Good morning, Carolee!

I’m sitting down to write a bit late this morning. The old lady is here, and that means I used extra time to walk her this morning. It rained last night, and the road was a sheet of ice. We walked slowly. The world was still inky, and the sparkling asphalt was disorienting.  I lose depth perception looking at the “stars”. Maybe this is nature’s  compensation since the sky is overcast?

Seems every year this sneaks up on me: Advent. But, reading your letter, I had wondered that the farm animals were still out where you are. I haven’t seen a cow in weeks here. Yesterday we got into the car after the run and our breath fogged the windshield, then froze. We scraped it and made it snow inside the car.

It takes extra effort to keep running in this kind of weather. The bedroom is cold in the mornings, and it’s difficult to pull myself out of it. Also, my stupidity in wearing the wrong winter shoes the past two weeks has wreaked havoc on my knee. I’m off running for a few days, to do the balancing exercises each morning. I have lazy gluts. Literally: a lazy ass.

You asked about synchronicity. Yes. And I’m actually guilty of magic thinking now and then, too. Last weekend I interviewed a woman for the podcast (one that will air next month), and she was talking about how the poetry community was small and everyone knows one another other. She didn’t know me. Nor I her. After the interview we chatted briefly about why we write, why we seek to publish when we aren’t going to be rich or famous. I said that I do it because, on a rare occasion, I get a letter out of the blue from someone who was touched by my writing. Someone that I connected with through my writing.

Later that night, feeling disconnected and discouraged because the “poetry community” is small and “every one knows one other”, and  I wondered if I was lying to myself about why I write.

The next morning I woke to a unexpected message from a tenuous connection on Facebook: someone who’d read one of my books and reached out to tell me what it meant to them.

I wasn’t lying to myself. But I had to put the question into the universe – and got an answer: a verification. Synchronicity. Magic Thinking. Who knows: it does matter, though. Doesn’t it?  We find meaning where we find it. I’m grateful for that.

I love what you said about the farm animals and their collective wisdom: how you didn’t need to turn it into a lesson for humanity. I was thinking about when I took my MA and Ted Deppe told me to just let the fox be the fox, (I think he was paraphrasing W.S. Merwin?). I was working too hard at interpreting everything for everyone, instead of just holding up a frame for readers to isolate and find meaning themselves. I can be a pedant.

I’m thinking now that maybe this kind of “letting it be” is the key to not writing sentimental poetry? Or kitsch. To let the reader’s appreciation, the poet’s attention speak for itself? Maybe no metaphor needs to be intellectualized to be understood? It makes me think about food photos, and selfies and the real value – maybe even the impulse – for our cultural compulsion to Istagram the details of our lives?

When it doesn’t slide into kitsch, that is.

I read a great definition of kitsch as being the product of two tears: one for the experience, one for the self-congratulatory awareness for having the experience. (Denis Dutton expounding upon Milan Kundera’s definition).

I think, as a poet, sometimes it’s difficult for me to stop myself from wandering towards that second tear. Does that mean kitsch is a product of the ego? Or just insecurity? Is it a sign of faithlessness in regard to the world itself being enough?

What I’m getting at, is the haibun-writing is making me conscious of my own intrusion into the poem. The over-wrought lines I keep writing and deleting. There is a necessary wu wei in nature writing, isn’t there?

I hope that, by the time you read this, you will have let your body lead you out of this post-election hurt. You wrote: “I’m extremely uncomfortable in it, but when I put it in motion (through sex, running, hiking, etc.), it takes vulnerability in stride far easier than my mind does.”

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My second year students, sending love because I asked them to.

Activism. Isn’t the actor then so entangled with the cause that self-care is really not an option, but a requisite? You said it: the body overcomes vulnerability before the mind does.

Have you begun writing again?

Last week, I learned that some of my students consider themselves “Trump supporters”. It surprised me, because most Norwegians are quiet about their right-leaning attitudes.

It freaked me out, actually.

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of langauge”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowell, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body. Our stories infect us as self-fulfilling prophecies. Last week I found a piece of paper on which a student had been practicing drawing swastikas. Right alongside bunny rabbits.

We’re obligated to be activists.

I get an image of Anne Sullivan tracing and retracing the letters into Hellen Keller’s hand. Suddenly all those photos with teenagers making hearts with their hands don’t seem silly at all.

Looking forward to hearing from you!
XO Ren


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

 

 

 

 

“I cannot write – and I ought not.”
– Dorothea Lynde Dix, in a letter to her friend George Barrell Emerson

Dear D.L.D.,

I’ve been thinking of you, and your “no-thing disease”. I’ve been thinking about your conscious decision to avoid writing poetry during your no-thing seasons, while I find myself writing through mine.

I can only guess, but I’m assuming those were the times when the world was too thin, and you knew a single word could pierce deep enough to empty you. But you did write. Letters, at least.

In Norwegian, there’s a descriptor: kontaktsøkende. Literally translated, it means “contact-seeking”. In use, it means needy – with all the negative connotations. I hear teachers describe students as kontaktsøkende, with an air of judgement and (ironically) dismissal. I’ve heard them use the word in reference to colleagues, too. And I’ve wondered if they’ve used it to describe me when I’ve been frank and intense in conversations. (I get called “intense” a lot.)

The term disturbs me, in the best sense of the word. I’ve been in need of contact often in my life for a myriad of reasons, and I’ve always felt ashamed. You were described in this way, though obviously not with the Norwegian word. But as needy. And people advised you to be “less candid” in your correspondence with them. Is it horrible for me to say I was relieved when I read that? It eased my feelings shame just a bit.

11161336_843427735712924_913401089575855313_nRecently it came to light in a discussion, that someone I care about thought being “depressed” was wallowing in self-pity. They didn’t understand that it’s easier to tell a friend that you feel unlovable than to admit that you are afraid you may not be capable of loving. That you are useless.

I know that was your greatest fear, to be useless in regard to your talents. You were afraid to let God down. I’ve often wondered if you felt that God had let you down?

Need is misunderstood, and pity is a miserly response that leads to resentment. Or else it is understood, along with the realization that there’s nothing that anyone can do to relieve another person’s need. That also leads to resentment.

Another Norwegian phrase: “folk har nok med sitt“: people have enough on their plates. I think most often it’s used to illustrate that people are selfish. But people are also kind and generous, and overwhelmed. No doubt, if you might have tolerated me at all, we would have quickly grown weary of each other in a no-thing season.

I believe there’s a primal, unconscious fear of people whose emotional needs are obvious. There’s the mistrust: if no one else has been there for that person, there must be something wrong with them. And there’s the gut knowledge that loneliness is contagious, I guess. Monkeys shy away from the shunned and the injured, and so do most of us.

I think it’s a matter of  learning how to attend to our needs obliquely.

I wonder if you realize how well you did that? I mean, once you found  your voice in speaking on the behalf of others. All the good you did in the world, the difference you made in people’s lives was born of your need to “express yourself” (a phrase that I think is a poor replacement for a more accurate “make yourself visible”). Although your work was born of that need, but it wasn’t an expression of the need itself. Your needy poetry informed those masterful orations in a way nothing else could have.

“The process of writing was important. Even though the finished product is meaningless.”
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore.

During times like this, I look to you. I don’t stop myself from writing, but I’m conscious of the need. I find the writing therapeutic. Didn’t you? Maybe you weren’t entirely truthful? (You weren’t always.)  Maybe you were writing poetry, but knew better than to share it with anyone. Maybe you’d learned not to place demands on the people you wrote to. After all: letters, poems, and stories should be gifts, not the assignment of obligations.

I have a small notebook of poems I wrote in high school: angry, hurt, resentful voices. Only one was written from a place of defiance and strength. I believe I needed to write through all the others to get to that poem; to be able to acknowledge myself, be visible to myself, before I could move on and communicate with the world. But our lives aren’t linear are they?

Sometimes I think of it as simple stitching. Running over and under the “right side” of the garment. But it all holds together in the end, doesn’t it?

We accept our seasons. Or try to.

I’m struggling with writer’s block. It isn’t that I can’t write. I’m writing a lot. But I have nothing to give at the moment, from this no-thing place. I’m not sure whether I would even be having these thoughts on the subject if it weren’t for having read yours. As uncomfortable as these thoughts are, I guess I should thank you.

Respectfully,
Ren

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

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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.