Poetics & The Good Life: A Manifesto

The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).

At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to  represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.

Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.

Art as Experience

Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.

I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”

Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.

However, Wilde also said that art is useless:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”

One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.

And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.

Art as a Tool for the Good Life

Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.

The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.

Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.

Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention

Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off.  I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing.  We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.

Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:

We can live deliberately.

We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.

– Oscar Wilde

This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?

More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.


The Point of Excellence?

“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.

But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.

Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.

A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.

At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.

She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”

But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?

Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?

How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?

Who is the new underclass?

I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.

Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.

Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?

To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.

It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.

617231_204306873038735_552840742_oThe figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.

Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.

That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.

But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.

This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?

Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)

I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –

Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.

Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.

*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.

A Photo a Day

I’ve been taking a photo every weekday for the past  1o months. It was part of my mindfulness project.  The original idea was to run the same 2 kilometers – back and forth – each morning, aiming to see something new each time. Thinking I would get to know those 2 kilometers intimately.

I forgot that there would be months when mornings would start before dawn.

IMG_20160124_172320And I didn’t realise that even cultivated landscape changes wildly.

I read once that a sign of maturity is accepting that all things change, abandoning the idea of others as fixed personalities, giving up our need for others as constant footholds: good or bad.

Our lives are only experienced through our stories, and stories unfold, after all. They fold back on themselves with new information. Accepting change, seeking it out, is what keeps us alive. Not young, mind you: alive

– and appreciative of a mature outlook that does not pursue images of fixed identities. I suppose that is a folly of youth. At least it was one folly of mine.


On Sunday, E. and I ran later than usual, and I noticed that they’d cut down the trees in an area that had been flooded the last two months.

He told me they’d cut them weeks ago, but that I hadn’t noticed because we’ve been running in the dark these months.

E. has always liked the dark, the quiet. That’s what he tells me. I wonder about the monsters in his boyhood closet, under his bed. Didn’t he have them?

I’m still growing accustomed to it, this running in the dark. Learning to spot the shining patches and to avoid them: ice on the gravel. I’m learning to pay attention to a closer periphery. Framing the landscape a few feet ahead, behind, watching shadows grow longer and shorter with each lamppost, like sunrises and sunsets caught in frames, sped through like a flip book. A year of the Earth’s turning in twenty-five minutes. A surreal passage of time. Monsters lurk in the shadows: good or bad.

My view limited and expanded, and no photos to show for it. But that is okay; the photography is a tool, not the work.

Now, a new mindfulness project: 10 months of close-ups, to expand my view.




Dirty Laundry

A few years ago I noticed a couple of themes in my photography.

One was laundry lines. In Genova, Jerusalem, Dakar, Bishkek, Kyoto, Grand Canaria…


At first I thought it a bit odd that I was traveling to all these wonderful places, and coming  home with photos of people’s laundry hanging out to dry. But then I realised why it speaks to me: this simple fact of life. Universal.

And something my grandmother, in her 1950s mindset, thought was uncivilised. She had an electric clothes dryer, so there was no need for the neighbours to see her cotton underpants.

But what could be a more concrete evidence of civilisation than laundry lines?

For the record, I don’t think Adam and Eve donned clothing out of shame, but because they ate from the tree of knowledge and longed for beauty.

My grandmother never wanted to travel.

That was a shame.



Accepting Your Voice

1097238_212107699126826_4656109205615645961_o… or mine.

I used to be very proud of my voice. I made a bit of money reading books for audio tapes in high school. For a few years I did the voice-over work for the training programs for the oil industry. But what is beautiful in one language isn’t always beautiful in another.

Only recently I realised – and I can tell you the moment I realised it – that sometime, over the course of the last 23 years, I’d become ashamed of my voice.

American: loud, sharp, harsh – cutting into the soft Norwegian melody. My tight vowels can’t reach the full tone of an ø or an æ.

Last week I attended a yoga class lead by an excellent instructor. But she was an American, and her attempts to pronounce the Norwegian sounds grated on my nerves. Whenever she slipped in a English word, I felt my body relax, but when she mispronounced yet another Norwegian word (as most of us will always do), I felt shame creep back into my solar plexus, where it felt at home. Where it has grown accustom.

It is a painful thing to admit to myself.

In so many ways, I love how moving to Norway has changed me. I’ve watched my poetry reflect those changes in metaphor: desert to moorland, sidewalks to stone hedges. I can even accept, sometimes celebrate, the changes that ageing is bringing. But this is different. This is a change that cripples me. It eats at my confidence, and worse, it makes me defensive.

I have a South American friend who is expressive in her voice and her body language, and I loved that, around her, I didn’t have to try to make myself small and quiet (i.e. Norwegian). But when I shared my fear of being “loud” with her, thinking she might also feel this way, she replied that, yes, indeed, I was loud sometimes.

She patted me on the thigh in consolation.

Recently I watched a video about a woman who developed selective mutism after moving from one country to another. I understand that. Still, after 23 years, adults listen to me with half their attention set on correcting my form, only half on comprehending the content of our conversation. It’s humbling. And at times, humiliating. It explains why I avoid social situations more often than I’d like.

And it has affected the voice I have as a writer.

It is time for me to embrace the ugliness of my displaced voice.