Monthly Archives: July 2011
At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 2 of 2: The Tradition,
The brief artist statement on Van Chu’s website, http://vanchuart.com confirmed my initial impression that his photograph reflects the influence of Chinese calligraphy and, even more strongly, of the inkbrush landscape paintings of Guo Xi, Ni Zan, and other Chinese masters of that medium.
Commenting on the calligraphy of the Princess in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the character Yu Shu Lien notes coyly how much the handling of the brush in calligraphy is like the handling of the saber in wu shu (commonly known as kung fu) swordsmanship. Or, she might have said, like the movements, simultaneously meditative and martial, in Tai Chi. There’s a pleasure and a meditative effect in following the fluid movements and the variations in density of ink in Chinese inkbrush painting — and in Van Chu’s photograph. Van Chu achieves his patterns by dropping ink or acrylic paint into water and blowing on the water (and then photographing and compositing the effects), rather than by mixing dry ink with water in a bowl and then applying it to silk with a brush. But Van Chu’s purposes and end results bear a distinct kinship with those of his artistic forebears. And neither the purpose nor the desired results are merely physical or philosophical.
If you’ve ever done Tai Chi in something like the way that it should be done; if you’ve ever done Zen meditation for a substantial while; if you’ve sat in a quiet room and done nothing but listen to shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) music or certain pieces by Chopin, Scriabin, or Takemitsu; or, for that matter, if you’ve ever become quietly lost in the making of a work of art, so that when you stopped at last, you were shocked to see how much time had passed — then you’ll know something of the state of mind (and of more than mind) that the Taoist- and Buddhist-influenced artists of China sought, and sought to induce in readers and viewers of their work. Not a philosophical belief, but a state, a certain quality of being alive.
In Chinese inkbrush painting, parts of the silk or paper surface are left unpainted, and such spaces may stand in place of sky or sea, river or plain. There is something deliberately incomplete or partial about the completed works. And those blank spaces also stand in for a number of vital intangibles: for the continual changing of the world, impossible to capture and freeze in a painting; for the infinity that lies beyond the frame (one of the most famous scroll paintings is called “Mountains and Rivers without End”); for the ongoing nature of creation. They wanted to give, not hide, evidence that the artwork, like the rest of reality, was part of a never-completed process of creation. For those Chinese artists, the creative force behind the artwork’s creation was a part of the same creative force that is constantly making and reshaping the world beyond the painting, part of the never-ending dance of being and non-being, as described in the Tao Te Ching. (Here in the West, Dorothy Sayers of detective fiction fame set forth in The Mind of the Maker her belief that the main way in which God created man”in His image” was that He gave us creative powers of our own.)
For most Western writers, being and non-being are mere philosophical abstractions, but although the two aren’t actually separate (their relatedness and wholeness being expressed by the famous yin-yang symbol), what they point at (as almost all language merely points) are not intellectual categories. Let me suggest an exercise.
There is a reference, don’t ask me to remember where, in Zen literature to “chasing the tiger’s tail.” For ten or fifteen minutes, stop doing anything active, try to quiet whatever space you’re in, and listen attentively to the sounds around you, picking one to follow at a time. What you’ll experience will be something like what Christ described some 2,000 years ago: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it came from and you don’t know where it’s going.” And he added, “So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” I think that classic Chinese painters like Quo Xi, Ma Lin, Ma Yuan, and Xu Daoning, and now the photographer Van Chu, would agree with that description and that assertion, and I believe that their hope would be that the viewer would receive at least an inkling of such things from their art.
The 11th-Century artist Guo Xi wrote: “. . . haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.” (As it happens, that describes pretty well what appears in his masterwork, “Early Spring,” an ink painting on a hanging silk scroll, dated 1072 A.D.)