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.


 

“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.

IMG_20151201_161947I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.

It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.

Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.

I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.

I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?

After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.

The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.

I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.

What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)

I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.

I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.

 

received_1027144970649322Listening to On Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.

If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”

The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.

Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.

I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.

The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?

It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?

I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.

The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).

If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.

Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.

But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And  I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.

There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:

“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”

We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.

There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.

These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”

I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.

But I think we are all wrong.

I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.

It’s an inspiring project.

 

 

 

I was over forty when my grandmother said, “You didn’t have an easy childhood.”

20150620_154629It was the first time she’d admitted it. She was edging around the perimeter of what was unspoken between us for nearly twenty years. Her daughter. My mother.

It could be that, at her age, she was facing her  the guilt of her own complicity. It could be that, at my age, she figured I would have experienced enough complexity in life, and could understand that love almost always entails a choice between two kinds of pain.

Maybe she said it because it was finally safe to do so; finally safe to believe I wouldn’t use her compassion to prop up my self-esteem, label myself a victim, and cultivate my own warm, little martyrdom.

Maybe her coldness, and her trivialising all those years were based on a kind of hard wisdom. A shove towards something better. I can’t know.

It still makes me happy that she said that. She acknowledged what we had in common, a childhood that “wasn’t easy”, and a necessary strength.

“You sound like you’re just next door. I wish you where here,” she’d say often, and then she’d always follow up with, “No. I don’t really. You’re better off where you are.”

A few years later, she no longer recognised my voice on the phone. I lost her before the rest of her family lost her. I learned of her death via Facebook.

I didn’t go to her funeral. She wouldn’t have liked that: “You’re better off where you are.” Pain is unavoidable, but there is no reason to court it. My grandmother was a practical woman.

“Honey, you know I love you, but, most of the time, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

We had little, and everything, in common.

I miss her. Though I will never be certain of how well I knew her. There were stories in those later years: told in fragments, like a surreal soap opera, an episode a week, two hours each Sunday. She told me about her husbands, about being a single mother of four in the 40s, about her complex relationship with her sister, and how she never forgave her mother.

She had stories about my mother and my father. About what came before what was never spoken, the big, black swath in my life that matched the big, black swath in hers. She never picked at wounds, but seemed to have found a way to walk away from them. Something I’m not always willing to do, to leave parts of myself behind like that. Lies of omission.

There were barriers. I don’t recall her ever hugging me when I was in pain. Our most intimate moments were over the phone once I was an adult and living overseas. Once I was a mother, myself. But what made it through the barriers was real. That’s what matters: taking what you get, and being grateful.

I have yet to write her eulogy. My story is too entwined with hers still: reflections through generations, like repeating images in facing mirrors. But now there’s empty space. It’s a good thing. A painfully good thing, like love always is.