I have been wondering how to think about anger as a positive emotion, given the way it can be denied or refused in ourselves or in others, because of the damage we are afraid it can do. I used to think of it as what allowed you to fight, and so a useful feeling to draw on in fighting for your rights or for justice, but often these fights are better managed cooperatively, working out alliances of values or objectives. I've been interested in the way anger can be turned inward and experienced as depression, and how guilt can be turned outward and experienced as anger, and the connection between anger and depression makes me wonder about the relation between anger and joy. If the refusal of anger gives rise to depression, mightn't the free play of anger give rise to joy? I think it does! I have been reading Olivia Laing's Crudo, reimagining a life story for Kathy Acker taking her into 2017 and giving her a husband she marries in the course of the novel, and for a story in the voice of one of the original Riot Grrrls it is wonderfully buoyant, but then the Riot Grrrl movement was buoyant, buoyant and jaunty. It is partly the minimal use of commas, partly the pace of the narrative that makes the book so jaunty and so much fun to read, but it is also the flaunting of negative emotions, and one of the most jaunty scenes in the book, and the scene that makes you think this is a good marriage, is a scene about anger. In this scene the husband has been shortlisted for a prize and so is nervy and cross all day, a simmering anger that explodes into a tantrum when he is given a parking ticket, and although it might seem reasonable to be given a parking ticket when you have in fact parked on double yellow lines, he is outraged, furious, that he should get a ticket for parking on his OWN STREET. This is narrated by Kathy, newly wed to him, and I think what makes it feel so celebratory is how much she seems to relish the comedy of his unreasonableness, while sympathising with his bad temper, and then she goes out in the garden to fiercely behead some dahlias, before, later, complaining to him about the architecture of fear and anxiety he is building in their home. I like how she can enjoy his own anger and be undiminished and unthreatened by it, even as she is affected enough by it to snap off the dahlia heads and complain to him about it, and I like how later, when he wins the prize, they are both as happy as each other. Anger, I think, is a kind of self-assertion, and it makes sense he is angry to be shortlisted for a prize he didn't ask for, given how this places him in the position of being judged by others rather than by his own standards, how he is made a supplicant by this shortlisting he hasn't sought. And thinking of anger as self-assertion makes sense of all the scenes in YA fantasy where the protagonist discovers magical powers they didn't know they had at the point when they suddenly access a powerful rage that has been building in them and finally finds release in a fantastic, pyrotecnical display of the impossible.
I was sitting in the sun, waiting for my friend Lisa, who was buying vegetables, and watching children who weren't my children, feeling very much in the moment, thinking this is my life, waiting for Lisa, but thinking also, that what made this moment the moment that it was, was everything around the moment, everything I wasn't experiencing in the moment but which gave the moment its meaning - that I was waiting for Lisa, that I've been caught up with family crises, that Simon is at home in Wellington, that Johnny and Elvira are who they are, that my hair is as it is (always too short or growing out badly), that I had been reading the book I had been reading. A few years ago I felt for an instant what it would feel like to believe in the idea of consciousness as residing in the world, in the objects perceived, rather than in the perceiver of them, but I've never been able to hold on to that idea for long and this was the opposite of that feeling, a powerful sense of how the consciousness of a moment is never simply a whole lot of perceptions about the world but is part of a narrative, or, rather, is experienced in terms of a sense of self, and I thought that, in a way, reading a book is what does allow you to live moment by moment, more than when you live in the moment you are living in, because the moment you are living in belongs to the whole context of your life, but when you read a book that context of your own life is set aside and you are in the context of the book's narrative which is revealed to you more linearly than your own life, the narrative of the book unfolding in the moment to moment of reading it.
I travelled by train from Auckland to Wellington and a journey that would have taken two hours on the high speed trains they have in Japan or four hours on a TGV in France took twelve hours, most of which I spent reading. Perhaps it was in one of the books I was reading on the train, Topeka by Ben Lerner, that there was a description of a young man travelling with a backpack full of a few essential items including a book of poetry. I was not reading poetry on the train, I was reading fiction, because I was reading to take myself out of the present moment of travelling into a world in which, unlike while you are travelling, there is narrative, things are continuing to happen they way they aren't happening to someone just sitting on a train for hours. If fiction takes you out of the world you are in, or out of your own experience, poetry seems to me to have a different kind of effect, if anything making you, while you read it, even more present in your own reality, even as you are transformed by the voice of the poet. Talking to friends recently about lyric scale, I found I could no longer really back my own claim about lyric scale as somehow answering the climate crisis's problem of scale - having the opposite qualities in terms of scale isn't any kind of intervention or answer. Perhaps the different kind of reading experience that poetry offers, in comparison to fiction, is also, if not an answer to crisis, valuable in the way it insists on presence - on the present tense of the moment, and on the presence of the person reading, even as it seems to bring into the present words written at some other time?
It is strange to think that there was a time, or there were cultures, perhaps are still?, in which thoughts were believed to originate in other parts of the body than the brain, in the guts for instance or in the heart. What would it feel like to imagine you were thinking from the heart, would it feel any different, would the thoughts feel less located in the head, behind the eyes? There may be some scientific truth to the idea that thoughts originate in the brain, to the extent that the mind is a construction of activity of the brain ("Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that when a subject believed a statement—whether it was religious or not—activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex" https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/belief-in-the-brain/), but it makes no more real sense to think of thoughts as being located in the head than it does to think of them as located in the heart. They aren't material things that can be there behind the eyes, and why behind the eyes except that I, my self. looks at the world through the eyes and so I am locating myself there? And if sometimes I think of thoughts as being behind the eyes, sometimes I think of them more as floating, floating in a kind of cloud around the outside of my head, and when I think of them as floating, I think of the word floating too, so the idea of where my thoughts are becomes an idea that involves the sound of an o, the sound of the f and the l, the whole two syllables of the word floating, its balanced up and down rhythm, but most of all, its soft extended o sound. Thoughts float and then they float in language. And since we wouldn't have thoughts without language - memories, anticipation, feelings, most of what gives rise to a sense of self, but not thoughts as such? - then it makes more sense to think of thoughts as residing in language than in the head. So where is the thinking self located, in the body or in language, is language the extension of self? This takes me back to the idea of the self as residing in the things of the world, in what we experience, consciousness not as an experience of the apple but located in the apple itself, and the "self" of a hen, for instance, being not only the body of the hen or its movements through space but the worm it eats, the light on a leaf it sees, the dust between its feathers, its companions on the roost at night (http://www.annajackson.nz/on/on-consciousness-and-the-world). This is my understanding of Manzotti's theory of consciousness but I can't remember how language figures in it - perhaps it doesn't, perhaps language is regarded as a second order event, a descriptive tool for discussing consciousness (and consciousness theory), nothing to do with consciousness itself. Yet for all the ways the self, through consciousness and through language, extends beyond the body, I still want to hold on to an idea of the self, a self doing the thinking even if, unlike the body which is so precisely located within the world, I can't say where my thoughts exist, except for this one, which now exists on this screen, and perhaps will exist in the mind - in the head? in the heart? - of someone reading it one day.
I remember when a friend confessed to being ashamed of how much she thought about clothes and I was surprised at her feeling ashamed of something I thought of as an accomplishment, the way she always looks so beautifully stylish in an original way that has a kind of consistent signature to it, and an accomplishment especially because she makes a lot of her clothes herself, or finds vintage clothes she often tailors to fit. She felt it was frivolous, which is something she doesn’t feel about her art or her writing, but I saw the way she dressed as an equally inspiring aesthetic achievement, reaching probably as great an audience, and a more diverse audience, an audience, too, of players, all of whom are getting dressed, too, every day, with more or less aesthetic purpose. So I was interested to see a paper on style by philosopoher Nick Riggle that starts by questioning the distinction between style and method he finds a number of artists making, and questioning, in particular, the idea that style is the expression of personality. I think his idea of personality is rather too limited - an artist might be timid, he argues, yet his art might be bold - as if personality were a series of introversion/extroversion, conscientious/unreliable, timid/bold sets of oppositions. I’d still like to think more about the idea of art (and especially poetry) as the expression of personality. But the argument he is heading towards, that style is an accomplishment, not just an expression of self anyone can’t help but have (like the textual habits - to elide or not to elide a vowel - that can determine contested authorship) but the expression of values, realised in a particular art form - and including dress, the furnishing of a house, the selection of music - is also an idea I like and would like to think more about. And I am interested how the word “style” rather than the word “voice” to talk about the way in which a poet writes immediately makes it easier to think of style as an accomplishment, rather than something anyone would have (or has to “find”). Still, there is such a gap between the idea of style and the idea of value - ideals that might be ethical as well as aesthetic (and what is an aesthetic ideal? apart from beauty? and what does it mean if we have to achieve an original idea of beauty? although in fact perhaps that is exactly the project). How might a moral or ethical ideal be realised as a way, a style, of writing? What can this mean?
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.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.