Reverie, with interruption

On the first warm, sunny, not-horribly-humid day in a long time, to reward myself for marking up a pile of student essays, I lay in the hammock and looked up at the clouds. The clouds are amazing today, shifting, fast-moving, likely thanks to Hurricane Florence far to the south.

I wanted reverie, but I got spotted lanternflies instead, which interfered with my admiration for the clouds. Dozens of the creatures were aloft on this mild afternoon.

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They are a recent invasive species to our region; their appearance causes concern because they use fruit trees, mast trees, grapes, and hardwoods as host plants when they cannot find their traditional host, ailanthus. We have no ailanthus on our property, but we do have oaks, hickories, maples, beeches, and many scraggly cherry, walnut, and mulberry trees along the hedgerow and into the woodlot. Development in the valley–housing developments, business plazas, parking lots–coupled with stress from climate weirding, has been hard on trees. We already have diseases that have damaged the Pennsylvania ash, hemlocks (PA’s state tree), and dogwoods. I notice weakened bark on many trees. The droughts and the too-much-rain cycles, and unusual, high winds with storm fronts, plus road-widening, contribute to considerable loss of trees.

I lay in my hammock under the trees and worried about the lanternflies. Which accomplished nothing (I think of a James Wright poem at this point…).

What was there not to despair about? So much anxiety surrounds me. Even the damned bugs. If only starlings were to take a liking to spotted lanternflies, I mused.

A butterfly went past. I looked down at the zinnias blossoming their stems off in the garden and felt pleased to count four monarchs there. It has been a good year for monarch butterflies in my yard, and green darners and other dragonflies, and hummingbirds–which used to be quite uncommon visitors here. The little brown bats are returning each dusk, recovering slowly from the decimation of white-nose virus.

The balance may seem off in many ways. But there are restorative moments.

Even if “I have wasted my life.”

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Monarch on tithonia blossom

 

 

 

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Begun in reverie

 

wooden fishing boats

Near Aviero, Portugal; photo: David Sloan

Today, I was thinking of Portugal. Nice memories. I went through my digital photographs, found this one, and fell into reverie. It is amazing how images enhance memory or enable us to embellish it. Sometimes, that is where a poem begins.

When my physical body walked upon this sand, beside this bay, the encounter was a mix of new–a place I’d never been before–and familiar or expected: smell of brine and fish, the feel of breezes in my hair and on my skin, of damp sand underfoot. I recall my delight at seeing the vividly-painted wooden boats, though I had certainly seen paintings and photographs of similar fishing crafts, so their appearance was not surprising. That’s because I have a friend who is an expert in wooden boat-making, Simon Watts; he has been around the world examining wooden boats and had told us to watch for these along the coast of Portugal. Simon is a teller of stories, as is his sister Marjorie Watts. So many hours Simon has regaled us with tales of the writing life, the sailing life, the traveling life, the woodworking life, his forays in Portugal…

Back to Portugal. I think of a most pleasant week there, not so long ago. Mind hums with possibilities. With images. With words.

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This post is an effort to illustrate how image, memory, sensory experience, stories, human connections, and activities bounce around the neurological synapses while a person experiences reverie.

It isn’t reverie, of course, because I am writing; true reverie seldom includes much activity. Let me suggest the paragraphs and picture are somehow analogous to the reverie process, which often leads to imagination.

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Next stop: Imagination! train 1And perhaps even a draft for a poem.

 

On absence

I have experienced a felt absence lately, a sense of missing.

Maybe the world is too much with me. I have responses to the Stanford rape case, responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the US presidential campaign, to the mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando; responses to some personal challenges, as well–health: my own and loved ones’, among other concerns.

Responding represents the equal and opposite reaction to any action, in a Newtonian metaphor. And what my body and my mind these days are saying to me is “step back, reflect.”

Humans love immediacy–the rapid Twitter argument, the comments on opinion posts, the punch in the gut. Animals need rapid responses in order to negotiate a world of predator and prey; humans, however, (and, more than most of us realize, many other animals) also possess the ability to reflect on what the feelings are. What they may mean. How that meaning may alter our responding mechanisms. We can–if we pause to do so–put ourselves in the place of the Other, imagine different perspectives that may color our responses.

Sometimes, we may need to absent ourselves awhile. To put some distance between our feelings and the conflicts we engage in. We need feelings and we need thoughts, we need responses and we need observation from other viewpoints.

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It occurs to me that poetry is the conversation between the rational, languaged mind and the mind of feeling and imagery. This effort involves the same mind at work on two or more fronts, the human brain constructed as it is to handle multiple levels of feedback, feedforward, and association.

Poetry isn’t “about emotions.” It’s an art that employs language to represent the tension between the rational and the feeling, the mind’s mighty efforts to engage with the difficult and the heart-stirring.

This is how reading about neuroscience enhances my interpretation and understanding of what poets do. I read difficult books and eschew spending time on the internet. I sit on my back porch and ponder. A buzzard swings to and fro above, gliding on the updrafts. I try to heal myself. I cannot heal the world.

 

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Lyric time

I’m currently savoring–as slowly as possible, as it is a short book–Mark Doty’s “World into Word” essays in The Art of Description. The text has been gently pushing my thoughts back toward matters of poetry.

I always think of Doty’s style, in prose and poetry, as precise and almost studied, though the studied-ness doesn’t feel overbearing but reflective; a naturalness remains that keeps the poems “hospitable” (as he puts it).

In his essay on Bishop, “The Tremendous Fish,” Doty examines the various forms of observation and focus or perspective that contribute to any work of art, although here he is of course honing in on the lyric state of mind. These passages seem to me to hearken to Bachelard (see here and here) on the temporal:

What is memory but a story about how we have lived? …there is another sort of temporality, too, which is timelessness. In this lyric time we cease to be aware of forward movement…it represents instead a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reveries. This sense of time originates in childhood, before the conception of causality…

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson days, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

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This is, in addition to relating to Bachelard’s concepts on reverie, a form of mindfulness that would not be out of place in Zen and would be recognizable to any artist familiar with the creative “zone.”

I’m reminded of a popular colloquialism of the 1970s: “zoning out.” Generally, the phrase signified not paying attention, being slightly stoned, out of touch: negative connotations. Yet there were people who used the term in a more positive way to mean “in the zone”–an acceptable, if “flaky,” zinging of the mind into a calm or creative space.

A space where poets might wander in “self-forgetful concentration.”

~

Let’s go…

Reveries toward childhood

My childhood was happy and full of isolation—bored, lonely, occasionally melancholy daydreams and reflections. Some readers will find contradiction in that opening sentence, but Gaston Bachelard would have understood. His chapter (in The Poetics of Reverie) on Childhood and Reverie resonates deeply with me.

The claims Bachelard makes for the crucial importance of childhood reverie are that the child, solitary, daydreaming, finds happiness as the “master” of his or her reveries and that poetry is the way adults can return to the deep daydreams of childhood in which humans are—briefly—free beings and fully receptive: “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting over again.”

He further claims that images “reveal the intimacy of the world” and that all poetic images are a kind of remembering. I suppose this particular claim for poetry puts Bachelard in the “deep image” arena of poetry—Rilke, for example, as filtered through the concepts of Carl Jung, whose influence appears everywhere in The Poetics of Reverie. I waver in my complete acceptance of this claim, though I can’t yet articulate why—because I do agree image can evoke, or even be part and parcel of, intimacy. It may not be the sole method of achieving the shock of recognition or the tug of familiarity among readers, however. I’d assert that Ammons, Menashe, even Ponsot (in her tiny poems in Springing) get there by other means.

What I love about Bachelard’s philosophy on childhood reveries is the idea of “reveries toward childhood.” Interesting phrase, and I wonder if the translator (Daniel Russell) struggled with it. To dream toward childhood denotes an intentional action, a moving forward in order to reach back, a paradox. He claims we can almost reach (regain) the child’s “astonishment of being,” our “world of the first time,” through reading poems. We daydream with the poem itself…not with the poet, who remains a distinct individual with his or her own being and past.

I’ve experienced this feeling, and now Bachelard has described it for me.

The philosopher was late in his life when he composed these reflections; this is his last book. As he explores the “uselessness” of childhood memories, the flashes of recall through sensory stimuli, he posits that reveries toward childhood nourish the person who is in “the second half of life.” Combining memory and reverie can restore us, he says; and to do so, we first beautify our pasts—even our tragic episodes are reconsidered, reconstructed, through the lens of distant memory. (Hence the opportunity for sentiment). I think he means that once we have dealt with vivid past traumas earlier in adulthood, older people are able to recall the amazement of having once been new to the world. Perhaps this is merely sentiment, but it is certainly a phenomenon that appears in many works of drama, fiction, even memoir.

Bachelard describes such experiences as “the strange synthesis of regret and consolation” and adds that “a beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.” (I love that sentence.)

In this way—among other ways, I might add—poetry’s images help us believe in the world, revive “abolished” reveries in a fresh light; the poet’s images may not be our images at all, yet they work to move the reader toward childhood, by which I mean toward a seeing-afresh of human experience. I may be parting ways with Msr. Bachelard here, for he classifies these images as almost wholly archetypal, and I do not; nonetheless, I don’t think our differences negate his claims nor hurt my general agreement with his insights. The amazement that took off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head when she read a great poem, the astonishment of being that arrives via the poem, strikes me (and the pun is intended) as exactly like the Zen whisk: “Wake up!”

And what is a child but a being who is wholly awake to the world?

“When we are children, people show us so many things that we lose the profound sense of seeing, Bachelard says. Yes, like Whitman when he “heard the learnéd astronomer”… Whitman’s speaker—the child in him—ventures outside to see the stars. He does not need to be shown.

This is a long blog entry, I know. But if you’ve gotten this far, I hope you are eager to go read some poems now.

Wake up and dream!

Still daydreaming in adolescence…(Switzerland, 1974)

Re-reading & reverie

Writing a book is a hard job. One is always tempted to limit himself to dreaming it.

Above all, the great books remain psychologically alive. You are never finished reading them.

–Gaston Bachelard

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In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard writes of reveries on words, then moves to reveries on reveries themselves, which brings him to books. Books (philosophy, fiction, and poetry books in particular) are, for Bachelard, a kind of dream made real. Books are places to dawdle and to dream as one reads, places in which the reader can interact with imagination: the reader’s  imagination, not the author’s imagination. The author’s work, if it is great, tempts readers into reverie. For this reason, Bachelard says he likes to read his favorite books many times. Each reading produces new reverie.

The chapter in which he makes his case for literature as reverie is an odd one, less of a philosophical argument and more a blend of literature, psychology–particularly along Jungian themes, and sociology, with side trips into discussions of duality (more on the masculine and feminine), the physiology of sleep/dreaming, alchemy (more Jung!), Strindberg, Goethe, Nietzsche, Henri Bosco, and Balzac.

I prefer the chapters on either side of this one (on words and on childhood). But this section made me consider the books I have re-read in my lifetime, and the idea of dreaming with literature. And the lovely idea of books as “psychologically alive.” What a terrific observation!

When I was a child, I preferred reading the next book to re-reading a favorite, although there were a few books I read over, more than once in some cases. As I read my way through high school and college, my inclination toward novelty continued. Why spend time reading books I had already read? The dreaming-with the book aspect Bachelard describes did happen for me, but the reflection lasted only as long as my engagement with each text. I was not a “close reader,” and as a result it was easy to get wrapped up in the dream-world when I read fiction. Still, the dream was the book’s dream, not my own. Closer reading is what leads to reverie, I think: re-reading and reflecting.

It was poetry that taught me to read more closely, to re-read, to dream with the text, to find true reverie in the process of reading. Poetry has always felt psychologically alive to me, and I agree that one is never finished reading a great poem. Or a great book.

I find I must also concur with Bachelard that “one of the functions of reverie is to liberate us from the burdens of life.” Nothing like a daydream, or a great piece of literature or art, to free us–however temporarily–from the things that weigh us down.

Reverie

“The image can only be studied through the image, by dreaming images as they gather in reverie.” ~Gaston Bachelard

I’m immersed in Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie, which has a subtitle I adore:  “Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos.” In the book’s first section, however, I felt myself a bit bogged down because the reverie of words (language) he describes deals with word gender. That works for French, and for most languages [or so I understand], but not for English.

Initially, then, I found myself wondering why I was reading the text. But I like Bachelard’s style, enthusiastic and looping and always replete with inquiry upon inquiry; and I love his dedication to and defense of poetry. Not all philosophers have been so kind to poetry.

As I was driving to work one morning, however, I found myself dwelling upon the above chapter about the reveries words can inspire. I fell into a recollection of myself as a very young child, the way I loved to peruse the dictionary. Even before I could read, the heavy tome with its onion-skin pages and glossy color plates of the flags of the world or of gemstones appealed to me as a room in which to become lost, a forest of leaves in which to cover myself or to lie upon, a river of language in which to be immersed. When I was older and a more capable reader, I browsed the examples, the multiple meanings and uses, the parts of speech and the etymologies of the words.

Ann E. Michael

Bachelard, I realized, is correct. The contemplation of words themselves leads to reverie, to thinking about thinking, to making dreamlike concatenations that chug through the consciousness and lead to imagination. His example involves contemplations and imaginings about the genders of words and how they suggest all kinds of interweavings and reactions, but noun gender need not be the motivating inspiration. For me, etymology accomplishes the same ends.

Contemporary adult life offers few chances for reverie. My commute to work is often the only time during the week when I can daydream a bit. My best opportunities for reverie are during a walk outside or while gardening, but I don’t get to do those things every day. I agree that reverie or daydream leads, very often, to poetry or to philosophical innovation or understanding; and Bachelard’s initial chapter on the rambling, amusing, aimless process of reverie makes me wish to go back to my childhood days of less responsibility and more imagination. Of course, that is impossible, but of course, that is part of what the philosopher intends (there is a later chapter on childhood reverie…I will be reading that pretty soon).

Boredom invites reverie. Who, in these busy times, with the many entertainments we carry in our pockets, is ever bored? So many of us, when bored, simply turn off the iPhone or the TV and sleep.

“It is a poor reverie which invites a nap.” ~Gaston Bachelard

My upcoming musings on this book will probably include garden reveries. Or memoir. Or etymology. Who can tell?