Friday, October 31, 2014

a continuous I don't know

From an interview with Patti Smith in The Chicago Reader:

"A person can't really try to be an artist. I think that it's a calling. What you can try to do is become better at your craft, to become more disciplined and, by practice, become a better draftsman, but I think people are artists or not. I think that if you're an artist—well, whatever your vocation is, it doesn't have to be an artist, if we're really called towards something, it could be towards being a chef or a doctor or a parent or poet—you cannot not do it. You're compelled every day to do it. And that seems to be what your vocation is, a vocation sometimes that chooses you before you choose it. But we were disciplined in that we worked every day."

"Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

- Wisława Szymborska

The above is from Szymborska's Nobel Prize Lecture, 1996.

She also says:

"Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events" ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world."

I think it's interesting that both Patti Smith and Wisława Szymborska talk about inspiration, making art, writing, as a calling. It seems an almost old fashioned way to talk about it, and yet, I think it still applies. How else could a person be so disciplined? 

When I haven't written for a while, I feel strung out, really terrible. I'm not very nice. 

I very much like Szymborska's insistence that inspiration is born from a continuous I don't know. Because, if we approach 'ordinary life' with this question in our hands, in our hearts, then there is the possibility we will see it anew.

I don't know is a pretty good mantra, actually, for artists.

There is a mantra that I picked up many years ago, which is also good: Are you sure?

From a Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh:

"In each of us there is a river of perceptions flowing day and night. To meditate means to sit on the bank of the river and observe all perceptions. With the energy of mindfulness, we can see the nature of our perceptions and untie the knots that bind us to our wrong perceptions. All our suffering has its roots in our wrong perceptions, so please practice the mantra, “Are you sure?” Always refer to it, and try to look more and more deeply. Our views can be more or less wrong. When we have true understanding, we transcend all kinds of views, even our views of the Four Noble Truths."

The lines by Virginia Woolf on doubt, have likewise been a great help to me:

"It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything."

Doubts Creep In.

That might be something anyone writing a novel should post somewhere near their workspace.

In fact, I think anyone making something should probably worry if doubts do not creep in. If the process is not a fairly continuous I don't know.

The paint tubes in today's photographs belong, of course, to Rob. As the colour is seeping out of the world rather quickly outdoors, and I had a craving for colour....these seemed a good subject one day this past week.

The tea - always a good subject I think - is being served in Rob's grandmother's teacups which we were gratefully given when she was still with us.

Thursday, October 30, 2014



by Hermann Hesse

Sometimes, when a bird calls,
Or a wind moves through the brush,
Or a dog barks in a distant farmyard,
I must listen a long time, and hush.

My soul flies back to where,
Before a thousand forgotten years begin,
The bird and the waving wind
Were like me, and were my kin.

My soul becomes a tree, an animal,
A cloud woven across the sky.
Changed and unfamiliar it turns back
And questions me. How shall I reply?


by Louis MacNiece

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue and the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

- an interesting commentary on the poem has been written by Olivia Cole

The wind was up when I was photographing these roses which line the front yard of a nearby house.

So the clarity isn't quite as I'd hoped.

The Hesse poems is one that's long spoken to me. And strangely, I don't think I've read the MacNiece poem before now. And it's a poem that will require many re-readings.

Going to sit with the line about feeling "The drunkenness of things being various." Because: yes.

Yesterday I had 'technical difficulties.' Woke up and the internet was down. Apparently there had been some upgrades which rendered our password ineffective. While I was at work, Rob figured it all out.

Meanwhile, the poet Galway Kinnell has died. From a piece on him in the New York Times:

Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. “To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

And one of his most loved poems:

Saint Francis and the Sow

by Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Interesting, I think, to read all these poems together. To think about the bird calling, the called soul, the hush, of Hesse's poem, alongside MacNiece's window pane, the flowers outside, and then the craziness of the world. And then to follow this up with Kinnell's insistence that everything flowers, everything is blessed from within, everyone and all is lovely.

"World is suddener than we fancy it," says MacNiece, and isn't this quite often the truth.

But reading the poems slows me down.

After reading the Kinnell poem, especially, imagining the hand of Saint Francis on the creased brow of the sow, bestowing blessings. Thinking about how each of us has this ability, to reteach others their loveliness. Which is really something to do with seeing people for who they are.

The last thing I'll share with you is the latest instalment in our Humans of EPL project, at the library where I work, and which will be posted on social media on Wednesdays. The latest photograph is of Brian.

The snow in the photos, btw, is no longer around....though I'm sure it won't be long until we see more.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

snow, delicate snow

The Snowfall Is So Silent

by Miguel de Unamuno

The snowfall is so silent,
so slow,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.

- translator, Robert Bly
- about Unamuno

We awoke to, yes, you guessed it, snow, yesterday morning. It's already nearly disappeared. I packed my camera up in plastic, and out I went.

There's something about the first snow. There's still wonder in it.

I've added the above photos to my recurring bird set on Flickr, which is coming along nicely.

First Snow

by Louise Gluck

Like a child, the earth’s going to sleep,
or so the story goes.
But I’m not tired, it says.
And the mother says, You may not be tired but I’m tired—
You can see it in her face, everyone can.
So the snow has to fall, sleep has to come.
Because the mother’s sick to death of her life
and needs silence.

I loved the above poem, because it's not at all what you expect. We've either been the tired mother, or recognize her.

And it's true that in winter, the world is quieter, silent. If all goes as planned, you might just get more time to yourself than usual. It's possible.

Snow Is Falling

by Boris Pasternak

Snow is falling: snow is falling.
Geranium flowers reach
for the blizzard’s small white stars
past the window’s edge.

Snow is falling, all is lost,
the whole world’s streaming past:
the flight of steps on the back stairs,
the corner where roads cross.

Snow is falling: snow is falling,
not snowflakes stealing down,
Sky parachutes to earth instead,
in his worn dressing gown.

As if he’s playing hide-and-seek,
across the upper landings,
a mad thing, slowly sneaks,
Sky creeps down from the attic.

It’s all because life won’t wait,
before you know, it’s Christmas here.
And look, in a minute,
suddenly it’s New Year.

Snow is falling, deeper – deeper.
Maybe, with that same stride
in that same tempo,
with that same languor,
Time’s going by?
Year after year, perhaps,
passing, as snow’s falling,
like words in a poem?
Snow’s falling: snow’s falling.
Snow is falling, all is lost –
the whitened passers-by,
leaves’ startled showing,
the corners where roads cross.


I've read many poems about snow, but I don't think I've read the Pasternak one before. Maybe because I think of him as novelist rather than poet. Most of us probably remember him as the author of Doctor Zhivago. But he wrote many volumes of poetry.

The first stanza captivated me, yesterday. It seemed to play out - though instead of geraniums, there were sunflowers and dahlias and cone flowers reaching for the small white stars.

Before heading out for the walk, I photographed the flowers in our backyard.

Next, we head out on our usual walk, toward the utility corridor.

Mr. Ace does enjoy the snow - he was running around like a puppy in the stuff.

We returned home through the neighbourhood. The streets were wet, though the snow accumulated everywhere else.

Admittedly, I took many, many more photos. So even though the snow will have disappeared, there will be more snow photos tomorrow :)

Monday, October 27, 2014

five hundred lives

"What more could you want? Siddhartha said
someone who brushes against you in the street
has shared an experience with you for five hundred lives."

- Mary Ruefle from "Talking to Strangers"

"Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes, all that seems like error is not error; and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is the next step."

- Agnes Martin
from Writings

To Know the Dark

by Wendell Berry

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

The Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

It's like this for creative people. You go forward for a time into the light, and then, it will be dark. After a while you will no longer know what to do. You work. And that, perhaps, is the real work.

It all had to happen, it all has to have been done.

For the first part of your writing life, you might wonder, should I be doing this. You're filled with doubt. Later, there is less doubt. A little less. It's not even so much resolve as it is that one becomes helpless to not do the work.

The path is the path. There will always be tremendous delays. You will always be lost. Some days you will have great dark wings, or glorious coloured ones. More often, you will be on your knees, groping. At times the path will bloom and sing. Other times, a silence so great.

What more could you want?