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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

02 MARCH, 2015

89 Clouds: Miraculously Beautiful Poetry and Painting about Clouds and Everything They Mean

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“Clouds are thoughts without words…”

Scientists may now be able to tell us how a cloud keeps the weight of 100 elephants in the air and even to demonstrate the psychology of why cloudy days help us think more clearly, but there is something eternally elusive about the immaterial mesmerism of clouds — something, perhaps, which only the poet and the artist can access. (And, most of all, the ultimate poet-artist: Joni Mitchell.)

In 1999, Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand, a man of enormous wisdom on the heartbeat of creative work, and artist Wendy Mark teamed up on a most unusual collaboration: a miracle of a book titled 89 Clouds (public library) — a single poem composed of eighty-nine numbered reflections on the atmospheric phenomena that have tickled the human imagination since the dawn of our species, alongside the artist’s subtle and breathtaking paintings of clouds.

The poem stretches between the poignant and the playful, the cryptic and the profound, the meditative and the mirthful. It projects onto clouds, once the screen of children’s simple fantasies, the complex preoccupations of an adult reality — our anxieties, our loves and losses, our longing for grace, our restless pursuit of self-transcendence. In Strand’s carefully crafted words one finds, if one is looking, beautiful and poignant metaphors for the human experience — for relationships, for self-doubt, for the maps of our interior worlds, for the fleeting flash of existence we call a life.

Strand — who started out as a visual artist and studied under the great Josef Albers — writes mesmeric lines like:

1. A cloud is never a mirror

2. Words about clouds are clouds themselves

3. If snow falls inside a cloud, only the cloud knows

Some seem at first silly, but like Gertrude Stein’s love letters to language and meaning, become more and more beautiful, more and more sapient, with each reading:

5. A cloud dreams only of triangles

20. Clouds are thoughts without words

Some weave alternative mythologies, the fanciful stories with which ancient folklore explained the unfathomable facets of the natural world:

12. If a parrot is lost in a cloud, it turns into a rainbow

13. Clouds are drawn by invisible birds

In some, Strand’s elegant precision cuts straight to heart of love and longing, and simply takes the breath away:

13. Clouds are in love with horizons

18. The cloud that was gone would never come back

35. Every lake desires a cloud

Some are ingenious play with language:

25. A cloud without you is only a clod

Clouds are also spaces for experience:

52. A cloud is a cathedral without belief

54. A cloud is mansion without corners

55. A cloud lit from within is somebody’s study

Some are pleasurably mischievous and lyrical at once:

67. Clouds cannot see what we do under the umbrella

80. A poet looks at a cloud the way a man looks at a shrub

89 Clouds is the kind of book so deeply rewarding to hold and behold, to read and reread — a “calming object, held in the hand,” to borrow Maira Kalman’s perfect phrase — that no pixel or prose can do it justice. Although it is long out of print, surviving copies are findable and more than worth the search.

For more of Mark Strand’s subtle and electrifying genius, see his moving reflection on the artist’s task of bearing witness to the universe.

Thanks, Liz

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09 FEBRUARY, 2015

Mary Oliver on a Life Well Lived and How to Be Fully Alive

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“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?”

Few are those whose contribution to humanity — be it art, or music, or literature, or some other enchantment — fills the heart with uncontainable gratitude for their very existence. Mary Oliver — one of the greatest poets of all time, and perhaps the greatest of our time — is one such blessing of a writer. She, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, has made a supreme art of bearing witness to our world — be it in her exquisite poems, or in the prose of that moving remembrance of her soul mate, or in her meditations on the craft of poetry itself.

In her immensely rewarding recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — triply magical because Oliver rarely gives interviews, and never ones this dimensional and revealing — she read several of her most beloved poems. While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.

Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.

THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Complement the immeasurably wonderful Blue Horses with Oliver on what attention really means and what dogs teach us about the meaning of our human lives, then treat yourself to the full On Being conversation below and be sure to subscribe to Tippett’s consistently ennobling gift to the world.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

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28 JANUARY, 2015

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

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“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

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