Archive for the 'MJ journal excerpts' Category

All Poetry Is Confessional

I have recently begun what I hope is an authentic endeavor to immerse myself in the study of poetry, with the hope that as I write, a consciousness will begin to take shape of how I am oriented and inclined in terms of tradition, intention, purpose, aesthetics, etc. The book I’m pondering over now is Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (ed. Ryan van Cleave, Longman, 2003).

One thing I’m learning is that there is an infinity of angles from which poets might view any particular thing, a universe of personal, historical, social, sensory, emotional, imaginal, and spiritual events and experiences to explore, as well as innumerable ways not only of conceiving and shaping poems, but of describing and analyzing and rehearsing what it is one is doing or trying to do. For example:

Most important to me is that the poem not be “confessional”, that the poem be fiction and relate directly to a wider audience even while containing some personal elements.

This is a quote from the poet Dick Allen. I guess it caught my attention, because for me confession with its nuances and ramifications has been about as animating and disturbing an issue in my life and my writing as any I can think of. It seems vital to discern how and why it might be working in what I write. More from Allen:

When my poems start to become self-pitying or too self-conscious, or want to turn into home movies, or are more interesting to those who know me personally than to strangers, I abandon them, for I have failed to listen to the world and to write at my best.

I think I understand what he means, and I am pretty sure I agree with him.
A sappy, whining poem–one with a big mouth and no ears– is an immediate turnoff for me.

However, the question occurred to me whether poems may not be confessional in another sense–covertly, in a way perhaps hidden even from the poet. I am going to make some assertions which, in my limited literacy, I can’t support. But I would like to try them out and perhaps discover at some point whether they might at least have a useful function in deciphering poems.

Assertion: Poets write about what turns their heads, about what leads them into temptation.

If this is the case, the poem must reveal or uncover something about why this particular thing matters or how it matters–in relationship to what. Writing, like confession–or maybe, as confession–is a way I can find my way through whatever it is, while acknowledging and intensifying (intrinsically) my implication, my participation in it, beginning with the very act of choosing it.

Assertion: All poetry is confessional.

How so, and how can this be deciphered ? Is the writer aware of it, or is he “above” the subject, standing aloof from it (the Pharisee), or is he acknowledging his participation in the human race, and his culpability, by humbly taking his position in the middle of it (the Publican)?

I want to make a decision about my intention in writing–in a road map sort of way. What are the signs, the legend I can use to help plot out the “right” or best way to get where I am going? Where am I going? I don’t want to be a critic or a mere reporter. I imagine inhabiting my poems as an sort of invisible intercessor, not pedantically or explicitly, but by standing with, laughing with, weeping with. This might be one vantage point from which I can decipher what is taking place as I write and as I read the work of other writers. How do poets, writing in a vast variety of forms and styles, reveal their attitude or stance, through their explicit or implied subject(s), in relation to their fellow human beings and the creation?

Back to the notion of confession. If I posit salvation as a highly individual affair–just between me and You, God– with my sins as my private business, and their sins as theirs and not mine, then my confession and poetry would most likely have a “them and me” undercurrent, perhaps self-justifying, self-preoccupied, maybe as the angry or self-pitying or self-vindicating victim– indignant, vitriolic, sarcastic. On the other hand, if I see my brother, sister, daughter, neighbor, spouse, adversary) as my life, then my confession will have quite a different character– not something overt, but more like a deep, quiet stream running through my poem–of recognition, even, in a sense, of celebration in the midst of the fantastic impasses and entanglements in which I live with my fellow falling and sometimes irritating or despairing brothers and sisters–or with the physical world which often, with no intention whatever, trips me up and makes me forget or deny or ignore God.

Along with this perspective on confession, I am also proceeding with the understanding that the very nature of the (Orthodox) Christian life is perpetual and unceasing turning (around) towards God, which is repentance. In that light, the question I want to explore for and through my writing life is this: How shall I go about crafting poems that best use the circumstances in which I stand, my unique personal attributes, thoughts, impressions, and understanding to accomplish this turning, this blazing the way in my heart toward God?

The Word of the Cross

For the last few weeks I have been reviewing my journal from Great Lent and Paschaltide 2002. The following are some excerpts from a short treatise by Archimandrite Vaselios, Monastic Life as True Marriage.

Reject no one, forgive everyone, find a place for them in your heart. Pray for them with all your might, regardless of whether they hurt you. Be unable to inflict hurt, incapable of any such thing. Follow the Lord to Golgatha. (Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.”) Be wounded and know how to bear the pain. The Cross must be familiar and acceptable to you as a place to be and a mode of existence.

Then the LORD will come at some time, without fail, as He knows best. He will come and find you. He will speak to you. He will enter into you like light, repose, paradise. You will find yourself inside the icon of the Resurrection. of the Descent into Hell. This icon will be an expression of your life. Christ will be constantly leading you by the hand, bringing you to light, to freedom, to an unending journey which is himself.

How everything functions as a whole!
How nothing is irrelevant, nothing is wasted!
How the blessings go deeper than we hoped!
How the afflictions, the pains and the perplexities till the field of our souls like a deep-cutting ploughshare!
How totally and utterly the strange and heaven-sent rest differs in nature from the rest and satisfaction afforded by any earthly and temporary success!
How it teaches us humility, how it schools us in love, how it reconciles us with others!
It strengthens us, it invigorates us, and at the same time it makes us weaker, without any prickles or sharp corners which could wound others.

Patience

Continuing with transcriptions from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko, SVS Press.

[from the Parable of the Sower, Luke 8]:
“And some (of the seed) fell on good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold”…they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

To produce these holy fruits is not any easy task…does not just happen…is neither magical nor mechanical..is a long, hard labor…requires much work…most of all takes patience.

“By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:19)

Patience: to endure…watch…wait, not to hurry and rush…to suffer with and suffer through, in quiet expectation of the hope for result
[union with GOD].

“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

Chastity

More from my notes (transcriptions) from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko (SVS Press).

Chastity in the original language..a combination of the word for wholeness and integrity, and the word for wisdom and understanding. It is not something physical or biological..negative..the indication of “something not happening.” It is the positive quality of “having it all together” and “keeping it intact”… a spiritual condition…healthy integration and soundness of body, heart, mind, and spirit…a fundamental..necessity for authentic life.

Almsgiving

This is from my notes on reading from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko (SVS Press).

“You gave me food,” “you gave me drink,” “you clothed me” and so on does not indicate one incident, but a constant attitude towards everyone.
The good of one’s neighbor is the only absolute law. The expression of love is the rule in every instance.

St John Chrysostum:
“Since we are all partakers of the same [human] nature, GOD commands and expects our affections toward one another.”

St Anthony the Great:
“Our life is with our neighbor…If we gain our brother, we have gained GOD, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

St Silouan:
“Our brother is our life.”

COPYWORK

A few months ago Charlotte (my link to literacy) lent me a little book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. I was at first attracted to it because of the bright red shoes on the cover, and the title, my being a seamstress, neither of which has much to do with why I am writing this. This is a peculiar, sometimes hilarious, and highly ironic tale of reeducation in Mao’s China. Two young men, exiled from their home to a remote farming village under hard labor, have discovered in the possession of another boy, a suitcase, which is full, they are sure, of smuggled western novels. Through their wits, determination, and sweat, they manage to get hold of a copy of a Balzac novel, thereby opening the door to a forbidden world of “ desire, passion, impulsive action, and love”. Here, in the words of the story’s narrator is the fateful moment.

“I did not rise from my bed until I had turned the last page…Then I was seized by an idea: I would copy out my favorite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents.

“I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat. The short coat, a gift from the villagers when I arrived, was made out of skins with wool of varying lengths and textures on the outside and bare hide on the inside. It was hard to find suitable passages in the book, as the limited space afforded by my coat was further reduced by areas where the leather was too cracked to be of use. I copied out the chapter where Ursule somnambulates. I longed to be like her; to be able, while I lay asleep on my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometres away…Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before…

“Writing on the skin of an old mountain sheep was not easy: the surface was rough and creased and, in order to squeeze as much text as possible into the available space, I had to use a minute script, which required all the concentration I could muster. By the time I had covered the entire inside of the jacket, including the sleeves, my fingers were aching so badly it felt as if the bones sere broken. At last I dozed off.”

This was my favorite passage from this book, and I copied it into my journal word for word. I recognized myself in his impulse–in this necessity of somehow entering concretely, personally, into the words, the descriptions, the longings, of etching the very experiences into his cells, into his body’s memory, blazing a trail from this seeing of his eyes, from the recognition of his mind, down through his hand so he could feel them, onto a surface where he could see them, take hold of them, wrap them about him.

I know this for I am a copier–a late-into-the-night writer. Due to various chosen and unchosen circumstances, I have been divested of most of my possessions including my libraries, more than once. Perhaps because of this, I have gradually grown a different sense of what made something “mine”, and have mostly lost my urge for acquisition, so that whether or not I have a particular book–even a favorite book–on my shelf is usually of little consequence to me. On the other hand, having the words in my body–laid up in my cells–has become my necessity. A byproduct of this is the growing number of journals stacked in shelves and on tables. I seek out books to borrow, and as I read, I copy. If the writing is terse and clean, this can be difficult because there is no excerpting passages that are well honed. In my journals I indicate the beginning page of each new transcription with a paper tab with title and author, so I can return to it, as I would to the book itself. When I reread the journals, I often make transcriptions from the transcriptions, or may be encouraged to retrieve the book, and make a new set of transcriptions, which may or may not be similar to the previous one. The copied parts are sprinkled with personal comments and copied short passages from several books which I do own and read in small portions on an ongoing basis. All of this quite clearly recalls to me the particular context of my life in which it was written.
The copyings are various, but do not, at least to me (and no one else sees them) seem at all random. I am amazed, when I return to them, how much they are of a piece, reminding me where I have been and am going, and to whom I belong. The copying is not an intellectual exercise. Nor is it for the sake of storing information. I believe it is rather a kind of trail blazing, a way of praying, of listening, the stretching out of my hands to what is beyond the limitations of my own understanding. In it I experience a growing and insatiable longing for paradise–for participation in the very life of God.

Psalm 84: 1-2, 5-7
“How lovely is thy dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God….

Blessed are the men whose strength is in Thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca [a desolate place],
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength:
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.”

Psalm 27:4
“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
and that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.”

I have a funny thought, in this simple act is an unseen world—like the place of the mandorla in the icon. This has been given to me–I could not have contrived it, invented it, or really even intended it. I just find myself here, and am grateful for this way of listening, of tasting and seeing, of “inquiring in his temple” and of offering thanks. I find in the act of writing one of my greatest pleasures, but more than that, a deep satisfaction: just forming the letters, transforming a blank page into something meaningful and perhaps beautiful–not so much as an artist or a calligrapher, although that is part of it, but more as a lover.

I am reminded of the words of the disciples reflecting on their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
”Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

What makes our hearts burn must also be shaping us, marking our path, taking us where we are going. In the story, the boys hearts longed for the home from which they were exiled, and burned for a mysterious world beyond the confines of their drudgery and captivity–for them the unknown, the unpredictable, the forbidden which, with an ironic twist, came about.

I hope that in the end I will simply be able to say with Saint Paul:
“Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 6:17).

A short note: I am very interested in the issue of writing as an integral and integrating aspect of education. I have two homeschooling friends who consider copying a crucial aspect of their curriculum for multiple reasons. Another who has taught only minimal formation of letters and numbers, emphasizing rather comuputer skills.

In the next few days I may make a list of some of the books I’ve copied from.