Recently I was talking to my freshmen about the value of silence. I am embarrassed to admit how long it took before I recognized the inherent absurdity of the situation. I was like a member of the audience in Lisel Mueller's "Brendel Playing Schubert":Read More
Filtering by Tag: Wallace Stevens
I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.
— Wallace Stevens
I hear it first thing in the morning. Though it's not really silence. There's the whir of the fan, the slowly ticking clock. It's not so much the absence of sound that defines silence, but a moment when the second hand slows the spinning Earth and creates an expansiveness of time. Not just on the borderlands of waking and sleeping, we cross the threshold into this broad space more often than we realize. Usually artists take us there.
John Cage ushered us into this expansiveness in a concert hall. With a musician sitting quietly at the piano, we heard for 4’33” sounds that dwelled in the absence of the music; sounds the shifting audience made, sounds the building made as it breathed. Cage believed silence couldn’t be achieved because there are always sounds, even as he discovered two sounds in an anechoic chamber. In his book Silence: Lectures and Writings, he writes: “When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage was influenced by . Which was simply that, canvases Rauschenberg had painted white (see image above). To Cage they were “not empty but supercharged with a kind of sacred joy.” Cage referred to the paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles.” Silence, like an empty canvas, is a populated world.
Maybe silence was the world that opened to artist John Muth as he speaks about finding in brushstrokes “a quality to the line,” in the work of Japanese painters and calligraphers, that captured his attention as a young child. A quality that he carries into his own work. When he draws with children, he shows them that the “essential nature” of a subject “can be found very quickly in the movements of the lines.”
In her poem “Elm Street,” Suzanne Cleary leads us into this world of slow motion, of silence, by telling us the story of a man sitting on the porch with his guitar, not playing, but getting ready to play. The whole street is in a state of suspended animation before the first strings are strummed. She uses words like listen, pause, lost his place, the line halted, to help us step into the realm of silence. This is where the truck driver rolls down his window, not to call out to his neighbor, or shoo a dog out of the road. He rolls down the window to “stick an elbow out.” She tells us about the Matisse forger who could copy his paintings, “I mastered his line, it was his pause I could not master.” The whole poem is full of these heartbeats, like the music hall with a silent pianist. The poem doesn’t resolve with the man playing his guitar, it leaves us in this momentous expanse of time before he begins.
Clarinetist, Martin Frost describes entering this world when he speaks about his instrument. “‘What makes it special is the moment when silence suddenly starts to vibrate,’ he said. ‘Somewhere in that shadow land between silence and sound is the soul of the clarinet.’” He says “soul of the clarinet,” but you could easily fill in the blank with— the soul of the blackbird, the soul of the line of calligraphy, the soul of the neighborhood pulsing before the guitar strings are strummed.
What’s in the silence? Artists open its door for us, John Cage says, as “simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living.”
Imagination! who can sing thy force? Or who describe the swiftness of thy course? —Phillis Wheatley
Mechanic and machinist Arthur Pirre spent 20 years restoring his 1937 “Baby Duesenberg” Cord. He worked on details with files and wrenches and hex keys. He measured and drilled to make precisely fitting parts. Then he broadened his imagination to more abstract uses: choosing fabric and colors, sanding, painting, polishing, until the sleek curves and inventive features were remastered to their original beauty.
The poet Wallace Stevens employed different tools to craft the details of his poems: punctuation, cadence, syntax, line breaks. Like Pirre, he created with elements of abstract and imaginative thought using not just the words but the space between the words. In “The Snow Man,” he changed the familiar concepts of cold, snow, and ice into something momentous, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
As artists, both men saw the interrelationship of details and the big picture. These tangible works of art correspond to our work in the invisible realm of prayer. Just as they labored to transform rust and words into something creatively meaningful, we labor with the Spirit to see the creation of something profound in the lives and the world around us.
Detailed prayer is straight forward. We can pray for a new roof, a humble heart, the ability to comfort a grieving friend. Details seem almost tactile compared to entering the vast, nebulous “God bless the world” prayer of a child. This is abstract prayer. Just like the element we can’t quite put a finger on in Stevens’ poems that shrouds a meaning and delivers its mystery, so the workings of prayer can’t be completely clear to our finite minds. Its abstractness is part of its power. There are no limits to who our prayers can touch because we can invoke our imaginations to include people we don’t know, complex situations beyond our grasp that we are nonetheless moved to pray about.
Jesus set the precedent for this kind of abstract prayer when he taught us to pray. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins both reflect the details of our day, and are easy enough (in a way) to lift up for ourselves, loved ones, and neighbors. But may your kingdom come and may your will be done are weighty and cumbersome. This is where God who gave us abstract thought and imagination invites us to use them in prayer. It’s when we can speak to God in images—picturing in our minds rather than naming with words—those we don’t know personally, extended family members of loved ones, future generations, our neighbors’ families, churches, cities, judges, presidents, countries, 7 billion people and the complex social, economic, political issues that swirl around them like clouds around the globe. The God who knows each star by name doesn’t expect us to know them, or need us to pray with an attention to detail that only his mind can grasp.
Denise Levertov muses about how God speaks to us in images in her poem Immersion:
God is surely patiently trying to immerse us in a different language, events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever, the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent. God's abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
We can speak to God in this nonlinguistic language just as the Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” God invites us to pray like he invites artists to create, sometimes with detail, sometimes with abstract imagination. Pray for what you can name and what you can't. Pray with words and the spaces between words.
It’s summer, the sky’s a hazy blue and the clouds are piling up like ice cream scoops in a bowl. All motion rendered lazy by the humidity allows my mind to wander. I wonder how many poems there are about ice cream. I know one by Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” But I stop my languid search as soon as I find Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” Thinking about the differences between the lives and writing styles of these two poets is as delicious as sampling dulche de leche ice cream and rocky road.
At first, I didn’t see similarities, except that they cohabited the same blue Earth for about 35 years. Wallace was a Modernist poet, breaking with the pre-modern forms of rhyme and the usual subjects of nature and religion to explore ideas about reality being a confluence of imagination and perception. He writes in elegant language with a well-varied vocabulary. Bukowski is also a modern writer who carved a new niche for himself sometimes called “dirty realism.” His poems, short stories, and novels chase a hard, fast line of drinking and women and running riot.
The two poets’ upbringings were very different. Stevens was from a wealthy family and benefitted from his father’s guidance regarding his education and career. Bukowski, who emigrated as a child from Germany to the U.S., was from a poor family. Bukowski’s father’s guidance came on the end of a leather strap that he used to consistently beat him.
Stevens’ education led through Harvard and then New York Law School. He eventually became an insurance executive with The Hartford, and lived a comfortable lifestyle in Connecticut. Bukowski dropped out of Los Angeles City College after two years, and moved to New York to begin a career as a writer. After receiving more rejections than his psyche could tolerate, Bukowski took off across the country on a ten year bender that nearly killed him. Once back in Los Angeles, he began to write again, and began to be published, at first by small publications.
Their book titles alone are interesting contrasts, and give us a vision of at least some of their personality layers. Stevens used elegant titles: Harmonium; Ideas of Order; The Auroras of Autumn. Bukowski’s titles took a different slant: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail; Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window; and Love is a Dog from Hell.
Their language and imagery is wildly different. In the two ice cream poems alone, we come across words and phrases like these in Bukowski: pecker, leper, “nary a potential suicide,” jails, hangovers. In Stevens’ poem we see: concupiscent, “let be be the finale of seem,” “embroidered fantails,” “lamp affix its beam.” Stevens’ thoughts are more abstract, and he dresses them up. As Robert Frost complained, “it purports to make me think.” Bukowski’s ideas are clear, as John William Corrington says, his poetic world is one “in which meditation and analysis have little part.” Bukowski doesn’t dress up his ideas, he strips them naked.
Once his poems are naked, Bukowski speaks of a quasi virility, for example, like this in “The Icecream People”:
the lady has me temporarily off the bottle and now the pecker stands up better.
While Stevens expresses the loss of the same in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” like this:
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
While their lifestyles and writing styles are polar opposites, the two men have commonalities. One is a vulnerability to pain. We’ve already seen how Bukowski spent formative years beaten by his father. He said this experience benefitted his writing because through it “he came to understand undeserved pain.” Once on his own, Bukowski lived life running across broken glass—chasing women, gambling, and drinking excessively. Stevens had his miseries too. He married his wife, Elsie, against his father’s wishes. When no one in the family attended his wedding, he never saw or spoke with his father again. In later years, Elsie became mentally ill, showing signs of paranoia about neighbors and the couple’s daughter’s childhood friends. In a review, Helen Vendler calls Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” his saddest poem, “in which a man realizes that he must make something of a permanently wintry world of ice, snow, evergreens and wind, attempting to see ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”
Perhaps it was his sorrow over Elsie that led him into confrontations we’d expect more from Bukowski. Stevens argued on two separate occasions in Key West with Robert Frost (they had strong feelings about their own ideas of poetry), and said things he shouldn’t have said about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway afterwards started a fist fight over it and Stevens returned home to Connecticut with a puffy eye and broken hand.
Stevens and Bukowski, despite their differences, had another important characteristic in common. They had to write. As one Stevens biography puts it, he saw poetry as “the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality.” His poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” puts it this way:
This endlessly elaborating poem Displays the theory of poetry, As the life of poetry. A more severe,
More harassing master would extemporize Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory Of poetry is the theory of life,
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.
Bukowski talked about the need to write poetry this way:
unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it.
Considering the differences and (maybe) surprising similarities between these two poets, which flavor would refresh your summer day?
We at Relief look forward to this event as one of the best times to be had in the world of Christian literary culture.Read More
Guest Poetry Editor David Holper shares his experience reading and writing poetry and offers some insight into what he wants for our Fall 2011 issue.
As the guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue of Relief, I want to introduce writers and readers to my tastes and influences as a poet and as a reader of poetry. Let me start where I typically start with people who ask me who my favorite poet is. When W.H. Auden was asked this same question in an interview in 1971, he wisely responded, “it suggest[s] that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can't. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else.” That’s a good starting place because in reading a lot (and writing a lot), you move beyond gimmicks and you learn to write yourself out of the ruts that often occur in creative work.
As for me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in a family of devout atheists, a dis-ease from which I eventually recovered as an adult) and was heavily influenced by the Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginzberg, Gary Snyder), but I was lucky enough to have good writing teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, so all along I was exposed early on to an eclectic variety of styles, voices, and forms.
I began to write my own poetry in high school, but I would say that as important as practicing writing, I regularly attended open mics and poetry readings, put together my own poetry shows (with my other weird poet friends), and often read my work aloud. That sense of the sound of a poem has been critical to my understanding and writing of poetry. In college, I also wound up editing the campus literary magazine Toyon, which helped me recognize that quality poetry doesn’t come in just one form, particularly the one with my name on it. Those habits of reading widely and reading aloud have definitely influenced my craft and my appreciation of other poets.
As an editor, I want a poem to offer me something that I wouldn’t otherwise notice. I recall hearing a wonderful poem on the radio one day (a poem I’ve never been able to locate afterwards) in which a man describes flying on a plane with his wife who falls asleep next to him. In staring at her, as well as the sunny space between them, he realizes that in the many years that they have been married, it’s as if a third presence has formed that binds them. It’s altogether a lovely poem, but lovelier still because it reveals to us something we may have all intuited about couples who have been together for a lifetime and still find themselves in love—that together they seem to form something greater than themselves, and anyone who has basked in such a presence surely feels its blessing.
Then, too, a good poem often has a core: sometimes that core comes in the form of an idea. Think of so many Wallace Stevens poems or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow. Yes, it’s a vivid image that he offers us, but it’s the line that “so much relies upon” that wheelbarrow that tells us what he’s driving at on a deeper level, i.e., the need to notice, to observe image carefully—and yet more carefully still. But that core may also reside in the form of revelatory emotion, or as Billy Collins said in 2001, “Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it's celebration or grief or whatever it may be.”
Perhaps last of all, poetry for me has become a way to celebrate my faith. In some way, it should make me sit up and pay attention to life and its sacred dance. So many people around us go through life on auto pilot, and for me and for many others, poetry is a way to re-awaken us to the holiness that resides within us and all around us. Whether it’s through picking up the thread of a Biblical narrative, observing life around us, delving into the natural world, or just contemplating Christ’s work in our own lives, a poem should gather the kindling and the wood to reignite that sacred connection that our culture so casually dampens through its superficial, banal concerns. And when one finds a poem that sets that blaze alight, that poem becomes a treasure not easily set aside.
David Holper has worked as a taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. His poems appear in various literary journals and his book of poems, 64 Questions, is available from March Street Press. He teaches at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, CA, far enough from the madness of civilization to get some writing done. He is Relief's guest poetry editor for Issue 5.2.