Monday, February 28, 2005

Wide-Open Art

This weekend, I was reflecting on the power writing and other artistic expression has to liberate us from emotional paralysis. When I am writing regularly, I feel emotions travel through me like a mild electrical current, almost like a buzzing. Things that hurt still hurt, but they move on. Things that make me happy still do, but I experience the happiness more fully. Doing yoga regualrly provides a similar experience.

In her latest post, Kristina writes the following about writing:

Does [it] make you laugh? Does it make you cry? Does it make you think? Does it make you feel? Does it fulfill you? Does it leave you exhausted? Does it rejuvenate you? Does it scare you? Really, really scare you? Do you know, in your heart, that you could get through anything life hands you as long as you didn't have to give up this one thing?

Ruminating on these question brought me to the idea that, if you are a writer, then writing is breathing, just as sure as your lungs are breathing as they expand and contract. Writing is to our emotional selves what oxygen is to our blood. We crave it, and feel suffocated when we don't have it.

What happens to a person when she cannot practice her art? A few months ago, I posted a poem by Lucille Clifton called "fury," in which she describes her mother burning her own poems in a fiery, red furnace. Clifton's mother was forced to stifle her own artistic expression. Today, I found another poem by Clifton which illustrates what I perceive as the consequences of her mother's sacrifice:

My Mama Moved Among the Days
My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was here
seemed like what touched her couldn't hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in

Lucille Clifton

An artist without her art is "untouched" by the world, as if she can't process the reality of her environment properly. Things don't seem "real" without the framework of her art. It also appears that, without her poetry to sustain her, "mama" in the poem loses the courage she needs to get her self and her family through "the high grass;" she could make it, but chooses to run "right back in." Her fear of the wide-open world gets the better of her.

Writing is terrifying in its wide-openness. It takes immense courage to do it, and sometimes it just seems easier to pass it up. But when we do--when we choose the illusory protectiveness of the high grass--that's when we wither.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Wallace Stevens and Postmodernism

As you have probably guessed by now (I'm looking at you, Defeatist), I am something of a postmodernist. Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition practically made me weep with relief the first time I read it; I was so astounded to find a vocabulary to express ideas that had been floating around in my psyche and attempting to make their way into full consciousness.

Thinking about this brought to mind Wallace Steven's poem "A Study of Two Pears;" but while I was looking for it, I ran into this other wonderful poem by Stevens at the Academy of American Poets. I haven't read this poem for a long time. I had forgotten how much I like it. The imagery is gorgeous, and for some reason, I always laugh at the end.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Philosophical Gaps

One does not need to spend to much time surfing blogs, reading newspapers or magazines, or simply talking to various people to learn how eager we are to share our views with other people, whether on minor issues ("John Cusack is the best actor ever!) or major ones ("Pulling out of the Kyoto Conference was the stupidest decision ever!) Forming ideas, opinions, views about how the world does or should work, and creating a framework through which to view the function and purpose of our lives are inherent parts of the human experience. We spend a lot of time doing it, whether we are aware of it or not.

The trick, of course, is that once a belief or opinion is chosen, others are rejected; "the bookcase slides shut," as Ashbery writes in the following poem. It's true that some beliefs are more flexible than others; but if you prefer a more flexible view of the world, than you are probably rejecting the idea of absolutes or the validity of a "black and white" philosophy. You like the grays.

Fine. But how do we choose our beliefs, as we must do as humans, either quite consciously or not, and keep our minds open to other human beings who are doing the same thing? By listening to them. Listening to another person express ideas that are contrary to our own, without getting defensive or interrupting them, is just about the hardest thing to do. Holy cow, can it feel threatening. My husband and I spent years learning how to do this with each other, let alone with others. But consider this: it is unlikely that any one of us can imagine, let alone express, the entire truth of the purpose or meaning of our existence, or even of any given contentious issue. This does not nullify the vailidity of our opinions; but it does call into question where the truth actually lies.

"There's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas," Ashbery writes. I would suggest that there is a lot to learn in those gaps, as well--realizations of truths about self, about the universe, about others--and the ability the listen to others without judging them. Consider the article about six women on both sides of the abortion debate--three pro-choice and three-pro-life--who came together for five and a half years of secret talks to foster a civilized, honest discussion about their views. They actually listened to each to other:

At the end of the five and a half years of secret conversations, the six leaders wrote an article in The Boston Globe about their experience of dialogue. None of the women had changed their mind about abortion; they had, however, achieved a genuine and heartfelt respect and affection for each other.

A "genuine and heartfelt respect and affection." Can you imagine? Isn't it amazing to think about listening openly to someone without the burden of judging them, or feeling as if you must approve or disapprove of what they're saying? And having someone else do that for you? Can you imagine getting to know someone as a human being rather than seeing them as a mouthpiece for a particular agenda? Can you imagine the power in this?

If you're tired of the baloney about the "polarization" in the United States, and talk of the "red state/blue state" nonsense (check out the purple map for something closer to the truth), you might want to see what's going on at the Public Conversations Project.

My Philosophy of Life
Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something
William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet
still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and
his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one...

John Ashbery

Monday, February 21, 2005

Disease, Fatigue, and Poetry

If you have ever heard of polycythemia vera, and chances are you haven't, you know that it is a rare blood disease marked by an abnormally high red blood cell count and blood cell volume. For some patients, including me, the disease causes abnormally high platelet and white cell counts as well. It is as if my bone marrow has no sense of moderation, and simply creates cells as fast as possible all the time.

One of the symptoms of this disease is fatigue, something I manage every day, but which sometimes becomes crushing. For the last several weeks I have been laid up with the kind of painful bone-deep fatigue that is disabling. This is why I have been absent from my beloved blog. Sometimes I get too tired to even think, let alone write.

Now I am on an upswing again, back to doing yoga, laundry, socializing, and blogging. I found a new site,, and did a search for "tired" to see what might come up. I found this lovely poem by Amy Levy. I love the way it describes the end-of-day fatigue as something positive, something to look forward to, something that forces our minds and souls to rest

The End of the Day
To B. T.

Dead-tired, dog-tired, as the vivid day
Fails and slackens and fades away.--
The sky that was so blue before
With sudden clouds is shrouded o'er.
Swiftly, stilly the mists uprise,
Till blurred and grey the landscape lies.

* * * * * * *

All day we have plied the oar; all day
Eager and keen have said our say
On life and death, on love and art,
On good or ill at Nature's heart.
Now, grown so tired, we scarce can lift
The lazy oars, but onward drift.
And the silence is only stirred
Here and there by a broken word.

* * * * * * *

O, sweeter far than strain and stress
Is the slow, creeping weariness.
And better far than thought I find
The drowsy blankness of the mind.
More than all joys of soul or sense
Is this divine indifference;
Where grief a shadow grows to be,
And peace a possibility.

Amy Levy