Beside cherry trees
friends practice tai chi
petals in their hair
Beside cherry trees
friends practice tai chi
petals in their hair
During busy times, we may need a few moments of solitary reflection.
the pear tree
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.
Contemporary poetry favors compression–perhaps all poetry employs that approach, condensing out of prose whatever has most vitality in terms of imagery, metaphor, emotion. Symbols, metaphors, actions, neologisms, wordplay, rhythm, whatever gets us to the kernel of the poem. My cultural inspiration began among biblical and metaphysical poems, however, and popular song lyrics (the lyrical narrative). Only later did I stumble upon the influences of Eastern poetic strategies, haiku and tanka, the Imagists, and the vividly imposing demand that writers of all kind, but especially poets, should avoid the “to be” verbs.
How would philosophy–or Hamlet–manage without to be? How shall a writer whose work often deals with the quandaries and paradoxes of being (namely: life, death) compose avoiding those verbs, verbs of existence? Existence has active components to it, to my way of thinking; and some of us need the to-be verbs, with all their various conjugations, to express the more inexpressible activity of being-ness.
During my long years of writing and of having my writing critiqued, I’ve been advised more than once to watch my verbs. I recognize the stylistic impulse and agree that too much to be, too much is, was, or has been, can slow or decompress a poem.
Sometimes, exactly what the poet intends to do.
Other times, exactly what the colloquially convincing narrator or character would say.
A time and a place for every verb.
“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Watson, trans.)
I wrote this post not as an encomium for the to-be verbs but as a suggestion that they exist for good reason and possess action in their compressed sayability, that to be does not sidestep to mean. I defend “is” and its siblings. The important thing? Use them well.
I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.
For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.
Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.
I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.
Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.
[tr. Earl Miner]
Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.
Time for a brief summer interlude…
In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:
The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.
I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.
Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.
In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)
“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…” Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)
“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.
In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:
A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.
I do like early autumn. The bright flowers of late summer possess almost tropical coloration: tithonia, goldenrod, zinnias, dahlias, canna lilies, cosmos, salvia, marigolds…meanwhile, the leaves begin to turn. Where I live, the euonymus alatus (spindle-tree/burning bush), sassafras, and sumac are the first leaves to redden, along with the five-leaved Virginia creeper vines.
My reading in Bloomsburg was a great experience. There was a full house, the sound and lighting systems worked, and the Moose Exchange is a delightful building, similar in purpose to many arts-venue collectives in other small US cities as they attempt to revitalize their downtown regions. The building was once the home of the Moose Lodge, one of many community associations that once worked to keep small cities and neighborhoods vibrant in the days before flight to the suburbs. My reading, part of the Big Dog reading series, took place in the third-floor ballroom! Afterwards, we had dinner in a terrific little Italian restaurant just off Main Street. Portobello mushroom ravioli in sage-butter, delicious.
The drive home was quiet–mostly highway, late crickets still making noise along the road, full moon in a perfectly cloudless sky.
I recognized that I can work on my writing practice more diligently and less anxiously than I have been. There are ways to make space in my life for creativity again. My recent readings on consciousness and the nature of being lead back to the poetics of space somehow.
first day of Autumn
my heart is pounding wild
Ah! The full moon