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The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in lamenting the artist’s struggle at a time “when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.” We no longer have Baldwin to awaken us to the gravest perils of our own era — one in which the poetic spirit isn’t merely neglected but is being forced to surrender at gunpoint. To produce poets, in this largest Baldwinian sense of creative seers of human truth, seems to be among the most urgent tasks of our time.

The mastery of that task is what the poet Jane Hirshfield examines in her 1997 essay collection Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library).

Defining poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” she writes: “Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.” In the superb opening essay, titled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Hirshfield examines the nature of this clarified, magnified deepening of being — concentration as consecration — by probing its six main components: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Although focused on the reading and writing of poetry, her insight ripples outward in widening circles (as Rilke might say) to encompass every kind of writing, all art, and even the art of living itself.

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)
Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Nick Rozsa)

Hirshfield writes:

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, form the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

Considering the unparalleled pleasures of practicing familiar to all who endeavor in the “absorbing errand” of creative work, particularly to those who attain mastery, Hirshfield points to deliberate practice as an essential aspect of concentration — one that transcends mechanical skill and reaches into the psychological, even the spiritual:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk
Illustration by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a 9th-century ode to the joy of uncompetitive purposefulness

With an eye to the obsessive daily routines and strange creative rituals of many writers, and to the state of intense focus in the creative act known as “flow,” Hirshfield explores the path to concentration:

Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we sill feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

A century after Rilke extolled the soul-expanding power of difficulty and urged us to “arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult,” Hirshfield writes:

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration — expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: “For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river — / Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for a special edition of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Nietzsche’s insistence that a full life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty and Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for the reality-enlarging quality of contradiction, Hirshfield adds:

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius “not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.” Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance — a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Hirshfield turns to the role of language in concentration and the role of concentration in language, in writing, in poetry itself:

Great sweeps of thought, emotion, and perception are compressed to forms the mind is able to hold — into images, sentences, and stories that serve as entrance tokens to large and often slippery realms of being… Words hold fast in the mind, seeded with the surplus of beauty and meaning that is concentration’s mark.

More than a century after William James asserted that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” in his seminal theory of how our bodies affect our feelings, Hirshfield examines the dimensions of time and space in language through the focusing lens of the body:

Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time.

But it also lives in the moment, in us. Emotion, intellect, and physiology are inseparably connected in the links of a poem’s sound. It is difficult to feel intimacy while shouting, to rage in a low whisper, to skip and weep at the same time.

Well before scientists came to study how repetition beguiles the brain, Hirshfield considers the enchantment of rhythmic regularity. In a passage that calls to mind pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s notion of “effective surprise” as the pillar of creativity, she describes the affective surprise at the heart of every great work of art:

A regular returning in one dimension can bring unexpected turns in another: hunting a rhyme, the mind falls on a wholly surprising idea. This balancing between expected and unforeseen, both in aesthetic and cognitive structures, is near the center of every work of art. Through the gate of concentration, defining yet open, both aspects enter.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Hirshfield examines the role of rhetoric as a gatekeeper of concentration:

Before we can concentrate easily, we need to know where we stand. This is the work of rhetoric… Traditionally defined as the art of choosing the words that will best convey the speaker’s intent, rhetoric’s concern is the precise and beautiful movement of mind in language.

In a sentiment of exceeding timeliness today — one that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s masterwork on lying in politics and Aldous Huxley’s lamentation of our mistrust of sincerity — Hirshfield adds:

Americans distrust artful speech, believing that sincerity and deliberation cannot coexist… Romantic temperament … equates spontaneity and truth. But the word art is neighbor to artifice, and in human culture, as in the animal and vegetable worlds, desirability entails not only the impulse of the moment but also enchantment, exaggeration, rearrangement, and deception. We don’t find the fragrance of night-scented flowering tobacco or the display of a peacock’s tail insincere — by such ruses this world conducts its erotic business. To acknowledge rhetoric’s presence in the beauty of poems, or any other form of speech, is only to agree to what already is.

In another thought cast at poetry but ablaze with truth about all art and about life itself, Hirshfield observes:

To be aware of a poem’s effects … requires only our alert responsiveness, our presence to each shift in the currents of language with an answering shift in our being… at a level closer to daydream. But daydream with an added intensity: while writing, the mind moves between consciousness and the unconscious in the effortless effort of concentration. The result, if the poet’s intensity of attention is sufficient, will be a poem that brims with its own knowledge, water trembling as if miraculously above the edge of a cup. Such a poem will be perfect in the root sense of the word: “thoroughly done.”

Daydreaming is indeed an apt analogy, for the making of poetry — as, again, the making of all art — radiates from a communion of the conscious and the unconscious, a more wakeful counterpart to that “something nameless” which Mark Strand elegized in his sublime ode to dreams. Hirshfield captures this beautifully:

Making a poem is neither a wholly conscious activity nor an act of unconscious transcription — it is a way for new thinking and feeling to come into existence, a way in which disparate modes of meaning and being may join. This is why the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

This dreamlike aspect comes most fully alive in one of poetry’s great powers — phanopoeia, the making of images. Hirshfield writes of the poetic image:

The deepest of image’s meanings is its recognition of our continuity with the rest of existence: within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illuminate one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen. Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both.

But in bridging inner reality with the outer world, Hirshfield argues, this halfway house of transcendence brings home something even larger, even more monumental:

Poetry moves consciousness toward empathy.

Intelligence and receptivity are connected — human meaning is made by seeing what is… The outer world can be transformed by a subjectively infused vision; inner event placed into the language of the physical takes on an equally mysterious addition.

A powerful poetic image, Hirshfield suggests, both wrests truth out of reality and confers truth upon it:

In a good image, something previously unformulated (in the most literal sense) comes into the realm of the expressed. Without precisely this image, we feel, the world’s store of truth would be diminished; and conversely, when a writer brings into language a new image that is fully right, what is knowable of existence expands.

[…]

Thinking within the fields of image, the mind crosses also into the knowledge the unconscious holds — into the shape-shifting wisdom of dream. Poetic concentration allows us to bring the dream-mind’s compression, displacement, wit, depth, and surprise into our waking minds. It is within dreamlife we first learn to read rain as grief, or the may that a turtle’s walking may speak of containment and an awkward, impeccable fortitude.

But the aspect of concentration perhaps most widely relevant beyond poetry is that of narrative — our supreme hedge against the entropy of existence. Hirshfield writes:

Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require — it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the manny levels of the self.

[…]

Story remains a basic human path toward the discovery and ordering of meaning and beauty.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books

Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s abiding wisdom on how imaginative storytelling expands our repertoire of possibilities, Hirshfield adds:

Story, at its best, becomes a canvas to which the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions.

[…]

Narrative carries the knowledge of our alteration through the shifting currents of circumstance and time.

Narrative’s essential counterpart is voice — the waveform of the soul in writing. Hirshfield writes:

A person’s heard voice is replete with information. So it is with the voice of a poem.

[…]

Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is. Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use? The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves. Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.

In the essay’s closing passages, Hirshfield once again captures a central truth about poetry that sets free a larger truth about life itself — about the limits of attention, about the relationship between what is known and what is knowable, about the nature of transformation, about the perennial incompleteness of being. She writes:

No matter how carefully we read or how much attention we bring to bear, a good poem can never be completely entered, completely known. If it is the harvest of true concentration, it will know more than can be said in any other way. And because it thinks by music and image, by story and passion and voice, poetry can do what other forms of thinking cannot: approximate the actual flavor of life, in which subjective and objective become one, in which conceptual mind and the inexpressible presence of things become one.

Letting this wideness of being into ourselves, as readers or as writers, while staying close to the words themselves, we being to find in poems a way of entering both language and being on their own terms. Poetry leads us into the self, but also away from it. Transparency is both capacious and focused. Free to turn inward and outward, free to remain still and wondering amid the mysteries of mind and world, we arrive, for a moment, at a kind of fullness that overspills into everything. One breath taken completely; one poem, fully written, fully read — in such a moment, anything can happen. The pressed oil of words can blaze up into music, into image, into the heart and mind’s knowledge. The lit and shadowed placed within us can be warmed.

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry is a small but immensely largehearted book, replete with radiant wisdom on the creative act of composing a life, in poetry or in pulse. Complement it with Hirshfield’s beautiful ode to the leap day, then revisit Mary Oliver on what attention really means, Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit, and great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

BP

The Power of Perception and Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“The day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priority as too trivial.”

The Power of Perception and Critical Imagination: Alfred Kazin on Embracing Contradiction and How the Sacredness of Human Attention Shapes Our Reality

“Reality is what we take to be true,” pioneering physicist David Bohm asserted in 1977. “What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

How our perception shapes our experience of reality, and how that can be a source of power, is what the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998) explored twenty years earlier in a series of entires from Alfred Kazin’s Journals (public library) — an immensely rewarding trove of wisdom in the tradition of the journals of Thoreau, André Gide, Anne Truitt, and Susan Sontag, which endure as a sort of secular scripture and to which I return for comfort, consolation, and emboldenment in trying times.

Radiating from Kazin’s unrelenting introspection is uncommon insight into the human spirit and a willingness to contact, even to embrace, all of its dimensions — the awe and the anguish, the exultant and the exasperating, all of it riding acrest an ebbing undercurrent of imperfection.

Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)
Alfred Kazin, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum)

Three days before his forty-second birthday, Kazin writes:

Trust to the contradictions and see them all. Never annul one force to give supremacy to another. The contradiction itself is the reality in all its manifoldness. Man from his vantage point can see reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know. “Harmony” as an absolute good is for the gods, not for man.

Cautioning against chasing the myth of harmony — a myth advanced, perhaps most famously, by Emerson and woven into the fabric of modern culture in tyrannical ideals like “work/life balance” — Kazin writes:

A thinker (like [Ralph Waldo Emerson]) misleads us as soon as he promotes harmony as the exclusive goal, and especially misleads us when he preaches harmony as a method. Man’s life is full of contradiction and he must be; we see through a glass darkly — we want more than we can have; we see more than we can understand. But a contradiction that is faced leads to true knowledge… Contradictions are on the surface, the symbols of deeper and more fertile forces that can unleash the most marvelous energy when they are embraced. Never try to achieve “order,” sacrifice symmetry — seek to relate all these antagonistic forces, not to let the elimination of one to the other. The idea of “God” as perfect order is perilous to man as an ideal, for us to follow…

"Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite" by Maria Popova
“Everything Exists Simultaneously With Its Opposite” by Maria Popova

The same perilous resistance to contradiction, Kazin observes in another entry penned the following month, is what undergirds our cult of self-improvement. Half a century before the heyday of self-help books and websites, which commodify human life as a problem to be solved rather than a glorious mystery to be savored, he writes:

The other day … I suddenly realized, with a shudder almost … how easy it is to fall into the other-imposed trap of trying endlessly to correct and reform oneself, in accordance with this and that, one’s idea of the right person to be, when all the time, one is not merely “stuck” with oneself, as one is rightly enough, but one suffers from constrictedness, from reaction, from the million-and-one reasons, so boringly personified around one in one’s contemporaries and half-friends and stupid, genteel colleagues, who are always telling us over again that man is bad and sinful!

Kazin’s journal is strewn with this restless search for self-generated sacredness — for a source of goodness and meaning not imposed from without, be it by spiritual mythology or by secular society, but synthesized from within. It comes most acutely alive in an entry penned earlier that year, in which Kazin reflects on Auden’s notion of “sacred objects” — catalysts for awe, which inspire the basic impulse to make art — and writes:

Without worship, without respect, without wonder, without the great work with which our wonder and awe plunge us, what is there — what?

But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which each of us must discover our gods for ourselves. This is why so much in our language reverts to the idea of a fall, a descent. As Satan fell, to rise again as a prince of life, so we fall into this maelstrom, this madness — this world in which nothing any longer is given to us — to discover, in pain and awe, our own sacred objects.

"Under the Third Avenue El" by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)
“Under the Third Avenue El” by Weegee, 1943-1945 (International Center of Photography)

Like those of us who choose to live with what philosopher Erich Fromm termed rational faith in the human spirit, Kazin was a resolute humanist who knew that beauty and goodness don’t merely befall us but come into being in the very act of our looking for them — nowhere more so than when it comes to our fellow human beings. In a diary entry from August of 1957, he contemplates an image by the legendary New York street photographer Weegee — who was doing half a century ago what Humans of New York‘s Brandon Stanton is doing now — and writes:

It is so important to keep the eye glued to the reality of the actual holiness! When I saw those Times Square faces in Weegee’s pictures yesterday, the women with that horrible fat and those indriven eyeglasses, I suddenly saw the beauty of the actual living hour in the human struggle of those faces — and of those faces alone. Somehow only the human being tells the story, only the human breath counts. The honor only the human heart ever knows… And even when the lonely transcendental heart stands poised upon an empty rock looking out to sea, it is this man, this mind, that makes the scene — not the rock and the sea, but the human eye that alone has united them. The human mind alone makes the radius to every point on the circumference, the great wheel on which we ride. The human eye alone unites the world — by perception…

Several weeks later, Kazin revisits the reality-shaping power of perception and suggests that how we choose to perceive the world is a centerpiece of our critical faculty; that a benevolent curiosity about our fellow humans is how we hold on to our own humanity. In an entry from September 28 of 1957, which resounds with remarkable timeliness amid our present cultural and political climate, he writes:

The critical imagination is distinguished by its voracious curiosity.

[…]

This retreat from curiosity, from interest in the outside would as continuously interesting, comes from our lack of politics, our lack of faith in the possibility of change.

That possibility, Kazin argues, must “start from the observer” — from the idea that one cannot “pretend [to be] a disembodied intelligence coolly reading the times.” Echoing Susan Sontag’s timeless assertion that in order to be a good writer and a moral human being one must “pay attention to the world,” Kazin considers yet another contradiction:

The problem, of course, is not to go too far the other way into introversion. And probably the safest path is always to think of the observer as a developing, living, growing agent, so that the self that is engaged in thinking out the world will feel itself growing only as the thoughts grow.

But meanwhile, the day, the living day, the actual moment, the pang of real life, — to be faithful to this, one must always pay attention, one must never dismiss anything a priority as too trivial. Nothing is too trivial, for what the writer may make of it.

“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)
“Summer on the Lower East Side” by Weegee, 1937 (International Center of Photography)

Exactly two months later, he records his joyful surrender to this living, breathing world in an exultant counterpoint to our urban loneliness:

How alive the city is, how alive, how alive, how alive. Each of those windows has someone behind it, each of these streets is a current under my feet. A network of people, a living field — each grass a soul, each grass alive. So let us give thanks after all, and be glad, and rejoice. To be in life with so many people!

Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a tremendously vitalizing read in its six-decade totality. Complement it with Kazin on loneliness, the immigrant experience, and how reading liberates us, then revisit Emerson on how to live with maximum aliveness.

BP

How to Neutralize Haters: E.E. Cummings, Creative Courage, and the Importance of Protecting the Artist’s Right to Challenge the Status Quo

“War and chaos have plagued the world for quite a long time, but each epoch creates its own special pulse-beat for the artists to interpret.”

How to Neutralize Haters: E.E. Cummings, Creative Courage, and the Importance of Protecting the Artist’s Right to Challenge the Status Quo

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” young E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) wrote in his beautiful essay on what it really means to be an artist. He lived this tenet every day, on every line, and spent his entire career defending the basic creative freedom to dismantle the accepted order, the way things have always been done, in order to get to the heart of truth and beauty. Even at the height of his success, his spirit of rebellion was met with resistance so tremendous as to bleed into the absurd — a timeless and vivid caricature of what innovators and creative mavericks have contended with since the first human impulse to make art.

E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)
E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)

In the winter of 1950, this tension between the forces of traditionalist dogma and creative bravery crescendoed when the Academy of American Poets awarded 56-year-old Cummings the annual $5,000 fellowship, conferring upon him both renown and a small fortune equaling about $50,000 in today’s money — a non-negligible sum for any artist, but especially for one devoted to poetry, arguably the least lucrative of the arts, which artists enter (as the Talking Heads might say) “never for money, always for love.”

But among the tragic traits of our individualistic and competitive culture is the impulse to tear down those who rise above the rest by attaining acclaim for their work, especially when there is financial gain. This is precisely what befell Cummings, as evidenced by a series of letters I discovered in the archives of the Academy of American Poets — the astonishing and astonishingly underutilized trove of cultural history that also gave us the acutely timely story of how the creative community stood up for Amiri Baraka when he was brutalized by police in 1968.

Portrait of Marie Bullock by Howard Chandler Christy, 1934
Portrait of Marie Bullock by Howard Chandler Christy, 1934

Shortly after the fellowship announcement, Marie Bullock — the remarkable woman who founded the Academy of American Poets in 1934, when she was only in her twenties — received two specimens of what can best be described as hate mail. Hiding behind the pompous language of the letter writers is an overeducated version of today’s average internet troll, driven by the same psychology that Kierkegaard identified when he contemplated why haters hate in 1847.

Both letters were published in the Winter issue of The Lyric — the oldest American magazine dedicated to formal poetry, founded thirty years earlier in a conservative spirit and known for its antagonism to modernist verse. One, penned on New Year’s Day 1951, came from an elderly Ohio physician named Earl Byrd. (The choice to begin one’s year with cynical bile rather than celebration is perhaps not irrelevant.) Carelessly punctuated and rife with typos, only some of which corrected in pen, the letter emanates an impulsive stroke of self-righteous fury. From snide remarks about Cummings’s visual art to sidewise jabs at James Joyce, this embittered and small-spirited missive is the fraud police personified; the voice of the status quo shrieking that an artist who has dared to innovate and challenge convention must be instantly excommunicated from the pantheon of Art.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings

Byrd writes:

Dear Mrs. Bullock,

I address this bit of comment to you because you are the titular head of the “A.A.P.” I am aware that you, personaly [sic], do not confer these Prizes, possibly do not always concur, but I must present my protest to the official chief of the bund.

Recently the Academy awarded, or sponsored, a $5000 poetry prize to ee cummings. This is the third time in the past five years that an important prize for poetry has been given to a non-poet.

1st; — The notorious Bellingen award for the pathetic mutterings of the paranoid Ezra Pound, then THE PUBLISHER’S NAT’L BOOK AWARD for the amorphous imagery of Carlos Williams, and now the, [sic] “A.A.P.” prize for the disembodied metaphors of Cummings; I had hoped to miss this last, and I am certain I shall not long survive the next, which will probably immortalize Jose Garcia Villas, since it is becoming increasingly apparent that the maverick element has an organized system for winning these prizes.

The story of these awards is a complete breviary of the decline of schismatics, down through skepticism to utter prosodical nihilism.

e e c. is not a poet. I quote

“And there’s a hundred million others,
like all of you successfully if
delicately gelded (or spaded)
gentlemen and (ladies) — pretty
littleliverpill”

The man who could do this even once is not a poet. He was born outside the pale: He is congenitaly [sic] incapable of any excursion into poetry.

I am told that he also paints a little. I am glad to hear this: if any of the seven lively arts must suffer the intrusion of Cummings, let it be painting: I have never been deeply concerned about the destiny of painting.

I am an old man; I take to heart what bits of hope I find, and these public coronations lose half their significance when I remember that while the Pyes and Cibbers were being officially ordained to the Laureateship, the real poets of England were lovingly, though obscurely, building the great temple of English poetry, and there are other consolations, not the least of which is right in your own bailiwick, I mean the enthusiastic response to the “LYRIC” and “THE LYRIC FOUNDATION” made possible by the devoted philanthropy of Virginia Kent Cummins, your 5th. ave. Neighbor.

So it seems to me our American poetry may be on the mend, and indeed, now that the stench of the maggoty putresence [sic] of James Joyce has about blown out of the world, I can sometimes think that the whole body of English literature is looking up a bit.

Please give my regards to the six dissenting members of the panel that judged the Cummings book;

God bless you merry gentlemen,
May nothing you dismay.

M.E. Byrd, M.D.

P.S. I was not a contestant for the prize

Byrd's letter (left) and the first page of Coblentz's letter (right)
Byrd’s letter (left) and the first page of Coblentz’s letter (right)

The other letter, written sixteen days earlier, came from Stanton A. Coblentz — a minor poet, prolific writer of questionable science fiction, and editor at a California publication called Wing, which dubbed itself “The House of Distinguished Poetry.”

Coblentz — who repeatedly misspells the Academy’s founder’s name and, in his spirited mockery, misquotes Cummings’s verses without so much as bothering to heed the poet’s intended spelling and punctuation — writes:

Dear Mrs. Bulloch [sic]:

I was appalled to read today, in the letter of an equally appalled correspondent, that the Academy of American Poets has joined the list of those who are making a butt and a mockery of American poetry, who are rewarding the scoffers at art and beauty and the uprooters of cultural values, and who are doing their best to undermine the basis of literature at the same time as they stultify themselves and hold themselves up to everlasting shame and contempt.

By this I refer, of course, to your award of a $5000 prize for poetry to that arch-poseur and pretender, that disintegrator of language and mumbler of indecent nonsense who commonly signs himself “e e cummings.” I take it that you believe that utterances such as the following deserve the recognition of an outstanding poetic award:

        F is for a foetus (a

        punkslapping
        mobsucking
        gravypissing poppa but
        who just couldn’t help it no

        matter how hard he never tired) the

and:

        (im)c-a-t(mo)
        FallelA
        pa: fl
        Oattumbll

        sh? dr
        IftwhirlF
        (Ul) (lY)
        &&&

It is needless to defile this unoffending sheet of good white paper by repeating more; these are typical of cummings’ latest book, “seventy-one poems,” and typical of much of his work — and not even the most shameless of it.

Such work is not poetry by any conceivable standard. Such work is inchoate, perverse, vicious when it is not merely meaningless. Such work represents the sad effluvia of an addled mind. And I do not hesitate to state unqualifiedly that any mind that in all sincerity accepts such work as poetry is also addled. And the mind that accepts such work as poetry, but does not do so in all sincerity, is worse addled; it is corrupt.

I state this, Mrs. Bulloch [sic], not on a burst of passion, but as the considered result of many years of experience, in which I have seen the frauds and the perverters of values rising more and more to the foreground and gradually usurping the place of those who are honestly working for poetry. If I have spoken severely, it is because I believe that severe speaking is the one thing left to bring back some semblance of fair play and fair thought to persons and organizations supposedly charged with helping poetry. Your Academy of Poetry, if I may dare to say so, represents a magnificent opportunity. And what are the sponsors of that opportunity doing with it. They are doing far, far worse than to throw away your thousands of dollars. They are using thousands of dollars to light the faggots whereby to burn poetry at the stake.

It may be late in the day; but I assure you that, though the smoke even now is making an unholy stench, I shall spare no effort to raise an outcry against this sacrilege. And I believe I know others who will do likewise.

Yours in sorrow,

Stephen A. Coblentz

Coblentz, needless to point out, is entirely forgotten. Cummings is Cummings.

Page from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings

But the point here isn’t merely that haters will always hate — after all, they didn’t spare F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marie Curie, and even a beloved Zen master. The point — the heartening ending of the story — is what happened next.

On January 13, a man ten years Cummings’s junior named Alex Jackinson, founder of the Alex Jackinson literary agency and a great lover of poetry, addressed Coblentz and Byrd jointly in a three-page letter of uncommon rhetorical genius — a searing defense not only of Cummings, not only of poetry, but of all art and, above all, of the artist’s right and even the artist’s responsibility to break with tradition and continually conquer new frontiers of creativity.

Alex Jackinson's letter
Alex Jackinson’s letter

Jackinson writes:

Dear Stanton A. Coblentz and Doctor Earl Byrd;

With the Winter issue of The Lyric, I received copies of letters sent by you to Mrs. Hugh Bullock, raking her over the coals for the Academy of American Poets award to e e cummings. I was not happy about the award, either. Personally, I would have bestowed the laurel upon Joseph Joel Keith, or some other up-and-coming poet. In my opinion awards are infinitely more important at the start of a career, not some twenty years after recognition has been won. But both your communication went beyond merely presenting dissenting opinions; they were calculated attacks on modern poetry as such, and that is quite a different matter.

Mr. Coblentz. As a reader of Wings, I am familiar with your oft-repeated stand. You are an uncompromising traditionalist who believes passionately in rhymed, orderly, classical verse. You invoke the Gods to bring back “Shelly and Blake and Milton, Poe and Keats”. Well, who could object? But who knows in what vein the Old Masters would interpret our unique, glitteringly appealing and repellent guys-and-dolls age?

Poetry — living, not museum-piece poetry, must reflect the period in which it is written. War and chaos have plagued the world for quite a long time, but each epoch creates its own special pulse-beat for the artists to interpret. cummings did not create the past thirty years — that frighteningly raucous, speakeasy-nightclub, kiss me daddy eight to the bar, jazz-blues era. If our Freud-fraud, skyscraper-billboard-ad period is to reflect itself in poetry (and why shouldn’t it be?) the jangled idioms of cummings and [Kenneth] Fearing are better suited for it than the more sedate, traditional forms.

Doctor Byrd. You go on to say: “I am told that he (cummings) also paints a little. I am glad to hear this; if any of the seven lively arts must suffer the intrusion of cummings, let it be painting: I have never been deeply concerned with the destiny of painting.” There is a closer link between the arts than you might care to admit, Doctor. Painting (like poetry) was stagnating in shallow and murky pools when the Impressionists burst upon the scene with vivid, un-chained hues. How the entrenched N.A.’s railed — but to no avail. Is painting the poorer for it that the museums have been forced to add a colorful Modernist wing?

Mr. Coblentz. In last autumn’s issue of your fine magazine, you ran a piece in which you bemoaned that the tidal wave (of modern poetry) was not stopped when the break in the dike first appeared. How pathetically naive! … and reactionary! Stopped by whom? Think back. What was the state of poetry — native, not library poetry, when the Imagists, in necessary rebellion, poured over the wall? Glory to Harriet Monroe for giving the insurgents a voice which is still heard. Oh, those refreshing sound-colors of Sandburg, Frost, Lindsay — and, of course, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Wallace, Stevens, Millay, William Rose Benet, Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate, Genevieve Taggard. The list is endless.

To be sure, much of the “new poetry” was brash and unintelligible. That part will not endure. But most of it was original, intransigent, vital, inevitable and cannot be excluded from any comprehensive anthology of American verse. It is, in fact, about the only poetry worth speaking of.

Today the poetic academicians claim many of the old avant guardists for their own — a very familiar process, it would seem. If you, Doctor Byrd and Mr. Coblentz, and the Lyric Foundation, live long enough (and if cummings goes the way of all flesh), you might wind up exchanging bouquets. Meanwhile it might be pointed out that a bad case can be made out against any poet, Shelley and Keats included, by quoting isolated examples of their work. This, too, is cummings. Not the real cummings, but closer than the passages his detractors pick.

        this is the garden; colors come and go,
        frail azures fluttering from night’s outer wing,
        strong silent greens serenely lingering,
        absolute lights like baths of golden snow.
        This is the garden: pursed lips do blow
        upon cool flutes within wide glooms, and sing
        (of harps celestial to the quivering string)
        invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

        This is the garden. Time will surely reap,
        and on Death’s blade lie many a flower curled,
        in the other lands where other songs be sung;
        yet stand They here enraptured, as among
        the slow deep trees perpetual of sleep
        some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

Doctor Byrd. Of the Bollingen Award winner you say, “the pathetic muttering of the paranoid Ezra Pound.” I agree. But is that all there is to say about Pound? I would have shot the bastard as a war-time traitor, and then posthumously awarded him a prize — not for his murky Pisan Cantos, but for his brilliant early work, say what Pound wrote between 1915 and ’40.

No major poet is always easy to understand, and that applies from John Donne to Peter Viereck. But to wind up with cummins [sic]. Some of his most ardent champions (of whom I am not one) wish he had long ago dropped his syntax distortions, his typographical idiosyncrasies, which mars more than enhances his work; nevertheless there can be no easy dismissal of cummings as an authentic native singer, though this writer wishes he wrote more in the tradition of the quoted sonnet than the nose-thumbing vein he seems to prefer.

My own inclinations (as a reader of poetry) runs [sic] to that which is understandable, lyrically expressed. So I prefer Keith to cummings. So I subscribe to Wings and The Lyric. But Poetry and magazines of its kind also have something to contribute. The times are very much with us, and the culture of our day, such as it is, is too complex, too hydra-headed for any one school of thought to dominate. That is the mortal danger, the target at which we should vent our spleen, not at Mrs. Bullock … or eec.

Respectfully yours,

Alex Jackinson

Jackinson was so worked up about the exchange that he adapted his letter into a defense of Cummings published in the Congress Weekly later that year, in which he wrote:

Cummmings composes poems which scorch dollar-sign patriots… He blasts bureaucracy in its hydra-headed forms. But throughout his work, Cummings’ sympathies are also discernible. One feels instinctively that he is passionately against youth being blackjacked by poverty, against slums marring the April lilac smell. Cummings is wholeheartedly for more freedom, joy, laughter.

But the best response came from Marie Bullock herself, forty at the time and already the most influential and devoted champion of poetry in America and quite possibly the world. She seems to have been so riled by Coblentz’s gall that she interrupted her holidays to personally respond to him on December 27. Her letter is a masterwork of composure and calm conviction in the face of cynicism, envious embitterment, and misplaced indignation. It stands as a dignified vindication of art’s duty to continually challenge tradition, reminiscent of William Blake’s immortal defense of creative freedom, with a touch of clever reverse psychology and perfectly calibrated political critique.

Marie Bullock's letter to Stanton A. Coblentz
Marie Bullock’s letter to Stanton A. Coblentz (Courtesy of the Academy of American Poets)

Bullock writes:

Dear Mr. Coblentz:

Thank you for your letter of December 14th.

Mr. E. E. Cummings was elected 1950 Fellow of the Academy of American Poets by a majority vote of our Board of Chancellors. Their selection of Mr. Cummings was based on achievement and need.

Personally, it seems to me that there are practically no poets living or dead the scrutiny of whose work would not produce a number of poems objectionable to some of their readers, at least.

We may not like novelty in its barest form, but it is sometimes necessary for progress. Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition.

That you truly share these feelings I am persuaded; particularly after reading your quatrain: “Individualist” in the winter 1950–1951 issue of the Poetry Chap Book.

In rewarding Edwin Markham, Edgar Lee Masters, Ridgely Torrence and Percy MacKaye with $5,000 Fellowships, I feel that the Board of Chancellors truly fulfilled the purpose of the Academy of American Poets in taking the place of lacking federal and government aid for these worthy poets.

The latest award has proven that they are awake to the more modern trends, and that in honoring a younger man [ed: Cummings was 56] who is a traditionalist at the core and who is still actively creative, they look to the future.

We believe the Academy of American Poets will steadily stand as the growing hope of American poets who, wisely casting aside their petty jealousies, will find in its rewards the recognition and appreciation which a country as large and great as ours knows how to bestow, on talent in all its varieties.

Very sincerely yours,

Mrs. Hugh Bullock

In the decades since, the Academy of American Poets has continued to stand as a beacon of integrity and creative courage. Join me in supporting their noble work with a donation, which will go toward their tireless advocacy and toward digitizing their invaluable archive.

Complement this particular find with Cummings on the artist’s struggle, the forgotten fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, this lovely picture-book about his life and legacy, and Amanda Palmer’s beautiful reading of his poem “Humanity I love you.”

BP

Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.”

Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“Life is a movie. Death is a photograph,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in The Benefactor, her 1963 debut novel. That year — the year she turned thirty and began writing her masterwork Against Interpretation — she met the photographer Peter Hujar (October 11, 1934–November 26, 1987). The shared sensibility Sontag instantly intuited was further affirmed three years later when Hujar showed her the extraordinary photographs he had taken in the Catacombs at Palermo, which impressed themselves upon Sontag’s imagination so profoundly as to become the landscape of the final scene in her second novel, Death Kit.

In 1976, a year before she published what remains the finest, sharpest, most prescient thing ever written about photography, Sontag agreed to write the introduction to Hujar’s slim, stunning coffee table book Portraits in Life and Death (public library) — a collection of his Palermo photographs alongside uncommonly soulful portraits of people in his life, including John Waters, William S. Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, John Ashbery, Candy Darling, his partner David Wojnarowicz, and Sontag herself.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag’s introduction examines how photography mediates the relationship between life and death, and has only swelled with significance and cultural relevance in the decades since, as we have shuttered and pixelated our way into this life-as-commemoration-of-itself age of ours. She writes:

Photographs turn the present into past, make contingency into destiny. Whatever their degree of “realism,” all photographs embody a “romantic” relation to reality.

I am thinking of how the poet Novalis defined Romanticism: to make the familiar appear strange, the marvelous appear commonplace. The camera’s uncanny mechanical replication of persons and events performs a kind of magic, both creating and de-creating what is photographed. To take pictures is, simultaneously, to confer value and to render banal.

Photograph from the Catacombs in Palermo by Peter Hujar
One of Hujar’s photographs from the Catacombs in Palermo

This dual function, Sontag argues, renders photography a vehicle of mythmaking, embedded in whose claim to immortality is the pulsating awareness and even fetishizing of mortality:

Photographs instigate, confirm, seal legends. Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves. Photography converts the world itself into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for esthetic appreciation.

Photography also converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death. The photograph-as-photograph shows death. More than that, it shows the sex-appeal of death.

John Waters by Peter Hujar
John Waters by Peter Hujar

Reflecting on Hujar’s subjects, who “appear to meditate on their own mortality,” Sontag considers the strange and rather delusional defiance that defines our relationship with death, that most natural and inevitable of experiences — a defiance that has only grown more vehement and belligerent in the decades since, with only occasional beacons of lucidity. Half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Sontag writes:

We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death. I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions. If a free human being can afford to think of nothing less than death, then these memento mori can exorcise morbidity as effectively as they evoke its sweet poetry and its panic.

Peter Hujar
Peter Hujar

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS-related pneumonia. He was fifty-four and had outlived many of those he photographed, also taken by the Plague. The book’s dedication, emblematic of Hujar’s largeness of heart, reads simply: “I dedicate this book to everyone in it.”

Portraits in Life and Death is, lamentably, so out of print that there appears to be a kind of black market for it — but is very much worth the used-book hunt or a trip to the local public library. Complement it with Sontag on aesthetic consumerism and the violence of photography, how the camera helps us navigate complexity, art as a form of spirituality, and what it means to be a moral human being, then see Italo Calvino on photography and the art of presence.

BP

Chelsea Clinton Reads James Baldwin on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Role in Society

“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their spectacular and searingly timely 1970 conversation about race. But how are we to be clear-headed about our fellow human beings, much less capable of being one another’s hope, if have ceased seeing each other clearly, or seeing each other at all?

That tragic paradox is what Harvard art historian, writer, and former Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Lewis set out to resolve in guest editing a visionary special issue of Aperture magazine titled Vision & Justice — a photographic inquiry into the black experience in America, fusing the luminous and the lucid, celebration and lamentation, by extending a wakeful invitation to reflect on our shared pursuit of dignity and justice through the lens of visual culture. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s influential 1864 speech “Pictures and Progress,” the issue became the first in the magazine’s 64-year history to sell out completely.

Shortly after its publication, the Ford Foundation hosted Aperture for an evening of readings and reflections curated by Lewis, starring beloved writers and artists like Carrie Mae Weems (whose recent School of Visual Arts commencement address remains one of the most moving speeches ever given), Margo Jefferson (whose memoir Negroland was among the best books of 2015), and Sarah Jones (whose extraordinary one-woman play will challenge your most elemental assumptions about the fabric of society).

Among the performances, excerpted here with exclusive permission from Aperture, was Chelsea Clinton’s beautiful reading from James Baldwin’s 1962 classic on the creative process and the artist’s responsibility to society, found in the altogether indispensable Baldwin anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — please enjoy:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

[…]

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think, everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

I seem to be making extremely grandiloquent claims for a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead. But, in a way, the belated honor that all societies tender their artists proven the reality of the point I am trying to make. I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.

[…]

The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history… This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain.

[…]

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

Watch the full event here and find reprints of Aperture‘s groundbreaking piece of media history here. Complement it with Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle for integrity, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit W.E.B. Du Bois’s spectacular letter to his teenage daughter about earning one’s privilege.

Aperture is the product of a nonprofit foundation, supported by donations and devoted to championing the power of photography as a force of art, integrity, and cultural change.

BP

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