May 3, 2007

Of elusive joy and tangled loves

I am continuing with reading the Best American Essays 2006 and find some essays simply not really worthy of being in a Best of the year collection (eg: Susan Orlean's essay, Lost Dog, from the New Yorker.)

However, that cannot be said of the poet Alan Shapiro's essay, Why write?, first published in The Cincinnati Review. The essay should be read in its entirety but I'll quote one particular paragraph that gives as good an explanation as any for the question asked in the essays title. It quotes from something another great poet, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson.
"Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity — the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests — has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve. Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with body."

Ok - I am tempted to quote one more paragraph from the essay, where Shapiro writes about spending time with his friend, Tim Dekin, during the last few days of the latter's life, sorting through some of the latter's poems to put a manuscript together.
"Though fly-fishing is the occasion of the poem, the subject is really acceptance of mortality, failure, and loss, and the value of joy in all its elusiveness.

The poem is also about writing, the moment of creation, when we forget all else but the task at hand, when preparation and luck coincide, when the burden of the past and the future lifts and exhilration comes, what Tim calls "Delight being. Joy being... my childhood's earliest familiar." The poem itself, he implies, the writing of it, is both the crumbs that lead us as adults back to that childhood paradise and the measure of how far we've traveled from it. When the moment passes and the poem's written, when we rise from the desk to return to the world awaiting us - our tangled loves and commitments - the exhilaration is nearly indistinguishable from "unfathomable loss.""
Funny how though I have not written enough to feel the exhilaration, I often feel unfathomable loss, huh? :)

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