Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

~

I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

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Depression & the creative process

I was recently chatting with a psychiatrist about the creative process, specifically among poets. He admitted that he doesn’t know much about poetry, but I was nevertheless surprised to learn that he believed the stereotype of the poet who works most creatively when depressed.

“You deal with depressed people all the time,” I said. “Do they strike you as particularly motivated to do anything creative?”

He admitted that one hallmark of depression is loss of motivation–to do anything, let alone create expressive art of any kind. So it would follow, I suggested, that a period in which a person is seriously working at what he or she loves would be unlikely to coincide with a full-blown depressive episode.

“What about those poets who write about, say, staring out a window and sadness,” he asked, “They seem to write about being depressed, to express the feelings of depression.”

True, some poets experience depression (some commit suicide, too); and some express those feelings in verse. Yet none of the working writers I know who struggle with forms of depression write while in the midst of the “black mood.” They can only write well when the mood has not seized them fully; and while they may try to convey those feelings of the ‘inexpressible,’ they write and especially, revise, the work during more productive hours when melancholia has tapered a bit.

Melencolia_I_(Durero)

Drurer’s Melencolia I (wiki images)

It takes concentration, creativity, and analysis to craft a poem that adequately means what depression feels like. You cannot access such things when you are truly depressed. Some writers want to portray the experience; others want to explain it; still others prefer to write about the desire to escape, or even to embrace, the melancholy; others simply relate what they observe. Trying to pigeonhole all writers who address despair defies reason and suggests that all writers undergo the same feelings and experiences. Excuse me, we are individuals–diversely, wildly, enthusiastically unique.

That said, I cannot make the claim that no one has ever created a great work of art or poem while in the midst of a clinical depression; I merely posit that it’s likely that poetry composed while the author is gripped by existential melancholy will not meet the poet’s own standards.

Lewis Wolpert, a biologist and author, says, “I claim that if you can truly describe what it is like, then you have not had a true depression. It’s an illusion, and completely unlike anything else. When you are immersed in it, you enter a world without reference points, so once you recover it is very hard to relate how you felt.”

A world without reference points–that is the attraction depression might hold for a writer: the creative summons to relate an experience that is essentially beyond description. But most writers are not able to answer that summons while in the depths themselves.

And many writers are not troubled by depression at all. [See this 2012 article from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation for essential insight and clarification of an earlier study–that abstract is here.] The studies do suggest that writers are more likely than the general population to have bipolar disorder, which makes a kind of sense to me: after the sinkhole of a depressive period, the active “manic” phase might permit a writer to accomplish a great deal, including possibly a description of the void. Or it might not.

At any rate, I hope that people–psychiatrists, for example!–eventually recognize that we should not stereotype artists and poets any more than we should stereotype people who have mental illnesses, different accents, or skin color that is dissimilar to our own. What makes artists “different from other people” remains a mystery despite years of research and speculation, and my gut feeling is that the difference has more to do with other aspects of the creative process than it does with depression of any stripe.

The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.

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water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.

~

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.

~

So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…

~

Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

~

Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.

~

“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)

~books

Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?

~

Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)

Creativity

It bothers me when people tell me they are not creative. Creativity, inborn in human beings, comes in so many forms. Just because a person does not identify as a recognizably creative person–artist, decorator, writer, teacher, etc.–that doesn’t mean he or she lacks creativity. We cannot solve problems without engaging our creativity, and most of us solve hundreds of small problems daily. We just tend not to consider those talents as “creative.”

One of my colleagues is a consummate problem-solver. Yet she constantly derides her work: “A monkey could do my job,” she claims. It would have to be one heck of a creative monkey! For years, I’ve been constantly amazed at her creative solutions to problems that students present to her…everything from advising to financial aid to family issues to roommate problems and issues that are once-in-a-career type peculiarities. She always says, “I’ll see what I can do;” 90% of the time, she finds a workable solution.

Another thing that intrigues me about her is the way she uses language. She reminds me of my grandmothers: sensible, smart women born and raised in one region and wedded to certain habits but possessing considerable grit and spunk and … creativity. Including marvelous slips of the tongue or twists on clichés. One of her most charming accidental neologisms is that instead of saying memento, she says “momento.” Educated well–with a Masters degree–she probably spells the word correctly when she writes. But I love hearing her say “momento,” because that’s one way of thinking about the word: a reminder of a moment. So apt! While the etymology of the word derives from the Latin (imperative of meminisse, to remember), the idea of recalling a moment through some sort of small souvenir strikes me as perfect.

Another creative use of language occurs when we are talking rapidly and the standard word or metaphor doesn’t come quickly to mind, so our brains substitute something else. My colleague’s creativity shows up at such times. I tend to stumble and say, “uh…um…” when that happens to me; but her mind comes up with alternatives (which occasionally make me laugh, but which always make me delighted). A recent example: during a freshman student program, there was an unexpected downpour which arrived just as the 18-year-olds were walking from breakfast in the cafeteria to a classroom building some distance away. Of course, none of them had umbrellas or rain jackets.

“Those poor kids!” said my friend. “They were all huddled in their soaked hoodies like wet mice. Like…like little wet mice, trying to get dry!”

I’d have resorted to the common phrase “drowned rats,” but little wet mice wearing soaked hoodies seems so much more vivid and elicits more sympathy. It’s also more creative–don’t  you agree?

~

“About as sharp as a sack of wet mice.” Foghorn Leghorn probably knew my grandparents….

Energy & stamina

I have been thinking about energy and stamina, and the difference between the two, and how they relate to creative practice. The word “energy” conjures up, for me, vigor and forcefulness, vitality, strength–a sort of bustling intensity, the kind my son exhibited when he was five years old, for example. I have never considered myself a particularly high-energy person.

Think of the cat. A cat is capable of intense bursts of energy but will also husband that energy until the moment it’s needed. The cat will also sleep most of the day, storing up energy for the necessary predatory expenditures of strength. The feline form of energy use does not suit me very well, though I am partial to naps.

Stamina, however–stamina I have possessed. Stamina is also strength, also energy, but it is of a different nature. Plodding sometimes, headlong other times, but steady in the main. The sort of focus and determination a person needs to get through the long haul strikes me as stamina. Stamina is the energy to endure.

free kewlwallpaperWe have the mayfly and the bee, always buzzing actively, bursting with lively energy. Or the cat, conserving and then pulsing with strength and force. And we have the snail, constant and enduring, slowly edging its way toward its object.

My writing practice requires endurance, because I only occasionally get flashes of inspiration or insight and rarely feel surges of creative energy. Nonetheless, I have been told I am a “prolific” writer (by whose standards, I always wonder; compared to Georges Simenon and Alexandre Dumas, I am a piker). I think the reason is that I keep on. Everyone experiences setbacks, rejection, dry spells, discouragement, dull days. How we choose to deal with those situations becomes part of our practice of the discipline of art, and many approaches “work.” Whenever I read biographies of artists of any kind, or interviews with poets and writers and choreographers and composers, I recognize that (despite post-modernist critique) the life, in terms of personality and approach, does to some degree influence the art.

But the results are impossible to stereotype. A talkative, energetic artist may produce quiescent, meditative art. A dour personality can produce hopeful poetry, a still and soft-spoken person may create fierce, kinetic work.

A highly energetic person like Rimbaud can “burn out” on a major art form rapidly (though his busily-spinning, adventurous life kept going). And then there are the energetic sorts who just keep making work with boundless, apparently inexhaustible fire (see Simenon). One method or personality is not better nor more suited to art than another.

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This is my minuscule revelation for the day: The one time I visited a shaman, I was told that my totem animal is the snail. The idea gave me a moment’s pause, but then seemed somehow very apt.

Except I was a little queasy about the slime trail.

~

I decided I can reframe the fact of slime once I recognize its purpose. It is not merely a lubricant, helping the gastropod to glide along, but also a glue that enables the creature to climb difficult surfaces, walls, and even ceilings. The layer of mucous also acts to protect the snail from dehydrating.

There must be a metaphor there somewhere. Poetry as…snail slime?

~

Time to keep plugging away, I  think.

Not a dry spell

October arrived in a remarkably ordinary way, considering how inconsistent the weather in my valley has been during the past year. There were a few clear days of brilliant sky, some heavy breezes with leaves beginning to drift into the lawn, a couple of glorious autumn days–mild and crisp–followed by a spate of rain and humid air (and toadstools and mushrooms cropping up everywhere), a further yellowing and reddening of foliage, and then, chilly rain.

This is “normal” weather for our area in early- to mid-October. Although the heavy skies and damp chill are not always welcomed by residents, including me, the gardener in me feels relieved. We need the rain and the coming dormancy. The birds relish the late, large insects that frequent gutters and fields, ponds and puddles, providing proteins for a trip south or for winter ahead. Seeds need the watering-in and the cooling-down. Trees need reminders to store their nutrients deep inside when the cold air really sets in.

And pretty soon, I will have bulbs to plant. I want the soil to be moist enough to dig up and the ground temperature cool enough to keep the daffodils still and quiet for several months.

Some years, I write prolifically in autumn; it’s as though the change in season effects a kind of transition within me, and creativity abounds. Other years, not so much. I do notice that when I spend a good deal of time out in the garden, I write more. This fall has not been that kind of season. I have been busy with writing tasks that do not exercise the philosophical or metaphysical side of myself–though I have been writing, most of the work has been reviews, proposals, pedagogy.  I will be posting links to the reviews and essays on the sidebar to the right, adding to the list…

Should fortune–and the Muse–smile upon me, there may be a few new links to poems, as well, in the coming weeks. In November, I’ll be giving a few readings locally. In January, I’ll be teaching Introduction to Poetry again, and I’m eager to try new texts for my students.

Perhaps the post-equinox period will have a creative harvest after all.