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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

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

Hemingway’s Tough-Love Letter of Advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing and Turning Suffering into Creative Fuel

“Forget your personal tragedy… Good writers always come back. Always.”

In the spring of 1934, just before dispensing his finest advice on writing and ambition to an aspiring writer who had hitchhiked atop a coal car across the country to see him, Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) received a request for input by a writer far less unknown: his old pal F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite their divergent politics and worldviews, the two had become fast friends a decade earlier and corresponded with uncommon candor about their convictions, their struggles, and the intricacies of their common craft.

Fitzgerald, who had taken a nine-year addiction-aided hiatus from publishing after the success of The Great Gatsby, had just released Tender Is the Night and was turning to his old friend for feedback. Hemingway did not hold back — he fired a missile of tough love not nearly as polite as Beckett’s, not nearly as intellectually elegant as Margaret Fuller’s, and yet absolutely brilliant and brimming with sobering advice for any writer.

hemingwayfitzgerald

In a spirited letter from May 10, 1934, found in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the trove of wisdom and delight masterfully curated by Shaun Usher, which also gave us E.B. White’s emboldening advice to a man who had lost faith in humanity and young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life — 36-year-old Hemingway writes to 39-year-old Fitzgerald:

Dear Scott:

I liked it and I didn’t. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can’t refer to it. So if I make any mistakes –). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn’t come from, changing them into other people and you can’t do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do… Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.

That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best — make it all up — but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.

Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to — the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.

There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to… A long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening.

Here, Hemingway realizes that he has heated himself into a seething cauldron of righteous, if well-meaning, fury and tempers his fervency:

It’s a lot better than I say. But it’s not as good as you can do.

He then pivots into benevolence with counsel on how to handle — that his, how not to heed — the critics, be they external or internal:

We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won’t jump.

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live.

In a sentiment which Marina Abramovic would echo many decades later in reflecting on turning trauma into raw material for art, Hemingway cautions against self-pity and urges Fitzgerald to instead transmute his pain into creative power:

Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it — don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist — but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you… You see, Bo, you’re not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write.

Midway through this comes another sweetly self-aware interjection:

About this time I wouldn’t blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it’s marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.

After a brief diatribe about how Fitzgerald’s troubled relationship with Zelda is causing his creative and spiritual downspiral, Hemingway offers a final pep:

Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.

Go on and write.

Anyway I’m damned fond of you and I’d like to have a chance to talk sometimes.

[…]

Always your friend

Ernest

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly terrific Letters of Note with Hemingway on how to be a writer, the essential books every aspiring writer should read, knowledge and the dangers of ego, and his short, spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then see Fitzgerald’s own advice on the secret to great writing. Both writers have committed to words wisdom that belongs among history’s most notable and abiding advice on the craft.

BP

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