Twelve days of Lax-mas

3PictureLaxWide

This month, our school hosted a Progoff Intensive Journal Workshop. One workshop exercise involved writing a dialog between each participant and someone who has influenced him. I chose Bob Lax, who gave up and moved to Patmos to wait and write.

Instead of writing a dialog, however, I found myself writing a dozen poem-like things. I may be in the same place as I was eight years ago when I wrote a few Lax-inspired pieces.

This week, in a different kind of meeting, I tooled around with my newest Lax-inspired things, making lots of revisions. Some people with artistic training get through meetings in a similar way with doodles, of course, engaging their eye to egg on their ear.

Lax, though, missed all memos, made no meetings, and (maybe as a consequence) made few revisions to his own poems. They came out of him after long waits, and whole as eggs.

Poet Dave Bonta came up with “poem-like things” to describe some of his own work. I haven’t written poems, much less poem-like things, in years. Dave also occasionally compares writing poems to having bowel movements. Perhaps, then, I should call these my Laxatives.

I’ve posted my first four; the rest will come in December.

Not presentable

Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society’s powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

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Brooding

And certainly poetry is not the inculcation of morals, or the direction of politics; and no more is it religion or an equivalent of religion, except by some monstrous abuse of words . . . . On the other hand, poetry as certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.

– T. S. Eliot, from his preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood

T. S. Eliot was a poet, but he was also a man, and I imagine and care about and defend the man, and do so without defending his religion or his politics or even his poetics, because of his poetry.

Eliot wouldn’t have liked that – I mean, the care I profess for him through his poetry. He could make no connection to himself through his published poems. If he could have in a given case, the poem in question would hardly have been worth publishing. That is (and to state the contraposition), Eliot’s successful poem entirely replaced the feeling that gave rise to it. The feeling was private, anyway, and is of no interest to anyone but the poet.

Particularly in Eliot’s case, however, the opposite was true. It seems as if everyone were interested in what Eliot was thinking and feeling when he wrote his poetry. Everyone, it seems, except Eliot. Although he thought highly of parts of The Waste Land, for instance, he said for him it was “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”1 He thought highly of his poem only in the context of the tradition it entered. There was nothing of him left in the poem to connect with as its creator.

Tradition alone is objective, Eliot thought, so poetry is tradition’s alone. To “surrender to the tradition,” as Frank Kermode explains it, Eliot was required to lose whatever emotional fillip first caused him to pick up his pen. Eliot approved of Gottfried Benn’s description of the poet’s process:

When the words are finally arranged in the right way – or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find – [the poet] may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation, which is in itself indescribable. And then he can say to the poem: “Go away! Find a place for yourself in a book – and don’t expect me to take any further interest in you.”2

Eliot’s poems left him to make their way in the world, or at least in the world of tradition, which for Eliot was the same thing.

T. S. Eliot

Tradition fed Eliot’s aesthetics and made room for his poems, but tradition also gave Eliot a sense of himself as both a public and private man. Try to ignore the public Eliot, and the private Eliot will meet you at his door with ironic, mirthless laughter. Eliot insisted on his masks, and not just because he was a playwright. Masks make men – public men, anyway, and public men take the pressure off and even defend the private men they correlate to. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” then, is not just part of Eliot’s rather uncomplicated poetics. Just as a poem’s impersonality comes “at the expense of its correlation with the suffering of its author” (Kermode’s explanation)3, so the health of a man’s public persona comes at the price one pays to protect his private self.

Eliot’s tradition wasn’t merely a literary tradition. The tradition that permits greater means of understanding and evaluating Eliot’s poetry involves arts, letters, education, religion, and politics. He was driven to Roman Catholicism in part because of its catholicity. He was driven to conservative and imperialist politics in part because of what his poems required of him. Kermode explains that there was in Eliot “an element of mysticism also, and a scholastic sense of the complexities of time and eternity” that informed his religion and politics.4 Tradition is not just literature but also tradition’s public sphere and the public men and women who walk around it. No tradition, no poetry, and worse: no public man.

° ° °

Though Eliot’s politics fail even as a guardian over an artistic tradition5, I’m drawn to his notion of poetry as “something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what.” Eliot hated the idea of a society of sequestered religious, literary, and political specialists, a problem that has steadily grown worse since he wrote about it:

And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves, and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.6

The sequestration of politics, religion, and art, he believed, is endangering the planet’s physical health:

For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane.7

Yes.

I brood a lot, as I guess my occasional screeds suggest. I’m no politician, theologian, or literary scholar. But as a lawyer I worked with politicians, as a church worker I had an interest in theology, and as an English teacher I’ve kept my hand in literature. Over the past number of years I find that my blog has divided itself among political, religious, and literary posts. Nothing could have pleased me more than finally finding some common ground among my three interests, as I reported recently in an update to an old post, “Our Sardonic Lord.”

I viscerally feel the lack of Eliot’s so-called “social-religious-artistic complex” if only because I feel torn among something like these three callings while something inside tells me I should hear them as one.

I am afraid to move: there is little left of a public sphere. “When the wicked rise, men hide themselves” (Proverbs 28:28). I like to hide; besides, I’m certainly no more talented than the next man. But the calling itself, whether it ever involves anything like action, is primarily a call to brood – to pray.

My heroes, too, are often brooders. I frequently picture three of them, and all of their actions or inactions I trace to their brooding. I have a primary brooder in each field – literary, political, and religious. It’s a good thing for me Eliot isn’t my literary brooder since he believed that he left nothing of himself in his poems.

Instead, my mind finds comfort in Robert Lax, the promising poet who left America in the 1960’s to become a hermit in Patmos until just before his death in 2000. I see him writing one, maybe two words, thinking about them for an hour or so, and then going down to the shore. Thomas Merton on his friend Lax:

. . . a mind full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them, and resigned himself to being inarticulate.8

My political brooder is Lincoln. I’ve read loads of Lincoln books, but the scene that sticks closest to me is the one Stephen B. Oates, in his Sandburg-like biography With Malice Toward None, engenders:

In 1853, Lincoln was riding circuit when reports came of new Congressional skirmishing over slavery in the territories. It appeared that Senator Stephen A. Douglas was trying to organize a Nebraska territory out in the American heartland, but free-soil and proslavery forces were wrangling bitterly over the status of slavery there. Lincoln followed the course of Douglas’s territorial bill as it was reported in the Congressional Globe, and he became melancholy again. Friends who saw him sitting alone in rural courthouses thought him more withdrawn than ever. Once when they went to bed in a rude hostelry, they left him sitting in front of the fireplace staring intently at the flames. The next morning he was still there, studying the ashes and charred logs . . . . [ellipse original]9

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill the following year pushed Lincoln to act. “In a single blow, the bill had obliterated the Missouri Compromise line and in Lincoln’s view had profoundly altered the entire course of the Republic so far as slavery was concerned.”10 But rightly or wrongly, I trace back every action Lincoln took after Kansas-Nebraska to that all-nighter in front of the fireplace.

My religious brooder is the Sprit itself:

. . . the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—11

Some translations have the Spirit in action – “moving” – and others have it brooding – “hovering.” But Fox captures for me the possibility of both, the “rushing-spirit . . . hovering.” Fox also captures best what for me is the next-most pivotal verse in scripture, the verse after which Israel, as slaves and without a public life, would slowly begin to emerge from Egypt:

God hearkened to their moaning,
God called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov,
God saw the Children of Israel,
God knew.12

 

  1. Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. By T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. Print. At 17.
  2. Id. at 17-18.
  3. Id. at 17
  4. Id. at 19
  5. He fears “an irresponsible democracy” as much as “a pagan theory of the State.” Holding Italy up as a positive example in 1939, he writes that the operation of such a pagan theory “does not necessarily mean a wholly pagan society.” He rejects democracy as potential home for a vibrant literature “unless democracy is to mean something very different from anything actual” (The Idea of a Christian Society).  Picking up the spirit of his book title – mine might be The Idea of a Liberal Democracy – I might respond that American democracy means something very different from anything actual.

     

    Eliot fears modern democracy because the community is solely a servant of the individual; he fears totalitarian states because the individual is solely a servant of the state (see his essay “Religion and Literature”). I fear both, too. The liberal notion of equality and its consequent majority rule held in check by reason and nature has been given a bad name by our tendency toward a Jacobin notion of unlimited majority rule that leads in time to one or the other extremes Eliot fears. Lockean liberalism requires God because it requires men and women with equal rights – none of them a god over his fellows. Locke’s equality leaves each man his property and, as a necessary consequence, makes room for his talents, artistic and otherwise. To showcase those talents it contemplates a vibrant public life; indeed, Madison’s overarching purpose for a separation of powers and a bicameral legislature was to model public discourse to the young nation.

    Like a number of Catholic writers, Eliot seems receptive to the notion of natural law. He writes about mankind’s relation to nature and God as if he were pining for a return of Locke’s philosophy. In Christian Society, he points out an imbalance in the hierarchy among God, humanity, and nature:

    . . . a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: I would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. . . . We have been accustomed to regard “progress” as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. (We must) struggle to recover the sense of relation to nature and to God, (and) the recognition that even the most primitive feelings should be part of our heritage . . .

    Locke’s natural law, of course, is mostly part of a tradition stretching back to Aquinas’s natural law, and from there back to ancient Israel and Athens. It has far more tradition associated with it than does the more modern doctrine of the divine right of kings. I like to think Eliot would have liked Locke had he read him.

  6. Eliot, T. S. “The Idea of a Christian Society.” 1939. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, 1975. 285-91. Print.
  7. Id.
  8. Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Print.
  9. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print. At 107.
  10. Id. at 108.
  11. Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print. Genesis 1:2-3
  12. Id. Exodus 2:24 – 25.

Marginal

On Linked aphorisms: Barthes, the cootie catcher, and a way of tweeting. Susan Sontag: “. . .Barthes invariably performs in a affable register. There are no rude or prophetic claims, no pleadings with the reader, and no efforts not to be understood. This is seduction as play, never violation. All of Barthes’s work is an exploration of the histrionic or ludic; in many ingenious modes, a plea for savor, for a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas.”

Barthes’s strategy of linked aphorisms is part of his “exploration of the histrionic or ludic.”

Barthes’s world feels like a circus, under the big top and at sunrise, too, when the trapeze artist, assigned a month into the season to pick up the park because the clown during a card game told the men that he had seen her lying on the grass and listening to the dawn chorus, pokes the cups with her stick. Barthes’s circus is the poet Robert Lax‘s circus, a world of vocation and honest living.

5. Sea

My reading turned to viewing as Wassily Kandinsky in Point and Line to Plane took a period, moved it from its normal spot at a sentence’s end, and made it disproportionately larger than the sentence’s font.  Dead sign became living symbol, and the word became flesh. (See part 1 of this series.)

The same thing happened this past summer at the Portland Museum of Art’s John Marin show.  There I discovered Marin’s painting “The Written Sea.”  A year before he died, Marin had put his paint into a syringe – making that medical instrument into a fat pen – and squeezed out squiggles that suggest sentences that become (apparently) a sunrise along a somewhat overcast Maine coast.  My viewing turned to reading turned to viewing.

Viewing “The Written Sea,” I wasn’t thinking, “the word became flesh”; I hadn’t even read Kandinsky’s theory when I saw “The Written Sea.”  I was simply stunned, the way I was stunned looking at the British Museum’s illuminated manuscripts more than half a lifetime ago.

When I left the Marin exhibit room the first time, I had the usual crass urge to own the painting’s likeness, but the print in the show’s catalog doesn’t start to do the painting justice, particularly the inexplicable emotional impact of the painting’s blotchy white clouds against the white canvas above the written sea.  The clouds could be the culmination of what the sea wrote – heck, maybe of what the thunder had said the night before.  The barest sunrise bleeds through the mottled clouds.  Nothing more needs to be said or written; despite that, there moves the sea, ceaselessly writing, and there I was, for a blessed hour, at least, ceaselessly reading, reading and viewing.

The written sea could be the beautiful, brightly colored rooms of my recurring childhood dream.  The daybreak clouds could be the dream’s culminating room, which was the outdoors itself, the neighbors’ wide backyard and trees.  Something was transcended at the end of that sequence of rooms each night I dreamed it.

Repeating rooms, repeating dreams, repeating waves.  All those waves tearing open, over and over, on the black rocks, long after they’ve made their point.  The poet Bob Lax has it, too:

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
an
order
‘d
dance

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
a
solemn
dance

a
solemn
dance

an
order
‘d
dance

the
dance
of
the
waves

the
dance
of

the
waves

[from the poem “Solemn Dance” in A Thing That Is.]

In “Solemn Dance,” the repetition of the words becomes the repetition of the waves, and I can begin to hear the waves across Lax’s pages.  The spacing of Lax’s words, particularly at the end, makes the poem even begin to look like waves, just as the “sentences” in “The Written Sea” turn the reader into a viewer.

In writing about art, Kandinsky often wrote about words.  His description of a word’s “inner sound” comes from its wave-like, Jesus-Prayer-like repetition:

Words are inner sounds.  This inner sound arises partly – perhaps principally – from the object for which the word serves as a name.  But when the object itself is not seen, but only its name is heard, an abstract conception arises in the mind of the listener, and dematerialized object that at once conjures up a vibration in the “heart.”  The green or yellow or red tree as it stands in the meadow is merely a material occurrence, an accidental materialization of the form of that tree we feel within ourselves when we hear the word tree.  Skillful use of a word (according to poetic feeling) – an internally necessary repetition of the same word twice, three times, many times – can lead not only to the growth of the inner sound, but also bring to light still other, unrealized spiritual qualities of the word.  Eventually, manifold repetition of a word (a favorite childhood game, later forgotten) makes it lose its external sense as a name.  In this way, even the sense of the word as an abstract indication of the object is forgotten, and only the pure sound of the word remains.  We may also, perhaps unconsciously, hear this “pure” sound at the same time as we perceive the real, or subsequently, the abstract object.  In the latter case, however, this pure sound comes to the fore and exercises a direct influence upon the soul.  The soul experiences a nonobjective vibration that is more complex – I would say more “supersensible” – than the effect on the soul produced by a bell, a vibrating string, a falling board, etc.  Here, great possibilities open up for the literature of the future. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3.]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet who liked to draw, spoke of an object’s inscape; Kandinsky, a painter, spoke of a word’s “unrealized spiritual qualities.”  Kandinsky is Hopkins in reverse. Together they represent a kind of breaker and backwash, Hopkins writing and hearing the voice of objects, Kandinsky painting and hearing the voice of words.

° ° °

Ken Johnson says some insightful things about the Marin exhibit in a New York Times review, but I’m not sure I agree that Marin was “unable” to break through to abstract expressionism.  I think Marin saw abstract expressionism coming, but his art wasn’t asking it of him. (Kandinsky was similarly slow about moving to abstraction in his art because he waited for an artist’s “internal necessity” to take him there.)  Johnson also suggests that Marin’s canvasses seem small and cramped.  But how large must a page of illuminated manuscript be?  And of course Marin’s paintings do suggest what Johnson calls an “astringent pantheism,” but is that bad?  Marin may hold to the astringent pantheism of Hopkins’s hero, medieval theologian Duns Scotus.

“The Written Sea” will be part of Portland’s Marin exhibit until October 10.  The exhibit will reappear in Dallas and then Andover, after which time, presumably, “The Written Sea” will return home to the National Gallery.  We’re neighbors!

Marin’s picture is at the post’s top. This post is the last of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.  Here are links to the series’s first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Lax poems

bob lax at patmos

bob lax dried his lines
on the bright rocks
of his dumb revelation

today he pulls
on a sweatshirt

never the same gull
pecked at itself
always the same gull
john’s cave keeps him centered
able to amplify
helped the waters lap
& the seagulls cry

tomorrow he stood
on a crag

he went home & died asleep
his dream was that real

 


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Posted March 29, 2008.


 

bob lax at the inlet

lap                        lap

lap                        lap

him

lap

lap


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Posted April 3, 2008.


 

lax > merton

tom would hum
for days
before
we recognized the tune

i forgot the tune
so
tom’s
humming again

 


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Posted April 8, 2008