Despite your potential insistence to the contrary, it’s been a while since I’ve felt myself, in the truest sense, in a rankle—the truest sense being that of not merely a resistant reaction, but also of a perpetual discomfort regarding the thing which vexes—but that is precisely what I’ve got myself in regarding your prior letter and what seems to me a mishandling of imaginative inquiry/prompting: something of an incredulity at my having “fallen for” a teacherly trick, which I took to infer a certain amount of laziness and insincerity (on the part of the teacher, and for my own part as an advocate thereof) in the reading of a teacher’s advice to “go to the pool” to her student writer.
[I had in a previous correspondence recounted that the teacher had been “looking at a poet’s words and there was life lacking from the art, but, it seemed she could see there were not art lacking from the looking that was looking, it made her think of the daydreams undersurface of a pool in youngest India. Only the teacher knew the place she was thinking of, but said before the poet: “go to the pool,” And the poet when she heard it, heart it. Went to her own pool, splashed the neighbors rotten with her overlatelyzealous laughter, then put that in her song. How did the teacher know, she asked the teacher, all about what happened at the pool? There was no pool in my suggestion to you, the teacher replied, I went to the pool, so I reminded myself to go to the pool. Then you found what you found.”… to which the subsequent response encapsulates as follows, “I am surprised you fell for that teacherly trick: add magic to the process; add special to the process; make it holy; make it meaning full, like a bed of water.Don’t we all begin in a bed of water? Does this make it holy? What of the vile creatures that drop from a bed of water — do the poets run to their retreats also? Is this where the dark arts are found or do the poets only take what they can stand and leave the rest of it like so much litter, maybe even sweep into tidy piles? Fuck those poets then. Throw shade on their pale asses.”]
When one rankles, one rankles; there’s no getting around it. But there may be some amount of moving through. One may treat a rankle as a wall. Or one may get curious about the feeling of resistance to a notion and begin to notice just where the discomfort is coming from & thereby somehow come to greater understanding. In the case of the wall, a rankle serves to reify the notion of one’s own rightness, or, more to it, another’s wrongness, & bolsters one’s illusory ego into an indefensible brittle thing. So I shall try not to treat it thusly. Though I have done, I shall try not here. Also (perhaps) worth (at least to me) mentioning is a delineation between intent and perception, which might could stand as a given, but shall not—that my reply makes no claim on knowing the heart of your words, though I have learned I can indeed trust that heart to be in a state of openness, but rather seeks to untie the knot of frustration I have with myself over my own reaction and my own perception of what the stance I perceive to have been taken seems to me to imply. It is my intention not to argue (if I argue) with yourself, but with myself in your presence. So there’s no dealing with “what you really mean” or “what you are really doing” or anything like that.
Here are the major elements of my rankle, in order of my repetitively thinking them:
- This take seems to lack imagination.
- This take insinuates I have chosen to be obtuse.
- I’m tired of quibbling over small things, aren’t there bigger fish to fry?
- Maybe I’m just unhappy with my process at the moment.
(again, not intended as statements toward your perception, but as full-light exposures of my own)
So what is it that drives me to thusly perceiving & why does it matter & what can I learn (& if you can learn something, should I be trying to impart something? No. I will leave the you part of this to you. No sermons or evangelism of any kind. Testimony. Belief. Owned, not thrusted):
So the swimming pool as a rather random association, placed in trust by poet in front of poet, seems to me to illustrate and extract the particle of the act, namely trust, that accepts the concept of teaching espoused by many, including Einstein: that a teacher doesn’t educate his students, but provides a space in space & time for his students to educate themselves. In my time at the school I noticed this teacher I’ve referred you to (& whose name I think I’ve left blank because I don’t want to invite the kind of influence a name may have, nevertheless her name is known to many) had many detractors who sounded off about what seemed to them empty gestures that simply “come across strange and mythical & mystical, but amount to nothing.” I paid attention to the detractors and often questioned them about their difficulties with a teacher who utilized parataxis & metaphor in the classroom rather than direct instruction. What they seemed to want from her was a specific enunciation of actionable theoretical means to affect their crafts. That is, they seemed to me to be writers who like to come from a workshop with a lot of comments about word choice and structurally prescriptive fine-tunings of the direction of their work. What they got was a teacher who would notice cows and tell a writer to spend more time at the farm, & when the reply was “I think I’ve been at the farm too much,” she would switch without hesitation or any sign of irony, “that’s what I mean, get as far away from the farm as you can.” She would make wild proclamations, invoke archetypes that may or may not have had anything to do with the writer’s aims, create swirling storms of imagery & symbol, open silent spaces & ask us to rest therein. She would ask questions that seemed to come from out of oblivion. & for the sort of writer who wants concrete commentary and direct theoretical application, I could see how this was frustrating. I try not to judge too much about it, but I do anyway. I think when you have a poet in front of you, you ought to do more listening than evaluating and rejecting.
Joe was so proud of his line he ran up to Anne & in what he describes as a giddiness, proclaimed he’d found something wonderful: “A poet says yes to all things,” he declared. & she gave him a blank stare as if to say, I was walking somewhere because I have to be there, why are you stopping me with this?Needless to say, Joe had hoped for something more. & I don’t think he’d worked it out for himself what he’d hoped for, but I imagine it was for Anne to jump up and down & clap & crown him king of the day! But a … “umm… ok…” was what he got. A poet says yes to all things. When I heard the line, I thought, of course Joe you’d say that, it’s a reverie, & you’re such a reverent poet, it fits you. I took my joy in his revolution. It was only after a great deal of struggle (personal & poetical) & reccurrence of Joe’s line into those strifely moments of mine, I began to recognize this was not a reverie, but a bless-ed curse of a thing. Unflinchingly true & pointing to a perpetual state of innocence that becomes the poet, the naïve actor at many times, who knows seldom what it is he agrees to/with. Who says yes, but god knows what’s really going on. It’s echoed for me over time such that it is like a birthday—something worth recognizing, that illuminates vast cascades of potential self-realization & can be a marvelous symbolism to reflect on, but which might also just be seen as an excuse to wear a silly hat. & I think both are pretty wonderful.
What I’ve noticed from the folks I’ve labelled the teacher’s detractors, is that they will encounter a line or an image like this & if it doesn’t immediately find purchase for them, they dismiss it. If it seems overtrue or obvious, they dismiss it. If it seems proverbial & unsophisticated, they dismiss it. If it isn’t a clever play on theoretical impulse, they dismiss it. They do an awful lot of dismissing, I find. And most of them rankle if you try to call them a poet. I can understand why.
What perplexes me is that a writer can carry forth with any amount of prescriptive notions about what it is to engage with the world. Especially given the iconoclastic bent of the particular voices in the theoretical world they seem to espouse. They seem to get embarrassed by silliness or unserious argument or improper reading of a text for its author or its author’s intention or some such things. As though there were a correct way of writing a story, an incorrect way of noticing a detail.
I know bad writing. I try not to think of it as bad, but I know the feeling of reading something most people might call bad writing & how it somehow offends the act of reading by being a thing that exists. It relies heavily on cliché, it repeats itself, it leans into the moral or thematic message too obviously, it tries to be clever, its dialogue is unrealistic, its speakers/characters are inconsistent—these kinds of things. So often are the problems the same that it seems, I think, to many, that these elements of style are the problem in themselves. So a lot of writerly teaching revolves around “finding ways to avoid cliché” or “rephrasing something you’ve repeated,” or “varying your sentence structures,” little practical lessons like this. Fine. Training wheels are nice things for children.
I was in a Dharma Arts lecture, featuring Robert Spellman—a favorite speaker of mine I think because of his natural wit & his methodical challenge to accepted notions of mindfulness & creative thinking—which had come to the Q&A portion of things & a student had asked for advice, much it seemed to focus on the type of advice that reads “ways to avoid cliché,” advice on how to apply a practice of mindfulness to eradicating his work of the sort of self-delusional “I” that Spellman had been encouraging us away from in the course of the lecture. The question was something like “what are some of the focuses we can bring to our work that will help us deal with this problem?” A problem Spellman had explicated as having the effect of uninteresting writing. Spellman’s response was, in his tone, very understanding & forgiving & need not be read as flip, something to the effect of, “No, nothing like that. I think you’ll find that if you are with your writing and you’re doing it all the time, those things just work themselves out, not because you follow some kind of procedure about it, but because you get bored with doing it that way, you get bored with the way your writing sounds when you’re doing it in that self-referential way and you start to try to see things more openly, more clearly.” It comes close to a bit of advice that I’ve heard from many a writer—but importantly not the majority—that the only thing they have to preach to other writers about writing is that you should always do it. There’s nothing more to say about it for these writers. Just write all the time & all the little tricks you’re worried about now stop mattering to you.
Easy advice to give. Tough to take. It’s why when I hear folks being dismissive of truisms for their simplistic-ness, I wonder how true they really find the thing. It’s very easy to note how everybody already knows a thing. It’s not quite as easy to turn around & find one has taken the time to find this true-for-everybody thing at work in their own practice & lives & creative work.
Advice that gets more sophisticated than the “just do it” approach can also be helpful, but I also think it can be detrimental in that it begins to formulate an acceptable realm of what is good writing, & begins to accept theoretical query as constitutional. It gets off the point. There are suddenly rules. Too many rules.
Don’t rely on Cliché—I think of Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, a work riddled with integrative clichés, a brilliant, but, more importantly, fun, book.
Don’t repeat yourself—Well, Gertrude, what do you think of this little bit of teaching?
Be economical, not elaborative—Tell that to Joyce. (someone did, he said [economy] was for shoemakers, not writers)
The major issue of writers not coming into our own as writers has so little to do with the symptomatic style-monsters we spend so much energy slaying, & so much to do with how much attention we are paying, how closely we are listening, how sore are our backs from bending to the task. We don’t really want to listen to our work & to do it. We really want to have made our work & to have seen that it is good. I think some good advice—for a writer whose work displays cliché & as a critical reader (with opportunity to issue challenge) I find the clichés unthoughtful, uninteresting, reflective of a lack of sitting and being with the work—might be to repeat the “mistake” 20, 50, 100 times until you understand what it’s doing there.
Am I digressing? (Always be digressing) Well let’s come back around.
Go to the pool. Some possible reactions:
“This doesn’t mean anything.” Followed by a grumble about the teacher. Trash talk by the smoking table.
“This means everything!” Followed by a thorough worshiping of pools & teacher.
“Pool, eh? What about the river?” Followed into with a seeking of new opportunities to listen to one’s work.
I might ought to have placed number three in the middle. Can you tell it’s my preference? I think it follows my belief that if you put an image or a symbol in front of a writer, it’s always a gift. No matter what it is.
Look at the sunset. Gift.
Sit with a tree. Gift.
Think of a zipper. Gift.
Listen to that bulldozer and ask, “what does that bird look like?” Gift.
That cartouche on the sarcophagus’ feet is upside down! Gift.
Go to the pool.
It’s a gift. Here, hold this. I trust you to open it. You are beautiful enough to open a gift, yes?
I don’t think I can over-ratify the value of dream-language in creative discourse for those willing to listen. A poet encounters a bright or dim light & if worth her weight in salt, will not judge the thing by its rhetorical merits, neigh (sic–a salt for the lick?), that’s a judgement best left for rhetorical gifts. She will judge it by her own capacity to see something in its light. If it is the sun, there are blinding glints coming off the water. If it is the moon, the stems are milky white. There is something always to find, for a poet.
You do not have to walk on your knees. For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. (Mary Oliver)
…so, in response to myself, and perhaps it’s valuable as a thing to say in front of yourself:
- Such is the value I find in acts of faith like the one at the pool.
- Such is the rankle I feel when I sense that no amount of imagination will ever be met with anything but rhetorical scoffs and skeptical shout-downs.
- Such is my hope, that a symbol may beget a furtherance of our dreaming, rather than a festival of argument & resistance.
- Such are the poetical things I find most true, yet spend so much of my time in service to the redundant and less-true.