Creative reading

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

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There’s a difference between simple literacy and genuine reading; that difference is partly discovery, partly imagination, partly hard work, and largely enthusiasm.

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences too,” said Walt Whitman.

Yes, I know I have covered this ground in previous posts. What interests me, though, is the way working on my writing has made me a more active and imaginative reader than I once was. Which may seem an odd thing for a lifelong bookworm to say, but as Stephen King has observed, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” The implication here suggests these skills–or crafts, or tools, or processes–are conspecific. Conspecific is a science term meaning belonging to the same species, and I think it’s an apt word to describe what I am trying to say here. We can have stories without writing, but we cannot have writing without context, whether it is grocery lists or epic narratives; in the literate world, our texts provide us with practically boundless context if we use our imaginations to proceed beyond our physical, past, or immediate experiences into hitherto unknown worlds. When writing imaginatively, we have to engage with what we’ve learned through reading. The writer must be a reader.

Perhaps there are other forms of reading: listening, observation. But we are basically still within the taxa of story. My latest reading material is Brain Boyd’s immense and intriguing volume On the Origin of Stories. This book and Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie are producing quite an intellectual and creative mash-up in my mind and firing up some slower synapses that tend to lead to writing of one kind or another. I think there will be poems…sprung from luminous manifold allusions…because these authors have forced my mind into working while I explore the depths of their invention.

O, let us labor over our books with joy! For one never knows what will result.

Snow scene

photo Ann E. Michael

winterhazel

Temperate regions in zones 5 and 6 benefit from snow cover, which moistens soil as it melts and insulates the living things that depend upon soil–a cold “open” winter is particularly hard on plants. Except for an unusual late-autumn blizzard, this season has been mild; so I welcome today’s snow even as signs of spring become visible: a few blooms on the hazel boughs, some snowdrops, reddening stems in the hedgerow shrubs.

phot Ann E. Michael

winterberries

Winterberries are beginning to shrivel, and soon bluebirds and the earliest robins will pick them off for sustenance before the grubs and insects are plentiful. Today, as winter gently asserts itself, there are revelations in the outlines of white against shadow. The squirrel dreys are visible, loaded with dollops of snow, amid treetops. The deer paths and deer beds are more obvious because those areas are flattened by use and thus blanketed more evenly than the surrounding grassy spots.

Meadow’s stalks droop in criss-crossed patterns. If I look closely enough, I can identify the species, dry and broken, tangled together and covered in snow: solidago, eupatoria, aster, clematis, ryegrass, penstemon, milkweed. The snow’s ephemeral, yet I find myself thinking of Steve Tobin’s Earth Bronzes.

The ways shrubs and trees collect snow fascinate me, too; I love the fractal sketching of dogwood and Japanese maple, the calligraphic hatchwork of long-needled pines and the way thorns embrace little cups of ice along vine-y stems. I love the larch and birch that create the perfect image of lacework when a light snow coats their branches:

photo by Ann E. Michael

larch and birch

Overhead, vines rope trees together, creepers that take on a creepy mien, ghostly and dripping, when snow-covered. Vines have become a hazard in our region, with both native varieties (poinon ivy, wild grape) and non-natives (too many to name!) choking wooded areas, killing off tree crowns, usurping the niches of native plants, and adding to the hazards of storm damage.

Maybe that is why the ice-draped vines appear sinister to me.

And yet. A plant is neutral, alive, neither good nor bad, possesses no conscience, cannot be evil, plays its role in the environment–and can serve as inspiration. One woody tendril sways high above the ground, a line drawn against the featureless sky. Using a stick, I copy its shape in the snow at my feet. It might be part of an alphabet I do not know, an ideogram I have yet to decipher, the course of a river. Imagination steers from that point on: I take up my pen and write.

Inspiration

The word “inspiration” is from the Latin inspiratio: to blow into, to inflame. I began musing on inspiration today while on a walk with Spouse and Dog, during which the idea of muse came up in conversation (with Spouse; Dog kept her own silent counsel). He observed that he had never had a muse and asked if I had ever had one. I said I cannot think of ever having a person serve as my muse, but perhaps other things have played that role.

“Isn’t a muse a person?” he asked. We discussed, then, the difference—as each of us saw it—between a muse and a mentor. He has had mentors at various stages of his life; I think most of us encounter someone along the way who serves as a sage, a guide, a teacher, or as a role model. That person certainly offers a kind of inspiration. A muse, however, seems to connote inspiration of a different character or quality from mentorship. The muse acts as trigger, someone or something whose mere presence elicits a creative urge. The muse inflames, blows on the spark of creativity and ignites it.

Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town is justifiably famous among creative writers, particularly poets, for its author’s sensitive explanation of a source for the creative process and his description of how inspiration percolates into the creative act. He uses the example of American towns that act as triggers for memories or conjure of specific details of place and personhood. The town becomes muse. In a similar way, works of ekphrastic poetry may employ art as muse (though not always). For other creative people, music provides that initial flicker of inspiration—which seems especially fitting, given the word “music” originates from the word for the Greek muses themselves: mousike techne “art of the muses” from mousa, “muse.”

Mousa itself derives from the ancient proto-indo-european linguistic base *mon-men-mn, most closely associated with the meaning “to think, to remember.” Inspiration, though we feel it emotionally, psychologically, even physically at times, takes us into our minds, where the creativity takes place and can be formulated into art.

Much of my inspiration over the years has come from what people tend to term “the natural world”—as if we humans were not a part of that. But other things spur my creativity, including art and things I read. Having finally completed Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, I am now consuming more easily-digestible fare and finding much to inflame my interests in Alberto Manguel’s 1995 book A History of Reading, which I highly recommend.

Perhaps I will later find time to discuss the joys and pitfalls of reading several books at once. Meanwhile, I plan to spend the last light of a late winter afternoon observing hawks and woodpeckers.

Kalliope or Calliope, Athenian-style, the muse of epic poetry.

Non-sense

Let me pick up from my brief post of yesterday, which concerned in part the value of asking the nonsensical rather than (or in addition to) the rational question. What led me to that topic is the recent death, at age 101, of artist Dorothea Tanning, whose work–both visual and textual–is often considered surrealistic.

Surrealism goes in and out of fashion, and I am not planning to comment critically on its aesthetic value; but I will say that I have admired and been influenced by artists working in the surrealist oeuvre and that I enjoy the way “nonsense” and  “non-sense” can lead to juxtapositions of ideas and images that have proven fruitful for my own creative work process.

The nonsensical question may follow along the lines of:

How does the sunflower feel when a bird feeds on it?

Non-rational, because the sunflower does not–as far as we know, in the rational/sentient way–feel anything emotionally; the jury may be out on whether there are tactile receptors in a sunflower that can feel anything physically. To answer the nonsensical question in this case requires a kind of metaphor or animation of the inanimate. (We could also argue the inanimate status of a sunflower seed-head.)

Further nonsensical inquiry could lead us to “What does the goldfinch say to the sunflower?” or, more nonsensical still, “What would a sunflower say to an electric guitar?”

Non-rational prompts can provoke interesting results in the process of creative thinking.

Back to Tanning. Her life itself was a creative process. Check out the biographies of her that are popping up online in response to her death. While I am not a fan of all of her work in her various media, I love her vivid and exciting explorations. Here’s one of her early, less-experimental works that appeals to me because of its imagery. I identify with this painting.

“What would it feel like to wear a nest on one’s head?”
As a poet, she was strongest in the area of visual figures (no surprise there). I’m running out of time now, so I will close with an excerpt from one of Tanning’s poems:
There was a time
of middle distance, unforgettable,
a sort of lace-cut
flame-green filament
to ravish my
skin-tight eyes.
I take that back—
it was forgettable but not
entirely if you
consider my
heavenly bodies . . .
I loved them so.
Heaven’s motes sift
to salt-white—paint is ground
to silence; and I,
I am bound, unquiet,
a shade of blue
in the studio.
(The entire poem, “Sequestrienne,” is here.)
For another surrealist whose poetry is not always classically surreal, see my posts on Eluard .