Sunday 31 December 2006
Once I have read a poem aloud, Joel puts forth his knee-jerk response, "But what does it mean? Does it mean anything or is it just words?" The recurring question of meaning is not only Joel's. We, all of us, read for meaning and so when poetry seems not to mean or is not clear, we want to know why. We want someone to explain. There are many readers suspicious of poetry, so how is it possible to move past our fears, to approach poetry with an open mind, to allow it to mean? Where shall we draw the line? And what, as readers, shall we demand?
It is the reader's work to pay close attention, to read well, to give the poem a chance to communicate and finally, in the end, to demand that it mean. Jean Cocteau said "every poem is a coat of arms. It must be deciphered." It is the reader's work. And if after reading a poem you end up with just words, it is possible the poet has failed, it is possible you have failed, it is possible too that the time is not right to walk into this poem. The best you can do is read closely. Read and reread. Come at it when your mood is different. Repeated readings may bear meanings it is impossible to reach at first. If you are having trouble, set it aside. Read another poem by the same artist. Become familiar with her style. Learn her language and symbology. Learn something of her background. Approach her again later. Set yourself on a quest for her meaning. And for goodness sake, read your fairy tales. The more familiar you are with the great stories of death and resurrection, the easier poetry will be to access.
Yannis Ritsos calls the byproduct of poetry a mystery. Writing poetry "means joining things that don't normally fit to create the representation of a new thing." This is only achievable, "if there exists the possibility of sympathetic affinities between all that exists" [Best Words, Best Order, Dobyns]. Such affinities must exist and so the possibility must exist. Perhaps it is not so much a mystery as an uncovering? A reconnecting? That's a nice thought and a credit to the poet.
IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN
A poet should be of the
old-fashioned meaningless brand:
obscure, esoteric, symbolic, --
the critics demand it;
so if there's a poem of mine
that you do understand
I'll gladly explain what it means
till you don't understand it.
-- Piet Hein, Danish poet/scientist/architect
Connecting is tantamount for Ritsos. He insists on "the writer's responsibility to the reader to create a 'true' language so that the connection takes place." Truth cannot exist without a genuine word addressed to a real individual, a word put forth with the intention to communicate. "A word is not true unless it exists to communicate, until it exists for the reader." If it is uttered out of confusion or pride, it will fail to connect. Fail to mean. A poem made of such words will also fail.
"The poet's job is to use language to make the reader see what he has seen―first, to reduce the intrinsic isolation of poet and reader by making a bridge between them; second, to validate what the poet has seen, because if the reader doesn't see what the writer had seen, then perhaps the writer has merely hallucinated; third, to bear witness to the mystery. The first reason is social; the second is psychological; and the third is moral. Thus the body, mind and spirit of the poet remain in tact. And what at first seems selfish, takes on an ethical role" [Ritsos in Best Words, Best Order, Dobyns].
And the reader? What responsibility does she bear? How does she figure into the event? The reader's job is to demand truth; to meet the poet with courage through the work; and to participate in the mystery. I cannot do this for you, dear reader, no more than you can do this for me. The best we can do is to open dialog, discuss what it might mean, talk about what you can take from it and what I can take from it and together make a connection and open our thoughts.
Is being here, beside the lake, enough? Can I relax my stance yet? There are those who have heard my diatribe a hundred times. Can I ease the message? No. It is my task to make this new, again and again. To rephrase this question. Discover new answers. The answers cannot become static, for if they do the matter is over and poetry will have been seated and we can all just go away. No, no, poetry must grow in order to mean. To live, it must grow within each of us.
The day was clear and dry. Hoards of people on the speedway. My first contact was a wave from the pathway, "Happy New Year!" No one I recognized, but someone who knows me. Someone who recognizes me as the poet, the poet at Green Lake. Hallo, you there on the carousel, let us greet more often in 2007.
Steve came along then with his "I Am" faith and his poems, offering instruction on the miracle of "something from nothing," and "nothing from something." Small groups formed all day. The spirit of the great poets must have been somersaulting. Not long after Joel, came Kevin and Steven. Then Clinton and Hugo. And Bev. Pairs broke off and discussed lines further and those pairs split and reformed and the conversation became another thing. Contention about what we see. About what we hear and understand. What is our purpose.
Steve offered his blessings to a woman walking past. She looked like she could use a new coat, some place to rest. She gnarled a response, "I don't want 'em. I don't believe in 'em." Well," Steve chided, "Do you want my cursings?" "I don't believe in them either!" She was as tough as she looked and she wouldn't allow for Steve's two fisted constructions. For her, the concept of something from nothing was not plausible. There are too many circles already, too many definitions, too many relevant meanings to choose from, or perhaps no choice at all. What sort of plurality does she have in mind?
GOING INTO THE CENTER (THE PLUNGE)
I have vowed to swim across Green Lake before the end of the year. And here it is, one week away. I have been trying on wet suits at local dive shops. I finally borrowed one from a friend. The date is set for tomorrow, January 1st. I don't like the idea of going in after 8 hours at my poetry desk on New Year's Eve. Better to start fresh and warm on the 1st. Clinton and Mark have done this before. They know what to expect. Clinton's been swimming, as a matter of fact, all winter. "You get used to the cold," he says. He has booties and gloves and a neoprene hood. He is protected, but still there is your face and the back of your neck. Still there is the water that seeps into your suit.
Wyatt and the magnificent unclipped Zooey came to say hello. "I haven't seen you since summer!" No more a panama hat, now a cap and braided sweater framed his face. He pulled from his canvas knapsack a bottle of wine. "Thank you for being here and for representing the artists." What a soft speaker. What an eye on the world. Oh artists, oh poets, do you hear? This is cause for celebration. We have been recognized by a fellow. We've been recognized and this is cause. We'll drink this libation after we arrive at the center. We'll drink this after the plunge. Thank you. It is an honor to be seen.
GREEN LAKE PERFORMANCE ART
How to Hug a Meadow
Erasing a Duck
5 Circles Misunderstood
Why the Merman Sings
A Score in the Grass
Italian poet and composer of the Futurist Manifesto , Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, is credited as the first performance artist. He was uproarious about the nostalgia for Classical art at the turn of the century, the longing for a pastoral time. It was in 1909. He called on his fellow artists to embrace the factory, to glorify in speed and the machine. "Beauty exists only in struggle. What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?" His response became the performance. His response became his art.
PEACE & JOY
There is a walk today, a meditation for compassion and peace, organized by the Interfaith Church. From 3-5pm, they will enact diverse spiritual traditions and walk around the lake. I cannot remember seeing so many people, such thick bands, turn the speedway. Not even on a summer day were the crowds so resilient!
Peace and joy, these words resurface. Maybe it is time to learn them? I have drafted my resolutions for the new year. My first order of business is to meditate for one minute of each day on world peace. But what does peace look like? What image, what text shall I conjure? Not myself on a bicycle harking at those who hark at me. And joy, what shall I do about joy? Peace and joy. This will require some thought.
HOW DO THE COMMUNITY & THE ARTIST INTERSECT?
This is what concerns me.
I am being accused of needing stability, which is to say I am lacking in stability. Indeed, I am seeking home. I am the first to admit it. That is what Nostalgia is about. Finding home. Or rather, questioning home. Questioning what we seek in home and in ourselves, questioning what we avoid. Because really, home is home. What's so hard about finding home? Go to the place you were born. Go to the place you grew up. Go to the place you remember. Go to the place that feels good. When you find home, you know it. It's familiar. You recognize the curtains, the screen door, the kitchen table. When you find your tribe, you know them. Ah, my people! And you can find them anywhere. In all economies, spread out over the globe.
So you say I'm creating the idea of home, literally, at Green Lake, and that in setting up and handing out this sort of continuity, this sort of stability and reliability, I'm projecting what I hope to gain from the world. Ok, let's say I buy that. Of course I'm looking for my place in the world. No, not of course. There are people wandering around who feel most at home wandering, I suppose. And there are those who have found their place, who are no longer seeking, who are settled in, which doesn't mean they might not go on a journey from time to time. No, the kind of home I am talking about is the kind you construct within. The self as home. What other home is there? I'm talking about the sort of home that travels with you. The sort that exhibits striving, not to be something else, but to grow within oneself. A striving at peace with peace.
I have included in my Green Lake Manifesto: Being here is enough. Learn to be here. I recite this to myself, "You are already here." Though I don't believe it. Not really. And perhaps this is why I am not here? Because I don't know what being here feels like? I can admit to this.
Andy Goldsworthy (environmental sculptor) talks about learning change from spending an extended period of time in one place, experiencing a place through the seasons. I have moved around enough to know difference, but am still ignorant of change. Green Lake is partly about this, about stilling myself and experiencing change. For the first time in my adult life, I am learning the names of birds and trees I myself am drawing and identifying. Counting the leaves as they fall. Watching the people pass.
But can I admit to seeking a home? Despite appearances, I am the first to upset the stability I find. I am happiest when progressing and that means moving in any number of ways. Is this true, what I am saying? Words are not a substitute for experience. Words are what life looks like, the sounds of belief, desire's direction, but the truth changes as it looks for a language. What I know is neglect. I have neglected my own spirit for so long, in lieu of my body and mind and heart. It is high time I began to tend my spirit, if it is still there for the tending. This, I believe, is what I am looking for at Green Lake. This is what I am hoping to provide.