Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Meditation at Lagunitas

February 18, 2011

Meditation at Lagunitas

by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.


Robert Hass, Praise: Poems, Manchester: Carcanet, 1981: 4-5.


I have discovered a new poet, and he has come just in time.

Stravinsky on form:

February 1, 2011

“The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free. As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissable to me…. Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom? To what shall I cling in order to escape the dizziness that seizes me before the virtuality of this infinitude? However, I shall not succumb. I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal, that strong and weak accents are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me…. My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even farther: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action an dthe more I surround myself with obstacles…. Th emore constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spririt.”

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music: in the form of six lessons, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970: 66-68.


[Oh yes, that Terror, I know him.]


[I am sorry it has been so long. Things Have Been Happening, Man, and not all of them wonderful. I’ve been picking myself back up, among other things, and that is time-consuming. But I have also been to London, and visited Keats’ house (!!), and scored a four volume set of the collected works of Barrett Browning, 1866, for £39. Also, the tree outside my window was cut down and I am in mourning, and term has started again, and I have been writing, but barely enough to be validating. And I have been trying to set upon a new programme of rationality and sleep, but have been failing at both. But look at how things go on! Damnable how indifferent it all is! The sun rolling up and falling over, time-in and time-out, day afte– etc. It is something I suppose, but certainly not enough to live on.]

The “speaking depth”.

October 27, 2010

“To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking—and since it cannot, in order to become its echo, I have, in a way, to silence it. I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence. I make perceptible, by my silent meditation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plenitude which is empty…

When we admire the tone of a work, when we respond to its tone as to its most authentic aspect, what are we referring to? Not to style, or to the interest and virtues of the language, but to this silence precisely, this vigorous force by which the writer, having been deprived of himself, having renounced himself, has in this effacement nevertheless maintained the authority of a certain power: the power decisively to be still, so that in this silence what speaks without beginning or end might take on form, coherence, and sense.

The tone is not the writer’s voice, but the intimacy of the silence he imposes upon the word.”

From Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989: 27.

[This. book. is. uh-mazing. And so beautifully translated.]

Something childish but very natural

August 22, 2010

She looked startled. ‘Take off my hat?’

‘Yes–it’s your hair, I’d give anything to see your hair properly.’

She protested. ‘It isn’t really…’

‘Oh it is,’ cried Henry, and then, as she took off the hat and gave her head a little toss, ‘Oh, Edna! it’s the loveliest thing in the world.’

‘Do you like it?’ she said, smiling and very pleased. She pulled it round her shoulders like a cape of gold. ‘People generally laugh at it. It’s such an absurd colour.’ But Henry would not believe that. She leaned her elbows on her knees and cupped her chin in her hands. ‘That’s how I often sit when I’m angry and then I feel it burning me up. …Silly?’

‘No, no, not a bit,’ said Henry. ‘I knew you did. It’s your sort of weapon against all the dull horrid things.’

‘However did you know that? Yes, that’s just it. But however did you know?’

‘Just knew,’ smiled Henry. ‘My God!’ he cried, ‘what fools people are! All the little pollies that you know and that I know. Just look at you and me. Here we are—that’s all there is to be said. I know about you and you know about me—we’ve just found each other—quite simply—just by being natural. That’s all life is—something childish and very natural. Isn’t it?’

‘Yes—yes,’ she said eagerly. ‘That’s what I’ve always thought.’

‘It’s people that make things so—silly. As long as you can keep away from them you’re safe and you’re happy.’

‘Oh, I’ve thought that for a long time.’

‘Then you’re just like me,’ said Henry. The wonder of that was so great that he almost wanted to cry. Instead he said very solemnly: ‘I believe we’re the only two people alive who think as we do. In fact, I’m sure of it. Nobody understands me. I feel as though I were living in a world of strange beings—do you?’


‘We’ll be in that loathsome tunnel again in a minute,’ said Henry. ‘Edna! can I—just touch your hair?’

She drew back quickly. ‘Oh no, please don’t,’ and as they were going into the dark she moved a little away from him.

Katherine Mansfield, ‘Something Childish But Very Natural’, Selected Stories, London: Oxford U P, 1959: 8-9.

Millay, of a late evening

April 19, 2010

Presenting some pretty little bits collected from a dual reading of The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1928) and Make Bright the Arrows: A 1940 Notebook (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1941).

[The Buck in the Snow]:

“Being Young and Green” [22].

Being young and green, I said in love’s despite:
Never in the world will I to living wight
Give over, air my mind
To anyone,
Hang out its ancient secrets in the strong wind
To be shredded and faded…

Oh, me, invaded
And sacked by the wind and the sun!

From “Dawn”, ll. 18-25 [39-40].

Should I return to your door,
Fresh and haggard out of the morning air,
There would be darkness on the stair,
And a dead close odor painfully sad,
That was not there before.
There would be silence. There would be heavy steps across the floor.
And you would let me in, frowning with sleep
Under your rumpled hair.

From “Moriturus”, ll. 37-40 [3].

Death, however,
Is a spongy wall,
Is a sticky river,
Is nothing at all.

From “Dirge without Music”, ll. 13-16 [44].

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

From “To a Musician”, ll. 9-12 [59].

Together with the sharp discomfort of loving you,
Ineffable you, so lovely and so aloof,
There is laid upon the spirit the calmness of the river view:
Together they fall, the pain and its reproof.

From an unnamed sonnet beginning “Not that it matters, not that my heart’s cry…”, ll. 9-10 [68].

This is my testament: that we are taken;
Our colours are as clouds before the wind;

[Make Bright the Arrows]:

From “I Dreamt the Lowlands”, ll.1-3 [9] (there is such extraordinary music in this one, listen:)

I dreamt the lowlands still were free.
That the big wind-mill and the pollard willow, the knot-willow tree,
Beside the still canal, that the knot-willow still was free.

From an unnamed sonnet beginning “How innocent of me and my dark pain…”, ll. 1-8 [65].

How innocent of me and my dark pain
In the clear east, unclouded save for one
Flamingo-coloured feather, combed and spun
Into fine spirals, with ephemeral stain
To dye the morning rose after the rain,
Rises the simple and majestic sun,
His azure course, well-known and often-run
With patient brightness to pursue again.

“Things to avoid in literature”:

March 29, 2010

[As per Adolfo Bioy Casares, “Libros y amistad”, La otra aventura, Buenos Aires: Galerna, 1968 and quoted Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, New Haven and London: Yale U P, 2008: 221-222]:

  • psychological curiosities and paradoxes: murders through kindness, suicides through contentment;
  • surprising interpretations of certain books and characters: the misogyny of Don Juan, etc.;
  • twin protagonists too obviously dissimilar: Don Quixote and Sancho, Sherlock Holmes and Watson;
  • novels with identical twin characters, like Bouvard and Pécuchet. […]
  • characters depicted through their peculiarities, as in Dickens;
  • anything new or astonishing. Civilized readers are not amused by the discourtesy of a surprise;
  • idle games with time and space: Faulkner, Borges, etc.;
  • the discovery in a novel that the real hero is the prairie, the jungle, the sea, the rain, the stock market;
  • poems, situations, characters with which the reader might–God forbid!–identify;
  • phrases that might become proverbs or quotations; they are incompatible with a coherent book;
  • characters likely to become myths;
  • chaotic enumeration;
  • a rich vocabulary. Synonyms. Le mot juste. Any attempt at precision;
  • vivid descriptions, worlds full of rich physical details, as in Faulker;
  • background, ambience, atmosphere. Tropical heat, drunkenness, the voice on the radio, phrases repeated like a refrain;
  • meteorological beginnings and endings. Pathetic fallacies. “Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre!”;
  • any metaphors. Particularly visual metaphors. Even more particularly, metaphors drawn from agriculture, seamanship, banking. As in Proust;
  • anthropomorphism;
  • books that parallel other books. Ulysses and the Odyssey;
  • books that pretend to be menus, photo albums, road maps, concert programs;
  • anything that might inspire illustrations. Anything that might inspire a film;
  • the extraneous: domestic scenes in detective novels. Dramatic scenes in philosophical dialogues;
  • the expected. Pathos and erotic scenes in love stories. Puzzles and crimes in detective stories. Ghosts in supernatural stories;
  • vanity, modesty, pederasty, no pederasty, suicide.

Manguel, of course, observes that at the end of this proscription lies “the absence of any literature” at all. [Oh ha!]

Sartre on Beginnings

March 22, 2010

Now I can see so clearly what I wanted. Real beginnings, appearing like a fanfare of trumpets, like the first notes of a jazz tune, abruptly, cutting boredom short, strengthening duration; evenings among those evenings of which you later say: ‘I was out walking, it was an evening in May.’ You are walking along, the moon has just risen, you feel idle, vacant, a little empty. And then all of a sudden you think: ‘Something has happened.’ It might be anything: a slight crackling sound in the shadows, a fleeting silhouette crossing the street. But this slight event isn’t like the others: straight away you see that it is the predecessor of a great form whose outlines are lost in the mist and you tell yourself too: ‘Something is beginning.’

I study each second, I try to suck it dry; nothing passes which I do not seize, which I do not fix forever within me, nothing, neither the ephemeral tenderness of these lovely eyes, nor the noises in the street, nor the false light of dawn: and yet the minute goes by and I do not hold it back, I am glad to see it pass.

Jean-Paul Sartre,  Nausea, London: Penguin Books, 2000: 63.

Sartre has that same mastery of pace and pause in prose that so excites me about Virginia Woolf: one skips along his lines, recognising, rejoicing (isn’t it wonderful when you read of yourself, of your innermost experience, in another’s lines, especially when they are worded so much more beautfiully than your own recounting can allow?), but almost desperate, breathless, at the fast receding of prose that you should like so much just to hold on to and appreciate in its beauty… I think I’ve read this passage over ten times in the past twenty-four hours. But I can never just bring myself to hover over one sentence: I find myself having to pass through the piece in its entirety, without stopping. And that is perhaps the mastery of the thing: that of this passage, its parts cannot exist but in immediate relation to each other: sever one from its others and the magic is lost.


I do love Sartre’s work.

Oh, to be wrapped stiffly in paper!

January 15, 2010

They began to walk along the street, along the asphalt promenade, on one side of which, protected by brick and stucco, glass and iron, life was being led. But the other side, the sea side, flowed. They had put an iron railing between the asphalt and the sea. But this did not deter any latent desire. It was as much a protection as theory is from fact. This was the evening air damply stroking, wind fingering the bones, the opening and closing of violet and black on its oyster-bellied self, the sound of distance which is closer than thought. The iron railing spindled and dwindled in the evening landscape. Sometimes faces looked through the openings in brick and stucco, from their pursuits behind glass, or under the blunt planes, or in the elaborate bandstand, looked out to wonder at the extent of their own charade.

But only to wonder at, Theodora Goodman noticed. The most one can expect from the led life is for it to be lit occasionally by a flash of wonder, which does not bear questioning, it is its own light.

‘You see, Ludmilla,’ said Alyosha Sergei, ‘it is the same as anywhere else, the same. In the window above the quincaillerie there is a woman who will have a child in December. I have watched her adding it up. When the post-office clerk from Marseille, who has seen his future in a mirror, cuts his throat in the bathroom of his wife’s father, who has invited him for fifteen days to tell him his faults, they will stitch silver tears on crêpe and pretend that it was insanity, so that they can give him a tombstone and curse his grave.’

‘But it will not affect the calendar of the woman who is having a child in December,’ said Theodora Goodman.

‘No,’ said Alyosha Sergei. ‘Unfortunately, no. She will have her child, some eventually spotty boy, who will hate algebra, and marry the daughter of Madame Le Boeuf, and be killed in a war. This Madame Le Boeuf, who is at the moment wrapping a stiff fish in the sheet of the Petit Marseillais for the curé’s supper, is chiefly obsessed by eternity. She would like to know that her soul will be wrapped stiffly in a sheet of paper and not expected to swim.’

‘Through eternity,’ added Theodora Goodman.

‘Alas,’ sighed Sokolnikov.

Patrick White, The Aunt’s Story, London: Vintage, 1994: 178-9.


October 4, 2009

Lately at night I’ve been retreating to bed with Emily Dickinson (a lovely fat Faber collected poems, kindly given me by my brother, for my birthday–he even wrote cutely in the front of it!). Sitting there, by my lamp, reading aloud, is my antidote to these days–these last days of the thesis. During the day, it isn’t Dickinson, but Millay who is taken up for pleasure when the writing and editing gets too much.

Once more into my arid days like dew,
Like wind from an oasis, or the sound
Of cold sweet water bubbling underground,
A treacherous messenger, the thought of you
Comes to destroy me; once more I renew
Firm faith in your abundance, whom I found
Long since to be but just one other mound
Of sand, whereon no green thing ever grew.
And once again, and wiser in no wise,
I chase your coloured phantom on the air,
And sob and curse and fall and weep and rise
And stumble pitifully on to where,
Miserable and lost with stinging eyes,
Once more I clasp, –and there is nothing there.

I’ve taken up residence in my mum’s study, with the built-in-bookcases that make me feel studious, and the deep wooden desk with brass handles, and the ashes of my grandmother. To my right, the leaves of the magnolia; to my left, a cabinet of china cats. This used to be my bedroom. I wonder, looking at the key in the french doors that has not been turned since I slept beneath, whether that is why I come here now: lonely with writing.

The sky is darkening. The floorboards are popping, as they used to. The parents have returned from a weekend away, with a pink cupcake for me, no less. Hehe.

Kundera on incommutability

August 30, 2009

“The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programs; or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.”

–Milan Kundera, [I have no citation, eek].