded of a popular colloquialism of the 1970s: “zoning out.” Generally, the phrase signified not paying attention, being slightly stoned, out of touch: negative connotations. Yet there were people who used the term in a more positive way to mean “in the zone”–an acceptable, if “flaky,” zinging of the mind into a calm or creative space.

A space where poets might wander in “self-forgetful concentration.”

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Let’s go…

Untermyer Park

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My enthusiasm for gardens of all kinds seems inextinguishable, and my tastes are wide-ranging. I love cottage gardens, wilderness-style native gardens, garden rooms, rooftop gardens and multi-acre gardens (ah, the Biltmore Estate...), sculpture gardens, vegetable gardens, potager and herb knots and medicinal plots, historic gardens (Monticello, Bartram’s...) and my grandma’s truck patch, may my grandma rest in peace. Also Asian gardens, European gardens, alpine gardens, undersea gardens (I have yet to visit one, but I would love to do so)–and I’m intrigued by trick gardens like the one at Hellbrunn in Salzburg and themed gardens and miniature railway gardens (there’s a fun one near me at Morris Arboretum). Oh, and I adore arboretums. Or should that be arboreta?

Gardens, like art and literature, reflect unique visions and aesthetics. And they are completely process-oriented: the results, if you can call them that, are fleeting and changeable. Maybe that’s one reason they appeal to me.

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Recently, I had a garden adventure that was part nostalgia, part history, part aesthetic–and a lovely day out with my sister, as well. We decided to return to a park that had been important to us when we were very young, for the three years we lived in Yonkers, NY (see my post on the Grinton Will Public Library).

My family lived in houses that had almost non-existent backyards, which is not uncommon in Yonkers–a city built on hills and cliffsides, dwellings crowded practically on top of one another in some parts of town. Our parents took us to nearby Untermyer Park for picnics, exploration, and play. Situated above the Hudson River, the park was like The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, ancient Greece, and Narnia, all rolled up into one mysterious and lovely, part-wild, part-formal place. The walled garden and the grotto beneath the Temple of Love were favorite places.

When we lived there, the park was reasonably well-kept, though not planted with many blooming flowers: lawns mowed, shrubs and trees somewhat pruned, no graffiti, a few paths cleared. The park belongs to the City of Yonkers, deeded to the public by Samuel Untermyer–a civic-minded gentleman who for some reason did not also endow the place. As a result, maintenance of the original 150 acres quickly became untenable and the city sold off much of the land. The 1862 mansion was razed, a hospital began to expand on some of the property, and the former glory rapidly decayed, overgrown by trees and weeds.

Which made it all the more exciting to people who are very young. It was entirely possible to believe there might be lions or mountain goats or fairies in the fringes of the woodland. The columns evoked stories and myths. The long reflecting pools, though not entirely full of water, were exotic canals or dangerous rivers or chasms. There were stairs and doors in surprising places, and overhanging vines, and grand old trees.

My sister and I share happy memories of the park. We had heard that it went through ups and downs depending upon the economy, the health of the city, grants, taxes, etc. Apparently the early 70s saw considerable graffiti on the walls we loved and on the grotto rocks. We heard indigent young people liked to hang out there and get stoned. We heard the woods had become littered and full of vermin. In the 1980s, some clean-up occurred; the park had made it onto the federal Historic Register. The walled garden was kept clean, and most of the graffiti tags erased. Deer roamed the place, eating everything but the mugwort, phragmites, and Japanese knotweed. The city still had trouble funding maintenance on the park, let alone restoration.

My sister went searching for Untermyer recently and learned that the city of Yonkers has hired two full-time gardeners and has partnered with a non-profit organization in an attempt to get more serious about restoration of this special place. And last weekend, she and I went on a tour with the enthusiastic gardeners and their young and enthusiastic apprentices.

And fell in love with the park all over again.

Even in its partially-wild, partially-decayed state, Untermyer Park compels the visitor. People genuinely gasp as they enter the walled Persian-style garden through the Artemis gate (the walled garden has been largely restored and looks pretty fabulous). The website offers an overview of the amazing history behind the place and includes some photos from the Roaring 20s, when Greystone Estate was the place to attend a party.

The “Persian” garden symbolizes Eden; indeed, the word “Paradise” has its etymological roots in Persia (Iran) as a compound of the word pairi- “around” and the word diz “to make, as in a wall.” Here’s a photo I took with my sister’s phone. The snapshot doesn’t do the place justice, of course; nor can it capture the thrill we felt at returning to find an old, old friend in the full bloom of health.

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Click here for Untermyer website.

Reveries toward childhood

My childhood was happy and full of isolation—bored, lonely, occasionally melancholy daydreams and reflections. Some readers will find contradiction in that opening sentence, but Gaston Bachelard would have understood. His chapter (in The Poetics of Reverie) on Childhood and Reverie resonates deeply with me.

The claims Bachelard makes for the crucial importance of childhood reverie are that the child, solitary, daydreaming, finds happiness as the “master” of his or her reveries and that poetry is the way adults can return to the deep daydreams of childhood in which humans are—briefly—free beings and fully receptive: “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting over again.”

He further claims that images “reveal the intimacy of the world” and that all poetic images are a kind of remembering. I suppose this particular claim for poetry puts Bachelard in the “deep image” arena of poetry—Rilke, for example, as filtered through the concepts of Carl Jung, whose influence appears everywhere in The Poetics of Reverie. I waver in my complete acceptance of this claim, though I can’t yet articulate why—because I do agree image can evoke, or even be part and parcel of, intimacy. It may not be the sole method of achieving the shock of recognition or the tug of familiarity among readers, however. I’d assert that Ammons, Menashe, even Ponsot (in her tiny poems in Springing) get there by other means.

What I love about Bachelard’s philosophy on childhood reveries is the idea of “reveries toward childhood.” Interesting phrase, and I wonder if the translator (Daniel Russell) struggled with it. To dream toward childhood denotes an intentional action, a moving forward in order to reach back, a paradox. He claims we can almost reach (regain) the child’s “astonishment of being,” our “world of the first time,” through reading poems. We daydream with the poem itself…not with the poet, who remains a distinct individual with his or her own being and past.

I’ve experienced this feeling, and now Bachelard has described it for me.

The philosopher was late in his life when he composed these reflections; this is his last book. As he explores the “uselessness” of childhood memories, the flashes of recall through sensory stimuli, he posits that reveries toward childhood nourish the person who is in “the second half of life.” Combining memory and reverie can restore us, he says; and to do so, we first beautify our pasts—even our tragic episodes are reconsidered, reconstructed, through the lens of distant memory. (Hence the opportunity for sentiment). I think he means that once we have dealt with vivid past traumas earlier in adulthood, older people are able to recall the amazement of having once been new to the world. Perhaps this is merely sentiment, but it is certainly a phenomenon that appears in many works of drama, fiction, even memoir.

Bachelard describes such experiences as “the strange synthesis of regret and consolation” and adds that “a beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.” (I love that sentence.)

In this way—among other ways, I might add—poetry’s images help us believe in the world, revive “abolished” reveries in a fresh light; the poet’s images may not be our images at all, yet they work to move the reader toward childhood, by which I mean toward a seeing-afresh of human experience. I may be parting ways with Msr. Bachelard here, for he classifies these images as almost wholly archetypal, and I do not; nonetheless, I don’t think our differences negate his claims nor hurt my general agreement with his insights. The amazement that took off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head when she read a great poem, the astonishment of being that arrives via the poem, strikes me (and the pun is intended) as exactly like the Zen whisk: “Wake up!”

And what is a child but a being who is wholly awake to the world?

“When we are children, people show us so many things that we lose the profound sense of seeing, Bachelard says. Yes, like Whitman when he “heard the learnéd astronomer”… Whitman’s speaker—the child in him—ventures outside to see the stars. He does not need to be shown.

This is a long blog entry, I know. But if you’ve gotten this far, I hope you are eager to go read some poems now.

Wake up and dream!

Still daydreaming in adolescence…(Switzerland, 1974)