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Posts Tagged ‘WH Auden’

Since vowing, in the wake of reading The 40 Rules of Love, to focus more on spiritual poetry, I have conspicuously failed to follow through. Yes, I’ve finished my volume of selected poems by Machado, dipped into a few of Eliot’s later poems, been diverted by very brief excursions into Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, and a far longer exploration of Samuel Beckett’s life (more of that in a minute), only to end by picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall with the intention of finishing it at last, after starting it more than 12 months ago. That was after the eye-opening experience of reading Samantha Ellis’s Take Courage. I baulked at reading on at the time because I wasn’t sure that I could handle the nightmare of Helen’s marriage as Emily has her depict it.

Maybe Auden was right when he said in his Letter to Lord Byron (Stanzas 13 and 14 of the first part), after mentioning Jane Austen:

Then she’s a novelist. I don’t know whether
You will agree, but novel writing is
A higher art than poetry altogether
In my opinion, and success implies
Both finer character and faculties.
Perhaps that’s why real novels are as rare
As winter thunder or a polar bear.

The average poet by comparison
Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.

I don’t really agree with that, and nor did he I think: I sense his tongue is firmly in his cheek. His other praise of novelists is similarly faint and less ambiguous when he writes ‘he must become the whole of boredom’ and ‘if he can,/Dully put up with all the wrongs of man.’

So, perhaps not surprisingly the novel still insists on commanding my attention.

While Anne Brontë’s dialogue seems sometimes improbable and slightly stilted, her insights into character and her deep understanding of the dynamics both between and within men and women at that time (and I would argue still) is masterly (sorry, but mistressly doesn’t seem to work – and consummate has the wrong connotations. Any other suggestions would be warmly welcomed.)

This is one of the novel’s great strengths.

I am gripped once again at the point where Helen begins to understand her mistake in marrying the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interests me particularly is the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Faith is unfashionable these days. I completely understand why. On the one hand, the abuse of religious teachings by unscrupulous zealots is vilifying the whole idea of God. And on the other hand, worshipping the material world can bring immediate rewards. ‘Why waste time on religion? It’s an outdated and destructive delusion,’ we might say. ‘And damaging to the art of the writer.’

I disagree. Her novel integrates her faith with her art and that only adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that some will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable.

Even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: the only other book I can think of off-hand that comes anywhere close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Much, a brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (“The Pure One”), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

On further reflection I must include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).’

His absolute refusal to attempt anything of the kind may be part of the reason why Beckett as a writer fails to engage my interest. Few writers have ever seemed as trapped as Beckett was in a pillar-box consciousness that struggles and fails to find meaning in anything at all. Even so, I do remember enjoying being involved in a production of Waiting for Godot many years ago when working at Kilburn Polytechnic. As I recall we emphasised the comic music hall aspects rather than the existential angst. That play is perhaps the most accessible and amusing and least unpalatable expression of his bleak view of reality, and it appealed to my scepticism at the time about religion and God.

I still fail to resonate to the overall negativity and nihilism of his world view, of the kind that meant that towards the end of his life, when he was asked (Cronin – page 590), ‘And now it’s nearly over, Sam, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?’ he replied ‘Precious little.’

There is nonetheless something about his perspective I do appreciate.

At the very end of his book Cronin concludes (page 592):

It is doubtful if he believed in any sort of survival of consciousness, or disbelieved in it either, since belief – or disbelief – was not something he permitted himself. He thought that all the guides were poor ones and that it was better to live, and to admit to living, in complete uncertainty . . .

In The Eclipse of Certainty I quoted Lamberth about William James. Lamberth reports William James’s point of view as follows (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

The sense I have is that James did achieve a position where, even though uncertainty could not be completely dispelled, a workable sense of reality that would guide effective practical and consensus moral action is within our reach, even in the still pluralistic social world we inhabit. This is very much how I feel about the issue, hence my sense of being very much at home in James’s worldview. So, my position is not as absolute as Beckett’s.

Literature, which at its best serves to express a writer’s enriching take on reality and cannot really do otherwise if it is to work, needs to tread a fairly narrow path between dogmatically preaching any form of doctrine, whether that be religious or nihilistic, and simply pandering to the reader’s desire to escape into an unreal but more comfortable or more exciting world.

And now I have another decision to make.

There are two wolves waiting in the wings – Wolf Solent (again half finished) and Wolf Hall (barely started yet). Neither of them preach or pander, as far as I can tell up to now. Which one will most reward my continuing immersion in its world, I wonder? Or will I end up somewhere else altogether? Time will tell.

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In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with last Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post, like the last one, constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

N.B. now we’re back on track after the two posts out of sequence! To read 5a now see link.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

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What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm. Poetry is much more effective and complete than prose. It stirs more deeply, for it is of a finer composition. . . . . . they affect the heart and spirit.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Writings on Music – pages 8-9)

. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divinepages 29-30)

'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte

As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This post constitutes a slight break with the focus on Shelley but needs to be included, I think, for continuity’s sake.

What makes a poem?

This last set of posts in this sequence will really be just the beginning of another project.

For this project to work first of all I’ll need to have some sense of what makes a good poem for me, one worth not only understanding in its own right but also for learning more, in light of the poet’s life, about the creative process at the highest level.

Once I feel reasonably clear that I can reliably choose the best poems to focus on from my point of view, then I need to check out previous thinking for what I might need to know in devising my own pragmatic and at this stage tentative model.

Once I’ve done that perhaps I can constructively look at a handful of Shelley’s poems for what they can tell me, before I finally attempt to articulate my own model.

Assuming this is the best available approach I have divided my exploratory explanation into four sections:

  1. telling a good poem from a bad one, with some idea of what might be the purpose of lyric poetry in particular – that’s what this post will be about;
  2. looking at earlier models of creativity – that’s for next time;
  3. looking at three of Shelley’s poems – that’s for next week and will be in two parts; and
  4. a provisional model of creativity – the last post!

Telling a Good Lyric from a Bad One

Before we go any further I need to share a recent realisation. Readers of this blog may remember my rants against ‘brick-wall’ poetry. As I was researching in books from my shelves to help me with this section, I came across two poems.

The first was by William Stafford – not a poet I’d heard of before. His poetry was the focus of a chapter in Where Art & Faith Converge. It was written by Michael Fitzgerald, the editor of the book and a poet I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. The poem in question reads:

At the Bomb Testing Site

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Fitzgerald stresses how Stafford’s simplicity, combined with depth and resonance, has made him both popular as well as respected by most, though not all critics. I’ll quote a typical response of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s by Steven M. Molthan and can be found at this link:

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” Stafford has us contemplate a small lizard that “waited for history, its elbows tense,” This tenseness is something humans ought to feel as well since the existence of nuclear weapons and their life-ending potential is ever present. In the poem, Stafford ascribes to the lizard an almost prophetic quality—it seems to see something is going to happen. “It was looking at something farther off/ than people could see, an important scene…at the flute end of consequences.” The poem brings home the fact that life is something precious and to be made safe. Under an empty sky, there are no guarantees—the poem implies that our choices will preserve our natural existence, or bring its end. “There was just a continent without much on it/ under a sky that never cared less./ Ready for a change, the elbows waited./ The hands gripped hard on the desert.” Keeping a grip on our planet as the panting, tense lizard does is important for the continuance of all life, human and reptilian.

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

I’ll discuss the second poem in a moment. Why am I bringing this one into the mix?

Well, I feel it raises serious questions about the possible over-simplification of my rant about puzzle poetry, and these questions are going to be relevant here when I come to discuss why I choose certain poems of Shelley’s and not others in my examination of the creative process.

As I explained before, I feel it is legitimate to distinguish between poems and verse. How should I do that though? How does this poem and the next one I am going to discuss help me decide?

The core point is simple. I cannot dismiss the Stafford poem as an irritating puzzle. It’s pretty clear what it’s getting at (though I did, for some reason that is still unclear to me, react against the phrase ‘flute end of consequences.’) Even though the theme is clear, and one I should like because I agree with what it’s saying, I don’t like the poem. I was even tempted, and still am, to feel it is not really a poem.

Why should this be so? I made myself question this because I respect Fitzgerald both as critic and poet, and if he likes a poem when I don’t something needs explaining.

In meditation, an explanation came to mind. I don’t like the absence of music in this poem. It’s a left-brain poem, in that sense, for me. It seems flat and prosaic. It triggers my prejudice against the minimalist in modern art of all forms, but which I find most irritating in poetry, my favourite art form after song. Even the imagery does not resonate for me. The poem has a purely intellectual impact and only tells me what I already know. It does not create an experience from which I learn something new: there is no ‘solving for the unknown’ to use Robert Hayden‘s take on Auden’s idea of the algebra of a poem (cf From the Auroral Darkeness: the Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 17).

In an article in the Washington Post Charles quotes Mark Edmundson who nails it for me:

In “Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, upbraids our bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” That’s just for starters.

“Their poetry is not heard but overheard,” he laments, “and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.”

And he names the names. After studying Paul Muldoon for years, Edmundson complains that he still has “barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.” Jorie Graham is “portentous.” Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense; her verse “is so obscure, mannered, and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.” John Ashbery “says little” in his “perpetual hedging.”

“One can’t generalize about it all,” Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing.

Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — they’re all brought into Edmundson’s office for a dressing down. Their poems “are good in their ways,” he concedes. “They simply aren’t good enough. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.”

I can now recognise that Stafford’s lyric will appeal to many readers in our machine-minded age. It may even really be a poem to whose beauty and power I am blind. But I don’t think I am ever going to like such poems, nor are they therefore going to change my sensibility or raise my consciousness as I re-read and reflect upon them.

This clarifies for me that it is not simply the puzzle of a poem that repels me. Both left-brain and right-brain poems can be puzzling. I just don’t like left-brain poems, puzzling or not.

Left-brain readers may wish to bail out at this point.

In addition, for me, left brain poems tend to take puzzling to a cryptic extreme, as I have already discussed at length on this blog (see earlier links). Right-brain poems can puzzle me, but the music keeps me engaged, and the mystery gradually dissolves because the problem posed by the poem can be solved by the experience the poem creates rather than by the crossword exercise of the intellect.

In the end, left-brain poems may not be poems at all, and in many cases, may not even be verse.

Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Sandra Lynn Hutchison (for source of image see link)

A Test Case

What helped me come to this conclusion was reading a poem by Sandra Lynn Hutchison in this same book (page 198) called The Art of Nesting. To convey a sense of what it is like I’ll quote the opening stanza:

Commit yourself to transience, yet stay conversant with the world
of things. Choose a leaf – aspern, birch, willow – small enough to weave
into the fabric until winter is over and the idea hatches, vibrant with
trilling life. It will appear mysteriously as the fuzzy dawn of feathers.

The poem’s focus is again not human but in this case a bird not a lizard. It’s unusual perspective upon the cycle of life and its empathic engagement with the bird’s point of view is, for me, made more powerful by the music of the lines. Because it is giving advice to the bird, readers also cannot help but feel the advice is directed at them as well in some way. The connection with nature it creates, for me at least avoids sentimentality, except for the word ‘sweet’ in line14, and is just as crucial to develop as the awareness Stafford seeks to evoke.

(I also think the word ‘indigent’ in line 12 could be a publisher’s error: I’m fairly sure it should be indolent. It reads: ‘Look, some clippings lie below/on the lawn where someone, too indigent to do the work, left them.’ Not the poet’s fault, that one, I suspect.)

For me, Hutchison’s is a right-brain poem, of the kind I will tend to choose when I am seeking to understand creativity. Whether the processes and triggers of these two kinds of poetry are the same I will probably never know. Perhaps the factors I will be eliciting will generalise to both. Given my scepticism about whether left-brain poems are poems at all, I doubt it.

A Final Legup 

I have been further helped along my path of understanding by Mark Edmundson’s thinking.

Gordon Kerr drew my attention to his existence by flagging up Edmundson’s recent book via his FB page about the arts. I investigated further on the web as the book was not immediately available.

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out what he wants in a lyric poem:

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous.

He laments the limitations of most current lyric poetry: ‘What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. . . . [Poems now] don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.’

And as for what the poet we have been examining would hope for, well that’s almost completely out of bounds: ‘Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world.’

He fulminates powerfully against what he regards as the current habit of ‘hedging,’ which he feels is the ruination of a poem:

Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters. The poet-prophet, says Northrop Frye, may do many things, but he never hedges. From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery’s work is a perpetual hedging.

If I now throw into the mix Shelley’s recommendation for the purpose of great poetry, I may well have all the criteria I need to guide my choice of great lyrics (Shelley – from the Preface to The Cenci):

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Basically then I will be looking for consciousness-raising alongside Edmundson’s poetic triad: ‘the power of expression’ (for me that includes music appropriate to the meaning), ‘the power to find a theme,’ and ‘ambition’ in his sense of those words.

My edition of ShelleyDoes Shelley Qualify?

Shelley unarguably emphasised music in his poetry. Ann Wroe proves this by quoting from his notebooks (page 245-46):

In the ordinary way of composition – if there was, with Shelley, any ordinary way – his ear was for rhythm first. He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come. . . . . . Testing a metre, he would often mark it as small lines on the page, |||||||, set out imperiously at the start like the tick of a metronome. He . . . . made them into a hum:

Ham, Humb um haumb haum, aum

na na, na na na na / na

or again (playing with the rhythm of ‘Ah time, oh night, oh day’ and dreaming of Emelia, who was writing in the notebook with him),

Ni na ni na, na ni

Ni na ni na, ni na

Oh life o death, o time

There was no doubt he often chose deeply important themes and he certainly did not lack ambition and was very concerned to change the way people thought. He would seem a very good candidate therefore to test whether this combination of characteristics can create great lyric poetry. Assuming it does, I can then perhaps begin to unravel what contextual conditions are most conducive to eliciting such poetry and what definable processes are involved.

Some Caveats

I perhaps need to spell out that consciousness raising is not the same as preaching. Didactic verse is not poetry, in my opinion. And this cuts both ways. A religious poet should not moralise, for if she does the poem dies. Similarly, even if a poet sees life as apparently meaningless chaos, that does not mean that he is justified in calling polemics, which mimic that vision, poems. That’s a form of indirect didacticism just as unwelcome as a religious moralising.

Life is light and dark, order and apparent chaos. Art should capture the blend not select only one end of the spectrum for representation. To capitulate to human destructiveness, for example in response to war, by replicating only the discord and dissonance, as I feel Vaughn Williams did in his symphonies written in reaction to World War II, abdicates the role of art in counterbalancing the darkness with the possibility of light.

Last of all I perhaps need to explain why I am ignoring Shelley’s dramatic poetry and will, in any subsequent posts on these issues, neglect epic and dramatic poetry. I am playing to my relative strengths. I write lyrics, albeit minor ones in comparison. But at least I know something of what it feels like from the inside. Epic and dramatic poetry is completely beyond my powers, however much I may admire it. I therefore think my judgement is more likely to be correct in my examination of lyrics. So, that’s why I’ll be focusing on lyric poetry.

So what do other people feel creativity is? More on that next Monday.

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Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

Given my recent interest in Shelley and the poetry of protest, this piece in last week’s Guardian by  caught my eye. It also contains a reminder of a poem by Auden on Sigmund Freud which I must have another look at. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

am on my way to Newcastle. It’s pleasing to note that the city’s university awarded an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King in his lifetime and that the unexpected and impromptu speech with which he received it in 1967 is up there with the legendary “I have a dream” of four years before. It was filmed, then lost for many years, before its rediscovery in the annals of the academy. It was shown to me some years ago and you can view it online. Is it a great speech, though, or more aptly described as a thunderous political poem against racism, poverty and war?

So what better place for a poetry festival, and especially to discuss human rights and the “poetry of witness” with Carolyn Forché? Forché is a celebrated US poet, translator and human rights defender and I am fascinated by the way that this combination of skills and experience must have shaped all aspects of her work. I love her refusal to accept the bifurcation between “personal” and “political” poetry and to embrace instead a notion of the “social” that describes human rights thinking, so much great art and also, surely, the human condition itself. Aren’t we in essence all both individual and social creatures? Our rights and freedoms reflect the yearning for freedom, autonomy, privacy and conscience, but also our need to associate and express as family, community and society. A politics that ignores or suppresses the intimate sphere will allow or even ensure abuses of power in the home, on the streets and in its own institutions.

The poetry of witness has long compensated for censored or corrupted news media when truth must be spoken to power – think of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade or Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Poetry and human rights are very often tied together; think of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry, which are intimate while also tackling the huge themes of feminism, equality and being Jewish after the Holocaust. The civil rights poetry and activism of Langston Hughes are completely inseparable.

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Guernica

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that next Monday.

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What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm. Poetry is much more effective and complete than prose. It stirs more deeply, for it is of a finer composition. . . . . . they affect the heart and spirit.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í Writings on Music – pages 8-9)

. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divinepages 29-30)

'The False Mirror' by René Magritte

‘The False Mirror’ by René Magritte

What makes a poem?

This last set of posts in this sequence will really be just the beginning of another project.

For this project to work first of all I’ll need to have some sense of what makes a good poem for me, one worth not only understanding in its own right but also for learning more, in light of the poet’s life, about the creative process at the highest level.

Once I feel reasonably clear that I can reliably choose the best poems to focus on from my point of view, then I need to check out previous thinking for what I might need to know in devising my own pragmatic and at this stage tentative model.

Once I’ve done that perhaps I can constructively look at a handful of Shelley’s poems for what they can tell me, before I finally attempt to articulate my own model.

Assuming this is the best available approach I have divided my exploratory explanation into four sections:

  1. telling a good poem from a bad one, with some idea of what might be the purpose of lyric poetry in particular – that’s what this post will be about;
  2. looking at earlier models of creativity – that’s for next time;
  3. looking at three of Shelley’s poems – that’s for next week and will be in two parts; and
  4. a provisional model of creativity – the last post!

Telling a Good Lyric from a Bad One

Before we go any further I need to share a recent realisation. Readers of this blog may remember my rants against ‘brick-wall’ poetry. As I was researching in books from my shelves to help me with this section, I came across two poems.

The first was by William Stafford – not a poet I’d heard of before. His poetry was the focus of a chapter in Where Art & Faith Converge. It was written by Michael Fitzgerald, the editor of the book and a poet I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. The poem in question reads:

At the Bomb Testing Site

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Fitzgerald stresses how Stafford’s simplicity, combined with depth and resonance, has made him both popular as well as respected by most, though not all critics. I’ll quote a typical response of the ones I’ve read so far. It’s by Steven M. Molthan and can be found at this link:

In “At the Bomb Testing Site,” Stafford has us contemplate a small lizard that “waited for history, its elbows tense,” This tenseness is something humans ought to feel as well since the existence of nuclear weapons and their life-ending potential is ever present. In the poem, Stafford ascribes to the lizard an almost prophetic quality—it seems to see something is going to happen. “It was looking at something farther off/ than people could see, an important scene…at the flute end of consequences.” The poem brings home the fact that life is something precious and to be made safe. Under an empty sky, there are no guarantees—the poem implies that our choices will preserve our natural existence, or bring its end. “There was just a continent without much on it/ under a sky that never cared less./ Ready for a change, the elbows waited./ The hands gripped hard on the desert.” Keeping a grip on our planet as the panting, tense lizard does is important for the continuance of all life, human and reptilian.

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

Operation Sunbeam (for source of image see link)

I’ll discuss the second poem in a moment. Why am I bringing this one into the mix?

Well, I feel it raises serious questions about the possible over-simplification of my rant about puzzle poetry, and these questions are going to be relevant here when I come to discuss why I choose certain poems of Shelley’s and not others in my examination of the creative process.

As I explained before, I feel it is legitimate to distinguish between poems and verse. How should I do that though? How does this poem and the next one I am going to discuss help me decide?

The core point is simple. I cannot dismiss the Stafford poem as an irritating puzzle. It’s pretty clear what it’s getting at (though I did, for some reason that is still unclear to me, react against the phrase ‘flute end of consequences.’) Even though the theme is clear, and one I should like because I agree with what it’s saying, I don’t like the poem. I was even tempted, and still am, to feel it is not really a poem.

Why should this be so? I made myself question this because I respect Fitzgerald both as critic and poet, and if he likes a poem when I don’t something needs explaining.

In meditation, an explanation came to mind. I don’t like the absence of music in this poem. It’s a left-brain poem, in that sense, for me. It seems flat and prosaic. It triggers my prejudice against the minimalist in modern art of all forms, but which I find most irritating in poetry, my favourite art form after song. Even the imagery does not resonate for me. The poem has a purely intellectual impact and only tells me what I already know. It does not create an experience from which I learn something new: there is no ‘solving for the unknown’ to use Robert Hayden‘s take on Auden’s idea of the algebra of a poem (cf From the Auroral Darkeness: the Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 17).

In an article in the Washington Post Charles quotes Mark Edmundson who nails it for me:

In “Poetry Slam, or, The Decline of American Verse,” Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, upbraids our bards for being “oblique, equivocal, painfully self-questioning . . . timid, small, in retreat . . . ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn.” That’s just for starters.

“Their poetry is not heard but overheard,” he laments, “and sometimes is too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension.”

And he names the names. After studying Paul Muldoon for years, Edmundson complains that he still has “barely a clue as to what Muldoon is going on about.” Jorie Graham is “portentous.” Anne Carson may be Canadian, but that’s no defense; her verse “is so obscure, mannered, and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.” John Ashbery “says little” in his “perpetual hedging.”

“One can’t generalize about it all,” Edmundson warns, before generalizing about it all in a nuclear assault that leaves no poet standing.

Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky — they’re all brought into Edmundson’s office for a dressing down. Their poems “are good in their ways,” he concedes. “They simply aren’t good enough. They don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.”

I can now recognise that Stafford’s lyric will appeal to many readers in our machine-minded age. It may even really be a poem to whose beauty and power I am blind. But I don’t think I am ever going to like such poems, nor are they therefore going to change my sensibility or raise my consciousness as I re-read and reflect upon them.

This clarifies for me that it is not simply the puzzle of a poem that repels me. Both left-brain and right-brain poems can be puzzling. I just don’t like left-brain poems, puzzling or not.

Left-brain readers may wish to bail out at this point.

In addition, for me, left brain poems tend to take puzzling to a cryptic extreme, as I have already discussed at length on this blog (see earlier links). Right-brain poems can puzzle me, but the music keeps me engaged, and the mystery gradually dissolves because the problem posed by the poem can be solved by the experience the poem creates rather than by the crossword exercise of the intellect.

In the end, left-brain poems may not be poems at all, and in many cases, may not even be verse.

Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Sandra Lynn Hutchison (for source of image see link)

A Test Case

What helped me come to this conclusion was reading a poem by Sandra Lynn Hutchison in this same book (page 198) called The Art of Nesting. To convey a sense of what it is like I’ll quote the opening stanza:

Commit yourself to transience, yet stay conversant with the world
of things. Choose a leaf – aspern, birch, willow – small enough to weave
into the fabric until winter is over and the idea hatches, vibrant with
trilling life. It will appear mysteriously as the fuzzy dawn of feathers.

The poem’s focus is again not human but in this case a bird not a lizard. It’s unusual perspective upon the cycle of life and its empathic engagement with the bird’s point of view is, for me, made more powerful by the music of the lines. Because it is giving advice to the bird, readers also cannot help but feel the advice is directed at them as well in some way. The connection with nature it creates, for me at least avoids sentimentality, except for the word ‘sweet’ in line14, and is just as crucial to develop as the awareness Stafford seeks to evoke.

(I also think the word ‘indigent’ in line 12 could be a publisher’s error: I’m fairly sure it should be indolent. It reads: ‘Look, some clippings lie below/on the lawn where someone, too indigent to do the work, left them.’ Not the poet’s fault, that one, I suspect.)

For me, Hutchison’s is a right-brain poem, of the kind I will tend to choose when I am seeking to understand creativity. Whether the processes and triggers of these two kinds of poetry are the same I will probably never know. Perhaps the factors I will be eliciting will generalise to both. Given my scepticism about whether left-brain poems are poems at all, I doubt it.

A Final Legup 

I have been further helped along my path of understanding by Mark Edmundson’s thinking.

Gordon Kerr drew my attention to his existence by flagging up Edmundson’s recent book via his FB page about the arts. I investigated further on the web as the book was not immediately available.

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out what he wants in a lyric poem:

We might say that three qualities are necessary to write superb lyric poetry. First, the writer must have something of a gift: she must be able to make music, command metaphors, compress sense, write melodiously when the situation demands and gratingly when need be. She must be versed in irony; she must have control of tone. But there is more — a second requirement. She must also have something to say. There must be some region of her experience that has transfixed her and that she feels compelled to put into words and illuminate. She must burn to attack some issue, must want to unbind a knot, tighten it, or maybe send a blade directly through its core.

Given these powers — the power of expression and the power to find a theme — the poet still must add ambition. She must be willing to write for her readers. She must be willing to articulate the possibility that what is true for her is true for all. When these three qualities — lyric gift; a serious theme, passionately addressed; real ambition (which one might also call courage) — come together, the results can be luminous.

He laments the limitations of most current lyric poetry: ‘What is a poem now? It is, to speak very generally, a moment of illumination. . . . [Poems now] don’t slake a reader’s thirst for meanings that pass beyond the experience of the individual poet and light up the world we hold in common.’

And as for what the poet we have been examining would hope for, well that’s almost completely out of bounds: ‘Poets now would quail before the injunction to justify God’s ways to man, or even man’s to God. No one would attempt an Essay on Humanity. No one would publicly say what Shelley did: that the reason he wrote his books was to change the world.’

He fulminates powerfully against what he regards as the current habit of ‘hedging,’ which he feels is the ruination of a poem:

Sylvia Plath may or may not overtop the bounds of taste and transgress the limits of metaphor when she compares her genteel professor father to a Nazi brute. (“Every woman adores a Fascist.”) But she challenges all women to reimagine the relations between fathers and daughters. The poet-prophet, says Northrop Frye, may do many things, but he never hedges. From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery’s work is a perpetual hedging.

If I now throw into the mix Shelley’s recommendation for the purpose of great poetry, I may well have all the criteria I need to guide my choice of great lyrics (Shelley – from the Preface to The Cenci):

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Basically then I will be looking for consciousness-raising alongside Edmundson’s poetic triad: ‘the power of expression’ (for me that includes music appropriate to the meaning), ‘the power to find a theme,’ and ‘ambition’ in his sense of those words.

My edition of ShelleyDoes Shelley Qualify?

Shelley unarguably emphasised music in his poetry. Ann Wroe proves this by quoting from his notebooks (page 245-46):

In the ordinary way of composition – if there was, with Shelley, any ordinary way – his ear was for rhythm first. He found the metre, then the rhymes, leaving gaps, as was necessary, when words would not come. . . . . . Testing a metre, he would often mark it as small lines on the page, |||||||, set out imperiously at the start like the tick of a metronome. He . . . . made them into a hum:

Ham, Humb um haumb haum, aum

na na, na na na na / na

or again (playing with the rhythm of ‘Ah time, oh night, oh day’ and dreaming of Emelia, who was writing in the notebook with him),

Ni na ni na, na ni

Ni na ni na, ni na

Oh life o death, o time

There was no doubt he often chose deeply important themes and he certainly did not lack ambition and was very concerned to change the way people thought. He would seem a very good candidate therefore to test whether this combination of characteristics can create great lyric poetry. Assuming it does, I can then perhaps begin to unravel what contextual conditions are most conducive to eliciting such poetry and what definable processes are involved.

Some Caveats

I perhaps need to spell out that consciousness raising is not the same as preaching. Didactic verse is not poetry, in my opinion. And this cuts both ways. A religious poet should not moralise, for if she does the poem dies. Similarly, even if a poet sees life as apparently meaningless chaos, that does not mean that he is justified in calling polemics, which mimic that vision, poems. That’s a form of indirect didacticism just as unwelcome as a religious moralising.

Life is light and dark, order and apparent chaos. Art should capture the blend not select only one end of the spectrum for representation. To capitulate to human destructiveness, for example in response to war, by replicating only the discord and dissonance, as I feel Vaughn Williams did in his symphonies written in reaction to World War II, abdicates the role of art in counterbalancing the darkness with the possibility of light.

Last of all I perhaps need to explain why I am ignoring Shelley’s dramatic poetry and will, in any subsequent posts on these issues, neglect epic and dramatic poetry. I am playing to my relative strengths. I write lyrics, albeit minor ones in comparison. But at least I know something of what it feels like from the inside. Epic and dramatic poetry is completely beyond my powers, however much I may admire it. I therefore think my judgement is more likely to be correct in my examination of lyrics. So, that’s why I’ll be focusing on lyric poetry.

So what do other people feel creativity is? More on that next Monday.

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Thou hast clung to tyranny, and cast away justice; whereupon all created things have lamented, and still thou art among the wayward. Thou hast put to death the aged, and plundered the young. Thinkest thou that thou wilt consume that which thine iniquity hath amassed? Nay, by Myself! Thus informeth thee He Who is cognizant of all. By God! The things thou possessest shall profit thee not, nor what thou hast laid up through thy cruelty.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Epistle to the Son of the Wolf page 102)

Art and reality have a complex relationship as the background to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll illustrates (for the full 2005 article Guardian see link).

The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator’s name, omitting the letter T – perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasise the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the Zs. And Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on.

Police arrested him at the ball for disorderly conduct – he was wildly drunk – and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault – but not of murder.

However, for reasons the Guardian article unpacks, those inaccuracies in no way detract from the power and brilliance of the song or from the integrity of its basic message:

Zantzinger was sentenced on August 28 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun all ran brief stories about the sentencing; none mentioned that anybody objected to the lightness of the sentence.

All three papers devoted pages and pages to the march; and it is striking, to a reader four decades on, how blind (for want of a better word) the coverage all was. What comes through in the stories about the march is a vast sense of relief – shared, presumably, by the reporters, the papers’ management and their readership – that the 200,000 or more assembled “Negroes” hadn’t burned Washington to the ground. All three papers used the adjective “orderly” in their headlines; all reported prominently on President Kennedy’s praise for the marchers’ politeness and decorum. The Post and the Sun gave small notice to Dr King, and less to what he said. Neither made much of the phrase “I have a dream”. Only James Reston of the Times understood that he had witnessed a great work of oratory, but even his story veered into brow-wiping at the good manners of the marchers.

Listening to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll today, you can hear Dylan shouting against exactly this blindness. The song he wrote took a one-column, under-the-rug story and played it as big as it deserved to be. Dylan’s voice sounds so young, hopeful, unjaded, noncommercial – so far from the Victoria’s Secret world of today. Even the song’s title is well chosen: Before I went to Carroll’s church, I had not quite understood why her death was “lonesome”. But of course, as Rev Jessup noted: “Not one of those people stood up for her.” In a party full of elegant guests, Hattie Carroll was on her own.

If it weren’t for television and videotape, we would not know how powerful the march on Washington, or Dr King’s speech, really was. And if it weren’t for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.

So, given that the value of the song is not corrupted by its departures from literal truth, how far is this also true of the relationship between the possibly immoral artist and the potentially inspiring art, which is at least as complex? And just as importantly why does it matter?

Times may not have changed as much as we would like

At this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process.

For reasons that will become clear as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. Our own time therefore has echoes of the times he lived in.

During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of whom committed suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

He seems therefore a good example to choose in my exploration of altruism, and also of the complex relationship between reality, the artist and the art. It may even shed light, for me at least, on how artists and others might best respond to the current crisis, for we see him struggling, amongst other things, to define the most constructive response to violence, whether from the state or elsewhere. He may have even been an unseen influence inspiring Dylan to create his masterly attack on injustice.

Exactly what led me to see that he might be such an example also maps out an interesting trajectory, one which might tempt us to feel it was ever so, and because we still have not worked out how to solve it after 200 years, we never will. I’m not convinced by that pessimistic conclusion but I will accept that it can sometimes be a tempting one to draw.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

The Appeal of Protest and Satire

For as long as I can remember, during my formative years, the five major Romantic poets writing in English took centre stage in my mind’s theatre behind only Shakespeare in the power of their influence upon me. Given my disaffection with the faith I was reared in, poetry was effectively my religion.

However, I was equally taken with only four of the five. In my late teens Byron snook ahead with his major satirical works: The Vision of Judgement, Beppo and of course Don Juan. How could I resist the playful power of lines I still can quote from memory such as these?

St Peter sat by the celestial gate:
His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
Not that the place by any means was full . . .

(My memory smoothed out the scansion of the last line but was otherwise impressively accurate!) That it was also a protest against the reign of George III, a king ‘who shielded tyrants’ (stanza viii), added to its attraction.

Mixed Dictators v5My entry into this world fell under the shadow of three tyrants and a world war. It was a long shadow and the end of the war did not see the end of widespread atrocities. The irony of the ‘peace’ that followed lay not least in the fact that the Western Powers, having rescued eastern Europe from Hitler’s brand of totalitarian oppression handed it straight over to Stalin’s version, while Mao wreaked havoc in China paving the way for further slaughter in the Far East: terror moved from concentration camps through gulags to mass graves in Cambodia. Spain continued to wither under a Fascist state. No major power came well out of the conflicts that, for example, ensued in Korea and Vietnam, or in the final dissolution of European Empires in such places as Algeria and India. Even more recently war and violence generally seems to breed more violence, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, to name but two. And almost always, cutting across many boundaries, there still remains the poison of racism.

My twenties were in part shaped by the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, which strongly attracted me. In a sense Byron along with the senseless oppression I was discovering had prepared the ground for such receptivity.

Even in the Twentieth Century protest has not only been in song. Protest and political poems exist. Auden, who was clearly an admirer of Byron given that he wrote him a long verse letter, penned perhaps the most famous of them all – 1 September 1939.

The penultimate stanza is perhaps the best known moment in the poem:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

As if I needed further evidence of the tricky relationship between reality, the poem and the poet, I found another poet, John Fuller, quoting Auden (W. H. Auden: a commentary – page 292):

Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line ‘We must love one another or die’ and said to myself: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realise, was infected with an incurable dishonesty – and must be scrapped.

I still think it’s a great poem even though it is not reprinted in my Collected Poems! There are other more recent poets too with a political or protest penchant. The ones on my shelves include James Fenton, Peter Reading and Tony Harrison. The genre is not dead by any means.

The poet I will be looking at later in this sequence of posts was often ploughing the same field as Byron and at more or less the same time.

In a famous sonnet he shared his sardonic awareness of the limitations of power:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

He also wrote a powerful but uneven sonnet triggered in part by the impending death of the same king Byron satirised (England in 1819):

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,–mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
. . . . .
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.

The Guardian article I’ve linked the poem to asks an important question we may have to come back to and makes its own comment upon it: ‘Why can’t political poetry be as good as any other? Distrust anyone who says the postmodern muse should be above such things.’

What Shelley might have meant by the expression ‘glorious Phantom,’ and his own attempts to bring it into reality, will begin to be our focus in this sequence of posts, as will the major obstacles, both internal and external, that impeded him in his attempts. It will become apparent that it might not be enough, if it is to be great, for a poem to be simply political. I feel Auden’s poem, quoted above, is much more than that.

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