September 10, 2013

Song of Everyone

I have found Whitman's Song of Myself to be poetry at its most exuberant in my (limited) past readings but I am learning so much more following a closer-reading and discussion of the poem  at the ModPo class run by Professor Al Filreis.

For example, if I read it by myself, I would have, in my impatience, not appreciated the beauty in these lines but after the discussion in the class I slowed down and read it more carefully and now see how he is here going beyond the pedagogy of I-teach-You-learn I-give-You-Take in teaching and learning.

It is very clear from the first few lines itself that the celebration of the poet's "self" ("I celebrate myself, and sing myself") in the poem is the celebration of everyone for he follows the famous first line immediately with: "And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Elsewhere in the poem, he writes:

"In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them."
and also:
"Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same."
Equality for him cuts across races, gender, and seen above but also in the lines excerpted here:
"I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men."
"I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children."

So, in some ways, the Song of Myself is, in actuality, a Song of Everyone... because, as he writes: "I contain multitudes." His heart is so big that it encompasses everyone. His thoughts are your thoughts. The air you breathe is the air he breathes. His appeal lies in celebrating not merely the universality or common themes that bind us but in you, and me, and him, and everyone, being, essentially, the same.
And he tells us that there is an element of universality in his thinking...
"These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe. "

WOW! Simply....WOW! I still have not read all 52 parts properly -- it is simply too much to read in one or two or three sittings. It is the kind of poem that you can read an entire lifetime and keep coming back to!

September 7, 2013

The invisible writer and the madness of art

Today, an excerpt from an essay adapted, I believe, from the PEN/Nabokov Award acceptance speech given by novelist Cynthia Ozick:

Writers’ invisibility has little or nothing to do with Fame, just as Fame has little or nothing to do with Literature. (Fame merits its capital F for its fickleness, Literature its capital L for its lastingness.) Thespians, celebrities and politicians, whose appetite for bottomless draughts of public acclaim, much of it manufactured, is beyond any normal measure, may feed hotly on Fame – but Fame is always a product of the present culture: topical and variable, hence ephemeral. Writers are made otherwise. What writers prize is simpler, quieter and more enduring than clamorous Fame: it is recognition. Fame, by and large, is an accountant’s category, tallied in Amazonian sales. Recognition, hushed and inherent in the silence of the page, is a reader’s category: its stealth is its wealth.


..we had better recall that celebrated Jamesian credo, a declaration of private panic mixed with prayerful intuition, which so many writers secretly keep tacked over their desks: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.” The statement ends, memorably: “The rest is the madness of art.

The madness of art? Maybe so. But more likely it is the logic of invisibility. James has it backwards. It’s not the social personality who is the ghost; it is the writer with shoulders bent over paper, the hazy simulacrum whom we will never personally know, the wraith who hides out in the dark while her palpable effigy walks abroad, talking and circulating and sometimes even flirting. Sightings of these ghost writers are rare and few and unreliable, but there is extant a small accumulation of paranormal glimpses which can guide us, at least a little, to a proper taxonomy. For instance: this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When illicitly spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralysed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence. And that apologetically obsequious, self-effacing, breathlessly diffident and deprecatory creature turns out, when in the trancelike grip of nocturnal ardour, to be a fiery furnace of unopposable authority and galloping certainty. Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

What is the true meaning of “the madness of art”? Imposture, impersonation, fakery, make-believe – but not the imposture, impersonation, fakery or transporting make-believe of inventive story-telling. No: rather, art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction. The fraudulent writer is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker, the one who will go out to dinner with you with a motive in mind, or will stand and talk at you, or will discuss mutual writing habits with you, or will gossip with you about other novelists and their enviable good luck or their gratifying bad luck. The fraudulent writer is like Bellow’s Henderson: I want, I want, I want.

If all this is so – and it is so – then how might a young would-be writer aspire to join the company of the passionately ghostly invisibles? Or, to put it another way, though all writers are now and again unavoidably compelled to become visible, how to maintain a coveted clandestine authentic invisibility? Don’t all young writers look to the precincts of visibility, where heated phalanxes of worn old writers march back and forth, fanning their brows with their favourable reviews? Isn’t that how it’s done, via models and mentors and the wise counsel of seasoned editors? “I beg you,” says Rilke, addressing one such young writer, “I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you to write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places in your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of the night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ‘I must’, then build your life according to this ­necessity.
Thus the poet Rilke, imploring the untried young to surrender all worldly reward, including the spur, and sometimes the romantic delusion, of Fame, in order to succumb to a career in ectoplasm. Note that he speaks of “the quietest hour of the night”, which is also the darkest, where we do what we can and give what we have. The madness of art – and again I willingly contradict Henry James – is not in the art, but in the madding and maddening crowd, where all manner of visibilities elbow one another, while the ghosts at their writing tables sit alone and write, and write, and write, as if the necessary transparency of their souls depended upon it.

I found it via a comment left at the article "Under All This Noise: On Reclusion, Writing, and Social Media" by Peter Orner, which is also worth reading.)

Elsewhere, I read that we humans write to get laid! ;-) I jest but read the article - is an interesting hypothesis.

In terms of sexual advantages, a tale well told can undoubtedly up the storyteller’s charm factor.  Tales aren’t bland renderings of narrative events; they are, at their best, colorful, brilliant, and poetically polished.   They get gussied up.  And when storytellers use ornament and plumage to draw attention to their tales they inevitably draw eyes themselves. .... Literary peacockery benefits the audience as well. When we read books, we enhance our vocabulary. We glean information about particle physics or virtual reality or Australian Aborigines that make us better conversationalists. We hone our metaphors, refine our wit.  From the elaborate plumage of the story the reader, too, makes off with a few feathers.  

September 6, 2013

We possess nothing

There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.” ― John Cage
I was exploring John Cage's minimalistic music earlier today -  like I wrote earlier, some days you need quiet. And in the spaces between the quiet, you need some notes.

Also, listen to this lovely meditative piece, composed for 5 voices, which is one of his many  Number pieces, a body of late compositions by John Cage where "each piece is named after the number of performers involved: for instance, Seven is a piece for seven performers, One9 (read "One Nine") is the ninth work for one performer, and 1O1 is a piece for an orchestra of 101 musicians."

Here's Five: 

It is only this year that I have started exploring the so-called "minimalistic" music of such 20th century music composers as John Cage, Arvo Pärt, and La Monte Young.

"Silence is the pause in me when I am near to God." - Arvo Pärt
Listen to this composition by Arvo Pärt, for example.

Though I should admit I have not reached the point where the music is stripped so bare that all that is left is the silence, as in John Cage's 4'33".

"I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it" --John Cage 

Ancient proverbs tell us that "Silence is Golden" and Rumi may have said that "Silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.” but John Cage gives us a very different interpretation of silence in 4'33".

Let John Cage speak for himself.. ;-)

"In this music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not.  Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment...... There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot." - John Cage, in his essay Experimental Music
But more than avoiding silence or filling space and time with sounds, sometimes one does crave silence for like the poet, Robert Penn Warren, wrote:
In silence the heart raves. It utters words Meaningless, that never had A meaning. - See more at:
In silence the heart raves. It utters words
Meaningless, that never had
A meaning.   
 Or like the poet, Mary Oliver, writes:
this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
And to put it more philosophically, these lines from Wallace Stevens' poem, Evening Without Angels, come to mind:
In silence the heart raves. It utters words Meaningless, that never had A meaning. - See more at:

Air is air.
Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.
                                         And light
That fosters seraphim and is to them
Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweller—
Was the sun concoct for angels or for men?
Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.
Let this be clear that we are men of sun
And men of day and never of pointed night,
Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.
Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings, as, desire for day
Accomplished in the immensely flashing East,
Desire for rest, in that descending sea
Of dark, which in its very darkening
Is rest and silence spreading into sleep.
. . . Evening, when the measure skips a beat
And then another, one by one, and all
To a seething minor swiftly modulate.
Bare night is best. Bare earth is best. Bare, bare,
Except for our own houses, huddled low
Beneath the arches and their spangled air,
Beneath the rhapsodies of fire and fire,
Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

The poorer silence now

More than a century ago, William Henry Davies, in his poem, Leisure rued the fact that there was "no time to stand and stare".
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Today, in similar vein, one could rue the absence of silence in our world. A recent article in the New York Time talked about NYC's  newest (and rarest) luxury item: silence.
“We’re at the breaking point"...  Silence has become a luxury in New York that only a scant few can truly afford, and cultural, technological and economic changes in recent years have added to the din everyone else must endure, creating not just one culprit, but many. 

And it is not merely a constant chatter of sounds that assaults our brains. Reflection and contemplation has also been sidelined thanks to the constant flood of information coming at us from all sides, especially the internet. We need to make a conscious attempt to tune off for some time at least and I for one suffer due to the inability of tuning off the internet. (And I don't even have a smart phone, which adds a whole new level of being continuously connected. The very annoying behavior of many people of continuously looking at their phones every few seconds is something all of us have experienced in the last few years. Let me distract you from this post by directing you to this video making the rounds just this week that cleverly highlights the ridiculousness of our lives. We have become dumb users of smart phones!)

Of course, it is not that we are naive users of these tools of modern life. There have been many studies and reports [1, 2, 3, 4 (video by Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"), 5, 6, ...] about the negative impacts of digital distraction. Of course, as psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggested it's time to start treating the internet the same way you would a diet:
[W]e need to find ways to make [the internet] as nourishing as possible, as we try to do with our diets, and not just turn to what's easiest. Is your Twitter or Facebook nourishing or crushing your soul?
but like all bad habits and addictions, it is easier said than done. In fact, it has now been recognized as a systematic deficiency called an attention deficit trait, or ADT. "It isn't an illness; it's purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live," and is no doubt worsened by the digital lives we all live.

For anyone who hopes to be a writer, the perils of being distracted by the internet have been highlighted by many. There's a quotation attributed to the person who said a lot of things ("Anonymous") that I keep running into on the internet (ironic, huh!) about how the internet is the bane of any writer: "Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet." (The author Jonathan Franzen has said something similar but so have many other authors. Best to leave it attributed to Mr./Ms. Anonymous.) But, this is not something new. While probably not talking specifically about the internet, Philip Roth had this to say:
"Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing."

Anyway, we all know this but sometimes find it hard to break a habit. For now, I'll leave you with a poem about silence, reproduced here in its entirety.

by Billy Collins
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

September 5, 2013

It's dark in there

I have not been blogging much nor have I been reading much of anything worthwhile in the last  few months but just last night I started with a book of essays by Margaret Atwood called "Negotiating With The Dead," based on a series of lectures, the Empson lectures,which gave at the University of Cambridge. In the introduction, she writes about the motivations for why writers write and ends it with this lovely paragraph that I thought worth transcribing and saving for future reference.
Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey – an inability to see one’s way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision – these were the common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing.

I was reminded of something a medical student said to me about the interior of the human body, forty years ago: "It's dark in there."

Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light. This book is about that kind of darkness, and that kind of desire.

Full of earth-praise

I've written about Mary Oliver's poems at this blog before, including a post each during my 2011 and 2013 NPM celebrations ... but in discussing some poems by her with someone I know who is also interested in poetry, I ended up writing a long-ish email about Oliver's poetry and so thought I might as well post it here also.

For a few years (2008-2010), I thought she was the best poet ever...because her sensibilities of nurturing nature and celebrating all things natural seemed to vibe so well with my own sensibilities.  I have read every single book of hers from the last 7-8 years (since 2006's Thirst) and she has been prolific - publishing a book every 12-18 months, it seems, in the past decade. 

(via Poetry Foundation)

D. S. Martin says it better than anything I can say in this review of her 2009 book, Evidence.

​Mary Oliver’s poetry is a place in which to dwell—a field, a river, a shoreline that wraps its arms around wild things, and preserves precious moments that appear as the seasons shift. It is about attention and patience, just as love is about attention and patience and about quietly stepping away from our own four walls. It is about memory, and reflecting upon what can only be experienced when we respectfully wait for birds and other creatures to take their turns watching us. It is about praise, thanksgiving, and astonishment. It is, surprisingly, not about the poet—other than that she is the one who has experienced what she is showing us.


The poet wants to influence us in the way we view the world. In the title poem she says, “all beautiful things, inherently ...excite the viewer toward sublime thought.” This is the “Evidence” she is speaking of. She expects us to be awestruck: “if you have not been enchanted by / this adventure—your life—what would do for / you?” she asks.

Since Mary Oliver’s poetry is filled with observations of creation, with praise and questions, it is an ideal place to dwell—to meditate—and to consider what our lives should be.

And here's a quote from the poet herself about what her poems and her celebration of the natural world in all its glorious forms (the loveliness, the decay, all of it is worth celebrating!) is all about:
I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. Under the trees, along the pale slopes of sand, I walk in an ascendant relationship to rapture, and with the woods I celebrate the rapture. I see, and dote upon the manifest....... I am forever just going out for a walk and tripping over the root, or the petal, of some trivia, then seeing it as if in a second sight, as emblematic. By no means is this a unique way to live but is rather, the path found by all who are mystically inclined. - Mary Oliver, in Winter Hours.

​If you read a lot of her poems, you will realize that she seeks (and is in) a kind of rapture when she enjoys the joys of nature - almost a kind of intimacy and sensuous pleasure for her in getting one with nature! That is when you understand a poem like "Tom Dancers Gift of a Whitebark Pine Cone" that made me go "eeek" when I first read it.  But read enough of her poetry and you realize that she is in a sort of rapture enjoying a sense of one-ness with the natural world around her. 

It is not just that she connects us to the beauties of the natural world but she tries to get us to pay attention and see the beauty in every minute detail - even the stuff we would normally just not see or think about. "You have to be alert for it", like she says in her interview with NPR here. There typically isn't too much symbolism or word-play in her poems -- just a direct narration of what is in front of all our eyes but sometimes we do not see or appreciate. And in addition to awe and wonder and reveling in this natural beauty, she asks us to express gratitude for it. There is no doubt a sense of reverence and spirituality for her in it.

Here's another about a simple act of drinking water from a brook - something I'd never think of celebrating in a poem like she has! How lovely the thought behind the poem is though... she senses something magical just happened - as if she is now one with that ancient pond and its flowing water!

At Blackwater Pond 
by Mary Oliver

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?

Here she is...celebrating something as simple as leaves. She possibly actually does stuff like this -- not just something she made up for writing a poem!

Foolishness? No, it's not
by Mary Oliver

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count
the leaves on a single tree. To do this I
have to climb branch by branch and
write down the numbers in a little book.
So I suppose, from their point of view,
it's reasonable that my friends say: what
foolishness! She's got her head in the clouds

But it's not. Of course I have to give up,
but by then I'm half crazy with the wonder
of it--the abundance of the leaves, the
quietness of the branches, the hopelessness
of my effort. And I am in that delicious
and important place, roaring with laughter,
full of earth-praise.

"Full of earth-praise".... that's what her poems are about! And she finds that no matter how many poems she writes, she cannot still praise it enough. There is always 'room for the world' outside of her poems because the world is so amazing and vast and can be continued to be enjoyed with every breath we take!

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I conquered loneliness with grace?

she asks in one of her poems, The Gardener.

So, if nothing else, I think her poems at the very least help us tune our busy lives to the many amazing things around us that we do not pay attention to and enjoy, thanks to our busy 21st century lives.

"To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." - Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver"s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing. Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations. - Stanley Kunitz

Her celebration of all things natural is best articulated through her very words -- "the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything", which is from a poem that I have blogged about before here.  ​She is, indeed, like others have written, our modern-day Thoreau!

Mary Oliver helps us learn to be at home with Earth. Like Thoreau, Oliver is essentially wedded to place, her portion of ponds and lands and beach around ...
(Above link has 4-5 of her poems, if you are interested in reading them.)

That said, the joie-de-vivre of her poems may sometimes sound too simple or trite..almost verging on sentimentality and on the rare occasion some feel like nothing more than a random thought she had -- a good thought but not a poem! I've sensed this especially in her last couple books of poems . I wonder that as she nears 80, her publisher has been goading her to publish more often and so there's a book out every 12-18 months almost? Or maybe she herself feels time is running out and so needs to get out all her thoughts on how amazing this world is.... live every second to the fullest (and as a writer, record it in poems too.) But as a reader, this kind of prolific publishing, especially in poetry, automatically means that not everything that should have been edited and discarded has been. Hence, quality suffers. For example, this poem from her 2012 book of poems, A Thousand Mornings, which to me almost reads like something from a feel-good greeting card or one of those photoshopped jpgs people share on Facebook!

Three Things to Remember
by Mary Oliver

As long as you are dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

But overall, she is a delight to read for anyone that treasures the #AmazingWorld* and I hope there is still more books of poetry to come in the years ahead.
Mary Oliver, like some of the other great American poets alive today (Merwin, Strand, Ashbery, Donald Hall)  is also 75+ years old and I will rue the day when she (or any of the aforementioned poets) will pass on. There was some news last year on the Poetry Foundation website that she cancelled some poetry engagement due to a health issue and I feared the worst. I have not seen any news about her since hoping she is recovering slowly.

* That's a hashtag I use often in some of the things I tweet about. ;-)

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

And just like that, my #NPM2018 celebrations end with  a poem  today by Emmy Pérez. Not one more refugee death by Emmy Pérez A r...