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Bob Dylan wins the Nobel for Literature – But what it “Literature”?

13 Oct

The Nobel prize in literature is a much-anticipated event for book nuts everywhere – it is a highly prestigious award, meant (we assume) to celebrate the noteworthy achievements of literary artists.  It is an opportunity to advocate and recognize tremendous works of the written word.

This year’s winner has caused no small amount of controversy.  Bob Dylan, beloved and monumental American folk musician, has been awarded the prize, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  Poetic expressions?  Has there ever been a more wishy-washy phrase?

Don’t get me wrong, Dylan is great – I don’t think anyone would disagree, especially in America.  But is he a writer?  Is he participating in literature?  This seems to be the root question – how does the Nobel committee define literature?  When did songwriting become a category alongside poetry, drama, and prose?

Today, it seems.

Here’s where the Dylan selection rubs me wrong.  Awards of artistic achievement that specifically recognize a particular field should go to participants of that field.  The field in question for this award is literature.  Songwriting, however, is part of the field of “music.” A songwriter is pursuing a distinct art-form; a sum of parts that includes – even relies on – the music. The craft, context, execution, it’s unique to that art. Lyrics are a component of the music, written in compliment.  They are not, in the sense of literary pursuit, poetry.  Because poetry is also a distinct art-form, with its own craft, context, and execution.

Sure, song lyrics can be “poetic”, and in a cultural sense, there is often the argument that song lyrics are the “new” poetry (as though poetry itself is not alive and well). In the sense of the role that they play in society, it’s a reasonable argument. But in the sense of how each is conceptualized, created, perpetuated, and experienced, they are quite different.  Music is not simply poetry with musical accompaniment – it’s a pursuit whole unto itself, with its own approaches and sensibilities and expectations.  We can philosophize about overlap, but if artistic categories are to have any meaning, it must be assumed that music is music, and literature is literature.  And different arts require different skills, sensibilities, intentions, tools.

Dylan himself proves this.  In 1971, he published Tarantula, a book of experimental prose-poetry, his first work of original and explicitly literary written art.  And it was panned.  Wholly unsuccessful.  People were not into it.  It seems being an amazing, groundbreaking musician and songwriter does not, in fact, translate into being a good poet.  And this is the point.  Poetry is a unique art, and poets panticipate in a unique, culturally-defined field.  To give the Literature prize to a songwriter feels like a slight to all of the incredible working writers of the world. To my mind it undermines the prize’s purpose – which is to recognize, celebrate, and advocate for the best literary work. And this is an important function.  Literature needs its champions.

I’m rambling.  But the reason I question the Dylan decision is simple – music is not literature. It is a different art.  Just as a movie is not a play, even though they both have actors, and an opera is not a pop concert, even though they both have music. The fact that lyrics can be poetic ignores the cultural context, the artistic intention and process, the entire experience.  We can categorize after the fact, “repackage” lyrics as poems – but artistic intention should matter in a prestigious international prize. I mean, I could arrange the incoherent babble of a current U.S. presidential candidate into something like poetry, but it wouldn’t make Trump a poet. Separating the lyrics from a song doesn’t turn them into literature, at least not in the sense that writers actively seek to create and participate in those arts.

Literature is a vital sphere of our cultural life, and these awards are meant to celebrate it, infuse it with life, and raise it to the public’s attention. There are major literary talents in the world right now, artists who have broken ground and excelled in the arts of literature. Dylan is an artist of tremendous talent and importance, and deserves plenty of recognition – in his own field.  He revitalized and transformed music. Not literature, not poetry. And the fact remains that this is supposed to be a literature prize.  If it is to become a “prize for any sort of significant cultural contribution”, then they should rename it.

I know I probably sound like a stick in the mud.  I am usually all for expanding definitions and defying tradition.  I think music is a close sibling to poetry, and can achieve similar things, and there is certainly poetry to be found within songwriting.  But I’m foremost an advocate for the written word in all of its vital, under-appreciated arts – and that is also the supposed function of these awards.  Dylan has been a heavy influence on culture, but he was making music, not literature. I don’t fault the judges for giving weight to Dylan’s general influence, or even in seeing the beauty of his words. But these prizes are an opportunity to raise up important achievements specifically in literature. This feels like an opportunity that has been missed.


NYC Poetry Fest 2012

27 Jul

So I know I still have to write up the second installment of my Cleveland vacation post, but I first wanted to comment on a really great event I attended last weekend – the second annual NYC Poetry Festival, thrown by the good people at The Poetry Society of New York.  It was a two day fest of visiting and resident poets, literary vendors, bit of food, bit of silliness, and a lot of awesome people.  Sadly I did not have my camera on hand, but I’ll relate what I can.  They held it on Governor’s Island, downtown Manhattan’s favorite ferry-ride weekend retreat.  I thought this was the perfect environment for honoring poetry – a green oasis at the end of a (admittedly short) watery voyage.  The fest itself was casual and low-key as such things go, which was good, as it enabled a nice mix of all-day activity without the exhaustion of over-stimulation.  I went on Sunday, a perfect summer afternoon, meandering from stage to stage, a poet here, a poet there, chatting with small press people and up-and-coming wordsmiths, laying out on the grass as words and the breeze swept over me.

The shindig was laid out in a sort of triangle, with three small stages at each corner.  The quality of the readings was very high, and there were several poets that I became quickly enamored with.  Some highlights for me were Michael Alpiner, Jenny Xie, Ronaldo Wilson, David Lawton, Dorothea Lasky and Timothy Donnelly.  I chatted with some fine people at Brooklyn Arts Press about the challenges of small publishing and the range of new talent, and picked up an anthology from poet Jane Ormerod‘s newly managed press, Uphook.  All in all, it was a splendid day celebrating language and art and the people who keep it all going.  Definitely hope to go again next year.

Literary Momentum in the Post-Postmodern Age

12 Jun

Is there any art as fickle, evasive or misunderstood as poetry?  Tell someone you’re a poet some time, just for fun, and watch the stages of their expression – the eyes narrow almost imperceptibly before they catch themselves, maybe the chin juts out for a moment, before they give what they hope to be a supportive grunt and a sympathetic head nod.  “That’s great! The world needs poetry, right?”

Right.  Except you wouldn’t know it from the state of the field.  The arts are well-known to be a temperamental pursuit at best, the realm of dreamers, derelicts and the dead.  Success means having your work seen, perhaps even admired, by anyone not already a friend or relative.  This has become infinitely easier with technology (blogging, e-book publishing), although self-publishing routes can (but don’t always) devolve into ego-stroking self-delusion, a hollow victory.  And economic viability?  “Don’t quit your day job” they say, and that’s the unfortunate truth.  Unless you are blessed by an unusually lucky star, know all the right folks, and (possibly the lesser factor) have something new to say that people want to hear, your artistic career is going to necessarily be supported by a palette of menial jobs.  The starving artist? That’s no joke.

The most common path for modern American writers is educational – they plod their way through English and creative writing programs, learn the right moves, and have doors already open for them when the time comes to make a name.  Browse through the average college-run literary journal, and the majority of the writers you see are graduates of some sort of program, and many of them are teachers themselves – completing the insular circle of literary life.  Without going too far from my point, let me say that this state of American literature, created and perpetuated through the ivory tower, has a major downside.  Don’t get me wrong – I love literary magazines.  The universities that put them out do a tremendous service to our culture.  However, as with any art that becomes an institution, a stylistic homogeneity begins to take shape.  Trends appear, and as usual, the victim is any divergent style or sensibility.  Editors admire the work which resonates with the educational channels they took themselves.  Writers mimic (consciously or -un) the style which they have learned and which they see in the journals, because they want to be in there too.  And we’re left with a dull trajectory that does little more than fulfill its own expectations.  New and challenging voices are boxed out in the name of self-perpetuating mediocrity.

This isn’t anyone’s fault.  People pursue literary degrees because they love it, and people go into teaching (hopefully) because they love it, and editors work on magazines because they love it, and so on.  It’s all love, and yet the inevitable happens, and the literary sphere becomes esoterically bland, cannibalizes itself, regurgitates trends of style and education.  And what is the current stylistic trend that has prompted my rant here?  Well in fiction, it’s something I’ve seen a growing number of critics and editors complain about.  It’s this postmodernist, self-aware, meta-referential, first-person-casual approach to story-telling.  It’s this structural and tonal uniformity I keep finding, a hollow sameness.  Something’s missing – heart maybe, or courage, or insight.  Emerging writers seem to take the advice of “write what you know” and then produce safe, tepid stories of suburban ennui, cynical disenchantment, PC hipster irony, college confusion, childhood memories, domesticity, etc etc.  Much of modern literary-fiction has come to be conversational, almost reality-television-esque.  Stories like to focus on recognizable mundanity – it’s like having coffee with someone who is telling you a half-way interesting anecdote.  The literary scene has become rife with passive voices, prefab creative-writers who are brimming with craft but neglecting art, like a blacksmith who forges perfect hoops for wooden barrels but couldn’t pein a decorative door handle to save his life.

Okay, I’m glad I got that out of my system.  And let me amend my tirade – I’ve yet to publish anything, I have very little formal education, and I don’t write a tenth as much as I should, so my opinions on this should be taken with generous spoonfuls of salt.  I just wanted to vent an observation I’ve had about the modern literary state of America, because frankly, I know there are amazing writers out there.  I’d like to see university-driven literary journals have better funding and grow in numbers, but even more, I’d like to see non-collegiate journals flourish.  We need to revive literature and foster its expansion, because that will result naturally in more diversity and more voices, and a richer culture overall.

Now back to poetry.  If it’s tough making a name in fiction-writing, it’s borderline impossible in poetry.  Because who reads poetry?  Who goes out and buys poetry books, subscribes to literary magazines, attends readings?  Other poets, that’s who.  And there are not really enough of us to create a booming industry on our own.  Poetry is quixotic, a doomed quest.  The ratio of published, self-sustained poets to the number of poets in general has got to be staggeringly low, a fraction of a fraction.  We accept this, and hope to achieve at least some dignity in trying.  It will be interesting in the coming years to see how technology reshapes this paradigm.  I already see growing numbers of online literary journals, e-books, blogs, tweets, and what have you.  As a grumpy old throwback who considers the sensory experience of actual printed paper to be inimitable, I have mixed feelings on all that.  But perhaps it will democratize the writing world for the better.  The downside of course to those self-publishing avenues is the lack of built-in quality control – the role of external gatekeeper, traditionally played by editors and publishers but increasingly disappearing.  When “anyone” can become a “published” writer through modern technological channels, writing itself feels cheapened, and it becomes really hard to find the gems among all that slush.  It’s an ongoing debate with some complex factors, the broken system of traditional publishing not the least of them.  We’ll see what happens.

For now, all I can say is, if you’re a writer, keep on writing.  And if you’re a reader, keep on reading.  And if you’re a poet, well… you have my deepest sympathies.  :)

Ruben Dario: Voice of Modernismo

14 May

“What sign do you give, O Swan, with your curving neck
when the sad and wandering dreamers pass?
Why so silent from being white and being beautiful,
tyrannical to the waters and impassive to the flowers?”
(Longman 837)

Ruben Dario (1867 – 1916) was a poet of tenacious drive and discerning passions, the founder and foremost advocate of a vital artistic and intellectual movement.  It was called modernismo, and it had a tremendous impact on the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, though today it often evades popular awareness.  Coalescing around the turn of the twentieth century, it was a literature that blended influences of Romanticism and Symbolism, and concerned itself deliberately with emotional intensity, individuality and creative freedom.  Dario himself was the embodiment of these ideals – a poet of vibrancy and dreamlike urgency, an artisan of words both tactile and hypnogogic.  As seen in the stanza above, he had a special fondness for the symbolism of swans, and would often juxtapose their beauty with sadness and death, giving them a mystical status that recalls the Romantic and classical.  It’s an example of what made Ruben Dario the champion of Spanish poetry in the early modern era.  His modernismo style was impassioned but classically melodic, radically exploratory while revering the legacies of the past.

Dario was a cosmopolitan man, a product of a growing sense of global connectivity.  He absorbed all of the influences of the literary scene abroad along with the experiences of his travels, yet his poetry reflects a singularly beautiful insight.  His sensibility is well-illustrated in the opening line of one of his most celebrated poems, a piece which has retrospectively become the standard of the movement:

“I seek a form that my style cannot discover,
a bud of thought that wants to be a rose.” (Dario 60)

As Octavio Paz notes in his prologue to Dario’s Selected Poems – this particular line “is a definition of his verse… He seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty, that words can evoke but can never state.  All of Romanticism – the desire to grasp the infinite – and all of Symbolism – an ideal, indefinable beauty that can only be suggested – are contained in that line.”  (Dario 14)  But even as we dissect the influences of Dario’s poetry, there remains that abstract, indefinable “something else” which makes it inarguably his, penetrating and sublime.

When Ruben Dario first pursued the writer’s craft, his efforts were suppressed by the reactionary government of his native Nicaragua.  At the tender age of fifteen, he tried to obtain a scholarship to pursue the literary arts in Europe.  He read some poems to the authorities, who immediately denied his request, fearing that exposure to European culture would only breed further liberalism in the young man.  Dario’s restless artistry led him to leave Nicaragua on his own and begin a new life, traveling all over Latin and South America, writing poetry and forging relationships.  He soon found himself quite successful, receiving official recognition all over the Latin world, where before as a youth he had been denied.  He was appointed consulate in Colombia and the ambassador for Nicaragua, which would later rename his home town of Metapa to Ciudad Dario, in his honor.  As his fame grew, he eventually did make his way to Europe.  Spain welcomed him as a diplomat and as the most celebrated artist of the New World.  From there he was drawn naturally to Paris, the epicenter of art and poetry, where he came under the spell of the French symbolists.  This was a defining moment, both for Dario and for the movement he was leading.  From then onward, Dario’s poetry would become increasingly complex, dreamy and profound.

The modernismo movement was giving a new voice to Spanish artists while socially and politically redefining Latin America.  While Dario was recognized as the movement’s head, the movement as a whole grew from a scattered network of poets looking to redefine the art of their language.  They were examining themselves and also looking to France for artistic queues: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine top the list of influences.  These influences informed much of the structure and tone of modernism, but it was the singular Spanish sensibility, the natural rhythm and fire, which gave the poetry its power.  Modernismo is said to have “officially” begun with Dario’s first manifestos, and with the international publication of Azul (Blue), his first collection of poems and stories.  The poetry of “Azul” is at once familiar, and breathtakingly new:

“Month of roses. My poems
wander through the vast forest
to gather honey and fragrance
from the half-opened flowers.”  (Dario 41)

There is a clear Romantic sentiment here, but there is also a uniquely sensual flavor.  And Dario was every bit a sensualist; a man of deep feeling and endless curiosity.  Gerald Brenan calls his verse, perhaps a bit disparagingly, “hedonistic, pagan and steeped in a violently sensual and erotic atmosphere.”  (Brenan 428)  This is where the “modern” in modernismo shines through.  Such unabashed liberty of expression was something novel to Spanish literature, and though there were many disagreeable reactions from traditionalists, the fresh air was largely welcome to the younger generation.

Octavio Paz dubbed Dario “the bridge” between these old and new spheres of Spanish verse.  “His constant travels and his generous activity in behalf of others made him the point of connection”, notes Paz in his prologue.  (Dario 11)  Poets rallied around Dario for inspiration and leadership, and he in turn led them to reinvent not only Spanish literature, but the language itself.  Between the end of the “golden era” of Spanish literature in the seventeenth century, and the beginnings of modernismo in the late nineteenth, Spanish had stagnated.  During the conservative Napoleonic age, literature and poetry (a largely liberal endeavor) had utterly ceased.  The language was largely stuck in the baroque.  There were some achievements in the Romantic period, notably from Gustavo Be’cquer (an influence on Dario’s early work), but nothing as profound as that in England, Germany or France.  And then Dario and his modernists came along, and breathed new life into the Spanish language.  Through them, Spanish verse regained its vitality, became once again a viable and effective literary force.

As we see, the effect of modernismo was monumental, and it spread beyond poetry.  It gave a powerful voice to Latin American communities who were feeling the pressure of outside forces, particularly those of American imperialism.  Ruben Dario was not a particularly political artist, but even he could not keep his pen still about the problems facing Central America.  As a journalist for a paper in Argentina, he covered the Spanish-American War, illuminating the struggle of Hispanic cultures.  And when U.S. President Roosevelt began to strategically foment the Panamanian revolution in 1903 (with the goal of acquiring the valuable Canal Zone for America), Dario called him out in verse:

“You think that life is a conflagration,
that progress is an eruption,
that where you put your bullet
you set the future…
…Beware. Spanish America lives!”  (Longman 836)

The acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the canal was of course a major component of America’s growing global influence.  It gave the U.S. tremendous economic and military power at the expense of much bloodshed and upheaval, and the Latin American people would not soon forget the manipulative self-interest of the U.S.  Poetry was at least one way in which they could vocalize their grievances, though the Canal Zone would continue to be a violently contested issue for most of the twentieth century.

Along with its importance in the historical context of its time, Ruben Dario’s modernismo was a surge of energy for all Spanish literary arts to come.  As Brenan notes, regarding the publication of Dario’s most innovative volume Prosas Profanas, “These new, intoxicating rhythms and cadences burst the narrow banks in which Spanish poetry had long been confined.”  (Brenan 428)  The eruptive effects of Dario’s verse make it a vital subject of study for world literature, while the verses themselves continue to enthrall generations with their deep emotion and magical imagery, their profound and unequivocal artistry.  Federico Garcia Lorca says it best, in this excerpt from a speech given in Dario’s honor in 1933:

“He gave us the murmur of the forest in an adjective, and being a master of language… he made zodiacal signs out of a lemon tree, the hoof of a stag, and mollusks full of terror and infinity. He launched us on a sea with frigates and shadows in our eyes, and built an enormous promenade of gin over the grayest afternoon the sky has ever known, and greeted the southwest wind as a friend…”  (Dario 140)


Works Cited

Learning the Hard Way. Again.

7 May

I have a Spring resolution to begin submitting poetry to literary journals, with the hope of getting at least one piece published this year.  I’m not sure yet if this goal is modest or naive, but I figure you’ve got to start somewhere, some time.  So I selected some university journals to submit to, and began the task of choosing and refining the pieces I wanted to offer.

Now, one of the questions I had had about blogging, right from the beginning, was whether or not any poems that I posted for the public would be considered “previously published”, according to an editor at a literary rag.  As you may or mayn’t know, basically every literary journal / press / agent / whatever out there will not consider your work if it has been previously published in any form.  Using common sense (that cruel betrayer) I figured a measly blog couldn’t possibly count, and went on my merry poetic way, posting random verses on Dying Fire, my companion-blog, just to get an idea of how they would be received.  I mean, it’s just a blog, right?  It’s my work, right?  Right.  I started putting poems up, and it was nice to get some feedback, so I put up some more.  I didn’t worry much over the whole “previously published” issue – until I started researching literary journals.

Let’s make a long story short, here:



Online content, even just blogging, is considered by most editors (to my discernment) as “previously published”, and thus typically ineligible for submission to anywhere else.  Once it’s online, it’s off the table.  Why not simply delete the piece, you ask?  Well, if you know the internet, you know that it’s an all-consuming data-whore, and nothing is ever truly erased, even when it is.  Harsh realities, I know.  Thus, when it came time for me to pick the poems that I wanted to send out to the presses, I had to forget about using anything that was on the blog.  Fortunately, that was mostly older material, but there were a couple on there that I would have liked to refine and submit, had they not been permanently banished to the virtual realm by my zealous ignorance.

So today’s short post is a warning to others, a versified-head-on-a-digital-pike, of this potentially irritating technicality.  I’ll still post poetry on my companion-blog, but only bits and pieces that I don’t intend to publish externally.  Of course, the whole issue is certainly subjective – some editors probably couldn’t care less about what’s on your blog, others might be googling every entry they get.  And there are loopholes, like posting “excerpts” for critiquing, while keeping the bulk of the piece unpublished.  But for me, when it comes to the high-anxiety game of literary submissions, I think it’s better not to take chances.  As “budding” writers (i.e., desperate, wriggling worms, begging for fifteen seconds of recognition in an industry of astronomically unlikely odds of success), we don’t need to build ourselves any extra hurdles.

Good writing, and good luck!

Why Write? In Defense of Discontentment

25 Apr

“Why do you write?”

This question was posed to me recently for a class assignment, and harmless as it might seem, it immediately sent my mind into a spiral of abstract and tangential questions, like “What is art?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is meaning?”  “What makes it meaningful?”  “Why do we search for it?”  “Why do we do anything?”

It was a long night, I’ll tell ya.

Well, people are weird.  That much I know.  For as long as we’ve been banging rocks together and looking at the stars, we’ve channeled our weirdness into amazing displays of creativity and thought.  We’ve painted cave walls and church ceilings, built towers and tanks and toilet bowls, blasted our brethren into outer-space.  But why?  What makes humans so uniquely obsessed with all this constant mucking about and manipulation?  When it comes to simply being animals on planet Earth, why are we so weird?

Goya's Sleep of Reason

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"

When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.

Now, a question like “Why do you write” can certainly be a fun intellectual and creative exercise, and no doubt I could muster up some sort of profound bullshit to make it all seem very inspiring and inevitable.  But really, there is no easy answer for me, and I won’t pretend there is.  Me, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.  And then I wanted to be a cartoonist.  And then I wanted to be an architect.  But throughout all that, the one thing I’ve always been, and always hope to be, is an explorer.  Explorers are impelled by insatiable curiosity and unrest, and I see every artist as an explorer, in league with Jacque Cousteau or Ernest Shackleton.

Exploring is how we grow, personally and as a civilization.  And one of my favorite ways to explore has always been writing.  I was the kid in class who loved essay assignments while everyone else around me groaned.  Still am, actually.  Later on, as an angsty teen, I began to write terrible poetry (who didn’t?).  I was exploring my identity, trying to understand who I was and where I fit.  Then as I got older, and the pressure was on for me to choose a direction in life, people began pushing me to pursue a writing career.  And when my first college made me the “Featured Writer” of their journal, I considered it for a minute. But discontentment soon reared its head.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I was or where I was heading. For better or worse, a stronger force began working within me.  It was what my grandmother would call “that old gypsy blood”, the restless seduction of the new and uncharted.  I was feeling directionless and powerless, unimpressed with the options on the table and drawn to the Siren song of new adventure.  Thus, in true explorer fashion, and without very much thought for the future, I abandoned the predictable and turned my back on school, home and economic viability.  I quit my job, broke my lease, sold my stuff, and hit the road.

Frontispiece from the book - South: Shackleton's Last Expedition

I traveled about for years, settling momentarily here and there, but never long enough for roots to touch ground.  I was thirsty for life and drunk with freedom, an American pioneer.  But I was also running away, Peter-panning, breaking through the atmosphere of a prescribed world that simultaneously bored and terrified me.  I didn’t want to carve out a career, or start a family, or improve my credit score.  I just wanted to explore.  I guess I figured life would figure itself out, and all I had to do was drift, let the eddies do the work.  Then I blinked, and I was twenty-eight years old, and I realized I’d become stuck somehow.  I hadn’t actually escaped anything; I’d simply let myself sink, let the world wash over me.  I hadn’t outsmarted the system, or created anything new, or even found any meaningful answers, at least not any that, deep down, I hadn’t already known.

And that’s when I really began to write.  Poetry, short stories, essays.  Once I stopped running, and faced my discontentment head on, I discovered that the real “uncharted realm” wasn’t out there on the highways and train-tracks – it was something broader and deeper than physical space.  I wanted to be a vagabond on the sphere of ideas, a pilgrim of imagination.  I realized how much I love to think and research and learn and argue.  How much I love words, and lyricism and well-crafted language.  I realized that story-telling, whatever form it takes, is probably the greatest achievement that us weirdo humans ever came up with.  Right up there with hammocks, beer and bicycles.

The more I wrote, the happier it made me, so of course I did it some more – an animalistic pleasure response.  I discovered the beauty and acuity of poetry, the sheer joy of fiction – a thrill of omnipotence and creative surrender that made me feel like a kid again.  I had found a way to hold on to my fascination and creativity, a way to focus my restless, discontented energy in a way that might actually matter.  I had found my Neverland.

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

So that’s why I do it.  I definitely don’t write under any illusions of fame and fortune waiting on the horizon.  I don’t know whether my words will mean anything to anyone but myself.  I just write, because I want to share, and understand, and create, and expand.  I write because if I didn’t get at least some of these synapses down on paper (or computer screen), I’d be just a little less happy and a little more nuts.  There’s no easy answer to why we feel this compulsion to create, to push boundaries and be heard.  Perhaps, like George Mallory climbing Everest, we do it because “it’s there”, a crucible standing before us, waiting to see if we have what it takes to go just a little further.  Maybe there is an intangible divinity of human spirit pushing us to become the best versions of ourselves.  Maybe we’re dissatisfied, over-thinking apes, screaming defiantly into the void.  Or, maybe we’re just weird.

Personally, my money’s on that last one.


Romanticism and the Return to Terra Mater

20 Mar

So I’m taking this world literature class, and last week, we covered the major Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron, et. al.  I had previously sort of snubbed these guys, having an innate aversion to their high-flown styles.  But lately I’ve come to really love a few of ’em (Shelley and Coleridge, foremost), for their personalities as well as their art.  Percy Shelley, for example was an atheist and a vegetarian, at a time where such terms were almost unheard of.  Takes some guts. The Romantics were proto-environmentalists who practically worshiped nature in their poetry, and after reading some of their exaltations of Mama Earth, I got to thinking of some of the beautiful places I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my travels.  It’s really an amazing continent we have here in North America, epic in its breadth and diversity.  And there’s this general agreement in today’s fast-paced culture that life should have more reconnection with nature, less modern distraction.  You know, the well-worn lamentations of the “rat-race”, and the yearning for a “simpler time.”  Although, as someone who once abandoned all (well, most) of the trappings of civilization in search of that “simpler” way of life, I do have a sort of ambivalence about this romanticization of the natural world.  I’ve spent several years in various modes of travel, lived in environments both strange and beautiful, and have felt moments of true connection with the wider natural world.  But I never felt that “nature” needed my devotion or attention or praise.  Nature simply is – timelessly and indifferently.

Now, I’d say most people in the modern world would definitely benefit from more immersion into what we call nature.  And that the typical first-world consumer-citizen should have more awareness of how civilization affects the planet, and act accordingly (admittedly these days, that awareness has become more common). But I also think that it does little good to idealize nature, put it on a pedestal and perpetuate the myth that it is something “other” to ourselves.  You’re already in nature.  You already are nature.

The Romantics wrote poetry that was utterly enraptured with Nature, capital N. Part of their infatuation came in reaction to the industrialization, intellectualism and political turmoil of their era (we’re talking mid-18th to mid-19th century Europe here). During the Industrial Revolution, London was such a literal cesspool of pollution and disease that it’s no surprise that poets would look to “greener” pastures for inspiration. There was also a decidedly mystical bent. Often, their approach smacked heavily of puritanism and zealous idealism, and they were in truth generally religious, and to some degree anti-intellectual.  They saw the developments of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution as something that needed to be countered.  They found the French philosophes too coldly rational, and resented that the emergence of science was taking all of the divine mystery out of the universe.  Consider the most famous line of Keats’ – “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [emphasis mine]

It’s interesting to look at history and see how sentiments like this respond to technology, such as in the case of the Romantics. Me, I’m happy these days to star-gaze in a field or spend the day tromping around a gorge, but in the past I was much more the environmentalist, and that came from frustrations with car-culture, trash-culture, television-culture, and the general industrial pillaging enabled by our lifestyles. It was reactive personal politics, the all-or-nothing principles of youth. A noble thing, even a necessary thing, yet the more I experienced, the more I grasped the world’s complexity. As I traveled about, spending long, uninterrupted periods in feral simplicity, letting my wordless surroundings monopolize the conversation – I realized that I had idealized much, and listened very little.

It’s the process not of outgrowing perspectives, but of simultaneously widening and refining them.

My point is that nature is not an idol, or a playground, or a factory floor or a toilet bowl.  Don’t misunderstand me; it’s great when people appreciate the environment and want to advocate for it, or write stirring verses about it (hell, I’ve certainly tried).  And it’s understandable when we dream of going off, Thoreau-like into the wilderness (not that Walden was actually very wild of a place), to get “back to the land”, away from the tedious “hustle and bustle” of modernity.  But as much as we in the civilized sphere romanticize a return to Terra Mater, I can tell you that the novelty fades when you’re trying to chop up logs with frozen finger-tips after the sun has set and subzero temps are on their way.  Just some devil’s advocation for ya’ll.  The Romantics made Nature into a temple, but they also respected its chaos, its dramatic and temperamental sovereignty. Love nature, protect it, understand it, but be careful not to sentimentalize it. Nature is a magnificent and indifferent nebula – a dynamic game of life, death and all the change in between.

That said, I’m still looking forward to getting “back to the land” myself, buying some property and regaining some self-sufficiency and peace.  It’s still my goal, and I still consider it a good one.  And of course, civilized people should consistently respect and defend the environment, and strive to live smaller lives, being aware of the immediate and philosophical impacts of our civilization.  This is old-hat of course, not just for environmentalists but for society as a whole.  But more than this, I think it’s important to learn how to exist, as animals (however sentient), on this planet.  To be part of the environment, and not just a tourist or conqueror or even advocate of it.  If I ever have kids, I’d hope for them to gain not only an understanding of the world around them, but also the ability to actually survive in it in the most basic sense; to appreciate and protect it because it is their home, which they know and love.

I think we’re moving in a good direction.  Nowadays we have these “green” movements and homesteading families, local-vores and eco-yuppies and a growing social conscience of eco-politics, covering everything from corn to carbon.  It’s an interesting time, and it’s nice to see society take this deeper look at itself and its place in the world.  The basic force of civilization has always been control, and of course you can’t control something while being a part of it.  That’s why we’ve built these very elaborate (often illusory) barriers between the “civilized” and “natural” worlds – high walls of technology around our shining city, to keep out the dangers and discomforts of the deep, dark wood.  But increasingly these days, people are questioning the wisdom of those walls, climbing over to really see what’s on the other side, and I am glad for that.

Today’s the spring equinox!  Enjoy the extra-symmetrical day!



Some poetry volumes lately occupying my attention

16 Mar

I have a weird relationship with poetry.  95% of what I read seems manufactured, tedious, whiny, pedantic, or all of the above.  Yet I often find myself writing what could only be called poetry, and I’ve been doing it since middle school.  To steal an idea from Kundera’s The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts – poetry is a selfish art, compared to prose.  Where fiction (good fiction, anyway) explores the universal, poetry is the projection and plumbing of one’s own inner world.  “…a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard,” Kundera observes.  I agree with him, and I suspect it’s one reason why I have such a hard time with poetry itself.  It is not an easy thing to really inhabit another’s inner world, even for only the length of a poem, and it’s a rare feat to produce poetry which can transcend this natural obstacle.

There are a handful of poets whom I really love.  Perhaps my nature is simply especially compatible with their natures, or perhaps they are just gifted enough to stand out.  In any case, poetry is admittedly not my field or my forte, but these are some folks who make my probably-too-short list.

Jim Harrison – Probably the one living writer I’d most like to meet in my life.  I’ll sound like a gushing fan boy here, but Harrison has a well-defined appreciation for all of the right things: red wine, good women, rivers, crows and garlic.  He is a suitor of the natural world, walking and wooing the forests of Maine, the deserts of Arizona, and the mountains of Montana.  And he transmutes these appreciations into poetry which can by turns exalt, provoke, levitate and then cut to the bone.  His volumes of verse are the ones I read most regularly, and the ones I most often recommend.

“There is no “I” with the sun and moon.
Time means only the irretrievable.
If I mourn myself, the beloved dead,
I must mourn the deaths of galaxies.”

Saving Daylight

Federico Garcia Lorca – Lorca was a beloved Spanish poet of the early 20th century.  He is a treasure for the Spanish-speaking world, and the literary world at large.  Lorca was a man of deep passions, and his poetry ranges from love sonnets to tales of gypsy life to revelries of the sea.  His death at the hands of Spanish fascists at the onset of the Civil War inspired a worldwide opposition by artists around the world to Franco’s tyrannical regime.

“The sea
smiles from far off.
Teeth of foam,
lips of sky.”

The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca

Hermann Hesse – Hesse is definitely my favorite German writer, and possibly my favorite writer period.  His novels The Glass Bead Game, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund were life-changing for me.  So naturally, when I stumbled upon a slim paperback of his poetry many years ago, I had to snatch it up.  But what began as a completist’s impulse soon became a surprising pleasure.  Here is my recent review, on

PoemsPoems by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Wright has done the world a service in translating this slight but potent volume of Hesse’s verse. The dreamy tone and fantasy of Hesse’s poems are well-reserved, and his lyricism shines brightly as ever through the translation. While some will find these poems to be simplistic, even juvenile, I think that seeming naivety and emotional honesty is exactly what gives them power. Where his novels explore the heights and depths of the mind and spirit, his poetry is pure, heartfelt and impulsive. My only disappointment is the meager size of the offering. I’ve no doubt that Wright chose well when selecting which poems to translate, but it would be nice to see a new talent take the baton and translate all of Hesse’s poetry for an English audience.

“The Lake has died down,
The reed, black in its sleep,
Whispers in a dream.
Expanding immensely into the countryside,
The mountains look, outspread.
They are not resting.
They breathe deeply, and hold themselves,
Pressed tightly to one another.
Deeply breathing,
Laden with mute forces,
Caught in a wasting passion.”

View all my reviews