Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Poem About Poems

Like an Ant Carrying Her Bits of Leaf or Sand
        by Jane Hirshfield

Like an ant carrying her bits of leaf or sand,
the poem carries its words.
Moving one, then another, into place.

Something in an ant is sure where these morsels belong,
but the ant could not explain this.
Something in a poem is certain where its words belong,
but the poet could not explain this.

All day the ant obeys an inexplicable order.
All day the poet obeys an incomprehensible demand.

The world changes or does not change by these labors;
the geode peeled open gives off its cold scent or does not.
But that is no concern of the ant's, of the poem's.

The work of existence devours its own unfolding.
What dissolves will dissolve —
you, reader, and I, and all our quick angers and longings.
The potato's sugary hunger for growing larger.
The unblinking heat of the tiger.

No thimble of cloud or stone that will not vanish,
and still the rearrangements continue.

The ant's work belongs to the ant.
The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Creativity, and the Safety of the Mind

            If you look at the top of this page, you will note that the subtitle of this blog — what I am taking as my mission statement, I suppose — is "on the life of the mind."
            It's an old phrase, one I came across when I was much younger, and I also discovered upon a search for the phrase that Hannah Arendt wrote a book by that title.  Which is appropriate, because I have a conflicted relationship with Hannah Arendt, and I like those things best with which I have a conflicted relationship.
            But for the moment, I want to talk about creativity, the mind, and safety.  I think I had creativity as one of the topics up for discussion on this blog, and I haven't gotten there much yet.  I recently finished Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and I've decided to take her chapter titles as a (very, very loose) guideline for some posts on creation and being an artist.

            We all hear common threads in how various artists, poets, actors, dancers, composers, and other creative folks describe the creative process for them.  My process is, for better or for worse, violently connected to my intellect.  I have emotional responses to many simple pleasures, yes, but ecstasy rarely comes without intense intellectual exercise.  (Though the times when it does are glorious.)
            So the life of the mind is my life, or the one I am called to at least.  There is much heart here, as well, something some exponents of literature and art would doubt.  I've heard every insult that can be hurled at James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and Robert Browning and Thomas Mann and all the rest of the dead white males who were nonetheless brilliant dead white males.  To those who find their work overly-intellectual, demanding too broad a sweep of knowledge of classical myth and literature, I can only say — for God's sake don't read them.  Don't read them, since it obviously causes you pain, and the time I spend listening to you could be better spent reading Kant.  That's right:  Kant.  Even Kant would be better than people insulting the things I love.
            Which succinctly brings me to my larger point:  reading and writing and thinking have, since I was a child, been a retreat from the world of people.
            Recently I joined a philosophy discussion group, which has made me even more conscious of how intensely introverted I really am.  Everyone in the group, I think, is under the impression that I am quiet.  Suffice to say, I am not quiet.  What I am is abjectly terrified.  There are PEOPLE, for goodness' sake, and they're TALKING TO ME, and they want me to actually ENGAGE with them when we've only just met (albeit months ago), and I cannot understand why I didn't stay home with a book and a glass of wine.
            Add to this the fact that I was bullied when I was a kid, and that I grew up in a culture that has no idea whatsoever to do with poets and artists.  The safe place was in books.  In murder mysteries, where things cleared up simply and tidily.  In Wordsworth and Lewis and Shakespeare and Yeats' Ireland and the Grimms' Germany.  I know many people recognize this use of literature:  escape.  Escape from the rich kids rolling their eyes at my too-short pants; escape from the girls who accused me of a sexual precocity/anxiety they apparently recognized before I did; escape from the boys who tortured animals and found me more friendly-looking than all the other kids; escape from the religion that I loved and feared in equal parts.
            If anyone reading this can relate, it is because we are among those who almost can't help but be carried away by books.  Images, stories, romances, deaths, and the gorgeous, sumptuous words roiling through your brain.  And all without running any real risk!  This is so safe!  A safe, comforting retreat.
            Recently a friend and I went out for dinner and talked about how various people in our lives have affected our creativity.  Family, friends, enemies, lovers, teachers...  One of the most useful discoveries I've ever made about being an artist came in 2010 when I tried to do the Artist's Way the first time.  It all hinged on the word "weird."  I realized that whenever I started to write something, and I didn't know where it was going, and I didn't like where it looked like it was going, the phrase "that's weird" would pop into my head, and away went the project.  My friend and I discussed this and many other discoveries we've made along the way of being writers, and we also talked about how we tended to use literature as a way of escaping the pains of social interaction and intrusion.  When suddenly my friend exclaimed, "But if those voices from family and teachers and whoever are in there saying 'This is too weird,' or 'This is too sexual,' or 'This is too intellectual,' or whatever, then how safe is your mind, really?"
            Which is to say, not at all.  I hate drawing oversimplified comparisons to current events about which I know little, but the recent shootings in Newtown, Massachusetts demonstrate accurately just how unsafe the mind can be.  Families with suicides can tell you.  So can addicts, or just folks with a good old-fashioned guilt complex.
            It's scary in there, the mind.  Full of the past.  Full of fears, both well- and ill-founded.  Full of loathing and nausea and so, so grasping.  Full of...well, you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Before the Words

            I watched Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette back in November.  I was so taken I actually bought it (something that almost never happens) and re-watched the movie.  There are many things to love about Coppola's work in this film, but chief among them, I think, is her ability to tell a story "before" a script.
            What I mean by this is that most filmmakers need the script in order to tell the story.  I'm sure if you watched most movies with the sound off, you would understand the story arc fairly well (we will exclude super-artsy Criterion Collection-type stuff for the moment).  But this is for two reasons which are not flattering to filmmakers:  one, we are visual creatures and love images; and two, there are only a few stories that keep getting retold, and even fewer in American movies, so as long as they didn't tell a completely nonsense tale, we'll get the gist of what happened.
            Coppola offers far more in Marie Antoinette.  Before the words (and I'm drawing a distinction between "script," which I think of as the whole conceptual storyline, and spoken words or lines), there is Coppola's movie.  There is Marie Antoinette, her eternal boredom and cluelessness, both of which she was clearly bred up for.  There is the fumbling and blandly endearing Louis XVI.  Marie's sexual frustration at the inept hands of her husband, and eventual passion with Count Fersen.  The necessity of producing a male heir, and her social stigmatization up until that feat was accomplished.  And of course, court politics assert themselves over and over again, far more, in fact, than the actual politics of France.
            "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure."  In the opening of the film, Gang of Four's lyrics tell you quite clearly the central problem of Marie's life.  It sounds like a joke problem — "Oh, how awful for you dear, so much money and no idea how to spend it" — but by the end of the film her life looked miserable to me, and not because of how it ended.  As in Lost in Translation, there are long, beautiful scenes which might very well lack words altogether, and Coppola has told you the story perfectly.
            It's been a long time since I saw it, but in Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography, I remember some discussion about the ability to tell a story without words, before talkies came along.  Coppola, of course, doesn't deserve sole credit; Lance Acord, her cinematographer for both Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation has a not-too-shabby list of credits to his name as well.  But I guess the point I want to make is that Coppola gives us a whole piece.  Not just a bunch of actors acting; not just a bunch of well-put-together scenes; and not even just a bunch of pretty pictures.  Her movies — from their soundtracks to their acting, from their cinematography to their lines, and even the post-production decisions — are of a piece.  One, lovely, consistent whole.