In the Garden

Redbud leaf in fall

“[T]o be worldly… is to be outside the gift of poetry, to be, in some measure, too human for comfort.” Peter de Bolla

A teacher of mine once defined a nature poet as a writer whose subjects and metaphor are nature-based. The majority of my work does fall under that definition, though not all of it. At a recent meeting of my writing group, one member who considers herself a beginning poet asked me, “What do you do if an idea for a poem comes to you while you are gardening?”

As in my work, her poetry often centers on images and inspirations that visit while walking, weeding, sowing, and so forth. So it was a simple and sensible question. Generally, I keep a small journal and a pen nearby when I work. There’s a porch swing near my garden gate, and often I keep my writing tools as well as my gardening tools on the swing.

But today I forgot. I was drawn to the vegetable garden by a break in the soggy weather, a glorious day before first frost, zinnias and marigolds still in bloom and all the weeds going riotously to seed. I pulled up undesirable annual grasses, polygonum, crabgrass and queen-anne’s-lace, wild asters, elderberry stalks, and vines along the edge of the fence. I’m fond of goldenrod and chicory in the meadow, but they make poor companions for asparagus; out they went. A northern mockingbird heading south stopped to perch among the walnuts trees and trilled as cheerily as it would have done in spring.

And I had ideas. And I forgot to write them down.

I cannot recreate that pleasant hour now, but the time spent among the weeds and the late bees and the big spiders catching their last prey and hanging their egg sacs in possibly-safe places while the hawks cry high overhead is comforting and inexpressibly valuable to me. But being in the world—what we tend to call “the natural world”—keeps me from becoming too worldly. Keeps me attuned to the gift of poetry, and keeps me from becoming too human (too rational) for comfort.

Poetry Break.

I took a break from difficult reading to read Eluard’s “Last Love Poems” as translated by Marilyn Kallet. Alas that I am mono-lingual and cannot read poetry in any language other than English. I have to take the translator’s word for it (literally and figuratively) that the beauty in the lines can be nearly portrayed in English. The struggle translators must have to go through to transform such a studied thing of language as a poem is into a different tongue amazes me. Inevitably there is some loss of connotation, wordplay, music, rhythm, cultural freight; the careful reader understands that there may be lacunae of some kind, and a mono-lingual reader recognizes that she will not be able to track down where those subtle gaps occur. A good translation, however, manages to maintain the beauty.

“Beauty”—now, there’s a moving target. Quine devotes a few pages to the discussion of the concept in his “intermittently philosophical dictionary.” He writes: “The aesthetic pole is the focus of belle lettres, music, art for art’s sake. But it is a matter of emphasis, not boundaries. Scientists in pursuing truth also seek beauty of an austere kind in the elegance of a theory, and happily some of them seek literary grace in their expository writing.” Quine ends his brief entry on Beauty by suggesting that truth and beauty are not a binary system, that we need not see them as poles apart; yet he does not quite agree with Keats’ conflation of the two. We need ethics and rhetoric in addition to truth and beauty, says the philosopher.

Peter de Bolla, writing two decades or so later, inclines toward a less binary way of looking at beauty and truth when he writes that, since the art of music is  an “articulation of the temporal,” there is a “philosophical argument music makes about relationships between time and being.”  And that argument results in beauty, when it is a well-composed argument, I suppose.

Suddenly the welcome earth
Was a rose of luck
Visible with fair mirrors
Where everything sang to open rose

(“Seasons,” Paul Eluard, tr. Marilyn Kallet)

de Bolla asks: What does the poem know? This poem knows music, and beauty “in the gentle desert of the street” and “beneath life overpowering and good.”

Ah.

ann e. michael, waterfall, poetry

Intention and Inattention

de Bolla on Glenn Gould and the attention/inattention we bring to listening to music:

Inattention vs attentiveness, and a riff on Intention

In his book Art Matters, which I’ve been reading in my not-copious spare time, Peter de Bolla talks about a deep introspectiveness necessary for complete attention. In a fairly long and typically convoluted philosophical passage–clear enough to philosophers but harder to read for the uninitiated–he suggests that when we really listen carefully to music (music-as-art rather than music-as-background-noise), we must first prepare ourselves for attention and, paradoxically, move ourselves into a state of inattention. He uses Glenn Gould playing Bach for his example, and what follows amid the philosophy-talk is an interesting “take” on how we experience music and why critics are divided on Gould’s decision to blend recordings in order to construct his own particular perspective on the best interpretation of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Spoiler: de Bolla essentially defends Glenn Gould. I’m not a music critic, so I withhold judgment on that issue.

I’m also not going to reiterate de Bolla’s argument statement by statement in this brief post; I am going to mention that the paradox of attention/inattention reminds me a good deal of Zen practice. In addition, I enjoy the potential wordplay possibilities of attention, inattention, in-attention (de Bolla’s addition) and the Buddhist concept of intention. If we listen with in-attention by preparing ourselves to experience deep attention, are we also listening with intention?

If we then let go our attentiveness in order to give in to the full experience of the music (or any other form of art), are we truly experiencing art? Or are we experiencing “Unfettered Mind,” which is also a Zen-related experience?

Consider “The Unfettered Mind” by Takuan Sōhō.   Takuan was a circa-16th c. Buddhist monk whose works interpreted martial arts through a Zen philosophy. Or perhaps vice versa. So far as I can tell, his most-quoted aphorism is in the form of a poem (I cannot seem to identify the translator):

THE MOON HAS NO INTENT TO CAST ITS SHADOW ANYWHERE,

NOR DOES THE POND DESIGN TO LODGE THE MOON.

HOW SERENE THE WATER OF HIROSAWA!

Is a somatic art-encounter experience a form of unfettered mind?

Meanwhile, my daughter is vaccinating full-grown sows, and Lesley Wheeler is reflecting on how the brain case empties, or seems to, under the load of extraneous work, deadlines, children, and…YES…attention. See the October 3, 2011 post on The Cave, The Hive.

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.