therese (therese) Fri 3 Mar 06 11:04
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone's comments. Wallace Stevens, in one of his essays in 'The Necessary Angel,' said that the role of the poet is "to help people to live their lives." That sounds right to me. The poets I've come to love, to know by heart, give voice to a landscape, or an idea, that is often elusive, at the edge of my grasp, perhaps at the edge of theirs, and yet it's there. It's there, not in a prescriptive manner, but more as a gesture towards something more full of life than "things as they are." I think this may have been what Stevens thought of as the imagination pressing back against reality. Does Stevens' sense of the poet's role ring true for you? (I'm off to the bookstore to buy your book.)
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Fri 3 Mar 06 12:18
Therese's and Joe's posts are so eloquent I am tempted to just sit back for a while and listen. This of course is not allowed. I am supposed to speak here once a day. "To help people live their lives" is a consummate definition of poetry's role. Wallace Stevens's comments about poetry are close to as high an artform as the best of his poems--his aphorisms, in Opus Posthumous, feel to me what a pirate's treasure chest must feel to a child. Each statement a glittering jewel. Frost had that gift as well. The one thing that I must add to Stevens, if I am to be truthful, is that the impetus for me is almost entirely selfish: it is my own life that needs help. For the poems then to perhaps help anyone else's is surplus. It may have been different for him, for some other poets, or not. This is hard to know, since we ourselves are hard to know, and a person's own statement of why they do anything is hardly to be taken as authoritative. If "authoritative" could exist at all, in these matters.
Joe Flower (bbear) Fri 3 Mar 06 13:04
>the impetus for me is almost entirely selfish: it is my own life that needs help This is exactly what came to mind for me when I read Therese's post. Helping others live their lives is not a "well-formed outcome." It is beyond the artist's ability to effect. The artist goes mining. To the extent that the human condition is universal, what the artist comes up with may be of use to others. It may be that this is one measure of how great an artist is: The truly great artists speak across the ages and across cultures because what they have found is so universally true of the human condition.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Fri 3 Mar 06 14:08
That last point strikes me as deeply true itself. That certain stories, images, phrases hit bedrock, whether it's the Oresteia or King Lear or a five line poem by Izumi Shikibu. And I doubt that Aeschylus or Shakespeare of Shikibu was thinking about anything while writing beyond the quest to get it right, whatever "it", at any particular moment, is. The odd thing is, all us lesser mortals are doing the same thing. Any child at work on her drawing is doing the same thing, if she's drawing for her own reasons. So how those great ones find their way to bedrock is the inexplicable mystery, that can't be bought or sold or trapped or taught. Yet it can be learned. I saw the Calder exhibit at the SFMOMA last night. An artist who was completely himself from boyhood to age. He couldn't help himself: that work was who he was. It felt like stepping into a river. And a few of the pieces were miracles, impossibilities that stop you in your tracks and make you laugh--you just can't help it. Yet they are profound at the same time.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Fri 3 Mar 06 18:18
It occurs to me to clarify: by "it can be learned" I meant that the great ones aren't born great--you can see the evolution into it, so clearly they are somehow learning their way forward.
therese (therese) Sat 4 Mar 06 07:19
>The artist goes mining. I like that. And sometimes when the artist goes mining she strikes gold. Maybe in the beginning she's not sure it's real--it could be fool's gold; but, in this case, it's tested and proven to be pure. So the artist, as miner, soon learns to recognize gold when it is found, and others recognize it as well; still no guarantees, but hard earned wisdom. Perhaps that's where Jane's clarification: "it can be learned," takes root. The artist is in search of something. She always runs the risk that nothing of value will be found, but she persists with an awareness that a rich vein of gold exists and may be tapped again. With that persistence, talent, and the fortune of time, the artist is able to create; she eventually understands that this process of creating is who she is, and that she can rely on herself to get up, on most days, with a desire to mine. With just that degree of sureness to a day, the artist takes on the role of 'helping people to live their lives,' if not by the product of the art, by the process of the life. I think the great ones know the gold for what it is, and have a strong impulse to share the wealth; at that point, the value is in the exchange.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sat 4 Mar 06 10:06
Do you know Lewis Hyde's early book, "The Gift"? Your final thought leads straight to that association for me. A book about anthropological gift exchange cultures in its first half, art/poetry in its second. "The gift must always move" is a sentence that captures the basic current: what comes to a person as gift must in turn be given. I wonder, does anyone reading here have some idea about how it is that a person recognizes true gold, distinguishes it from fool's gold? I know I'm asking here, rather than answering, but that seems to me one of the greater mysteries in art-making. How does the inner assayer judge the ore is one way to describe the question that almost all my essays (the literal essays, the prose ones) are trying to address. Yet there's an almost instantaneous knowledge, too. Gladwell's "blink." I read a poem (someone else's) and feel the presence of gold, or not. (And the other question is whether one person's "gold" is the same as another's, and at what level? Most agree about Shakespeare, but about John Ashbery, Eliot, Jorie Graham, one reader might be passionate for one, but not the others.)
Andrew Alden (alden) Sat 4 Mar 06 13:57
Fool's gold is easily distinguished from real gold if you have seen and examined both. Gold is soft, heavy and malleable; pyrite is harder, lighter and brittle. Nevertheless, the poet should be aware, just as the prospector is, that fool's gold often contains a small proportion of real gold that can make the difference in making a profit.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Sat 4 Mar 06 14:11
And isn't fool's gold usually found, too, where real gold can be? The Renaissance reminds me of this context. It's a stream, a river, a goldbed. We are lucky it held so much real gold -- but it brought forth some pyrite as well.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sat 4 Mar 06 19:36
Two profound comments, those. The true weight in poetry though must exist in some way in what the Japanese call "the world of between," rather than in the objective world. A poem's words, when not in someone's consciousness, are worth their weight in ink. Yet they do not change, inside that waiting. They are stable and patient. And if read by someone who doesn't read their language well, or who lacks the mind of poem-reading, or who simply does not know how to read this very poem for what it might hold, they are still worth their ink-weight. Only when a person responds to them fully and when they have something in them to respond to might they be heavy and malleable and of value rather than brittle. A friend, Stefanie Marlis, a long time ago wrote a poem in which she imagined natives pouring out the heavy metal-dust into the sand, keeping the valuable leather pouch. That the image has stayed with me all these years is one sign that it is some real thing, no? What an elegant way of saying that gold isn't always gold, sometimes it's leather. Sometimes it's sand, if you're in need of something to hold out a flood. (And, nice to see you here, Steve--)
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Sun 5 Mar 06 09:49
This is the only chance I'm going to have to come here today, so I am just saying that I was here. See you tomorrow.
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 6 Mar 06 11:19
Happy Monday Jane. This morning I was doing a google search and had one of those lovely moments of hyperlink serendipity. I went to a page that had an enexpected link to an essay on poetry and the mind, and clicked to find an essay including this thought... "The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life. Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking." ...from "On the relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry" by Carl Jung at: http://www.studiocleo.com/librarie/jung/essaymain.html It reminded me of my clumsy question about teaching and poetry, and it fell in my lap, so I wanted to bring it back here. A question about your writing cycle. When you are taking a book around, do you stop writing for a while, or does that have any bearing on your process?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 6 Mar 06 12:43
"Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking." That is quite wonderful, and seems to me to move toward a slightly different point than the preceding sentences. And it seems to me a very good addition to the Stevens comment above, that poems exist to help people live their lives. They also exist to recall us to the parts of our self that are easy to lose. I don't know if this will come across at all out of context, but I was reading a poem by Leonard Nathan earlier this morning, and he had in it the wonderful description of a man "easily distracted from (by?) essentials." I love the economy of that two-fold statement, and all it brings with it: like a small hook dragging a large net filled with unspoken thoughts. To your question-- I have been very surprised by how that is going this time, as opposed to all the earlier periods when I was this busy with outward events. Usually I don't write at all when doing so much. This year, I have actually been more prolific than I usually I am. I can't explain it at all, but I have been writing a run of new "pebble" poems during the past few weeks. It's been a gift, and one that keeps me feeling more in balance in my life, to be making new poems. I don't think this will persist once I start getting on airplanes to do out of town readings. A larger level answer might be: writing process isn't a stable thing for me. It changes all the time, always surprising me when it does. I remember distinctly the first time I wrote a poem before daylight. "I am not a morning person," I thought, "how did that happen?" Now I write many of my new poems before daylight, and none late at night. It feels a bit like surfing must: you catch the waves when they come, and the waves' arrival is not in your own control. But you have to be there, in the water, for it to happen.
Mary Mackey (mm) Mon 6 Mar 06 15:10
I'm reading along and enjoying the questions and your responses a great deal, Jane. this is the best topic on the WELL at present.
Joe Flower (bbear) Mon 6 Mar 06 17:31
>you have to be there, in the water What is "being in the water" for you?
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Mon 6 Mar 06 18:06
Thank you, Mary! That, coming from you, means a lot. Being in the water... First I'll tell you a story I once heard about a painter, though I've forgotten which painter it was about. He was asked, "Can you work when you're not inspired?" "Oh, no, certainly not, I need to wait for the Muse to come before I can paint." "And when does the Muse come?" "Oh, usually when she finds me working." I love that story, but it doesn't describe me. If there's no inspiration, the pen is not in my hand. So for me, to be in the water, waiting for the wave, is some prior condition--a permeability, a quieting of other kinds of internal speech so that the speech of poetry might begin to be heard. An alertness of a certain kind. I believe that poetry is probably in truth always out there to be found, if a person is attuned to the poem-possible mind. As if the surfer could call forward the waves, if he or she were truly ready. But I cannot will that attunement, I can only invite it. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it feels so distant I cannot even remember I am supposed to be a person who has ever written. The soul's eyes open and close, it feels. One state is a paradise, the other exile. But sometimes, the poems might come to look at exile... which is one way back. I am free-associating a little here... This two weeks has gone by quickly, and ends I think tomorrow. I know the topic can continue, but I begin to get on airplanes pretty soon for out of town readings, which makes getting online more difficult. We slipped this in to the one good period I knew there would be for it. It would not be a bad place to close, thinking about how it is a person comes into the condition of writing at all. It is to me utterly mysterious. The quieting I describe above is part of it, but not the whole story--there is something more active than that, which quiet and concentration allow. The reaching out toward meaning which is the "prehend" in the words "comprehension" and "apprehension." THe Greek root from which poetry comes has the meaning of "making." We each of us make the world we live in, in one way, and are helpless to change the world we live in, in other ways. Poems are a spell against that helplessness and for the creative sense, and the hopeful sense, I think, in times that can feel unhopeful. Music the same, painting the same. They alter the world to the degree that it can be altered.
Susanna Laaksonen (sussu-nen) Mon 6 Mar 06 19:49
I just cried a little reading that post, and the question I came here to ask seems so pedestrian now. I think I will still try to ask it. I am referring to Tiffany's post earlier, where she said something along the lines of, reading your poems, it feels the poet's self, while observing and speaking clearly, is also veiled in the words. What am I trying to say... let's try this. Some artists' work feels like an undressing in a way, each artistic gesture one of peeling off layers to reveal the skin. Experiencing work like that feels like looking at the artists' naked self. It feels almost indecent - but when the art is great, it is not art for exhibitionism's sake. It is just very naked art. Does it seem fair to you to say that you are not one of those artists - that your words weave a cloak for your naked self? The naked self is there behind the veil, but your impulse is not to reveal that self. It seems the work is not about you in the world so much as about the act of observing the world, the relationship between the self and the universe, that movement between the two. (I am going to add here that I am not making a value comparison between the two types of art I am claiming to exist. I think the quality of the work is not tied to the nature of the impulse, not the way I mean it.) Is there work which to you feels more "naked" than other work? (I mean, your own work). If my observation isn't completely missing everything, that is. Have there been changes for you in this respect?
David Bridger (david-bridger) Tue 7 Mar 06 01:08
I have enjoyed reading this topic, Jane. Thank you for sharing with us your deep and shining spirit.
therese (therese) Tue 7 Mar 06 08:36
Jane, thanks for your generous responses, and the pure gold (leather, sand...) of your poetry.
Jane Hirshfield (jh) Tue 7 Mar 06 09:10
To answer sussu--I think you are exactly right in your description, as was Tiffany. There are a very few poems which are narratives in which someone who knew the facts of my life could see those facts told directly--"1973" is one, and "Talc." But my work never looks like Sharon Olds, or Dorianne Laux (both poets whose work I love), and though I'm sometimes compared to her in reviews, I think it doesn't look like Louise Gluck either (another poet I love). I also love Robert Lowell's nakedness, his direct statements of self in the world. I have one poem that I think makes a statement much like his, a genuine confession, and my sense of privacy inclines me to not name that poem here. The exposures feel present to me, but it's as I said earlier: the x-ray or CAT scan or MRI rather than the nude portrait. None of us would recognize one another from our x-rays, our MRIs, yet that level is also the way we live in this world. It's perhaps easiest to see in the poems of "The Lives of the Heart." So many emerge from times of great difficulty and undoing, and are records of attempts to live through and answer that undoing. But the grammar is "the heart," not "my heart." And as you say, sussu, it's not that I think one aesthetic is better than the other. It is what's possible for me, and what makes a path for me, what is cure and liberation. There are many doorways to enter suffering and joy. And in poetry "I" can mean "I" or it can mean "you," or it can mean "he" or "she." And the same in the other direction--everything said in a poem, every description, is a statement of the state of the soul, and of the speaker. Japanese poetry threw open its doors and windows for me when I first began to understand that, the relationship of objective and subjective. The cloak is always transparent. To those of you who've been saying "thank you"--you are very welcome. Thanks also to the hosts of Inkwell, to Joe for starting this conversation, to each of you who've been reading and each of you who've made a comment or kept the conversation going with a question. I would never do this kind of thinking or speaking if left on my own, only write poems--all the essays of Nine Gates were written because I was asked to give a talk, and all these thoughts come only because a conversation fishes them out of me. Thanks for coming and fishing.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Tue 7 Mar 06 09:42
"Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and my memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise... "I am haunted by waters."
www.billcostley.blog-city.com (billcostley) Tue 7 Mar 06 09:56
Jane, I honestly think the definition of poetic 'gold' changes with the decades, eras, centuries. Few people now find Alexander Pope 'golden' (tho Byron did), but almost all do Shakespeare, Donne, The English Metaphysicals. I've often said that the post-WW2 generation's early exposure to haiki (in translation) set a core-std. that didn't previously exist; from that comes a belief in living poetic 'cores' rather than formal superstructures. Result: You don't hear anybody saying how great Longfellow is anymore; but I do expect Robert Browning's dramatic-monologues (=Victorian slam-poetry) to become popular again.
Susanna Laaksonen (sussu-nen) Tue 7 Mar 06 10:54
This topic has been a great gift (even partially speed-read on a hotel sofa in Maui, after a surf lesson, with a headful of sand and water...) Thank you for your many gifts to us, Jane, and thank you everyone in this topic for wise, interesting, insightful, delightful posts and questions. And thank you Joe for getting this gift-topic to such a nice start. Several times after reading this topic I have gone straight to writing something, and I like reading what I have written in that way. It's tremendous.
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Tue 7 Mar 06 15:23
Oh, I just can't believe two weeks have passed already! Each day, this has been a special time that I've saved for myself, to come and savor. Thank you so much!
Teleological dyslexic (ceder) Tue 7 Mar 06 23:06
I have loved reading this beautiful gem--school takes soo much time; thank you all. sorry I didn't participate--just in my head but maybe noone heard. ;-)
Members: Enter the conference to participate