Unedited notes from a 2009 notebook part 2: on Poetic Vocation

Cyclical time, how you mock me. Time moves from past to present to future, but it also moves from future to present to past. I’ve gone westward to succulents and packed dust fire-trails and that must mean… that I am again 17 years old, in a saltmisted and sandswept sailor’s grave-yard, Provincetown, overlooking the dunes and the chopped lichen-green high surf with Conor Sullivan, the weekend of the Hurricane, and I say “don’t worry, we’ll sleep under an overturned boat”…

Part of morality is to not be at home in one’s home…

“Poetry is the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another” -Frost

“I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the earnest person altogether obvious. The earnest person would assume I meant nothing, or else came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well, well, well.” -Frost

Pound’s exhortations to the poet- objectivity, and again, objectivity. “Direct treatment of the thing”. Clarity and precision.

the “emotion of art is impersonal”, and “Permanent literature is always a presentation”   -Eliot.

Yeats and ideas of the audience-

“For Yeats, poetry couldn’t exist without an actual, defined audience to ground it. Just what that audience was vacillated in his mind between the peasantry and the aristocracy, from writing “as an Irish writer and with Ireland on my mind”, to writing for an elite international audience, “fit though few”, which is “greater than any nation, for it is made up of chosen persons from all”. At other times he declared that his ideal audience was, respectively, “the town of Sligo”, “Young men between twenty and thirty”, “a few friends for whom one always writes”, and “A man who does not exist,/a man who is but a dream.” -Michael Ryan

“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.” -Hazlitt

The poet as an “unacknowledged legislator of the world”… (Shelley)

Civilization is a “botch”. Poetry can do something about it (?)

“A multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident  which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies…reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonorable melancholy , had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible.” -Wordsworth

Memory and Imagination

Nature

Eliot working in a bank…into his old age…wrote “Waste Land” essentially during a 2 week vacation from his job. Pound trying to fund-raise a little pension so Eliot could quit the bank to write poetry.

the “best thoughts of mechanics and farmers” that “wait unspoken, impatient to be put into shape” (Whitman)…

to go out every day among the people. essentially a Whitmanian research and development methodology for poetics. No ordinary, everyday person, but a poet who, in Yeats’ words, is “never the bundle of accidence and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been re-born as an idea, something intended, complete.”

 

Once, beautiful girls serenaded my blue jeans                                                                                                      in a bar, their faces gathered to splendid                                                                                                          bouquet above a puddle of well-vodka                                                                                                                    on the round linoleum table.                                                                                                                                  There were no stages                                                                                                                                             though there should have been. Instead,                                                                                                                   a dusty couch in the corner where cobwebs                                                                                                       held the pipes as gently as we held each other.                                                                                                     we kissed and intertwined our limbs                                                                                                                       and dozed, our brows together, til first light.

 

the idea of VOCATION.

from Whitman’s “deathbed edition”, 1888:

“I have had my say entirely my own way”…

Whitman’s certainty that America would become a nation of poets and prophets.

The PERSON who has to live the poet’s life, and what he suffers in the service of a grand creative undertaking. Whitman’s anonymous review of his own book, where he says the poems have “fallen stillborn on this country”, and “certainly wrecked the life of their author.”

Why is it considered an inexcusable crime to be Utopian? Particularly post-WWI?

Being a poet is like being a monk of a forgotten order- a druid in the 21st century- keeping knowledge and form alive because you yourself would suffer too much without them.

“Paradoxically, by virtue of the material worthlessness of his product, the poet has a unique chance to become a free agent with a free imagination. He doesn’t have to tack on happy endings or direct his message to urban dwellers between the ages of thirty-four and thirty-nine who make over a hundred thousand dollars per year. Knowing how important it is to have “worthless” art in a market-driven economy, some foundations, endowments, and universities do not want the poet starved into extinction, although the poets they choose to support are not likely to be the ones who challenge the ideological premises by which they themselves exist.” –  Michael Ryan

 

“how can I know what I think, until I see what I say?” -Forster

Eliot- try, as a poet, to look into “a good deal more than the heart…into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and digestive tracts.”

 

to look very hard and very gently at things. observation is a serious activity. observe- towards keeping, for holding. Love desires intimate knowledge and shows itself in close observation. Self-definition as a “believer in total immersion” (Bishop).

Saint Ignatius’ Jesuit meditation formula: Memory, Understanding, Will.

Bishop- showing the break between the object and the mind that perceives the object by using qualifications in the poems, i.e: “It was more like the tipping/of an object toward the light”; “If you could call it a lip”- etc.

“Making something secret gives it value. Indeed, a secret creates in us a sense of interior life” -Sisela Bok

smell of citrus on the warm wind, blowing through a glass door as it swings…

you have to observe something closely before you can render it vividly. The strangeness of identity, of the accident of being human.

“We think in generalities, but live in detail” -Whitehead

a formal exercise is sterile unless it uncovers some rich, unavoidable secret.

“I write the way I do, not because it pleases me, but because no other way pleases me.”-Stevens

Smell of citrus on the warm wind                                                                                                                    blowing through a glass door as it swings                                                                                                              on Labor Day the jobless think that living is a job itself                                                                         awkwardly, opportunity                                                                                                                                          seems to elude all but the traveller                                                                                                                         who casts her lot with Luck

 

“I dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world”-Kunitz

“One of my unshakable convictions has been that poetry is more than a craft, as important as the craft may be: It is a vocation, a passionate enterprise, rooted in human sympathies and aspirations.” -Kunitz

“If it were not for the poet’s dream of perfection, which is the emblem of his life-enhancing art, and which he longs to share with others, generations of men and women would gradually sink into passivity, accepting as their lot second-rate or third-rate destinies, or worse. If one is to be taught submission, in the name of progress or national security, it is redemptive to recall the pride of one (Keats), who averred that his only humility was toward “the eternal being, the principle of beauty, and the memory of great men”.” -Kunitz

The poet is “an embodiment of resistance”-

“resistance against universal apathy, mediocrity, conformity, against institutional pressure to make everything look and become alike- this is why he is so involved with contraries” -Kunitz

“The poet, in the experience of his art, is a WHOLE PERSON, or he is nothing… he is uniquely equipped to defend the worth and power and responsibility of individuals in a world of institutions.” -Kunitz

“The poet speaks to others not only through what he says, but through what he is, his symbolic presence, as though he carried a set of flags reading have a heart, let nothing get by, live at the center of your being. His life instructs us that it is not necessary, or even desirable, for everyone to join the crowds streaming onto the professional or business highway, pursuing the Bitch Goddess.” -Kunitz

POETRY IS A VOCATION INHERENTLY SUBVERSIVE TO CORPORATE IDEOLOGY

“Poets are subversive, but they are not really revolutionaries, for revolutionaries are concerned with changing others, while poets want first of all to change themselves. “-Kunitz

A LIFE OF INTERNAL EXILE IN A SOCIETY BUILT FOR PROFIT AND CONSUMPTION

“We have to fight for our little bit of health. We have to make our living and dying important again. And the living and dying of others. Isn’t that what poetry is about?”-Kunitz

The way you use language is inherently political- even apart from what you are saying. deliberate use of language AS gift. sincere use of language. A way of using language that is meant to share, and not to manipulate. These all challenge the dominant order, and a wide-spread and quite cynical understanding of, quite simply, what language is FOR.

the poets first obligation is survival. No bolder challenge confronts the modern artist than to stay healthy in a sick world.

“To squeeze the slave’s blood out of my veins” -Chekov

Yeats: “gaiety transfiguring all that Dread”

Dickinson: “My business is circumference”

 

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Tao Te Ching and the poems of Yeats. When pressed to re-locate only what I needed, these are the books I carried. the Tao Te Ching because its proven and re-proven truths need constant re-enforcement. There have been times I read it cover-to-cover every morning, and times when I traced and retraced parts of  it on my forearms for easy reference. I have found it too easy when afraid or full of lust to let these truths fall by the way. 

Yeats because my courage comes from him- his book a well of defiance and fearless craft. I must have it near to lower the bucket into when I’m parched. Whenever I think, briefly, that it’s useless to keep striving for intangible ends, he reminds me, as no-one else can, of vocation. That the poet is somebody, that what I do is necessary. Firefighters and Doctors save lives- so do poets. How many times has a writer long dead sent a sentence- a heroic combination of WORDS- into the burning house of my being, and rescued me, from one kind of death or another? How many times has a poem sewed up my gaping wounds and soothed insistent pain?

 

 

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