The Odyssey was, like Ridley Scott’s Aliens, a story I first heard from my father. He described more than told it to me, listing the events and trusting them to my imagination: “First there was the Trojan horse, and then Odysseus left Troy and there was a whirlpool…” I listened as my father laid out the events while we folded laundry. He took liberties, embroidering and abridging as he saw fit. In this way, his telling was Homeric enough.
By the time I read the full text of The Odyssey in Robert Fagles’ translation in college, I felt like it had been with me my whole life. That first reading, however, is inextricable from its moment: the freedom and terror of living away from home mixed with the heady agonies of a crush that had me, at eighteen, melodramatically wandering campus at night in bare feet. Now Fagles’ Odyssey is steeped in my own prolific nostalgia; I revisit it yearly, a source of comfort and confirmation that aligns with what I had been told and grew, later, to tell myself.
Now I am a translator myself, well aware that quirks and biases become first tradition and then gospel, even as a text is carried over into English again and again. And for a work as ancient as The Odyssey, the permutations of the English language itself are visible alongside ideology. Translation is an exhaustive and exhausting succession of choices, both at the level of diction and syntax and the larger level of story. Gradations of intensity or inflection in English can make a woman in her defeat, for example, appear petulant, pitiful, or shrill. “Let the man go—if the almighty insists, commands— / and destroy himself on the barren salt sea!” cries Calypso in Fagles, when Zeus orders her to free Odysseus.
In the fall of 2017, on a long, homesick flight to see my parents, I began to read the latest English translation by Emily Wilson. In my mind, The Odyssey was a seagoing story—a succession of naval trials. In this new reading, I saw for the first time the importance of domesticity, the praise of hospitality. The way the stories were not one successive narrative, but in fact nested intricately, filtered through Odysseus’ voice as he told and retold them. In the Wilson, shorter lines—iambic pentameter, an analogue to the Greek dactylic hexameter—streamline the dialogue and restore some of Calypso’s composure: “So let him go, if that is Zeus’ order, / across the barren sea.” I like to imagine that, through translation, her dignity has resurfaced like stones at low tide: always-already there, but hidden or ignored.
Surely, age has affected my reception of Wilson’s translation: a disenchantment with the canon or a new understanding of what it means to journey home. In my reading of Wilson’s Odyssey, it is not the journey but the home that is exalted: a place that is familiar in every sense, where strangers and friends might be welcomed—and in that way, Wilson’s translation has more to do with the oral-retellings-over-laundry of the Odyssey of my childhood than with my nostalgic reading of the Fagles. It took a new translation—a familiar story in unfamiliar words—to make me see what I had missed. In English that is both tighter and less adorned, Wilson’s Odyssey is a new poem, and (Circe-like?) it turned me into a new reader.
I am not unique in my failure to notice how I imprint my own meaning on a work of art—it can happen so automatically as to be invisible. Wilson’s translation was a prism extruding new color from the white light of the original, and in doing so made me newly aware of what I bring to the text. The act of rereading forced me across the gap between my memory of the text and its material presence on the page. If the Fagles Odyssey was the smell of a library and my father’s retelling was an indelible sketch from a longed-for childhood, then Wilson’s is a wide, unbroken road to the sea.
[Hilary Vaughn Dobel is the translator of Juan José Saer’s The Clouds]
Information is true if it is accurate. Poetry is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself. Information is relative. A poem is absolute. The world created by words exists neither in space nor time though it has semblances of both, it is eternal and indestructible, and yet its action is no stronger than a flower: it is adamant, yet it is also what one of its practitioners thought it to be, the shadow of a shadow.
[E.M. Forster, Anonymity: An Enquiry]
Once it has been published and packaged and read, literature can look like an ego machine of whoever made it––like one of those glossy advertising inserts of all-about-me, particularly an all-about-those who are believed to be most amenable to the marketplace. In this literature is also an ego machine of a society or era. The writers who get noticed are representative persons allowed to exhibit a carefully cultivated subjectivity used as shorthand for an (utterly misrepresentative) all.
The process of writing, however, depends on the ego’s depletion. To write is to be full of error and struggle and doubt and revelation and shock, to make a record of thinking but mostly a record of being thoughtless, to be shipwrecked in a watery expanse of derivation and imitation and only (if you are lucky) to wash up onto surprise uncharted islands of whatever is original or previously unknown. So much about writing is beautifully eviscerating, too, like sex and dying and history and big landscapes are beautifully eviscerating, in that it doesn’t matter who you are inside of it when you are completely inside of it. The Alps, orgasms, and sentences are indifferent to who we think we are.
Writing is a vacation in the mistaken. It is what it is because it is so often wrong. It is a mode of emptying time of action and filling it instead with letters, words, syntaxes and grammars that are never yours to begin with and only rarely can be. To write is to be submerged in the common materials of language and always feel half-drowning there, only rarely getting to come up for what might finally be a perfect breath.
[Anne’s most recent book is A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (Ugly Duckling)]
This essay is not as good as it might be. It is, furthermore, truer to the degree it remains unwritten. Why then do I rasp away at a possible truth, when one glimpses so few, when I’m so inclined not to?
Poetry, for me, doesn’t seem to involve this tradeoff — each poem adds to the stock of real, obdurate things, and doesn’t, by organizing or distilling, by flourishing a lens, threaten to reduce other things to serviceable shadows of themselves. So it doesn’t matter if a poem fails. And so there’s no reason not to at least tickle the detritus that the mind receives from heaven, the crumbs of sound or sense or image. Nothing can be lost: and the first half of the work never feels like work. How easy, at first, to rearrange the chairs in my skull for that stray vision, to accommodate it.
Of course it is in the latter half of this process that the curse and the value comes—that dread sense of responsibility to the half-made thing. The illshapen thing looks like you, speaks like you — but is so ugly. And its ugliness is made hideous by the fact that its creation was a natural, unbidden joy. It reproaches you, mutely, like only a child can. You have to fix it—you have to at least try—in order to fix yourself, and to fool yourself, a little longer, that you are worth a little more than that.
Prose, at least the kind I’m able to write, is less soaked in this redemptive hazard. I’ve learned, but never recharted my life based on what an essay I wrote disclosed. The failure of an essay is more damning—because it is essentially public, the essay’s failure implies a cosmic uselessness, if not a dangerous stupidity. At home, I can flounce happily around in whatever ghoulish costume I please, and alter, and retouch it; but before I go out it has to work. And so, though to assemble an argument in my head, and play with it, is a kind of fun, a dread floats out in front of the prospect of its formalization. An essay, for me, is the second half of the poem—pure duty, pure ought. This one, for instance, only exists because I tricked myself, by promising a real person to write it (a person who sent n nonjudgmental reminder emails.)
My nature is stubborn and desperate. My aimless need searches for a task like a whirlpool searches for an ocean; my stubbornness allows me to live forever in that task, to invent problems (‘the rhythm’s off’) and fill a day not solving them, and call that day good. Good, because it closed off the grimmer byways of my brain, and I spent many hours not remembering that I wasn’t peeking behind the painted veil.
I didn’t have to be a poet. I chose to make myself one when I was 18. About to enter college, I regretted squandering my time with sports and video games: skills I understood, imperfectly, to be transient. I felt fluid, a pond of murky potential. I was also painfully self-conscious, and it seemed to me that by avowing poetry I could assume, very rapidly, and mostly free from external critique, a legible identity. To say you are a poet is almost as easy as being conflicted about calling yourself a poet. That this identity had benefits, I instantly perceived: crucially, with women. As long as I was working hard on poems, it was easy to scoff at classes: I knew where real education lay. But working hard? Here too, I was the only judge of my discipline, and as long as I had satisfied myself—quite easy, then—any degree of excess was licensed. When, by contrast, I hadn’t satisfied my sense of self-duty, a different kind of excess was demanded: because if a poem was a condensation of life, the intensity I had failed to achieve through refinement and discipline could be arrived at also by intense experience, or self-harm.
Yet it would be a sad passion indeed that did not, slowly, trap you.
Now, cabinned in what I made myself, I think a lot about fate. I want fate in my poems: I want them to grind like the planet on its axis. This means that I don’t trust the will, or things that the will makes happen—anything that didn’t have to be. I’m walking by the sea, I close my eyes, and these drain from my mind. What persists are those events—a few good, but mostly dire—that have come to me unbidden, or appear to have. The music of them. They alone have the authority of ananke, coiling up from the cleft. Of the stone pillar in 2001, descending from the sky, changing me forever. So I wait. What crumbs that do come to my placid brain—mostly bright fragments, but sometimes an idea, a verbal problem—I attack with bitter need. There’s no way out, at this point, but deeper in.
I think a lot about a Henry James story, The Beast in the Jungle. It takes the form of a long conversation between a man and his best friend. They have the kind of ambiguous relationship James excels at—there’s enough gayness for one between them, but you’d be hard pressed to puzzle out the ratio. The man is convinced his fate—what will validate his life, and, increasingly, the waiting he’s already done—is always just around the corner. He’s tensed, prepared to seize it. This goes on a long time.
Then they are older and his friend gets sick. She keeps it from him but he half knows. Then she dies. Alone, later, at her grave:
He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened—it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.
When I first read it, in a James seminar that was a little hard, the moral struck me as too clear, too American, and very tragic. Now, I’m much less sure.
It would be possible, here, to use James as a segue to bring in Max Weber, to talk about capitalism, industriousness, the American artist that even James was, and locating resistance to these systems in the body. I ought to talk about sprezzatura as a corrective to cultic productivity; about Stevens’ relocation of nobility in the imagination; about Whitman, and the crucial differences between laziness and loafing and zen. It would be prudent to make corollary points about the labor of suspending aesthetic judgment, i.e., the work of non-work, the labor of letting the world into your poems, and the permissive social thinking that ought to follow—if we can condone Arnold’s transit from objet, to character, to society.
But perhaps I’ll muse about reaction. Laziness, as I know it, imagines, but only so far—because it is wildly practical, and knows to a newton how much work is necessary to twist the slightest knob of the external world. How much breath it takes to bend a blade of grass. It knows itself, has marveled at its own powers in extremis, but knows that life is a game of averages. Knowing makes it humble. It recognizes the ocean between what it could do, and what it is likely to do. Laziness, in other words, without being a zealot, simply prefers a natural style, a non-fussy realism. It prefers the kind of slender imagination that remembers the real as primary—the caul of fancy that makes the hard earth a little habitable.
I can imagine, from the bottom of the argument I’ve dug, that the cultivation of reaction can be a corrective to the cult of the heroic, constantly individuating ego, which is so constantly reinforced. Re-action encompasses action, and depends on it: but its prefix transforms it into something cyclical, biological. It both precedes willed action and overrules it. Do violence or kindness to me and every fiber of me reacts, whereas I can command only a few glial clusters to act.
That is to say: it is a tall clear day. We’re walking, as we sometimes do on pleasant afternoons. You mention, à propos your father, St. Augustine grass. The conversation moves on, and, consciously, I follow it: but, in its darkness, the core of me has turned over, and the work begins, and the wait. In a month I’ll be at breakfast. I’ll hear its minor music.
[Noah’s first book is The Destroyer in the Glass (Yale Series of Younger Poets)]
What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because you can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous.
[Anne Carson, Decreation]
But even when not representing alters [alternate personalities], who are in a way the unconscious’ quotations, Sizemore [who has Multiple Personality Disorder] writes her life as a series of quotes. Rather than saying what she thinks, she cites herself having said the thought at another time. Or instead of incorporating into her narrative some else’s comments about her, she puts their sometimes innocuous remarks in quotes. The curved marks of punctuation distance the reader from her words and set off the ideas as if they had arrived from far away. The effect is to make the unified self Sizemore so urgently wants recognition for a fabrication of fragments and statements, an aggregate of impressions rather than a seamless unity. It may not be the result she desires, but it is a better reflection of the problems of the constructed self and of representing that self. Overall, the use of quotation marks, attests to her desire for authenticity. In this regard the book’s ultimate sentence is striking––again in someone else’s words: “Chris Sizemore is real.”
[Lynne Tillman, “The Autobiography of Eve”]
If style is the power to move freely in the length and breadth of linguistic thinking without falling into banality, it is attained chiefly by the cardiac strength of great thoughts, which drives the blood of language through the capillaries of syntax into the remotest limbs.
[Walter Benjamin, “Karl Krauss”]
His sentences do not seem to be generated in the usual way; they do not entail. Each sentence is written as if it were the first, or the last. (“A writer must stop and restart with every new sentence,” he says…) Mental and historical processes are rendered as conceptual tableaux; ideas are transcribed in extremis and the intellectual perspectives are vertiginous. His style of thinking and writing, incorrectly called aphoristic, might better be called freeze-frame baroque. This style was torture to execute. It was as if each sentence had to say everything, before the inward gaze of concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes.
[Susan Sontag, “Under the Sign of Saturn”]
What Pound was afraid to face (I feel) was the fact that he was not, himself, a self, that he was a bundle of borrowed definitions, including that of the poet. …[Wyndham Lewis observed] that Pound was “the curious thing, a person without a trace of originality of any sort” except the ability wear a mask, adopt a tone. “When he can get into the skin of somebody else…he becomes a lion or a lynx on the spot.”
It is true (I think) that most of Pound’s best poetry is based upon the work of someone else, and stems from his ability to release another language into English. It is what made him such an excellent editor. Time and time again, in The Cantos, amid the barren and chaotic landscape, poetry miraculously blazes up, and at the bottom of that fire a Chinese classic like Li Ki, for instance, will be found fueling it, or some other distant text. With so little spring left in his own legs, he could still rebound beautifully from someone else’s words, because they––not love or landscape or the pleasures and problems of life––were his muse. Like lighter fluid’s flame, these phrases (where, paradoxically, Pound was at last pure Pound) consume themselves without leaving a scorch, mar, or any other trace on the page. Lines like these––flames like these––”lick.”
[William Gass, “Ezra Pound”]
Everyone loves being a poet. Being a poet means ghosting on a code. Ghosts are all around us, and thus “relatable”—it calms us down to imitate their behaviors. But once you’re calm you have to ask yourself: what do ghosts mean?
No, you don’t have to ask that. Still, I decided to try my hand at Henry James.
The windows facing the street were covered in green paper. But was it in fact true that this room looked down to the street? She realized that she couldn’t recall. Maybe the windows overlooked a garden or a wall. She heard a carriage go by as a shadow passed over the paper. Yes, she thought, the street. “Such cryogenic situations in which people situate themselves,” she muttered, picking up her bags. It was morning. That afternoon she sailed to America.
Interceptor, forgive this capsized tongue. It was top-heavy, o’er-brimmed with precious metals, whose engine runs on a fume derived from its own ignition. What I mean is it bears a perilous resemblance to my own throat.
My throat a thorn in the story it told itself about the surface it cut open.
Since then I have found my voice much altered.
The low idling of the thicket stuck about him, his blood rumbling lightly among weaponized flowers.
I came to a point at which I could only be persuaded that the most ornately phrased facts were true.
“Oh, so it’s twin language,” my therapist said of poetry.
In fact, this is the only thing I’ve ever written down of what she’s said—and the only thing she’s said to me that explicitly constitutes a poetics. Fuming in an overstuffed chair, listening to a baby crying in the other room and construction workers chanting their reasonable demands outside, I rolled up my sleeves. But I couldn’t think of anything to say. She noted that I had rolled up my sleeves, then said I seemed angry and asked me to explain why.
It occurred to me in this moment that poetry would not save my life as I had depended, in the end, it would.
But what if I were to put it in a novel?
In certain Henry James novels people send their effects out in front of their bodies to probe the environment: she is not wearing a hat upon exiting the house and surveying the great lawn, indicating that she must be staying for a spell; and so too the young man’s blood relation must be staying, as he has accompanied her from Schenectady; and yet she knows nothing of the illness that’s befallen his father; so in the absence of her hat we see that her interlocutor is of two minds about her—his ballistic dog runs up to her in supine eagerness as he unfixes his gaze from the blades of grass in the middle distance and settles in to try to see her face, this time for the first time.
A slate nostalgia spilled forth a green flash, followed seconds later by a light veil of snow.
On the contrary, I saw that something called “poetry,” loosely defined, might in fact at some distant date play a hand in killing me.
I answered, not meaning to sound cold, “I wouldn’t put it that way.”
You become someone else when you read him; when you imitate him you become yourself.
But a book is meant to be read in silence, not among these pyrotechnics.
Can you say more about that?
No fiction absorbed the shrillness of the apartment, the subway, the office so well as the sense that his life was running over his own rails, as if he were a thick moss growing over them, choking the luxurious steel, and humming under his head he felt something large and heavy gliding closer.
I believe in the reality of absent things—if I see that something isn’t there I assume it must be somewhere else.
Trains, fish, and streaming services are examples of things that are inevitably near, even if we can’t see them.
I dreamt my intelligence was a character from a streaming service, I don’t remember which one, who passed me on a dusty road.
“Because you take satisfaction in your friend’s misfortunes. Because you console yourself with the thought that this satisfaction is by no means pleasure. Because to experience pleasure in this case would augur your own misfortune, but satisfaction would not, you little father, I say you are perched on heaven’s wall,” he added.
His voice was an indentation in the air, inaudible but oppressive, like a pile of wheels through which the honeysuckle sings its listening.
A blossom cutting through the fissured rock of luck.
A flower is succinct in its intentions: this persistence, a streaming service of the Sunday to which we retreat on Monday for good measure, lets our wares rest a spell and catch their breath in the poplar’s shade to formulate a delicate translation of whose mind we are on.
A flower allows us to inhale this earthy perfume and pant in counterpoint to his sweat’s march down his solar plexus. It was so episodic. But flowers, like people, are another matter: a loose cohesion of angles around which the person bearing them allows their personality to splash out.
Stationed in a vase by a window overlooking the veranda, flowers ask the leisure-drunk: do we wake, or read; across what meadow has my crown been picked; may we angle your bedside lamp towards the wall to distribute more light to the ceiling? No?
A waiting room with tufts of white noise blooming from the carpet. Behind the doors, voices dig in the dirt.
His flesh sprinted after them through the wedding’s prolix grasses, but his voice remained in the veranda.
How would the meadow describe this scene of its erasure? “Hi?” It waves.
The poplar’s shade records this greeting. Rewind the shade’s recording and play it again.
A poem is a title this shade gives itself.
The shade was pleased to see itself as it entered the scene by the willow hanging just above the canal; silence was pleased to see its sister syntax, breeze.
But, one might interject, a meadow’s contagion is not music’s problem.
A bewitched reel, my sorrow rolled beside me as I laughed into the canal; swans clapped along the dactylic reflection of the willows. Laws, in a word, through which he could dimly perceive his counterfeit face floating behind the coach’s glass.
I entered the office.
I want to say that the surface of a page is itself a kind of speech. I rolled up my sleeves and assumed its labor, gathering currency from the undead daffodils.
A swift breeze descended, swept them away from the office, scattering a few loose petals. Sitting across from her in her office, too far into her face, I could only see whitecaps.
She looked up from her book and scanned the horizon. A menacing electricity was gathering before her over the sea in a green cloud drifting west. “Can you say more about that?” she asked, gathering her notes.
His footsteps clapped through the valley.
[Dan’s first book is The Police (Omnidawn)]
A mind that works primarily with meanings must have organs that supply it primarily with forms….[T]he world of sense is the real world construed by the abstractions which the sense-organs immediately furnish.
The abstractions made by the ear and the eye––the forms of direct perception…are genuine symbolic materials, media of understanding, by whose office we apprehend a world of things, and of events that are the histories of things. To furnish such conception is their prime mission….
Visual forms…are just as capable of articulation, i.e., of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision. Their complexity, consequently, is not limited, as the complexity of discourse is limited, by what the mind can retain from the beginning of an apperceptive act to the end of it.
[Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key]
I take in the egg at a single glance. I immediately perceive that I cannot be seeing an egg. To see an egg never remains in the present. No sooner do I see an egg than I have seen an egg for the last three thousand years. The very instant an egg is seen, it is the memory of an egg—the only person to see the egg is someone who has already seen it.—Upon seeing the egg, it is already too late: an egg seen is an egg lost.—To see the egg is the promise of being able to see the egg one day.—A brief glance which cannot be divided; if there is any thought, there is no thought; there is the egg. Looking is the necessary instrument which, once used, I shall put aside. I shall remain with the egg.—The egg has no itself. Individually, it does not exist.
[Clarice Lispector, “The Egg and the Chicken”]
[The American shore ode] is a lyric of some length and philosophic density spoken (usually at a specific place) on an American beach; its theme tends to encompass the relationship of the wholeness and flux of the sea to the discreteness and fixity of land objects. This kind of poem does more than simply engage in transcendental meditations about the sea: the important thing is this dissimilarity between shore and sea, sand and water, separateness and cohesiveness, analysis and synthesis––a dissimilarity which explains and justifies their paradoxical marriage.
[Paul Fussell, Jr., “Whitman’s Curious Warble”]
Even as a boy, I had the fancy, the wish, to write a piece, perhaps a poem, about the sea-shore––that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid––that curious, lurking something (as doubtless every objective form finally becomes to the subjective spirit,) which means far more than its mere first sight, grand as that is––blending the real and the ideal, and each made portion of the other.
[Walt Whitman, Specimen Days]
In any poem, and particularly in a Carl Phillips poem, syntax can indicate an emotional state, and turns of thought can reflect physical, sometimes erotic journeying. For example, in “Swimming” from Phillips’s newest book Wild is the Wind, he writes:
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related.
Lucretius was an Epicurean classical poet who had a lot to say about why things are the way they are (turns out: atoms)—but for a moment I thought Phillips may have misattributed the image of the foundering ship. I trusted him more than myself, but what was I remembering, and why did it seem so apt?
“Swimming” names the feeling that comes when we are sure of our safety, even when, or especially when, in view of catastrophe. This seems a kind of self-directed tenderness rather than schadenfreude, and it seems to me that it is distance that makes it so. Everything glimpsed of the sea from shore is its own type of theater, only tenuously connected to the world on which we walk. We’re drawn to oceanic vastness, but relieved to be unable to fully engage with it. As Marianne Moore notes of the ocean: “It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, / but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” The sea, sublime as it is, resists us. It inspires awe but will not be handled.
Moore is a digression, since Phillips doesn’t allude to her but to the second book of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which states that:
‘Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main, the winds
Roll up its waste of waters, from the land
To watch another’s labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should thus be smitten, but because ‘tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared
For Lucretius, it’s full-eyed knowledge that makes the view of another’s suffering important. There but for the grace of the gods go I. A narrow escape can only mean something, can only prompt revelation, if one knows the specific danger one has dodged. Otherwise, it’s just a Tuesday.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to think of The Inferno, in which Dante’s main character gets a guided tour of the damnation of others. It’s not that he needs to be scared straight, but there is something about witnessing the pit’s intricate pains firsthand that becomes necessary to his own salvation. Thinking about this, I remembered that the opening of The Inferno’s first canto contains an image strikingly similar to the foundering ships of Phillips and Lucretius.
Dante’s figure wakes in a dark wood, not knowing how he got there. As he begins to pull himself together, he feels like a swimmer who:
… still panting breath,
Now safe upon the shore, out of the deep,
Might turn for one last look on the dangerous waters.
This is the feeling, an adrenaline-spiked solace, known to those who escape drowning, coughing on all fours on the sand. He isn’t witnessing a shipwreck from afar and counting himself lucky, but rather, remembering peril first-hand. He turns for another look at the water because he thinks he might still find himself there. More and more it all seems related.
Those of us who are practitioners live in interesting times. Writing now is like doing laps without a pool. Maybe we wail in an aesthetic void or shout in a black hole, life’s empty or dense; we can’t know what we’re in––fish probably don’t know they’re in water (who can be certain, though). But uncertainty is not the same as ignorance, it may point toward other registers of meaning, other articulations. Complacency is writing’s most determined enemy, and we writers, and readers, have been handed an ambivalent gift: Doubt. It robs us of assurance, while it raises possibility.
Fiction is the enemy of facts, facts are not the same as truths. Fiction is inimical to goals, resistant to didacticism, its moralities question morality, its mind changes, while explanations crash and burn, mocking explicability. Fiction also claims that seeming lies can be true, because everything we say and don’t say, know and don’t know, tells and reveals. Novels and stories are not training manuals, their “information” is gleaned by readers in their terms and for their own uses, often not easily comprehended in part or whole, or never. Knowing the plot of Oedipus Rex, say, doesn’t change its powerful effects, for its enunciation of the unspeakable, the way it’s written and its evocation of the mystery and tragedy of human desire overwhelm any one of its parts. A great story is necessarily greater than its plot.
Call these statements a polemic or rant or partial theoretical background to my own writing, my catholic or promiscuous inclinations. I’m for generative types of contemporary writing, not proscriptions about writing. I don’t have a secure of immovable position, my various notions on writing might include contradictions, I’m sure they do. I don’t want to take A Position. Not taking a position is a position that acknowledges the inability to know with absolute surety, that says: Writing is like life, there are many ways of doing it, survival depends on flexibility. Anything can be on the page. What isn’t there now?
[Lynne Tillman, “Doing Laps Without a Pool”]
These notes offer a narrative response to Donald Barthelme’s “Not Knowing,” his essay on intention, uncertainty, and storytelling.
Barthelme sits down at his desk to write. A pale inkling of an idea, of what?
A man, turning onto a quiet street perhaps, sees a wallet left by a heap of trash. (Dropped accidentally.) He picks up the wallet. (He leaves it there untouched.) The wallet has ten crisp $100 bills. (The wallet is emptied already by the thief.) The man puts the wallet in his pocket and walks happily home. (The man leaves the wallet, regretting it later as he brushes his teeth in the mirror.)
What comes next Donald? “Of course, I do not know.”
Barthelme flings open the closet doors. Faced with indecision, with the anxiety of beginning, he shouts, “I have nothing to wear!”
Somehow he makes it to the party.
Mallarme is behind the bar, shaking cubes loose, refreshing a friend’s drink. Barthelme saddles up, unloads his problems, something about a story. The question is how to move in unanticipated directions, how to invent. “You try get the words outside of language,” Mallarme says, “like ice slips out of the tray.”
Flaubert arrives, dressed impeccably. He pats his cigarette into an ashtray from the Hard Rock Café and offers a note of solace. “Style,” he says, “enables us to speak, to imagine again.” Or was it “style enables us to imagine, to speak again”? Barthelme can’t decide.
Several hours later, four double pours of sherry, more talking and inconclusion.
He thinks vaguely about leaving and suddenly there’s a beautiful woman. He wants to ask for her name, her story, but her finger is already pressing the button for the lobby, the elevator doors are already closing.
“Make a riddle out of an answer,” he thinks on the subway ride home. “Make the problem the pleasure. Not knowing, the gift.”
For Lent. No pudding on Sundays. No tea except if to keep me awake and then without sugar. Meat only once a day. No verses in Passion Week or on Fridays. No lunch or meat on Fridays. Not to sit in armchair except can work in no other way. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday bread and water.
[Gerard Manley Hopkins, journal of January 23, 1866]
As Practice Catalogue closes its first calendar year of life, I glance back at some highlights:
Dan Beachy-Quick on Humility and Vision
Olivia Mardwig on the Working Models of Picasso and Matisse
Justin Boening on Purity and Plagiarism
Sarah Schweig on Truth
Dai George on the Problem of Syntax
Paul Legault on Radical Translation
Sasha Laing on LOVEMONEYDEATH
We also gathered a heap of brief readings and editorial scribblings. I hope some of this has been generative, useful.
Going forward, PC hopes to cast its net, increase its community. Consider pitching a (very) short essay or sending a relevant excerpt. A micro-essay might mine something from your own writing practice/life or that of someone you’ve studied. Anecdote, exercise, example, advice, reflection are all welcome. It’s a flexible and mercifully brief format.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
And lastly, if you suspect PC would speak to any of your people, do tell them about it.
LOVEMONEYDEATH is a collection of every use of the words “love” “money” and “death” in The Best Books of All Time. I collect the words by reading the books, the idea is to actively go through the material––to read the list of books in its entirety. The words (along with the sentence they are used in) are entered into a digital “slot machine” that randomly cycles through the data.
The project grew out of an interest in sorting–in the way we set up systems (narratives, habits, routines, algorithms) to make meaning out of things, and to navigate all the stimulus that the world has to offer.
PC: The other side of a project like this, apart from what it does or makes, is what it’s like to do or undergo. I’m curious how you experience the time spent in the LMD process––how your attention acts on the text, how this compares to reading in the usual way. One could imagine an alternate LMD using computers to search and sort your terms (calling to mind the computational criticism of Franco Moretti). Obviously, by committing to long-term textual hunting with only the onboard human faculties, you’re after something more than just getting the database made.
The project is very selfish in that way. I wanted to set up a system that I would commit to over a long period of time. (The project will take about ten years to complete.) Digitally putting a database together is passive—it’s a way of outsourcing a task. You set up a program and then it runs on its own—it has criteria that it looks for, but it operates thoughtlessly. The activity of manually consuming and digesting a huge volume of material is a key part of the project for me, even if the end result (in terms of the information displayed) is ultimately about the same.
It has changed the way I read—for starters the list chooses what I am going to read for me. Another big change is the re-reading I do while typing out passages to enter into the database. This second reading brings me deeper into how the book was written. It’s amazing how identifiable each sentence is, how connected it is to its author. I’m essentially working with sentences chosen at random, and yet so much of the writer’s voice and themes can be found in almost every excerpt.
PC: Ours is a time more likely to be suspicious than reverent of a catalogue of great works. Still, there’s something indelible in the concept of a canon, which, at least in idealized form, was meant to be a record of the best things thought and said. If “love,” “money,” and “death” label categories of permanent concern, then part of what you’re doing is cycling through a fairly dense aggregation of what ambitious writers have wanted to say about these topics, or at least the way they’ve wanted to use these words. Though I’m bashful to put the question this way, I’m tempted to ask if you experience this work as an acquisition of wisdom (whether in the granular or en masse).
Yes. I wonder if reverence still resonates with contemporary culture. I wanted to put the idea of a canon into a different context—something more playful. I chose a list that was trying in a very earnest way to contain and define “what matters” in literature across history and cultures, and then I gave that list the title “The Best Books of All Time” to poke at that idea at the same time.
And why bashful? I think your phrasing gets at something I want to get at too—because I have the sense there is a general discomfort with sincerely and directly asking something like “what is the meaning of life?” right now. There is a larger shaking up of what it means to acquire wisdom, and how we address in a meaningful way questions about things like truth and morality. Given the hyper-specificity in a lot of our culture, how do we talk about universals?
I really think of LMD as a form of writing, and while the framework is conceptual, the content is also very much meant to be readable and read. I write more traditional fiction as well, and LMD came out of that same process of looking for ways to tell stories. Here, the authorship comes more in the format than in the phrasing, but ultimately I don’t distinguish that much between LMD and say, a short story. It’s all about trying to shape something that feels alive and resonant, and right now, LMD is a format where I am finding that.
Unelaborated, non-pandering statement. Clarity instead of exegesis. No jargon or signaling of erudition apart from what does work, what pushes things forward. A language of suddenness, arrest; the feeling of thought quickening. A rapid synthesis of fields of thought and study––making the discriminations that matter and leaving the rest to the professionals, whose compromises she vowed would not snare her. Wayne Koestenbaum, in a memoriam, said it this way: “Sontag’s credo: move on. Leave the field untilled.” She “achieved her customary tone of passionate detachment by refusing academic thoroughness.” The less generous term for this approach was “popularizer.”
Sontag wrote that “authority, idiosyncrasy, velvetiness” make a star. These words might equally well define a famous prose. Of this descriptive triptych it’s “velvetiness,” naturally, that jams the gears; it’s the word the mind can’t easily assimilate to what it already knows. Sentences that call on the touch…
“The aesthete’s radicalism: to be multiple, to assume multiple identifications; to assume fully the privilege of the personal….The writer’s freedom…is, in part, flight.” What she wrote here about Barthes she no doubt hoped would apply to herself. To approach the history of art and ideas from an essentially dramatic perspective. Her postures are as compelling as her attainments, which is partly why she’s such an appealing model: it’s easier to try on a posture than attain an attainment.
To write by ambush, impulse, flight. To collect, assemble. Argument inlaid in rhythm. “Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is going to tell you.”
I’ve been gathering fragments from Norman O. Brown’s vatic, somewhat insane Love’s Body and wondering about the aesthetic they imply:
“Broken speech; speech broken by silence.”
“Stretch yourself, to the breaking point. It is not true unless it hurts.”
“Aphorism is exaggeration, extravagant language; the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom.”
“Exaggeration or extravagance; not to count the cost. Go for broke. Aphorism is recklessness; it goes too far. Intellect is courage; the courage to risk its own life; to play with madness.”
“Broken form. Against beauty as such. No form nor comeliness. Abrupt; uneven; inconsistent.”
Lastly, his quotation of Francis Bacon: “Aphorisms, representing knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at farthest.”
In the postmodern era, the word “syntax” has meant many different things in different poets’ mouths, with the term gravitating progressively further away from its basic linguistic definition of “‘sentence construction’: how words group together to make phrases and sentences” (Maggie Tallerman, Understanding Syntax). For two years I’ve been researching a PhD on the subject, following the migration of this shifty little concept from postwar New Criticism to poststructuralist theory, Donald Davie to Charles Bernstein. For Davie and other traditionalists – a vanishingly small clique these days, at least in learned circles – poetic syntax owes a non-negotiable debt to the syntax of everyday speech, that is, to the grammar that linguistic cultures have developed through long experiment to govern what things it makes sense to say and what not. In this grand inheritance we find the only viable, enduring ‘contract’ that Davie can imagine between a writer and his reader. Yet in the preface to a 1975 edition of Articulate Energy (his seminal “Enquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry”) Davie sounds a note of disgruntled defeat. The twenty years that had elapsed since the publication of the first edition straddled the 1960s, “that terrible decade” when “the arts of literature were enlisted on the side of all that was insane and suicidal, without order and without proportion, against civilization.” The scene had shifted from a postwar poetic culture of “symbolism” – one that respected linguistic and literary heritage – to a riotous celebration of “the intuitive, the improvisatory, the fragmentary, as against reason, syntax, order.”
We can read that triumvirate (“reason, syntax, order”) as the hyperbolic fantasy of a dinosaur stranded on the wrong side of history. In part, I suppose, it is. But Davie’s jeremiad would be less interesting today if it didn’t comprehend the forces leagued against it, in a way that illuminates the wider history. He concedes that “not all poets who abandon or disrupt syntax do so for aggressive or egotistical reasons”:
There are some who would claim by doing so to celebrate through imitation certain natural or cosmic processes which know nothing of transitive or intransitive, of subjects, verbs or object […]
One such poet Davie might have had in mind was Charles Olson. His famous 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” claims that the imperative to make poetry new again, in 1950,
brings us up, immediately, bang, against tenses, in fact against syntax, in fact against grammar generally, that is, as we have inherited it. Do not tenses, must they not also be kicked around anew, in order that time, that other governing absolute may be kept, as must the space-tensions of a poem, immediate, contemporary to the acting-on-you of the poem?
Olson’s claim in the form of a question – that tenses must be “kicked around anew” – moves him away from the traditional program of western grammars, whose sentences are designed to predicate discrete actions on an axis of past, present and future. For him, that’s not the way the world works, so it’s not the way that language ought to work. The metaphysical promise of this new syntax is spelled out later in “Projective Verse,” with a vow that “if he [the poet] stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.” Easy to dismiss this as loose talk, amped up for effect, but I think we should follow Davie in taking Olson’s boast seriously. By a process of “imitation,” the projective poet hopes to tap in to what Davie refers to as “natural or cosmic processes,” or what Olson himself appeals to in more shamanic terms as the “secrets objects share.”
Grammatical syntax doesn’t seek to mimic the world; it seeks, rather, to report, to declare, to order, to refer. It’s an artificial compact between speaker and audience, undertaken for pragmatic purposes. This move from grammar to mimesis is the big heave that Davie is sensing in the water. The dichotomy is real, and biting. Can the formal, grammatical type of syntax favoured by Davie succeed in saying anything pertinent or true? Can it latch on to the world? Or does our best chance of saying something about the world come through mimicking it through extemporary, ungovernable linguistic gestures? If the universe is relative, fluctuating and indeterminate, as the wisdom of last century’s scientific consensus would suggest, then it is a strange decision to strap oneself to the mast of a constricted, rule-bound grammar; at any rate, the mode of discourse seems heroically ill suited to the object of enquiry.
Good postmoderns that we are, we might wish to celebrate Olson’s putsch on syntax as the liberating event that it was. But the revolution, as always, comes with consequences, not least in this case for our very sense of what syntax really means at all. For many poets writing in Olson’s wake, it came to encompass everything from diction to spatial typography, from the general stylistic pose of the author to the wider attitudes or values encoded in their work. Whether or not this radical expansion serves a purpose, there have been times recently when I’ve empathised with Robin Blaser, as he writes in gentle bafflement to his would-be mentor Olson:
The problem of syntax: you say it is difficult to tell me what to do. It’s wrong that I ask you to. Beyond the indications given. As I don’t know what this syntax is. It is an awkward word for what every poet has to find out for himself – or he ain’t.
“An awkward word for what every poet has to find out for himself”: I’m not sure Davie would like this definition, self-centered and unbounded as it is, but it captures the heady spirit of the New American Poets on their quest to discover an active, mimetic syntax beyond the jurisdiction of the grammar books. And intentionally or not, it also captures the difficulty – the disorientating “problem” – that arises, whenever you wrest an existing concept into new and indeterminate shapes.
[Dai’s first book of poems is The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). He’s an editor at the journal Prac Crit and a PhD candidate at University College London.]
 Correspondence from Robin Blaser to Charles Olson, 29 March 1959, Box 129, Charles Olson Research Collection. Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.
The difference between willing and merely wishing, between having ideals that are creative and ideals that are but pinings and regrets, thus depends solely either on the amount of stream-pressure chronically driving the character in the ideal direction, or on the amount of ideal excitement transiently acquired. Given a certain amount of love, indignation, generosity, magnanimity, admiration, loyalty, or enthusiasm of self-surrender, the result is always the same. That whole raft of cowardly obstructions, which in tame persons and dull moods are sovereign impediments to action, sinks away at once. Our conventionality, our shyness, laziness, and stinginess, our demands for precedent and permission, for guarantee and surety, our small suspicions, timidities, despairs, where are they now? Severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles in the sun––
[William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience]
It would be an endless battle if it were all up to ego
because it does not destroy and is not destroyed by itself
It is like a wave
it makes itself up, it rushes forward getting nowhere really
it crashes, withdraws and makes itself up again
pulls itself together with pride
towers with pride
rushes forward into imaginary conquest
crashes in frustration
withdraws with remorse and repentance
pulls itself together with new resolution
[Agnes Martin, “The Untroubled Mind”]
Of the good poem one may finally ask: “Are you as happy with being complacently well made as you seem”? And of the great poem, “What and where are you, exactly, and where are you off to?”
[Calvin Bedient, in an interview]
One of the most generative myths in psychoanalysis concerns the acquisition of language in early childhood. Most of the major theorists, regardless of faction, handle this thread. Here’s a brief amalgamation (slanted, surely, to my own concerns). The infant lives a life of undiluted presence: all the world that counts is at hand. The root of the word is the Latin infans: “speechless.” The infant doesn’t have language because he doesn’t need it. In fact, the case literature records remarkable resistances to language acquisition, instances in which the child approaches the gifted horse skeptically, intuiting that the game the noxiously repetitive adults want to coax him into is an imposition, that it comes at a cost. But no holding out can last: absences accrue, and language compensates for them. We name what we come to learn is different from and distant to us: the mother’s body and will, what can be held in the hand and then taken away, what doesn’t move back when we move in the mirror. The child begins to manage a distinction, as D.W. Winnicott put it, between “me and not me.” Language loses its initial life for us as unalloyed sense phenomena (overhearing adults who care for us) and begins, uneasily, to mediate experience with the world by symbolic substitution; this is, in Leo Stone’s words, “that period of life when the modalities of bodily intimacy and direct dependence on the mother are being relinquished or attenuated, pari passu with the rapid development of the great vehicle of communication by speech.” The child learns that she cannot have everything she wants, but she can say the words for what’s missing. This is a retelling of Genesis as developmental psychology. The garden of languagelessness isn’t long. We acquire a capacity that comes to define us; we fall away from something immanent.
Silence is the world of potentialities and meanings beyond the actual and expressed, which the meanness of our actions and the interpretations put upon them threaten to conceal. Yet all actuality is to be referred to it and valued accordingly as it includes or suggests it. Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the waves of silence to break against.
[William Bronk, “Silence and Henry Thoreau”]
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, loose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill in from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
[Annie Dillard, The Writing Life]
And here is the point I would support: that all literature tends toward a condition of anonymity, and that, so far as words are creative, a signature merely distracts us from their true significance. I do not say literature “ought” not to be signed, because literature is alive, and consequently “ought” is the wrong word to use. It wants not to be signed. That puts my point. It is always tugging in that direction and saying in effect: “I, not my author, really exist.” So do the trees, flowers and human beings say “I really exist, not God,” and continue to say so despite the admonitions to the contrary addressed to them clergymen and scientists. To forget its Creator is one of the functions of a Creation. To remember him is to forget the days of one’s youth. Literature does not want to remember.
[E.M. Forster, “Anonymity: An Enquiry”]
Only translation can increase what is known, keeping the old thing and growing it.
Untranslation is made up of the same thing as unintelligence.
The most adaptable personality can only be so adaptable, though the decadence of Rome’s use of vomitariums to keep the party going shows that it’s willing to be inventive, but what a person can do isn’t a lot compared to what the seas can do, and an endless party could only lead to death.
Or translation, which is an attitude here, as that’s how people know it—an escape from what bodies require. After consuming as much as we can, we have to admit that we haven’t taken in everything possible, having only barely eaten a small part of the animal. Though we’ve destroyed consumption itself: honestly, we don’t want any more. Translation has freed us from wanting to explode—and shown us a truly original event. We have to know we can’t swallow all the seas, though we know it’s more than just our stomachs that can hold it in. We’re full, as much as the sea is full; they have that in common. That’s how they’re the same thing. After satisfying her base urges, a person is free to think.
[This excerpt comes from Paul’s work-in-progress Fall&c., a line-by-line translation of William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, WCW’s paean to the imagination. Here ‘imagination’ is replaced with ‘translation.’]
Every poem that works as a poem is original. And original was two meanings: it means a return to the origin, the first which engendered everything that followed; and it means that which has never occurred before. In poetry, and in poetry alone, the two senses are united in such a way that they are no longer contradictory.
Nevertheless poems are not simple prayers. Even a religious poem is not exclusively and uniquely addressed to God. Poetry is addressed to language itself. If that sounds obscure, think of a lamentation––there words lament loss to their language. Poetry is addressed to language in a comparable but wider way.
To put into words is to find the hope that words will be heard and the events they describe judged. Judged by God or judged by history. Either way the judgement is distant. Yet the language––which is immediate, and which is sometimes wrongly thought of as being only a means––offers, obstinately and mysteriously, its own judgement when it is addressed by poetry. This judgement is distinct from that of any moral code, yet it promises, within its acknowledgement of what it was heard, a distinction between good and evil––as though language itself had been created to preserve just that distinction!
[John Berger, “The Hour of Poetry”]
Jorie Graham was an early craze of mine, though I rarely understood her. What I
didn’t understand, however, I could often imagine, sense. There’s a fluorescent
attention in her parenthetical focus, a confidence in her restlessness. Even
when I was unclear about what was happening in Graham’s poems, I was usually
certain of their clarity.
I read Graham less often these days, though a number of her poems still stick to
my ribs. “Prayer,” the first poem in Never, is one poem I continue to carry
me. It begins with a speaker leaning over a dock, watching minnows, thousands of
them, as they swirl through the water. The speaker’s vision expands
incrementally—from the minnow, to the minnow’s school, then to the currents that
envelope the school, et cetera—until what she sees begins to encompass the
That’s when the poem really takes off. The opening twelve-line-long sentence,
which is almost entirely descriptive, gives way to a series of clipped
authoritative declarations: “This is the force of faith. Nobody gets / what they
want. Never again are you the same. The longing / is to be pure. What you get is
to be changed.”
I see these lines quoted over and over again on my social media feeds. And for
good reason. It’s an astonishing turn—memorable, assured, wise—and yet, as is
seemingly the case with most hard-fought wisdom, these lines, however striking
and incontestable, are precedented.
Notice, for example, how closely Graham’s “Prayer” cleaves to James Tate’s
“Consumed,” from The Oblivion Ha-ha: “Nobody gets what he // wants”; “never
again are you // the same”; “the longing to be pure // is over.”
Admittedly, I was stunned when I discovered these echoes. Graham’s “Prayer” had
always felt so uniquely her own, so inventive, “authentic” even. I was more
shocked when a friend, Noah Baldino, directed me toward another Tate poem, “The
Whole World’s Sadly Talking to Itself—W.B.Yeats,” from which Graham’s poem
Some—like Ira Lightman, perhaps—may condemn Graham, believing she stole this
poem, plagiarized it. Others may feel less indignant, though no less
disenchanted, suspecting Graham uncovered the poem with too little lifting of
her own. How do we understand the imperative that our words be our own, when, in
an enduring sense, they never are? When we give up on the directive to conjure
some pure, unprecedented truth, is there a nourishment or consolation in the
vision pre-existent, foreordained, within language—itself the accumulation of
imaginative acts (Emerson: “Every word was once a poem”)? What is there to gain
by judging a poem that resonates as more than our own—polyvocal, in cahoots,
wiser than us—to be evidence not of its exhaustion but instead of its vitality?
What interpretation hopes to extract from phenomenal encounter is knowledge. In
her famous essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag argues not so much
against knowing as against the wrong spirit or use of knowing––knowing that
purchases its claim by the diminishment of presence and possibility, the kind of
knowing that supplants Hamlet by The Meaning of Hamlet.
Much of the essay, which is directed at our relation to art, could be adapted to
our relation to ourselves. Artworks are objects to which we’re never sure we
stand in the right relation. We hope that in us, too, inheres meaning, that we
are threaded through with some essential purpose, though it’s difficult to see
these plainly. We cycle through interpretive or explanatory formulae, and an
honest assessment of the process proves only that the formulae are optional. It
seems an unavoidable business, and not obviously errant, though it nourishes
less than we were lead to hope. But just as one value of art is that it will not
obey our ideas about it, so might we be less eager to be reduced to our ideas
about ourselves, and less impressed by them. As Sontag enjoins: “Away with
interpretation until we experience more fully what we have.”
In the theoretical literature there’s a returning character called “the author.”
The character is differently played depending on the era and fashion: she is
variously dead, all-too-human, cyborg, helplessly sentimental, an aggregation of
reading run through the variable processor of a given mind. She’s been cast,
anti-humanistically, as a “function” and, heroically, as an emblem of human
capacity. Each of these descriptions is probably correct on a given
plane––correct, but of what consequence to literary practice?
Plagiarism, translation, influence––ultimately these are differently shaded
metaphors for writing itself and are variously responsive to the wants or
worries one finds attached to the act. There’s still to ask whether in writing
by any method or conception we’re not again thrown back on the old
thing––individuation through and against the inherent resistance of a linguistic
vehicle thoroughly contaminated by precedence, made of it. Nothing we handle is
our own; we can’t but be ourselves (whatever that is).
To be recognized and accepted by the peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel
by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the
unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, sooth the
hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behavior as invariable as its own. Hood the
glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting
face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly
and far off. Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement.
Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless
concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the
hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The
hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering
intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week
ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.
[JA Baker, The Peregrine]
To feel small for a moment, wordless, abashed, say crushed, before certain writing seem to me a sign
of reading its claim correctly.
[Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding”]
It is said that the Hellenistic philosopher Pyrrho became so skeptical of the
world that he couldn’t commit to believing even in the ground he walked on. He
became unable to act, unable to speak. His students had to carry him through the
I started to study philosophy because I reached a point in my writing when I
couldn’t understand what I was writing or why I was writing it. I got tired of
thinking about my stupid little life. I had in me some idea of a larger,
necessary truth that I couldn’t reach.
By this time, I had achieved many of the goals I’d moved to New York City to
achieve. I had a job. I had publications. By many accounts, I was a writer, the
ultimate dream around which I’d structured everything. From my studio apartment,
I could see the iconic skyline of lower Manhattan. It started to look like any
One day I went to a talk at my local bookstore. Later, I wrote an overly
personal email about my problem to one of the speakers, and then, based on his
advice, I wrote another email to another stranger asking if I could sit in on
the evening class he was teaching. It was on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
“Human reason has this particular fate that in one species of its knowledge it
is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason
itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it
is also not able to answer.” That is just the beginning of the first Critique. I
went to every class that fall. I hardly spoke.
This was years ago, and I have been studying philosophy ever since. I went
looking for that larger-than-life, non-contingent truth. There is, it turns out,
little agreement on what exactly this might be. Instead, I gained ways of
thinking about truth. I wrote many things, including a slew of poems called
“Contingencies.” I met someone in that first course on Kant and started
speaking. I moved out of my studio and we made a home together. We got married
so we could devote an actual lifetime to arguing about truth. We will need
Long ago, before I moved to the city, a mentor told me, “Poetry comes out of
life.” It’s a lesson I’m still learning. I’m still writing, and occasionally
about my little life (as evidenced here). But I see my life and what I write
about it differently now, as something that could gesture toward the universal,
even if it never reaches it. This hope keeps me going when I’m writing, and also
during those long empty periods when I’m not, when I need something or someone
to carry me.
[Sarah’s first book is Take Nothing with You]
I remember reading an article about starfish. They were thought to have no eyes. Then it was
discovered they were all eyes.
[Marilynne Robinson, “Experience”]
At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. But now the colour was
going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the
valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red & black; there was the one light
burning; all was cloud down there, & very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The
24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: & rapidly, very
very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker & darker as at the
beginning of a violent storm; the light sank & sank; we kept saying this is the
shadow; & we thought now it is over — this is the shadow when suddenly the light
went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was
dead. That was the astonishing moment: & the next when as if a ball had
rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again, only a spooky aetherial colour
& so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out
of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down, & low & suddenly raised up,
when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly & quickly &
beautifully in the valley & over the hills — at first with a miraculous
glittering & aetheriality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of
relief. The colour for some moments was of the most lovely kind — fresh, various
— here blue, & there brown: all new colours, as if washed over & repainted. It
was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the
world dead. That was within the power of nature…. Then — it was all over till
[Virginia Woolf, diary of June 30, 1927]
(See also: Annie Dillard’s “Total
When I say “soul,” you need not take me in the ontological sense unless you
prefer to; for although ontological language is instinctive in such matters, yet
Buddhists and Humians can perfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal
terms which are their favorites. For them the soul is a succession of fields of
consciousness: yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field, which
figures as focal and contains the excitement, and from which, as from a center,
the aim seems to be taken. Talking of this part, we involuntarily apply words of
perspective to distinguish it from the rest, words like “here,” “this,” “now,”
“mine,” or “me”; and we ascribe to the other parts the positions “there,”
“then,” “that,” “his” or “thine,” “it,” “not me.” But a “here” can change to a
“there,” and a “there” become a “here,” and what was “mine” and what was “not
mine” change their places.
[William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience]
It occurred to Lacan that to be too “good” at free association could mean the
patient was too defended against the analysis (it also tended to suggest a
greater degree of rehearsal––not freedom––in the speech). Week after week the
analytic hour might be filled with resourceful verbal performance, and the
analysis would lead nowhere and do nothing. This insight inspired what Lacan
called the “variable session,” in which analysands who spoke too easily of
themselves were simply cut off, sometimes within moments of lying on the couch,
and the analyst announced, without explanation or apology, that the session was
over. The intervention meant to ruin (maybe cruelly) the speaker’s fantasy of
self-possession and return what had hitherto seemed the truth of his or her life
to mere talking, talking found suddenly wanting. Something called “self-
knowledge” is usually understood to be a central attainment of enlightened life,
but sometimes it’s an impediment, something to be overcome.
[For more on Lacanian technique I recommend Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction.
My own essay on the uses and misuses of self-knowledge, “On Not Knowing
Yourself,” is newly up at LARB.]
Mark Greif’s wonderfully lucid essay “The Concept of Experience” outlines two
practical attitudes toward experience and its conversion to meaning:
aestheticism and (the awkwardly named) perfectionism. Grief offers this
Regard all things as you would a work of art.
Understand that it is never wrong to seek in art the stimulation of desire,
wonder, or lust, or to search for resemblance to things in the world. You
encounter art, and the result is experience.
Apply this flexibility of experience, taught by art, back to all objects not
considered art—practicing your skill especially on the trivial, the ugly, and
the despised. You will find that your old assessment of experience as something
rare and intermittent, or bought with wealth or physical effort, was too narrow.
By setting an endlessly renewed horizon for experience, from the endless
profusion of objects, the aesthete guarantees that life-as-experience can never
be diminished—not by age, by sickness, by anything, short of death.
Regard all things as if they were examples, which state simply the way of life
Understand that each of these examples, when experienced, makes a summons to
your self. Experience things in this way, always inquiring of them, “What way of
life do you express? What do you say to me?” and you’ll learn what it is that
lives in you.
If you are called to change your life by any example, and your self responds—you
must change your life. And once you change, change again. Your next self, too,
will be challenged by examples, to find a next self still waiting beyond. Thus
there is no perfection in perfectionism; the process of experience and
correspondence never stops. If there could be any end in view, it would only be
this: that the circle of things corresponding to you grow not wider, but
infinitely wide, touching everything that exists.
Are you attracted to either? Would you be tempted to revise these tenants,
intuiting, perhaps, the challenge of implementing them? Absurd as so terse a
model risks being, would you submit an alternative? Are these at least admirable
in their aim to recuperate the significance of the ordinary?
Some history: The word prose came into English by way of the Latin prorsus,
itself the contracted form of proversus, “to move forward,” as in Cicero’s prosa
oratio, “speech going straight ahead without turn.” Notice, however, that this
Latin root of prose has in it the root for verse. It comes from the Greek word
verso, the little mechanism on a plow that allowed the farmer to turn a
furrow––or, in terms of literature, a line. In Latin, verso became versus and
its verb form vertere, meaning “to turn,” hence the English vertex, vertigo, and
even the word conversant (“one capable of spinning an interesting tale”). In
other words, when a line of poetry bumps up against whatever it bumps up
against––death, confusion, the other, unknowns, a rough and rooty patch of
impenetrable earth––the line gets to turn around, start over, make as many
running charges at its subject as it wants.
[John D’Agata, The Next American Essay]
The culture tells a lot of stories about the inner lives of writers and perhaps
not all these stories are wrong. Rarely depicted at near distance, however, are
the movements of thought and attention from which writing actually emerges––the
cognitive, affective, even physical experience of writing as lived in real time.
This would be a harder story to tell, one lacking in apparent drama. Can we
imagine a thick description of this situation? Do you know of any already
existing? What kind of decisions do you understand yourself to be making as you
write? I don’t mean on the level of craft or form (for which we have robust
vocabulary already), but on the smaller scale of opening and closing the gates
of focus, variously stage-managing or letting happen the thought-action,
indulging some instincts and denying others as you work to find a next thing to
put on the page. How would you narrate the tedium and thrill of this dynamic?
What do you experience yourself to be actually doing as you sit there, suffering
the self-inflicted wound of being sealed off from life, waiting for, well, what?
The shallowest still water is unfathomable. Wherever the trees and skies are
reflected, there is more than Atlantic depth, and no danger of fancy
running aground. We notice that it required a separate intention of
the eye, a more free and abstracted vision, to see the reflected
trees and the sky, than to see the river bottom merely; and so are
there manifold visions in the direction of every object, and even
the most opaque reflect the heavens from their surface.
—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers, “Sunday”
There is a humility that is the threshold to ambitious vision that has, when
I’ve glimpsed it, teased me out of my own arrogance and assumptions, granted me
illuminated shards of the wholly/holy obvious, and even if I ended up bereft of
vision complete, at least I had somewhere in the mind, through the eye, the
proper distractions. Thoreau shows the way in his meandering on the “dead water”
of the Connecticut River—to look up, you look down. I’m reminded of the old
story about Thales, philosopher so intent on understanding the stars that,
walking in the dark and looking up, he fell into a well, and the washer-girl who
found him laughed at the genius, mocking him for studying the heavens when his
concern should be on the ground. Thoreau manages to show us how those opposites
reconcile, that to bend the head earthward is to study the stars and the forces
and orders behind them, or is, as long as we can form within the eye “a separate
intention” that both frees and abstracts our vision. This kind of seeing—in
which the dullest surface reflects the stars, and in which the riverbank and
trees in sky are seen at one and the same time—strikes me as the most necessary
poetic advice I’ve been given in years. So now I stare down at the grass, at the
concrete. I’m learning to read the constellations there; studying the stars.
[Dan’s Of Silence and Song will be published in December by Milkweed]
I think of the aphorism as a sympathetic form. The aphorism is succinct, correct. It slinks shut, sometimes with a little snap or tone. Its brevity is a performance and thus requires skill, also a source of its sympathy. Something (even a great deal of something) has been left out, but the aphorism is not merely or only a fragment or piece, something bit haphazardly off from something else. The aphorism is careful, rather than abrupt, and frequently warm. It is, as they say, lively. “I am dynamite,” says Nietzsche. “I’m like the animals in the forest. They don’t touch what they cannot eat,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “In love, he who heals first, heals best,” says La Rochefoucauld. “My vagina hurts when I watch gymnastics,” says Chrissy Teigen.
It is through words that words are to be overcome. (Silence may only be a tying
of the tongue, not relinquishing words, but gagging on them. True silence is the
untying on the tongue, letting its words go.) To write standing face to face
with a fact, as if it were a scimitar whose sweet edge divides you, is to seek
not just a style of writing but a justness of it, its happy injuries, its
ecstasies of exactness. The writer’s sentences must at each point come to an
edge. He has at all times to know simultaneously the detail of what is
happening, and what it means to him that it happens only so. A fact has two
surfaces because a fact is not merely an event in the world but the assertion of
an event, the wording of the world. You can no more tell beforehand whether a
line of wording will cleave you than you can tell whether a line of argument
will convince you, or an answer raise your laughter. But when it happens it will
feel like the discovery of an a priori, a necessity of language, and of the
world, coming to light. One had perhaps seen the first stalk of a returning
plant asserting itself with patches of snow still holding their ground. Thoreau
writes: “So our human life dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green
blade to eternity.” That these words should lay aside their differences and join
upon this ground of sense, proposes a world which mocks of cowardice of our
imaginations. Nature, no more than words, will leave us alone. If we will not be
rebuked by them, and instructed, we will be maddened by them, and turn upon them
to make them stop.
[Stanley Cavell, Senses of Walden]
January 20: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?
January 29: Again tried to write, virtually useless.
January 30: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.
February 7: Complete standstill. Unending torments.
March 11: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing.
[from the Diaries]
The clouds thicken over the cloister and night gradually darkens the ledger stones bearing the moral virtues attributed to the dead. If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write: “I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.” And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no. I say no with all my strength. The ledger stones tell me that this is useless, that life is “col sol levante, col sol cadente.” But I cannot see what my revolt loses by being useless, and I can feel what it gains.
[from a notebook entry dated September 9, 1937]
Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.
[Susan Sontag, “Where the Stress Falls”]
How does one write poems when the reveries of consciousness contemplating landscape or inner life can be cast as desperate flights from the derangements of social reality? I’ve been thinking about this question while rereading W.S. Merwin’s The Lice (just reissued by Copper Canyon on the occasion of its 50th anniversary). In The Lice the trace of history is rarely to be found and everywhere to be felt, as though Merwin writes about the social world by evacuating from it:
And at last I take up
Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he’s dead
The voice speaking through these poems seems to suffer the distance by which the imagination’s potential exceeds what political rhetoric can accommodate, seems to sense flows of force at depths where the political and social registers don’t traffic. Maybe the task of poetry isn’t to function as politics voiced on a sonorous plane, as advocacy aping aesthetic prestige, but to rescue language from cheapening expediency, to preserve it as a proto-poltical resource that might expand rather than endorse our positions. The poet knows something too sad for the culture at large to take up; that as soon as you can say something it ceases to be all the way true. This sense is echoed in the Heraclitus fragment from which the book takes its title:
Men are deceived in their knowledge of things that are manifest, even as Homer was who was the wisest of all the Greeks. For he was even deceived by boys killing lice when they said to him: What we have hunt and caught, these we leave behind; whereas what we have not hunt and caught, these we carry away.
As much as the poems speak to their Vietnam-era context, reading them in the current dispensation they feel like resources rather than artifacts. The book is one kind of answer to question that, a half-century later, has lost no urgency. As ends “The River of Bees”: “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”
These are fragments of three letters from Tolstoy to his friend Nicolay Starkhov. The novel he’s in panic about––and seemingly making consistent progress with––is Anna Karenina.
May 31, 1873
My novel is resting, too, and I’m already losing hope I will finish it by this fall.
August 24, 1873
…And I must confess, shamefully, that I am now correcting and trimming the novel about which I told you in my letter, giving it a more frivolous and less formal style. I wanted to be mischievous and now I can’t even finish it and I’m afraid it won’t turn out well, i.e., you won’t like it.
…I’m as healthy as an ox, and like a locked-up mill, I’ve collected water…
September 23 or 24, 1873
I have moved far ahead with my work, but I’ll hardly finish it before winter––maybe December or somewhere around that time. Like the painter needs light for his final touch-ups, I, too, need to have an inner light, which usually begins to fade in the fall.
What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing––with a rather shaky hand––a labyrinth into which I can venture, in which I can move my discourse, opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary, in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.
[Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge]
Within the ascending abstraction—a green hill gently rising into the early-evening sky, like the uppermost plain in a Rothko given animation—a heat, alive and moving, seeks its own meaning. The eye is faulty and miraculous, failing to comprehend the fleeting bolt of life. Silence singes the air with metaphysical portents. Tropes soon appear. Abyssal spots of time arrive to quell the tide of the incoming present moment, and we observe it all as if watching an island slowly disappearing in the wake of a ship. It would be easier to name the color of these peonies than to name the wake’s origin/destination. As such, I have become the villain in my own poem; this may be the only time the poem allows me an “I.” The inside of one’s skull is wreathed with doubt. The poem might be a signal from somewhere else. The heat shifts and scuds against the viridescent canvas as it sails into something like the actuality of our own lives. We were there because the dirt on our boots tells us we were there. Even the muddiest of abstractions remains transparent. The poem continues to clarify the shade of green needed to finish the process of bringing the hill into creation, a process that will remain incomplete. We wander like homeless iambs looking for the proper lines in which to be domiciled.
[George Fragopolous, from “Manfred in New York”]
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search over each object in a work of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti’s drawings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A twentieth-century master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, taught that “the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.” Who but an artist fierce to know––not to seem to know––would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those same instruments’ faint tracks.
Admire the world for never ending on you––as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.
[Annie Dillard, The Writing Life]
Ever since it was sent to me by a friend, I’ve been unable to get this anecdote, from an essay by Richard Wollheim on the painter Nicolas de Staël, far out of mind. I can’t paraphrase its wisdom, except that it seems a wisdom reached on the far side of work:
A conversation of January 1950, reported by Staël’s friend Pierre Lecuire, does something to attenuate, or at least to account for, the seemingly paradoxical character of Staël’s commitment to abstraction. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to a glue-pot and an ashtray, ‘here are objects, and this is just what I don’t represent.’ Then, picking up a pencil, he made it pass backwards and forwards from the glue-pot to the ashtray. ‘Now, look, that’s painting. L’entre-deux, what lies between the two. Braque paints what is around the objects, then he represents the objects. As for myself, objects, they don’t interest me any longer. I no longer paint them.’ Pressed as to what was left of the object in his painting, Staël said: ‘Rapport. Rapport. Rapport.’
[P.S. Practice Catalogue will pause for a month and when it returns will feature considerably more entries authored by others. Send along any ideas or material––exercise, habit, quotation, evocation, or meditation thereon.]
My poems––I should suppose everybody’s poems––are all set to trip the reader foremost into the boundless.
Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where
people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the
[Robert Frost, in a letter]
My former teacher Lucie Brock-Broido enlists the German word widerruf to
describe a way of writing alongside another poem––a poem stuck within you, a
poem you can’t shake. In Lucie’s wielding, widerruf––which I understand to be
grammatical German––has the force of neologism. It’s a spirit as much as a
compositional mode, a haunting––you’re haunting the poem that haunts you.
Widerruf is literally “recantation, retraction, revocation.” Lucie lists the
root, wider, as “against, contrary to, IN THE FACE OF, or versus––counter,
contra, or––with.” And there’s the bright thread: widerruf is both going against
and going with. Every word offered in the definition tallies this odd, dual
logic: to revoke means to take back what’s been said, but the word no less says
say again, re-voice; to recant is to take back what’s been sung, but the word’s
surface gives us again sing; to retract is to withdraw and to go again on the
I’m reminded of Freud’s paper on “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words,” in
which he notes tendency of ancient languages to combine opposing concepts into a
single sign. So in ancient Egyptian there are words that translate literally as:
“old-young”, “far-near”, and “bind-sever.” The notable thing about these
joinings is that they don’t produce or denote negation. Freud feels that dreams,
too, do something like this in their expression of wish (i.e. disregard
negation). The opposition or affirmation of a wish are equally its indication;
desire is expressed no less by its concealment than by its disclosure.
Maybe literary influence is a vexed, double-sided thing like this. Harold
Bloom’s deep idea was that influence involved risk: it was a gift that could
famish the taker, a wealth that might impoverish the heir (but it was still a
gift; the canny found ways to spend the money). Bloom might’ve been wrong, but
who would deny that part of what we experience in a work we really love is the
doing or discovery of something we would’ve been enlivened to do or discover on
our own and now cannot? So what then? Lucie: “You could use instead a device
akin to the missive…the writing Back, reply, respond, react, query, a tiny
cat-fight, fisticuffed, or send all your love & everly, or even show up at the
door. Is it possible?”
Susan Sontag begins her remarkable essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” by defining
spirituality as “plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at the
resolution of painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation,
at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.” Sontag posits this
description in order to draw an analogy to the function of art as a category of
work and category of experience in the modern era (or at least the mythology of
that function). “Spirituality” is a gooey word, often gooey enough to be
useless. Sontag’s elaboration of it alleviates the gooeyness only a little. And
yet, it’s not as though we’re uninterested or uninvolved, one way or another, in
the project her definition traces. Moreover, for those likely to be reading
this, art plays some role evolving our plans, terms, or “ideas of deportment.”
Practice Catalogue is about the myriad ways this is or might be done.
[P.S. My own slow-gestating consideration of “poetry” as a kind of inquiry, as
an idea of deportment, “Thought-Work in the Glowing Field,” is now up at
Work on one thing at a time until finished.
Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is at hand.
Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
When you can’t create you can work.
Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
Don’t be a draught-horse. Work with pleasure only.
Discard the Program when you feel like it––but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
[from Henry Miller on Writing]
My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side
(“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written
uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without
despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so
as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive,
iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch
the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes)
hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to
alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
Matisse goes to Tahiti and spends 20 days alone.
Picasso said, “I’ve never seen anything. I’ve only lived inside myself.” To be engaged requires solitude. He paints a lot at night.
Neither learn to drive a car.
Objects are Matisse’s vocabulary. Women and fabrics occupy the same plane. Picasso’s objects are never really there. Feminine mystery is his subject, though he rarely asks anyone to sit for him. When he paints a chair it is Van Gogh’s chair.
Matisse rubbed out the day’s work. Picasso painted over it.
Matisse: “I require calm.” When there wasn’t joy there was still the aesthetic of joy.
After an operation Matisse can’t paint and begins instead to cut colored paper. He can work only 30 minutes a day. A wounded lion with velvet paws.
Later, Picasso brings a painting to the bedridden Matisse for approval or critique. Matisse asks to spend time with it. The painting is placed on the mantle facing his bed, where it remains for the rest of his life.
With light you draw immensity into small spaces.
At 90 Picasso says “I feel like I’m getting close to something. I’ve only just begun.”
Robert Lax, in a letter to Thomas Merton (October, 1963):
never try to saying nothing in a poem (i say): only see it doesn’t say nothing wrong.
there ought to be a lot more poems (i say) only they shouldn’t say so many wrong
things. this must all be stopped. more poems, but not so many words and things like
The utter fatuity of those who say to you, “By ‘Hadrian’ you mean yourself!”
Almost as unsubtle as those who wonder why one should choose a subject so remote
in time and in space. The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the
shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his
blood. He knows, too, or ought to know, that the voices who speak to him are
wiser and more worthy of attention than are his own clamorous outcries.
It did not take me long to realize that I had embarked upon the life of a very
great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention,
and, on my part, ever more silence.
In a sense, every life that is recounted is offered as an example; we write in
order to attack or to defend a view of the universe, and to set forth a system
of conduct which is our own. It is none the less true, however, that nearly
every biographer disqualifies himself by over-idealizing his subject or by
deliberate disparagement, by exaggerated stress on certain details or by
cautious omission of others. Thus a character is arbitrarily constructed, taking
the place of the man to be understood and explained. A human life cannot be
graphed, whatever people may say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing
what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat
horizontal for what he actually was; rather, the diagram has to be composed of
three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging.
Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is
already something gained to have used only the original stones.
Every being who has gone through the adventure of living is myself.
In my notes is this paraphrase of Edouard Manet by Wayne Koestenbaum: Always move in the direction
of concision. Cultivate your memory. Remain the master. No tasks.
My favorite book of art-historical writing from recent years, Raphael Rubenstein’s The Miraculous,
features no proper names (aside from an index in the back), few dates, and little discussion of
critical or market reception. Each of the book’s 50 sections merely narrates the actions taken
in the composition of a given work or project. It’s an experience of 20th century vanguard art no
longer mediated by fame, theoretical construct, or the aura of exchange value. What we have instead
are evocative human actions relayed in a parabolic register, their purpose and potential again up
for grabs. “Artistic practice” can be a bloated category, one that attracts vagueness and wishful
projection; The Miraculous gives us art as practice, as generative act. It reminds that it would
be more radical and real to identify ourselves with work rather than with coins gathered in a
Here’s a sample chapter:
After seven years of brutal dictatorship, during which many citizens have been killed or “disappeared”
by the government, an artist decides to celebrate her nation’s return to democracy by constructing a
“Parthenon of Books” on one of the capital’s main boulevards. Over the course of seventeen days, she
and a team of assistants build a full-scale replica of the famous Greek temple, made not from marble
but from copies of books that were banned during the dictatorship. Each of the volumes, which are
attached to metal scaffolding, is enclosed in a transparent plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
On the day before Christmas, after the structure has been on display for three weeks, the artist invites
the public to dismantle it. Climbing up tall ladders that have been provided, and assisted by cranes, men
and women enthusiastically help themselves to the previously unavailable books, publications that might
have been their owners’ death warrants had they been discovered by the secret police during the
so-called dirty war. Strikingly, the number of books required for this ephemeral Parthenon is nearly
identical to the number (according to later estimates by human rights groups) of the dictatorship’s
If stuck, cut out or photocopy the first page of a prose essay you admire. The key is to choose something
with a textual weave that intrigues you. Aim to cut the total words on the page by half. Rearrange and
rework sentences, make shaper leaps in argument, open fissures in the thinking, put images into new
relationship, try for inertia as much as for sense. This process will leave you with a beginning–made of
the stuff of your beloved model but already working differently, already taking the shape of your
recognitions and perceptual rhythms. Even canonical writing could’ve be been otherwise. Your own writing
will be otherwise.
I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
III. In your working conditions, avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honor requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
VIII. Fill the lacunae in your inspiration by tidily copying out what you have already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
IX. Nulla dies sine linea [“Not a day without a line”]—but there may well be weeks.
X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
XII. Stages of composition: idea—style—writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration; style fetters the idea; writing pays off style.
XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.
[from One-Way Street]
You pound out a sentence. The sentence sounds an echo. Do not explain, describe, or narrate the echo––it is
sounding already. Sound another. Measure the relation of harmony or dissonance. Keep the hum and buzz of
implication (Lionel Trilling’s phrase) alive.
Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blackness, the blackness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruining everything you touch but touching nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: the page will teach you how to write.
There is another way of saying this.
Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.
[Annie Dillard, The Writing Life]