Last year I provided an introduction to Joe’s surreal horror fiction collection Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and as I explained here when I shared an excerpt from that introduction , the writing of it actually represented a record of my struggle in learning how to understand the book, which I presented in hopes of helping the reader learn to do the same.
Thomas Ligotti provided a blurb for the book, and when he read my contribution he commented that it could actually serve as an effective introduction to any type of poetic work. So here, as provoked by my recent engagement with Kerouac and Co., and bearing the official blessing of Hippocampus Press and Joe himself, is the full text of that intro. Maybe it will convince you to buy Portraits of Ruin and help you unlock its dark delights. Maybe it will provide you with some useful advice for approaching other works written in an unconventional style whose goal is to speak both to and from the non-rational side of consciousness.
In any case, I hope you find that it somehow speaks to the inspired madman lurking within the depths of your conventionally sane self. Read the rest of this entry
From The Chronicle of Higher Education, a deeply moving, lovely, and troubling meditation on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by literature professor H. William Rice, whose father, a Methodist minister, suffered through a transformative depression when Rice was a child and read Frost (among other things) in order to cope with it:
[This] is the first poem I remember reading and appreciating. . . . I first read the poem because my father told me to. He was a Methodist minister and a bit more intellectual than most ministers. I thought that if I read the books he read, I would be smart. But the Frost book he pointed me to was different; it turned out he read it to cope with depression. I can still remember the tattered paperback with white-haired Frost — who was born 139 years ago, on March 26 — looking wistful on the cover.
. . . . My memories of that period in my father’s life are vague, but I do remember how he changed. Subtle qualities of his laugh, his smile, his very presence vanished and never reappeared. There was the father I had before his depression and the father I had after. He was always a good parent, a dutiful husband, and a diligent minister. But the man who survived depression was chastened in ways I could never describe with words.
. . . . Peering into the poem’s ominous shadows with my students, I found that world a scary place. It is “the darkest evening of the year”; the only sound is the “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” For the person who is depressed, the somber winter landscape mirrors the dark, frozen world inside. It could seem as if one has finally gotten to the heart of life itself, and there is nothing there.
. . . . At the celebration of Frost’s 85th birthday, Lionel Trilling described Frost as “a terrifying poet.” When I first read his work, I would have wondered what could be terrifying about snow falling in the woods on a winter’s evening. The landscape of the poem reminded me of a Currier & Ives print. But Frost captures the essence of depression in the poem’s understated simplicity, as if depression itself is the ultimate understatement: the inability to see anything beyond a frozen landscape.
More here: “Sharing Those Woods, Dark and Deep“
And here’s Frost himself, reciting the poem in its entirety, prefaced by a brief but effective introduction narrated by Garrison Keillor, who describes the poem’s famous origin in a burst of inspiration of almost hallucinatory vividness after Frost had worn himself out writing through the depths of a sleepless night:
In a previous Teeming Brain post (one that has received a steady inflow of visitors ever since I first published it in 2009), I talked about the magical/alchemical power of language in general and poetic language in particular:
[T]here’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace … It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.
— “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Alchemy of Language,” July 2, 2009
In an essay published just today in The Chronicle Review from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric G. Wilson, professor of English at Wake Forest University, provides a beautifully realized illustration of and meditation on this same idea:
I…tell my disgruntled students about the first time I read, as an undergraduate, these lines:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
I had often witnessed beams of dull December light with a melancholy I didn’t understand. Dickinson’s flash clarified my feelings: In the impoverished glow of the cold time were heavy reminders of brightness I desired but couldn’t possess. But this affliction had fever, intimations of future heat that was luminous, like hymns.
Dickinson’s verse spelled out the abstruse, made the strange familiar. In this new intimacy, however, was a novel astonishment: The chilly light from that day onward exposed the enigmas of longing, both tormenting and radiant. Her poetry left me amazed — caught in wonderment as well as labyrinth.
Other epiphanies followed. What I had taken for granted was shattered; the marvelous erupted amid the fragments. In Whitman I saw ordinary grass morph into the “uncut hair of graves.” In Eliot’s “Prufrock,” I watched twilight transmogrify into “a patient etherized upon a table.” The grass, the evening—in these metaphors, they grew more lucid than before, and more cryptic.
This is all wrapped up inside Wilson’s overarching thesis that the purpose of literature is to “make you weird,” something he says he first realized when he spontaneously blurted it out to a father and son when, having been tasked with the job of manning the table at a weekend college recruiting fair for high school seniors, he showed up “irritable, hung over, and resentful”:
A father and son immediately appeared, in virginal Wake Forest T-shirts and blond crew cuts. They smiled at me as if I had just praised their promptness. The younger looked up at dad, and father nodded to son, and son blurted: “Sell me the English major!” Through my brain’s murk, I searched for the hype. Failing to find it, I confessed: “It makes you weird.”
After a confused “OK,” the two looked down, backed away, and were gone. They shouldn’t have been so hasty. I had revealed to them, though I didn’t know it then, the great payoff of literary study: It estranges us from our normal habits of thought and perception, nullifies old conceptual maps, and so propels us into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where we must create, if we are to thrive, coordinates more capacious, more sublime than the ones we already know. The uncanny — not truth, beauty, or goodness — is literature’s boon.
— Eric G. Wilson, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 10, 2012
Trust me: Go and read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.
Also worth noting, although unrelated (or perhaps not?), is the fact that Wilson is the author of several books touching on subjects of direct interest to Teeming Brain readers. These include 2008’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, in which he argues that, contra America’s addiction to happy talk and positive thinking, “melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation,” and 2012’s Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, in which he explores humanity’s apparently ineradicable fascination with evil, morbidity, gore, and horror by “drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists … [A] lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there’s something nourishing in darkness. ‘To repress death is to lose the feeling of life,’ he writes. ‘A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies.'”
Image: “Blue Lagoon” by h.koppdelaney under Creative Commons
Here are some wise and lovely thoughts on the deep value of memorizing poetry from NYU English professor Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem.
It may be tempting to lament the passing of an era when one and all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge stored inside their heads, but the once-mandatory exercise was not universally beloved. For some, standing tongue-tied in front of mocking classmates and a threatening teacher when the words wouldn’t come was a hated and humiliating ordeal. For others — perhaps for the majority — it was just something to get through, a practice that meant little at the time, and still less later on.
But there’s a world of difference between being forced to memorize a poem and choosing to do it off one’s own bat. The pleasures of this exercise are many: It can be amusing or moving, challenging and satisfying, simple or profound. And sometimes it provides much more than pleasure.
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie, Invictus, dwells upon the strength that Nelson Mandela drew from his memory of W.E. Henley’s poem during 27 years of captivity. And one of the most devastating chapters in If This Is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, records the moment when the author recites the Ulysses canto from the Inferno to a fellow inmate and understands for the first time the terrifying implications of Dante’s words. There are memoirs aplenty about the degradations of life in the Soviet gulag, in which survivors give thanks for the saving grace of Pushkin’s poetry committed to memory in happier days.
When everything else has been taken from you, a memorized poem remains. It is there to remind you of who you once were, who you are now, and who you might be. It is there to remind you that there is a world beyond the self, a world in which someone once joined word and word and word to make something that had never existed before, a world in which the possibility for change, for seeing differently, is always there. It is there to remind you that you are not alone. When you recite a poem, you are in conversation with another.
You don’t need to be in desperate circumstances to appreciate the power of the memorized poem. You don’t even need a power cut. Go on, try it. Consider beginning with a poem written in the first person—perhaps Thomas Hardy’s “I Look Into My Glass,” Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility,” or those famous 16 lines by Henley. And then ask yourself: Where does the “I” of the poem end and your “I” begin?
— Catherine Robson, “Why Memorize a Poem?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 26, 2012
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Image: “Young Man Reading by Candlelight” by Matthias Stom (fl. 1615–1649) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In A Course in Demonic Creativity I talk at some length about the process of using early-morning writing to establish an open line of communication between yourself and your genius daemon. Here are some valuable further insights and reflections on this practice from poet Dennis P. Slattery, originally published in Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture and now reprinted at the website for the Pacifica Graduate Institute, where Slattery is a faculty member, and where he helped to organize the Mythological Studies program.
[I]f I am to write any poetry, it happens in this early morning time when the dreamscape from which I have just risen and the poetic inscape that I actively enter in reverie, in meditation, in contemplation, have a porous quality, a thinness of texture, so that ideas, images, can move freely between them, as through a shimmering membrane, where memory is in front of, rather than behind, me. Poetry and dream surface from the same embodied place, one which I now want to enter in this early hour without violating the thin filaments of dream that cling to my waking life, but rather moving into a conscious meditation of poiesis, the word given to us by the Greeks and invented to signal the creative act of making, of shaping an image into words. To this early poetic time of Polyhymnia I am called each morning, seven days a week — for I believe the continuity of creative time promotes a certain habitus, a certain disposed way of being and imagining — a rhythm rocking towards insight — that invites such reverie.
… Into this state of active quiet reverie, I am attentive, naïve, receptive, like a soul just born to the order and resonance of words and to the reality they point me to. The remarkable fact is that this reality is what I already know on some cellular or biological level but have failed to bring sufficiently across the threshold to consciousness. Speaking more generally, all of the nine Muses remind us, following their mother, Mnemosyne, of something we must retrieve, something once known but forgotten.
— “Tending the Muse of Poetry: Polyhymnia, Myth, and Dream” (pdf), Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, No. 70 (2004)
Also fascinating and valuable are Slattery’s reflections on the profound and vital relationship between poetry, the psyche, and matter, such that “Poetry helps us to see the truth of the idea that psyche and matter may indeed be the same thing,” since “poetry allows matter to speak; poetry allows speech to matter on a more imaginal level than discursive language.”
Image: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We are on a routine journey home; we are on the threshold of the universe, serenity mingling with awe; we are far from civilization and terribly near the ancient fears: separation, insignificance, darkness. (“He will not see me stopping” is one false step from “He will not hear me screaming.”) The boundaries between these conditions, never more than what we impose in order to stay sane, evaporate. And then comes the end, and another doubling — the most explicit one Frost ever wrote:
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
It is the greatest pan-out in the history of verse. We draw away from a man alone in the woods and see man, alone in the woods. As the scale expands, the world diminishes, becomes a snow globe, shaken. And right then, just as we are grasping the nature of our situation — we’re fine; we’re exhilarated; we’re terrified — Frost has the balls to vanish. But he brought us here in the first place! He said we were about to head home! — but no. We are stopping here. We are midway through our journey, no Virgil, no nothing, alone, and this place we are in (like this poem we are in) is lovely. And it is dark. And it is deep. Translation: We are lucky to be here; we are sane to be scared; we are not getting out anytime soon. In point of fact, we are not getting out at all. Not in this lifetime, anyway. We will never be out of these woods.
— Kathryn Schulz, “Schulz on the Terrors and Pleasures of Robert Frost,” Vulture, June 3, 2012
Image credit: Musings
Some years ago I started telling the students in my literature and writing classes that language has an alchemical power. I usually do this when we’re studying poetry, although I have applied the idea to prose as well.
This always necessitates a pause to offer a brief explanation of the word “alchemy.” Then, once that’s out of the way, I go on to explain that there’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is particularly true when it comes to lyric poetry, I explain, because this type of poetry is specifically meant to capture and express the author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of “what it’s saying” in terms of the words, concepts, and images, but an actual shared feeling with the author. When a lyric poem “works,” it actually recreates the author’s inner state in the reader (or listener, if the poem is spoken aloud), so that the author and reader are vibrating in sympathy, as it were, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.
I also point out that the same fundamental idea applies to all types of writing, and this sometimes leads to a brief discussion of basic communication theory, in which I sketch on the chalkboard or dry-erase board the famous diagram showing the basic parts of the communication process: sender, receiver, message, feedback, etc. My undergraduate major was communication, and I studied huge amounts of communication theory during that period, plus I used to teach public speaking, where this model proved extremely useful in helping students to understand what they were trying to accomplish in delivering their speeches (the recreation in their listeners’ minds of the message that they, the speakers, were laboring to present). Sometimes, this foray into communication theory actually helps to clarify and reinforce the point.
Of course, I don’t always get all of that properly said in class. The above description is a kind of idealized version of what I’d like to say. Sometimes it comes out better and sometimes worse, depending on the specific tone of the interaction I’m having with the specific group of students at the time. But the students never fail to find it interesting, and I never fail to find something interesting in their responses. I often use Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” (which is both a lyric poem and a narrative poem, and is quite dear to me) to illustrate the point, and the alchemical explanation seems to help a lot of students gain a better grasp of what Frost’s poem is getting at with its apotheosis of a wintry longing for silence, solitude, and ultimate rest.
(By way of interjection, I recognize that this explanation of poetry’s and language’s effect extends well beyond the boundaries of literature alone, and has resonances with and implications for art as a whole, and also for lots of other things. In fact, see below.)
I bring all of this up at my blog right now because I just came from reading an interesting review of, or actually a kind of roadmap to, a new book titled What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science, edited by Max Brockman. The review is titled “Top scientists predict the future of science” and was written for New Scientist online by Amanda Gefter. The book itself, as described by Gefter with the help of the book’s jacket copy, is a “captivating collection of essays, written by ‘rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones.’ The result is a medley of big ideas on topics ranging from cosmology and climate change, to morality and cognitive enhancement.”
What really caught my attention and reminded me of my alchemical explanation of poetry is Gefter’s tracing of the book’s focus on language and social interaction and the way these have probably exerted a decisive influence upon the evolution of the human species and therefore human civilization. The ideas she shares from the book’s assembled authors ping on my fascination with the alchemy of language in manifold ways.
We are a social species, and we have our brains to thank. As Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell writes: “The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess of individual minds, but the ability to harness that power across many individuals.” Language allows us to do this in an unprecedented way — it serves as a vehicle for transferring one’s own mental states into another’s mind.
Or how about this:
We also connect to other minds via mirror neurons — those copycat brain cells that echo other people’s actions and emotions from within the confines of our own skulls. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from one another’s experiences and to see the world through foreign eyes — a neurological feat that seems to lie at the basis of so much of what it is to be human. Through mirror neurons, “our experiences fuse into the joint pool of knowledge that we call culture,” writes neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. “With the advent of language, books and television, this sharing becomes global, allowing us to exchange experiences across time and space.”
Color me fascinated. I have my doubts about whether these thoughts would prove interesting to most of my students, but they certainly grab me, and do so strongly enough that I may find it necessary to acquire and read this book, if only to revel in its confirmation of my own Beautiful Mind.
(That last comment is intended as ironic, by the way, a fact which I hasten to point out in case its tonal-alchemical intent went over like an untransmuted lead balloon.)