For his wonderful collection of short, imaginative poems from world literature, called The Sea and the Honeycomb, Robert Bly rewrote Frances Desmore’s translation of a Chippewa poem. And I think that it’s crucial to notice, in these days of promoting esteem for a misconceived and egotistical “self,” that the poem’s last line does not read “I am flying”:
Sometimes I walk about pitying myself,
and all the time
I am being carried on great winds across the sky.
I wish you all for thanksgiving what, in a sense, but only in a sense, we already have — a world of wonders. Or, rather, I wish that we would all enter into it more wholly. I wish that everyone, and certainly all photographers, knew and loved the following poem by Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674). (Forgive me, Thomas, for having lost your indentations in printing this here! See how it should appear.)
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.
A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.
Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.
The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.
Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In ev’ry place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders cloth’d with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was ev’ry where:
No joy to this!
Curs’d and devis’d proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dream’d not aught of those,
But wander’d over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.
Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteem’d
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seem’d
When I was born.
I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow:
Irony: don’t let yourself be controlled by it, particularly when you are not actually writing. In the moments when you are are, try to use it as one more means of getting at life. When irony is used as a pure instrument of thought, it is pure, and there is no need to be ashamed of it. But when you sense it is becoming too intimate, and distrust the growing friendship, then embark on great and serious matters, in the face of which it becomes puny and helpless. Try to get at the depth of things – that is one place irony never goes down to. . . .
– Rainer Maria Rilke
When Robert Bly quoted this passage in his magazine, The Sixties (originally, The Fifties, and later, The Seventies, etc.), much of the poetry favored by the New York publishers, The New York Review of Books, and the Northeastern academics was dry, intellectual, allusive, ironic. In the same issue of his magazine, Bly published his influential essay called “The Dead World and the Live World.” He contrasted the favored poetry in English unfavorably to poems that breathed deeply, poems that brought us “news of the universe,” poems like those of the ancient Chinese and Japanese, or of modern Europeans and Latin Americans like Rilke, Trakl, Jimenez, Lorca, Neruda, Transtromer. Poems with music, insight, imagination, tenderness and humility, passion and compassion.
The poetry he was challenging was ego-bound, rationalistic, showily cultured, culturally smug, and sometimes emotionally violent.
Well, we are, for instance, more multi-cultural (though not necessarily at any great depth) in the world of photography these days, but what I’ve just described from the world of mid-20th-century British and American poetry has its reflection in what is currently favored by the movers and shakers of Chelsea and the hipper centers of photographic academe: the allusive or “sampled,” the post-critical and anti-“modernist,” the self-consciously diffident and “sophisticated.” We have too many artists whose work and conduct seem to say, “Hey, I’m existentially and spiritually shallow — and damned proud of it.”
We see far too much work based more on so-called ideas than it is on anything else — ideas that frequently are thin to say the least, sometimes positively (or negatively?) sophomoric. Like the idea that to photograph yourself dressed up as a member of the “opposite” sex is to raise “important issues of gender and identity.” Or the idea that to make a completely uninteresting photograph in superficial imitation of a great photograph is to raise important “questions” about values or culture, about the etiology of the image or the ontology of its author. A few years ago, when my wife interviewed young photographers chosen for “25 under 25,” some of them were quick to tell her that the ability to write a provocative description of what you claimed to be making was more important to success than was the quality of the images themselves.
We need to appreciate the implications of Rilke’s observations about irony and depth for our world of contemporary photography, just as much as the literati of the early Sixties needed to take them to heart and soul themselves. Oh, forgive me, I forgot that those latter “concepts” are out of conceptual fashion. As though fashion is ever anything but a passing breeze at which the frivolous and ambitious snatch.
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.
For those of you who may not know it already, I took the phrase “the unknown friend” from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in one of his journals in the Spring of 1848:
“Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts & not from the necessity of sale—who writes always to the unknown friend.”
This sentence is just one of the many for which I’m lovingly indebted to Mr. Emerson.
In a speech to the Academy of American Poets in 1958, Robert Frost said that he had often thought that he would like to name in a poem the men he thought of as our four greatest Americans: George Washington, as our pre-eminent statesman and general; Thomas Jefferson as our political thinker; Abraham Lincoln as our martyr and savior; and Emerson as our poet.