I wanted to think more about lyric wishing so this is something more like a question than a thought. I was thinking about the wishing in Sofia Drew's "Excavation," a poem that begins with a seven year old wish to grow up to be a marine biologist, that includes the wish (or the liking) to believe "that the pōhutukawa leaves that had jumped / and fallen face-first / onto setting concrete / were fossils," and ends with each square of skin of the blurred overexposed future fossil self likened to "pōhutukawa leaves / blown into the wind without a wish." Here is all the movement between past and future and present moment that I was thinking about when I wrote yesterday's post, and here too are a series of wishes including the absence of the wish of the pōhutukawa leaves blown into the wind. As a way of thinking about time now lost to us, wishing is a lost grammatical tense, a lost grammatical marker that is like the subjunctive tense (also not often used) in that it refers not to what is, but what might be - but the wishing tense, or optative tense, expresses not so much doubt, imprecision and uncertainty but an ideal, a sense of potential, what might, could, should happen, should we wish for it. I was reading about it in Jhumpa Lahiri's wonderful book Translating Myself and Others, in which she quotes Aristotle's distinction between poetry and history: "the poet's function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not be writing in verse or in prose..The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen." For this phrase, he uses the optative tense, the marker of a wish, and later he uses a phrase translated variously as "ought to happen" or "ought to be." Poetry isn't about wishing in any ordinary way (except for when it can be, when the poet wishes it to be) and to try and think of every poem as a kind of disguised or declared wish of the poet would be even more limiting than thinking of every dream as wish-fulfilment, which led Freud to come up with some unlikely interpretations and eventually to read everything in terms of a death-drive. But poetry is radically conditional. The way a poem is always somehow - if it works - about more than it is about, the way a poem is always both autobiographical and not autobiographical at the same time, whether or not it draws on real-life autobiographical details, the way a poem is always about what might be, or would be, or needs to be for the poem to work itself out right, with all the elements in the relation to each other that will give rise to resonance: is this a way of thinking about the optative mode as the mode of poetry? And if so, is it a way of opening up a kind of psychological grammar that we need to think about the future creatively, and to manage to think intellectually and strategically about the crises we are in without limits, without defenses, without paralysis, but in a spirit of optative play and possibility?
The work of building community is one answer to what poetry offers us in a time of crisis - or a time of crises, global and local, political and ecological. But there are other ways of community building that might seem a more direct response, such as the sort of climate action group I'm also taking part in (even if that ends up with a bit more of a focus on the poetics of submission writing than might be strictly justified - how happy we were to get "woefully" into our submission on the climate emissions budget!). What lyric poetry offers is one very particular and very strange answer to the problem of scale that has been identified by many scholars and activists as crucial to the global crises facing us and the climate change crisis in particular. Climate change is speeding up so fast it no longer seems quite so much a problem of imagining the closeness of a crisis a hundred years, fifty, into the future but still the effects of any individual action are so removed from the moment in which it takes place and we are experiencing now the effects of actions taken fifty, a hundred years ago, while government set targets for changes to be made by 2030, 2040, 2050, doing little even towards reaching these goals in their own term in power. And the actions that need to be taken are so large-scale and so systematic that any individual is largely helpless to effect any meaningful change, recycle our plastics though we do. While we plant a dozen trees in the local reserve, acres of ancient forests are burning across the globe. So we have a crisis of scale in terms of time and in terms of human reach, the numbers of people involved. And this is exactly what distinguishes lyric poetry, its strange and paradoxical valency of address, its strange and paradoxical command of scale, in terms of both time and human reach. A lyric poem - charged with feeling, structured around address - offers the most intimate, minute form of communication, more intimate even than one person speaking to another person in a room. Reading a poem, there is no distance between the writer and the reader - the reader reads as if they had written the poem themselves, and as if the poet is speaking directly to them. At the same time, a poem has infinite reach - anyone can read it anywhere, across the world and across time. Poems written two thousand years ago speak with an immediacy now, poems written now will be read in the present tense of whatever times are ahead of us still. I was talking over these ideas with Robert Sullivan, who was the one who introduced the term valency into the conversation. In chemistry, valency refers to the combining capacity of any one atom or group of atom - it is a term that equates power with the capacity for relationship. I was thinking about all these things when I started reading the latest issue of Starling - the literary journal for writers under the age of 25 created and edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace and an extraordinary example of community building. The first poem in the journal is the beautiful "Excavation" by Sofia Drew, which brings together the different time scales by which we live, opening with her wishes, as a seven year old, for her own future as the adult she imagined herself to be. She describes herself as belonging to "the nostalgic generation" whose looking backwards extends beyond childhood to claim the palaeocene as their favourite time, and she looks ahead beyond her own adulthood to a future "already buried in sediment": in this future, "my favourite fossil is this: / me, moon-face, grainy, grinning / I’m overexposed / left too long in the tungsten glow of / still believing in everything." It is a beautiful example of lyric scale, and lyric wishing - about which I also have more to say, and more to think, perhaps in another post.
I might have written before about the strangeness of our experience of beauty, that it is necessarily experienced subjectively, but seems like a quality inherent in the beautiful object itself - though as I write that, I am thinking, what is strange about that? Isn't it the same as our experience of anything at all? We experience coldness subjectively, through our own senses, but what we are experiencing is a property of the cold object or cold atmosphere. But on the one hand, we are more likely to agree on whether something is cold or not, and on the other hand, we are more likely - or I am more likely - to care about whether something is beautiful than whether or not it is cold, and to care about your judgement if it is different from mine. I've always thought I cared because what I am seeing is a beauty I haven't just created in my own mind - though you'd think I might care about that more - but because I am seeing a beauty that is there, in the object itself, that it somehow matters to me should be recognised. (And on the other hand I almost want to resist seeing beauty where other people see it and I don't, as if to see beauty in a sunset would compromise my own aesthetics and I'd lose some of the beauty I see elsewhere.) So it is interesting to me to find Hannah Arendt also backing, as a political move, the idea of beauty as a kind of truth that can be argued for. To call something beautiful is to make a judgement, that can be held to the potential criticism of others, that might need to be explained, that to be persuasive draws on shared ideas and ideals. It is this sharing, criticising, arguing and persuading that makes aesthetic judgement political - it builds community. I like the political significance that this gives aesthetic judgement and that this gives my desire to share my aesthetic judgement and for it to be shared by others. And I like the way it offers a political significance to the act of aesthetic judgement that is still consistent with the idea of aesthetic value being something completely independent from any direct political motive or ethical message that the work of art might hold. At the same time, it only pushes the subjective, relativity of aesthetic judgement into a larger sphere, making beauty a social construction that can be argued out in terms of agreed upon values that themselves could be seen as just as arbitrary, relative and subjective as my own private and idiosyncratic preferences. And by having in this aesthetic judgement still floating free from ethical, moral and political judgement, Arendt still leaves open the question of the relation between the community building and what the community is for, and the relation between community formed around aesthetic judgement and community formed around shared spaces and social actions. For Arendt, aesthetic judgement is important because judgement itself is important, and because community itself depends on judgement. "The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this indeed may prevent catastrophes." But does the ability to tell beautiful from ugly have the same kind of consequence as the ability to tell right from wrong? Or is the one simply a kind of training ground for the other? I do not feel I am at the end of this thought, further from the end of the thought perhaps than I was before beginning to think it, but I want to hold on to the idea of the relation between aesthetic judgement and community, and the idea of beauty in relation to shared values, and the sharing of values, as social action.
I like being offered a wine match and I thought why not also a poetry match. And not only for meals but anything, in fact one of my first poetry enterprises was writing poems for Minnie Cooper shoes. The poem went in the shoe boxes with the shoes in question, and I got a free pair of shoes as payment. For the Yona Lee exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery my poetry match would be Paula Green’s “After Modernism” –
After Modernism I walked to the shops
to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk
with the leaffrocked wind in my hair
and the waterlogged tyre in my ear
and the backblock road in my eye
and the woebegone fog in my nose
and the forgetmenot paper in my hand
and the slipknot word on my cheek
and the crisscrossed sign on my thigh
and the defrosted pronoun on my brow.
I saw a flowerpot that looked a lot like gorse
gorse that looked a lot like barleycorn
barleycorn that looked a lot like a harpsichord
a harpsichord that looked a lot like a hobbyhorse.
The Yona Lee exhibition, “An Arrangement for Five Rooms,” responds to the invitation to make a site-specific installation for the gallery and to Yona’s interest in the gallery hand-rails which seemed such an unlikely interest to me I wondered if she was being wilfully perverse. But I was instantly charmed by the installation itself, the hand-railings taking off into playful structures, elaborating themselves into climbing frames, sliding in and out of rooms, offering buttons to push as on a bus, in case you might want to get off, reclining themselves into bunk beds, with a Narnia-like lantern welcoming you in to the installation at the very beginning. It is at once Modernist in its clean, tubular lines and emphasis on form, and Post-modern in its elaborations, allusions and playfulness, not paring a vision back to essentials in a Modernist manner but taking a formal detail and letting it go wild. “After Modernism” offers a similar play on Modernist patterning and Modernist form, taking the Modernist emphasis on the image as the essential element of poetry and letting it loose into a Post-modern frolic, that still retains something of the gleaming, tubular aesthetic of Imagism. It is a poem that is constructed around movement, that moves from wind to tyre to road to fog and onwards the way Yona Lee’s handrails move around the corners of rooms and up and down and across and sideways into new constructions, and, like “An Arrangement for Five Rooms,” I find it both funny and beautiful, somehow in the same sort of way.
What I love about writing is how abstract it is, even when it is about the most material objects or experiences. Words are not the sounds or the letters on the page or the screen, a poem written a thousand years ago can be read today and become the thought in the mind of a completely different person. Even so the body can become involved, is necessarily involved I suppose even if it is just the synapses of the brain firing, even if the hairs on the head aren't prickling or tears coming out of the eyes. And, having loved poetry for its immateriality, having loved abstraction and lived as much as possible in my head for as long as possible, I have become interested at last in the mind-body relationship and have been working on not thinking rather than on having thoughts. I've been interested also in other forms of mind, not only other forms than human forms - I've long been interested in how cats think and how chickens experience the world - but quite different forms like the intelligence of funghi. I love the idea that the spiritual experiences people seem to have on magic mushrooms are not them accessing some greater truth through the unlocking of their own minds, or through the transcendance of mind altogether, but rather are the experience of life lived as funghi experience life, the world seen through funghal consciousness, a consciousness which is without individual identity, dispersed and without borders. And I wonder whether in the same way that medical advances have involved, in part, a separation of our understanding of the mind and the body, there might be a way in which we understand the world as essentially material, and whether there mightn't be a way in which the whole world, too, is animated in a way we no longer understand? Even theologically I think it is common now to think in terms of a division between matter and spirit, divinity and the world. I hardly know how to imagine thinking otherwise, but it could be interesting to try.
I wonder sometimes whether to think of a life as a series of moments or a narrative and whether it makes a difference to how you think of a life when it ends. The Romans had the dispiriting idea that you might live beyond what should have been the end of your life, but I wonder also whether the timing matters not just in terms of your personal narrative, the biographical elegance of dying at a certain point in the story of your life, but in terms of the moment of history - or stretch of history - you have lived in (or will have lived in). Would you have been lucky to have died before the Trump presidency, or before the Covid epidemic? Would you have been unlucky (or lucky, perhaps, depending on your nationality and politics) to have died halfway through the second world war not knowing who would win it? Would you be luckier to live through it and find out the ending, and would you be unlucky to live through it and find out the ending supposing, for instance, it had ended differently, with a Nazi regime in power? We live in moments but also within narratives that are not just the narratives of our own lives, but we live only in one moment of them at a time. Does it matter at what point in the story we no longer follow it, in terms of how we measure the happiness of a life? Is all there is to measure just the sum total of the moments in which we have lived, or can we only make sense of a life in terms of some larger meaning, and is the meaning necessarily formal, structured in terms of a narrative in which the ending plays a definitive part? (Answers in the comments please! (Would it make a difference to the meaning of my life should I die before or after reading the answer to my question?))
I have come up with what, to me, is a revolutionary and completely brilliant approach to spending that is so simple it might seem too obvious even to outline but its simplicity is what is so brilliant about it and I am guessing it might be like those yoga positions that some in the class are saying "but how is that possible" about while others, already in position, are asking "where exactly are we supposed to feel the stretch?" so I present my spending theory here for anyone who wants to take it up. What you do is, if there is something you want to buy, or something you want to spend money on, you consider first if you want it which you can work out by asking yourself if you would take it (or do it) if it were free. Then, if you can afford to buy it (or undertake it/subscribe to it, enrol), you do. Simple as that! And yet, it is not how I have ever really approached spending till now. Spending has always been a source of guilt and anxiety, and any attempt to justify the spending in terms of need, or comparative value, or amount of use, or any other justification only adds to the anxiety and guilt about spending because beyond essentials, the difference between need and desire is often, always, ambiguous, and comparative values are so hard to measure across different sorts of items and between items and activities, and the amount of use you will get out of something can be so hard to anticipate, and these kinds of justifications don't answer the ethics of spending discretionary income rather than giving it away. And I can even feel anxiety and guilt about charitable donations as well, as another form of discretionary spending. This is solved most simply by determining a percentage you can afford to give - the higher the better - and setting it up in advance (Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save site even offers recommended percentages for different incomes), just as saving is also best decided on as a set amount to put aside, and you can have a contingency fund if you want, too, but once your contingency fund is topped up, if you have any money left over, then you don't have to think twice, ever again, about spending it, you only have to decide - and it is not really even a decision - if you want something, and it is yours.
It tells us something about poetry perhaps that when we need to talk to ourselves about something we don't know we know, we need to tell it to ourselves when we are asleep, in images we struggle to remember when we awake, that take some interpretation, sometimes comically obvious, sometimes strangely oblique, and often taking more than one reading to fully understand, often revealing their full meaning only in relation to other images and dreams. I dreamed recently about living with a large indoor pool, more of a pond, but with, I think, a wall around it, about waist-height, in which a large fish was swimming. I wasn't sure how to care for this fish but it seemed to rise up happily enough for cat biscuits. And then a lizard, emerald green, amphibious, emerged out of the water and climbed onto a tree and from there onto my finger. I woke up with a sense of resonant possibility, a feeling of hope. It is a dream I understood, afterwards, in relation to the dreams I used to have about looking after mice, and I wondered what it meant to have moved from dreaming about furry animals, that I kept in cages, to swimming animals, that came to me from out of the water, and I read it in terms of the association I have made between my dreams about mice and my writing practice, an association I have made ever since reading about Karl Stead's interpretation of a recurring dream about feeding hens as a dream about creativity. It was a shift to cold-bloodedness, perhaps, but surely more significantly a shift towards fluidity, and movement? For some time I haven't been writing here, while I have been in pain, but I have a page of notes made recently of thoughts, things to think on, and one note was "dreams - photography," and I remembered, with a struggle, another dream, in which I was in conversation with, or in a relation with, a photographer, who had been photographing a series of traumatic scenes, perhaps from his own life, a series of photographs both terrible and beautiful. But, before he could exhibit them, before he could even print them, he exposed all the film, and all the images were lost. Now, he wondered, did he have to go through everything again, re-enact the scenes, in order to recreate the images? How strange - my notes read, "a dream about repression," but what does it mean that the images were exposed to light? I read it, on first waking, in terms of the destruction - "lost/destroyed the film" is what I'd written then, "exposed all the film" is what I have written here, "accidentally" I even considered inserting, but now I am rationalising, revising, perhaps repressing the significance of the original dream (film I began to write), in which it was an act of destruction, which meant everything would have to be replayed. (There is something interesting to think about, when thinking about photography, in the way exposing film before it is developed is how the images, the recordings, are lost.) In any case, it made me think again about the pool of water that the dream fish inhabited and the dream lizard climbed out of, and its relation, perhaps, to the pool of grief I find at the centre of myself, that I have been working to release as I work to release the pain I have felt in the body, and offers a further interpretation of the dream, if it is read, poetically, as a dream about writing, as observing the possibilities there are in writing out of grief. "Thought stalls on an event it cannot bear to contemplate, can go no further," Jacqueline Rose wrote in her book On Not Being Able to Sleep. "The task of psychoanalysis is not so much to undo forgetting, but to put poetry back in the mind." But/and the task of poetry, as it writes itself in dreams, is to do the task of psychoanalysis - it is a kind of clambering upwards.
I was lying on a ledge of earth deep in the bush above a great crevasse, across from a waterfall, and I was very aware of myself and the boundaries of myself, my cheek against the earth, the sounds of birds and leaves, the warmth of the earth under my body, and I thought about how exactly the same this all would be if I were still the child I had been once, even if my body would have been smaller and more supple, and I had a sudden understanding of what Tim Parks was writing about in a book called Out of my Head, about Riccardo Manzotti's theory that consciousness does not take place in our heads at all, but beyond the self, in what he calls the "spread mind". For Manzotti, there is no separate awareness of an apple taking place in the head - the apple itself is where the experience is. I read this book thinking it was another example of how philosophical rigour always seems to lead into absurdity, or depends on using words in ways no one else uses them, and argued with it the whole way through - in my head, of course, where all my words are, and where I do my thinking, and where my consciousness resides. For Manzotti, the head isn't even where I would remember that sense of the world I had, the experience of myself in the world, that constituted my consciousness when I was on that ledge. A memory still exists in the same place as it did, on that ledge, no matter what time I am accessing it from (I think this was the argument). And for a moment, there on the ledge, what had seemed impossible to understand just seemed so obvious it hardly needed to be thought. Of course I had no separate consciousness in my head apart from the world where the experiencing of the world was taking place. I was just in the world, and who I was, was the edges of myself in contact with the world where it all was going on. It was the world creating the I, not the I creating the world. Funny how connected this made me feel, though, not only with the world but with my younger self, the child I used to be.
I have been writing about simplicity in poetry (I like it) and about ornamentation as the opposite of simplicity (I like ornamentation too). But I haven’t thought through difficulty, as another opposite of simplicity. The music critic Richard Taruskin believes contemporary composers wilfully make music that is difficult to understand, that its status comes from people not understanding it and so automatically regarding it as great, as beyond their understanding. I’ve often seen this written about contemporary poetry, too, the idea that poetry lost its way with Modernism, becoming an arcane game in which “poets” convinced each other of each other’s greatness by writing things that everyone else suspected had some meaning they themselves couldn’t grasp. I think there is some truth to this, The fact that there is, I think, some truth to this can get in the way of thinking about the value of difficulty not as a kind of fraud (though even the deployment of a fraudulent difficulty can perhaps have an aesthetic value or be used deliberately to offer a kind of numinous pleasure. And it can’t be called fraudulent when poets (or technicians) use computers to generate a randomness that involves, for the reader, the same kind of difficulty of interpretation that perhaps we have come to value, as readers, for its own sake. No one is pretending, perhaps even when poetry is written by people, that the difficulty in constructing a narrative or interpreting symbolism comes from following the poet’s complicated logic, a logic beyond the reader. There isn’t any! But we might like the surprising twists of imagery, the movement from scene to abstraction, the juxtaposition of words or sentences that seem to belong to quite different texts. (Those of us who still like poetry, that is.) But there is another kind of difficulty too. Mozart wrote about his own concertos that they include passages only connoisseurs can fully appreciate, but “the common listener will find them satisfying as well, although without knowing why.” Perhaps this isn’t difficulty so much as complexity. Perhaps this complexity involves difficulty for the composer rather than the listener or reader, or perhaps the complexity itself can be difficult to follow. And there is a difference between the difficulty, or complexity, within the work itself, and the complexity of its relation to a field of practice or a tradition. A composer, or a poet, may be making moves that have a logic in relation to the work that has come before, a poem may allude to another work or to a traditional way of writing sonnets, or the traditional content of a sonnet, as when Sam Sax writes his fourteen word sonnet, a tweet on the subject of spring, time passing, the intensity of personal feeling, and complete with a volta at the end the first eight words as the tween turns towards its conclusion. Or the poem might be complex in itself, using metre for instance in ways that play off traditional metres but with variation or with a new kind of logic or cadence, or it might be complicated in its syntax, or in the way a metaphor extends and unfolds itself over the stanzas. Difficulty isn’t always fraudulent. And it isn’t the worst kind of fraud to be taken in by, either. If you are taken in by what you find in a difficult poem, does it really matter that your appreciation of it might have gone beyond the understanding of the poem’s own composer?