Discomfort

It’s important, I think, to experience discomfort–it means I am facing a new task, a new perspective–that I’m learning something. I tell my students that if they are totally comfortable with the concepts in their coursework they are not learning anything yet. Education does not come without risk, whether the risks be physical, social, emotional, or intellectual. When we feel uneasy, it may mean we sense danger or sense the presence of someone manipulative, dishonest, or unkind. It may, however, mean we are simply “outside of our comfort zone.”

Tony Hoagland‘s poems offer examples of how we learn through leaving our familiar attitudes. Daisy Fried’s insightful 2011 commentary on his poem “The Change” notes the need for such uncomfortable moments. Poems Hoagland wrote as he headed toward his death from cancer at age 64 do not shy away from making the reader feel awkward, unhappy, or–in some cases–relieved, even glad. It can feel wrong to acknowledge relief as part of death. That recognition tends not to follow U.S. culture’s social norms.

I’m not claiming all good poems rile up discomfort; some poems offer joy or embrace a comforting openness; and, as readers bring their own differing experiences to the reading of a poem, the same poem that discomfits one person may appeal beautifully to another reader.

This post came about because I feel I have come to a period of discomfort in my work, and it troubles me but in a good way. I would rather feel discomfort with my writing than disengagement with it. Disengagement is writer’s block, which does not describe where I am at the moment. Instead, I feel rather as I did when I began to write and revise using formal patterns. My written expression up to that point had all been in free verse or prose, so adapting to villanelle or sonnet structure or sapphic meter seemed risky, difficult, “wrong.” Wrong for me, for the writer I believed I was, for the writing voice I had developed for 20 years.

And I was wrong about that, too! My initial discomfort aside, I learned so  much about poetry, including about my own style, through the practice of formal verse. The wonderful online journal Mezzo Cammin (formalist poetry by women writers, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford) has published several of my poems in the past. Now, two more of them! Please click here.

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Sarah Sentilles’ book Draw Your Weapons elicited discomfort in me but also marvelous connections (she and I have read many of the same authors). Her observations about art, violence, pain, and language weave in and through stories of a soldier-turned-artist and a WWII conscientious objector.

Between the development of these men’s stories, Sentilles cites research, philosophers, artists, and personal experiences and forces her reader to recognize how even the language we speak is complicit in accepting violence as a given rather than as something that human intention and action can change, if slowly.

I finished reading this book two weeks ago and am still mulling it over, returning to passages, marking some of her sources as “to-read” for myself.

It’s possible that Sentilles’ text in some way stirred up my discomfort with my own work.

And that would not be a bad thing. Getting out of the familiar is not only how learning happens; it’s how creativity happens.

 

 

 

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Learning the form(s)

I’m extremely pleased that five of my poems appear in the latest edition of Mezzo Cammin, a web journal devoted to formal poetry by women, edited by Kim Bridgford and beautifully designed by Anna M. Evans, both of whom are excellent poets–of formal verse–themselves.

My poetry often varies as to style; I am not a dedicated formalist, but I feel that writers learn a great deal from experimenting with many styles. Learning to write a sonnet, for example, requires considerable effort and ideally results in the production of many lousy sonnets. Many, many lousy sonnets. Until, one day, the motivation, language, imagery, and form coalesce into a good sonnet. The challenge derives in part from the frame and form the sonnet uses; other challenges arise with sestinas, rondelets, villanelles, haiku, sapphics, and (yes) free verse. Practice does not always make perfect in the case of poetry, but practice helps. One learns the form and its specifics, reads zillions of examples by the best poets, endeavors to write to suit the form, and finds that the resulting effort…fails. Miserably. And then one tries again.

The practice can be meditative, or it can be a kind of discipline. It’s certainly liable to be frustrating at times. I am reminded of my tai chi class, in which I am also tasked with learning a form and practicing its specifics until, after long study, I am not absolutely terrible at the movements. I learn a few more moves, integrate them into the series I have memorized for a couple of years now, and try to get my balance and position down and some grace and flow going. I might add–these are not personal strengths of mine. So it’s difficult.

In addition, my tai chi master teaches us qigong movements, and suggests that we experiment on our own time to invent sequences that work for us. But this is not the same as getting all jazzy and experimental with tai chi; no–in class, and when practicing the form, we students are expected to follow the moves as taught and as closely as we are physically able to do.

Does this mean that when writing in form, I maintain a strict formalist approach to poems?

Um, no–as can be seen in the five “nonce form” pieces in this issue of Mezzo Cammin. Sometimes I start with a standard and jazz it up. This is true for many poets writing today and in the past, because sometimes what we want to express carries an unconventional edge to it, and sometimes the ideas or emotions we want to convey (often mixed emotions or ambiguous ideas that require the reader’s engagement to decide) cannot be shoehorned into the strictest details of the formal framework.

The first of the poems in this issue of the journal is perhaps the most unusual for me–I was definitely experimenting. The allusion is biblical (the parallel verses Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15) and the experience is second-hand, and I find the situation deeply sorrowful. Loss of a child–it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with compassion and unable to know what to do for the mother. In this case, I felt I’d try to convey the ancient sadness in a contemporary setting, a retail shop, probably in some suburban mall. So I am mashing together the old with the new; an experimental set up for the poem just seemed necessary.

I would not do that in tai chi class.

Learning forms for poems–new forms, ancient forms, classic forms, forms from other languages and cultures–keeps a writer freshly informed with the world and engaged with the process of expression through words, rhythm, sound, and imagery. It helps a writer see the perspective of art, the framework, and to see beyond those things as well. Forays into styles, genres, and arts that one has not tried one’s hand at previously present vivid and useful learning experiences. Even if the result is a hundred lousy sonnets or some mediocre watercolors or the worst short story ever written. We learn from mistakes; they are our most relevant teachers.

coffee spoonsHere, a collage attempt–a collaboration between my then-teenaged daughter and me. Call it an effort to practice a different form (visual art). What is in the frame? The presentation of a line from a famous poem. Let’s see if you can figure it out. [Hint: those oblong dark spots are actually coffee beans.]

 

Sonnets & talking about the arts

Poet Kim Bridgford is reading this evening at the West Chester Poetry Center in West Chester PA, but I can’t attend because I am tutoring a student. If you haven’t heard of Bridgford, however, you might want to look up her work. For one thing, she is currently the director of the Poetry Center in West Chester; she’s also an educator, scholar, editor and online publisher or the journal Mezzo Cammin, the major force behind the Women’s Poetry Timeline, and an excellent poet whose sonnets may change your mind about “old-fashioned” forms.

Her new book includes sonnets about classic films. Her last book featured a series of sonnets responding to items in The Guinness Book of World Records.

Cool inspirations and material for a centuries-old poetic form. If you aren’t familiar with Marie Ponsot, she’s another poet who’s masterful at contemporary language and situation while using classic forms.

I’ve been reading Peter de Bolla’s book Art Matters and thinking about art and the arts. His book explores plastic and visual arts (sculpture, painting), music, and literature and tries to posit the argument that there are–or could be–ways to discuss the inexpressible “aha!” the audience feels when encountering a significant work of art. He suggest we are possessed of a cultural “mutism” that keeps us from putting into words what it is that moves us about a work of art.

Instead, he says, art criticism and various statements about poetics and aesthetics clutter up the field of discourse so that the “average” person–the non-scholarly, non-critic viewer or reader–feels voiceless or inadequate to the perceived task of describing why he or she gets an almost physical reaction to art, or to one work but not to another work. Good point, that. It follows the I-don’t-know-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like school of art criticism. More people might enjoy talking about the arts if they felt up to the task.

Perhaps you read sonnets in high school and felt ho-hum about them. Perhaps you think old movies are uninteresting. The idea of reading Bridgford sonnets about Hitchcock might not intrigue you very much. But suppose you read one of them and, much to your surprise, you felt a kind of shiver when you reached the last line. You hadn’t expected the poem to end the way it did. You also understood the poem on the surface, its storyline so to speak, and you “got” something more from it that–you cannot explain.

Mutism. Possibly you experienced it while standing in the mural room of MoMA where Monet’s “Waterlilies” triptych is mounted, or at the foot of “Winged Victory” at the Louvre. Or when you first read Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” or saw an Ansel Adams photo full size, up close. I’ve experienced it many times: Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s “Suite Otis” rendered me speechless when I saw it. I had had some experience talking about visual art and literature; I had little vocabulary for dance. I was, simply, wowed.

De Bolla says what I experienced was a somatic response to art followed by mutism. I haven’t finished his book yet, so I don’t know if he will offer a solution to the problem of how to describe the indescribable. I also am not convinced that the language is necessary. I feel quite satisfied with the frisson.

More about art soon…Steve Tobin’s installation at Grounds for Sculpture is this weekend, and I intend to be there.