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.
[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]