Monday, 30 April 2012

Honesty's the Best Policy: Stephen King's 'On Writing'

Honesty is the best policy so they say. Especially when it comes to writing. All writers urge honesty in writing. Don't be afraid to say what you really want to say. Call things as you see them. Hemingway was of the opinion that the highest pursuit in writing was to write 'one true sentence' and that 'all good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they really happened.'

And from Hemingway to Stephen King. I'm currently reading his memoir On Writing which explores his viewpoint of the craft. I'm not a 'fan' of Stephen King - well, I don't really read that genre so I can't really say. I remember glancing through a few of his novels in a library once and feeling that they were quite well-written, but I never went any further than that I'm afraid (yes - too scared most likely!)

But I have to say I LOVE this book! I love the honesty of it. The straight-up talk. The frankness. (He even attacks the cult of the alcoholic genius writer that Hemingway helped create). I love reading what other writers have to say about writing, but I'm especially enjoying King's take on it, as it's just so.... real. He tells it as it is. And urges the reader to do the same. In the foreword he writes: 'This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do- no why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit.' Too right!

I especially like the part where he talks about reading -  that aspiring writers should read all the time. Even at meal times. To which he adds: 'Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway.' Ha!  If you're not going to write truthfully incase you 'offend' people, forget about it - or as King says ' fuggghedaboutit.' 

The countless times I've gotten into people's 'bad books' for what I've written! But that's the thing about writing - you come to the blank page and you either dive in totally or you don't. And to dive in totally  - you must write truly what you think and feel. No hiding. Or else the blank page will shine a spotlight on you and expose you for the skeletal writer you are. 

Honesty goes hand in hand with writing. Some people write what they can't say. Love letters, for example. Greeting cards. Notes to self. Diaries. Writing unleashes some kind of primeval honesty. It's impossible to do it and not be honest. 

I could never quite understand fellow classmates at school writing essays and asking 'but is it ok to say that?' Their writing was somehow separate from themselves and not a natural extension of their mind and self. Essays (or personal writing as it was called) was the one part of school where I got to be myself. And still I don't understand people when writing things hesitating and wondering how to word and reword sentences, sentiments. Just go with the flow is my advice. Literally. Say what you feel. It's not that  hard, is it?

Free-writing shows just how powerful writing can be.  It's a way of excavating the layers to what we're really thinking (and feeling). It peels away the masks of personas we may be wearing. Psychology understands this. Writing is an essential part of therapy these days. I'm sure we've all heard the exercise about writing a letter to someone you are angry with, in it listing all your grievances and feelings and then burning it to let the anger go. Writing is powerful stuff. It opens up the self. But only if you write true. 

So you gotta be fearless in a respect. You're not just dealing with a pen, but a sword - a noble instrument, not to be wielded weakly or nervously or hesitantly.  Have you ever seen a timid swordsman??

And also, I just have to include here King's take on writing seminars and groups. Writers also require honesty in critiques, but unfortunatley this doesn't happen in writing groups. In the book  King notes his doubt over writing seminars and the likes and attacks the criticism on offer there: 

'And what about those critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. 'I love the feeling of Peter's story', someone may say. 'It had...something a sense of I don't know...there's a loving kind of you know...I can't exactly describe it.' Other writing-seminar gemmies include: 'I felt like the tone thing was just kind of you know; the character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly'. And instead of pelting these idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful. In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughful right along with them. It seems to occur to  few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class.'  

Well, never a truer word said Mr King! I've had more than my fair share of experiences like this where writing group critiques consist of vagueness, or the maddening smiling and nodding he so duly notes here. Not very helpful at all!

And here we touch on the tone of the whole book - the unguarded truth about the vocation which may explain its widespread critical acclaim and appeal. I'll end here with one of the famous quotes from the book, in which King addresses what way to approach writing, which in essence, is truthfully:

'You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair - the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want  a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.' 

For the aspiring writer - who isn't afraid of honesty - I'd highly recommend this book! 

~ Siobhán.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Poems On Paintings

'The Poet' - Marc Chagall
'Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks' Plutarch once said. Maybe that explains the interconnectedness of these two genres and why there have been so many poems written about paintings throughout the ages and of course, vice-versa, so many paintings inspired by poems.

As I write this I'm just back from a gallery visit, where I have spent a lot of time as a silent spectator, like most visitors, trying to glean what each painting has to say, trying to put words into its mouth so to speak. 

And I'm not the only one. I see that the gallery runs creative writing days where members of the public are invited to come in, notebooks in tow, pick a painting of choice and write about it. Sometimes there are workshops to direct this writing, sometimes it's just a solitary activity. I must admit I'm fascinated by the blending of these two artistic mediums, the putting a voice to the 'silence' of the paintings so to speak.

And I'm not the only one to feel like this. Many writers throughout the decades have taken inspiration from famous paintings and written poems as 'odes' to the painting, verbal narratives to the 'silent story', or penned philosophical and often personal musings on a piece of art dear to them. An 'ekphrastic' poem is the technical name for such a poem. The poet Alfred Corn states in his essay on the history of ekphrastic verse* (You can read more about ekphrastic poetry as a genre: here) that "once the ambition of producing a complete and accurate description is put aside, a poem can provide new aspects for a work of visual art."

Poetry on art does not seek to describe accurately what is there, but to add to the understanding of it. It does indeed provide new aspects for a work of art. It heightens our experience of it and adds dimensions that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. A veritable viewfinder.

'The Lady of Shalott' - John William Waterhouse

From as far back as Homer and Dante, there have been many famous examples of poems written specifically on paintings. As there is also many a painting that has had its origins in a poem, or even a line of a poem. John Waterhouse's painting 'The Lady of Shalott' is a representation of a scene from Tennyson's poem of the same name, as was his 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', inspired by Keats' poem. Indeed there are many painters who have been described as 'poets' and poets who have been described as 'painters'. Marc Chagall and Dylan Thomas are two that spring to mind. And then of course, there are also poets who are painters too (William Blake for one), and painters who are also poets (none other than Michelangelo.) Poet Mark Strand went to the Yale School of Art and Architecture intending to become a painter, until he found poetry and switched to a different course.

It is safe to say that poets who write on art have an affection for it, some are even connoisseurs. It's not as if they're making a random imaginative leap in the dark but rather an informed meditation, even though feeling is foremost in it. Some poets like John Berryman even have had an extensive background in art - making his living as an art critic before becoming a poet. Edward Hirsch, poet and art enthuse, has collected poems and writings - what he calls 'imaginative acts of attention' - on the entire art collection of The Art Institute of Chicago in his book called 'Transforming Vision: Writers on Art'. (You can read the interesting introduction: here)


Perhaps the most famous example of a poem written on a painting is WH Auden's meditation on Breughel's 'The Fall of Icarus'. It provides not only an accompanying narrative to the painting, but a powerful psychological and memorable commentary on human suffering too. Auden has used the painting as proof proper of how the world always goes indifferently on in regards to suffering and death:

         'The Fall of Icarus' - Breughel

Musee des Beaux Arts -W. H. Auden 

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 

This last line is a verbal echo of what we see in the painting. Auden has amplified the painting's meaning in his poem so much so that it seems almost necessary complementary reading.

American poet William Carlos Williams was a poet very much inspired by art. In fact he has written a whole volume of poetry on Breughel's paintings. He too has written a poem on 'The Fall of Icarus', a poem which in its very structure mimics the composition of the painting. In the painting, the fall of Icarus is not the focal point, it happens on the sidelines, as a footnote almost to the main picture. The mention of Icarus only in the very last line of the poem reflects this defining aspect of the  painting quite astutely:

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus - William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Breughel seems to be a popular artist choice for poets. His 'Hunters in the Snow' painting has also garnered a lot of poetic responses. American poets John Berryman and Wallace Stevens have both written poems on it. (You can read them both here: The Poet Speaks of Art). 

Wallace Stevens was another American poet intensely interested in art. (See: 'The Problem of Painters and Poets' article here). His poem on Picasso's 'The Old Guitarist' is one that shows just how much of a muse a painting can be. It is quite lengthy so I won't post it all here, just an excerpt:

'The Old Guitarist' - Pablo Picasso

The Man With the Blue Guitar - Wallace Stevens
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are...

In this poem the poet imagines the mind and voice of the figure in the painting and takes off from there into a vaulting imaginative meaning of the painting and philosophical reflection on life. Stevens applies a robust imaginative and intellectual take to the painting creating a world from it that can only be briefly glimpsed or guessed at by looking at it. Poems on paintings broaden the horizon for interpretation - reading them you feel your own synapses open up to just what exactly a painting can mean. It is not tethered to any boxed definition, but rather much like a poem, is wonderfully open to immersive speculation.

My favourite poems on paintings  are the ones that seem to say exactly and eloquently what the painting expresses visually. I love Wislawa Szymborska's short take on Vermeer's 'The Milkmaid.' Her quiet language simply but effectively states the grandeur of this painting, emphasizing the point of art's redeeming qualities. It is a poem that places so much importance on the place of art in our lives and one that invites a second look at the painting in question, not to mention a second awed and appreciative look at art in general:

'Vermeer' - Wislawa Szymborska

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.

Other poems on paintings are welcome translations of complex art. So many things can be read into abstract and modern art that it can be daunting. I love X.J. Kennedy's description of Marcel DuChamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase.' It helps us see what is there and in such an entertaining way. The language is vivid and precise - 'she sifts in sunlight' - how accurate a description is that of what we visually see? And how about the perfectness of the word 'thresh' to describe the broken planes of lines in the picture?! For me, this poem brings the painting to life, so much so that I can see this 'one-woman waterfall' in flamboyant manner. The poem enlivens what we see with language that provides a 3D quality to the painting. It is a chant which brings its still self to buoyant life:

Nude Descending a Staircase - X. J. Kennedy 

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
a gold of lemon, root and rind,
she sifts in sunlight down the stairs
with nothing on. Nor on her mind. 

We spy beneath the banister
a constant thresh of thigh on thigh--
her lips imprint the swinging air
that parts to let her parts go by. 

One-woman waterfall, she wears
her slow descent like a long cape
and pausing, on the final stair
collects her motions into shape.

Poets are well up to the task of providing worthy words to a visual masterpiece. Anne Sexton's 'Starry Starry Night', a poem on Van Gogh's famous painting of the same name, is another such example. The night 'boils with eleven stars', it is beast-like, a dragon. This poem is also indicative of how a painting can reflect a personal emotional state. How we can project on a work of art our feelings, and how a work of art can take on our feelings, a permeable acquiescent witness. This particular poem shows how one interpretation of a painting can be so unexpected and we may marvel at how different it may be from our own, the wonder of art reall:

The Starry Night - Anne Sexton

The town does not exist

except where one black-haired tree slips

up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.   

Oh starry starry night! This is how

I want to die.

It moves. They are all alive.

Even the moon bulges in its orange irons   

to push children, like a god, from its eye.

The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.   

Oh starry starry night! This is how   

I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,   

sucked up by that great dragon, to split   

from my life with no flag,

no belly,

no cry.
Have you ever seen a painting and wondered however you could express in words the image that accosted you, the light that was rendered so real, the colour that melted into your soul? One of my favourite poems on paintings takes an Edward Hopper painting as inspiration. Hopper of course, was a master at depicting light. The sunlight in his paintings is like a mirror-image, photographically precise, of the real thing. There is nothing else quite like it.  Just how to describe looking at it?! Even as a writer, I falter. But Anne Carson manages quite well in her poem on the painting 'Room in Brooklyn' to evoke its effect:

edward hopper room in brooklyn

Room in Brooklyn - Anne Carson

Along the room
A gradual dazzle
the ceiling
Gives me that
As hours
the wide
Down my afternoon. 

We wonder - what is this 'bluishyellow' feeling exactly? The feeling that is created in the painting of course. One lends expression to the other. Here, as with other poems on paintings, there is a perfect symbiosis state of being.

For me, poems written on paintings elucidate the painting that little bit more and bear witness to its 'silent story' that is etched out in colours and figures, brushstrokes and lines. For the casual art observer like me who often finds it hard to express what effect a painting has or to really peer into its soul, poetry is a helpful guide. Better than a gallery guide or catalogue, a poem can divulge a hidden story to the painting or hit on a personal meaning that resonates greatly with us, the viewer or reader - yes, that's exactly what this painting is about/makes me feel/is saying.  Now I get it!

In other words, a poem opens a secret door to let us into the painting. It draws our notice to the inherent stories woven there. Poems written on paintings offer the reader a verbal expression of the inexpressible feelings emanating from the artwork. They are explanation, realisation and intimation. In some cases they are welcome translation, and in others, imaginative transcendence. In every case, they are illumination. Some paintings I've never felt any great affection for I have looked at in a new light after reading a particular poem on them. In basic terms, poetry can be effective PR for a painting, and vice-versa. That symbiosis again.

What ekphrastic poetry does above all I think is demonstrate how a painting can be harboured so intimately in one's mind and heart. Essentially, how visual art is an ever arresting and affective medium. And how awe and affinity for it can be filtered not just via head-tilts and sighs and acquiring poster-prints, but in words.  For if words are indeed to be put to a painting, to speak its silent story, who better than a poet to do it? Art historians do it through fact and technique, poets do it through imagination.

Art and poetry may seem like two entirely different genres, but ekphrastic poetry begs to differ. Every art touches upon another and in doing so, broadens appreciation mutually. This has certainly been the case for me.

Below are some more poems on paintings to enjoy.
To read more poems on paintings click: here 

~ Siobhán



'Bedroom in Arles' - Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh's Bed - Jane Flanders

is orange,
like Cinderella's coach, like
the sun when he looked it
straight in the eye.

is narrow, he sleeps alone,
tossing between two pillows, 
while it carried him
bumpily to the ball.

is clumsy,
but friendly. A peasant
built the frame; and old wife beat
the mattress till it rose like meringue.

is empty,
morning light pours in
like wine, melody, fragrance,
the memory of happiness.

To Marc Chagall - Paul Éluard

Donkey or cow, cockerel or horse
On to the skin of a violin
A singing man a single bird
An agile dancer with his wife

A couple drenched in their youth

The gold of the grass lead of the sky
Separated by azure flames
Of the health-giving dew
The blood glitters the heart rings

A couple the first reflection

And in a cellar of snow
The opulent vine draws
A face with lunar lips
That never slept at night.

Number 1 - Jackson Pollock

DIGRESSION ON NUMBER 1, 1948 - Frank O' Hara

I am ill today but I am not
too ill. I am not ill at all.
It is a perfect day, warm
for winter, cold for fall.

A fine day for seeing. I see
ceramics, during lunch hour, by
Miro, and I see the sea by Leger;
light, complicated Metzingers
and a rude awakening by Brauner,
a little table by Picasso, pink.

I am tired today but I am not
too tired. I am not tired at all.
There is the Pollock, white, harm
will not fall, his perfect hand

and the many short voyages. They'll
never fence the silver range.
Stars are out and there is sea
enough beneath the glistening earth
to bear me toward the future
which is not so dark. I see.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Tortured Artist


I'm quite intrigued and affected by the idea of the tortured artist. We've heard it so many times it's almost become a cliché by now, an iconic stereotype, a myth. But what exactly constitutes a tortured artist? And why are they so tortured? Is it a hyped myth or a  cut-to-the-bone reality?

Well, let's just begin with a defintion. Here's Wikipedia's not-too-far-off-the-mark one:

The tortured artist is a stock character and real-life stereotype who is in constant torment due to frustrations with art and other people. Tortured artists feel alienated and misunderstood due to the perceived ignorance or neglect of others who do not understand them and the things they feel are important.

Adding to that, they're usually associated with a string of accompanying vices: drink, drugs, (opium back in the day) gambling, sex and the like. They're also prone to emotional highs, heartbreak, depression, solitude and in some cases, self-harm and suicide.  

And there's the lesser torture too: torture in terms of sweating blood and tears when the creative process isn't going well. The double-edged sword of pain and pleasure. When it's going good, it's really good - but when it isn't....  Personally, when I'm not writing, I'm a complete crank. The world loses its colour. I can't sleep. Or if I do I wake up filled with dread. Everything else fades to lacklustre. This is torture of a kind. But one that can be remedied.

The 'tortured artist' is a more gritty term - one that refers to the real heart-wrenching struggle that artists go through with the world and its shackles. The trying to come to terms with existence, expression, the search for meaning, emotional pain, isolation, inner demons, a scarred psyche, the desire to be understood, to understand, to fit in, to manifest the dream world into the real one, or vice versa. Essentially, what it means to be human. Artists are the people who stand up and engage with this proposition head-on (heart-on), and tortured artists, are the ones who get badly wounded in the process.

Did you know that if you  google the term 'tortured artist' you even get a top ten list! Top Ten Tortured Artists includes the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh and even Kurt Cobain. But why stop there? The list is endless. Emily Dickinson, who at the rejection from her lover, resolved to settle for the only thing better - 'the whole world in its Divine aspect' - poetry - and thus embarked on a tortured reclusive life.

The ones that have made it onto the top ten lists are merely the tip of the iceberg.  For aren't all artists tortured in some way? All to different extents, but all affected in some way. They don't have to go  to the extremes of self-mutilation, suicide, or alcoholism and drugs to be classified as 'tortured.' Some live with it, some overcome it and some successfully use it to fuel their work. What can't be denied is that it is a very real feature of being a creative.
(Vincent Van Gogh pict. The famous tortured artist who suffered from depression and eventually killed himself.)

Take the iconic image of the writer in the garret scribbling feverishly into the wee small hours of the morning to reclaim his sanity from the devil of writing. Indeed George Orwell knew all about it: 'Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.' A demon, whom one can neither resist or understand. This impulse to write, make art or music is a compulsion, an obsession and obsessions always result in some kind of torture, do they not?  

Franz Kafka remarked that 'Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.Well, if this is so, it's only to be expected that the writer, the human being,  will emerge changed from the experience. Prolific novelist Margaret Atwood has noted many times that writing is a descent of sorts into the dark. You have to be prepared for the  psychological trauma of it that will at some level, impact on you.

I think the most important part of the tortured artist definition is the misunderstood and alienated part. This afflicted persona stems greatly from lack of understanding of the things that are important to them. All artists are sensitive to the point of fragile; keen observers of the world around them, some albeit critical, satirical, sarcastic - are at their core sensitive beyond anything else. All artists possess a heightened sensitivity that absorbs all experience and transmutes it into art. Artists feel things more than others. They have to. It's in their job requirements. If they didn't, they wouldn't be able to respond to the world with such acute awareness. To feel tortured is just a by-product of this, an occupational hazard. It comes with the territory. And some deal with it in different ways to others. (Kurt Cobain pict, acclaimed lead singer/songwriter of 90s grunge rock group Nirvana, who is now infamous for having committed suicide)

The vices mentioned above may be stimulants, props or inspiration to some, but to most, they're crutches. It's a lot to deal with - going about this world with an open mind, an open heart, an open soul, exposed to good and bad. Just as it's been said you must metaphorically 'open a vein and drip blood onto the page' to write, so too must you do the same with your soul to create any kind of art. You're vulnerable sure. But you really wouldn't have it any other way. Any other way, you'd be closed off, and unable to create.

Gertrude Stein once said the the purpose of the artist was to find 'an anti-dote to the emptiness of existence.' And this I think, is wherein all the torture emanates from. This is the grand purpose of art, its high quest, its motivating reason. And artists either consciously or mostly subconsciously take it on, carry the weight and pride and responsibility of it.  That struggle for meaning, for beauty, for something else more vital, more powerful than reality. Transcendence and belonging. Truth and dream. To strike at the heart of our existence and make it their life's priority to pursue it of course can lead to an overwhelming, a despair, an internal turmoil that characterises all artists. 
('Starry Starry Night' - Van Gogh. Van Gogh's pictures are noted for how visible his pain appears in the terse brush strokes.)

Unfortunately, there are artists who are wounded so much by the emptiness and the big black void that they give in to it. It's a difficult challenge, to say the least. Nigh-impossible, some would say, but artists thrive on impossible, namely -in making the impossible possible. And  some have flung their arms wide open to its embrace and in the process astonished us with their works of affirmation and wonder and zeal. All great artists it seems, are marked by pain, but it is the transposing of this pain into their art that produces outstanding vision, truth and beauty, ultimately releasing and overcoming it. 

Almost makes you wish you'd signed up for a 9 to 5 easy day job doesn't it?? - No existential hang-ups, curious contemplating of the meaning of life and the self's suffering position in this 'tale of sound and fury'. Never. And besides - you don't really get a choice in it anyway. You may not be tortured to the point of cutting an ear off, but you've probably experienced a small degree of it or more. Not to fear. I see it as an essential litmus test; just a check to see if you're still in 'feeling' order and a push forward in your quest.

I regret that the term 'tortured artist' has become such a stereotypical and throwaway derogatory label nowadays and even necessary somehow to obtain the status of a 'great' artist. (It's not. There are plenty of great artists whose main ingredient is joy and produce amazing work.) But the suffering does exist, it is a true concept. *

And the upside? - Just look what these truly tortured people achieved; look how their work is revered and respected. Look what it has given us. They really did fly the flag for the greatness humanity is capable of under the weight of darkness. Their legacy, and that of all artists, is a gift to us, a gift that if appreciated, will steer us towards the stars and let us glimpse what they did. Realise that there is so much more to this thing we call 'life' than will ever meet the eye. How much of it depends on us and our way of seeing. And great art, it helps us see - it helps us feel.

Well, I didn't mean to patter on so long...! But this is a topic very dear to my heart.  And one that will continue to be such an important discourse in life and in art for a long time to come I'm sure.

Saluting all artists! -

~ Siobhán.  

*Addendum -  In no way am I glorifying the 'tortured artist' as an ideal or idea or cult status, but rather just acknowledging that it is real, despite how it has evolved into a contrived myth nowadays. And may I also say that today's pretentious suffering artist/emo/goth routine only serves to belittle the real mental anguish and emotional turmoil experienced by some artists, especially those noted authentic (and famous) cases.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

High Verses and Low Lifes: Charles Bukowski

Thank God for poetry. And thank God for Charles Bukowski! 

Poetry tells it as it is. Up straight and personal. And you couldn't get no more bullet-point-right-between-the-eyes than Charles Bukowski, famed American poet (otherwise known as Laureate of the low-lifes).  Radical, rebellious, raw and real. Alcoholic, low-life and womaniser. Poet, prose writer and artist. Melancholic, miserable and mean. Also, spectacularly brilliant.

For anyone who thinks poetry is complete upper-class snotty-nosed la-de-dah, read  some Charles Bukowski. He spent most of his life on the bottle, womanising and hanging around bars, unemployed, dispirited and hanging on to the edges of life. His poetry is an account of all this (hence the Laureate nickname). 
And it's anything but stuffy. Indeed, it was a while before Bukowski made it onto the reading lists. His work was not mainstream, not anything near. It subverted every tradition and he himself never concerned himself with traditions, never thought of his work as 'literary', merely true.

I must admit, I have just recently discovered Bukowski. And so far, I'm loving his work. It has an edge, raw, but real also. Brave. Couldn't-care-less. Honest. True to the craft. True to himself.

What I really admire about him is how devoted he was to his art. So many poems explore instances of him at his typewriter, pouring words out painstakingly, or easily, practising the act of listening, waiting, while declaring how writing is a curse, and simultaneously a gift. He saw writing as it really was: a compulsion. An urge. A do or die vocation. And living much the same, both a curse and a gift.

On grey days like today, Bukowski is a breath of fresh air, a colouring. He tells things as they are, no bullshit. He injects a good dose of real straight-up truth, a slap in the face of daily dreary sameness, a much-needed wake-up call,  'Your life is your life/don't let it be clubbed into dank submission' (from the outstanding The Laughing Heart). Yes sir. This line has saved me from ennuyed emptiness many a time.

Included are some of my favourite picks below. Be warned some of his poems come with a R rating! (Maybe that's why he's so 'cool' and almost everyone likes him. Adores even.) He's one of America's most popular poets and when you read him, it's easy to see why. 

Anyway, if you haven't read him yet, do! You won't be disappointed. 

~ Siobhán.

(I've included his infamous writer poem 'So You Want to be a Writer?' on a previous post in March.)

Writing - Charles Bukowski

often it is the only
between you and
no drink,
no woman's love,
no wealth
match it.
nothing can save
it keeps the walls
the hordes from
closing in.
it blasts the
writing is the
the kindliest
god of all the
writing stalks
it knows no
and writing
at itself,
at pain.
it is the last
the last
what it

Bluebird - Charles Bukowski

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

The Laughing Heart - Charles Bukowski

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Birthday Blues (And Pinks)

Our birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time - Jean Paul Richter

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter
~ Mark Twain

But meantime let me whoop it up,
And tell the world that I'm alive:
Fill to the brim the bubbly cup
- Robert William Service

Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no in-between when it comes to opinion on birthdays.  Me? I LOVE them! We Ariens aren't ones to shy away from a celebration of ourselves.  We're all about the self, so why should we shy furtively away from birthdays, our very own validation markers?

Indeed, why shouldn't birthdays be celebrated? They're important! Trés important. More important than other calendar events, like weddings and themed holidays. Why? Because they recognise the gift of our presence here in this life. Our presence in other peoples lives. They are our very own anniversaires (- the French for 'birthday').  Why shouldn't they be acknowledged and celebrated?  Is each and every one of us not important enough to celebrate - regardless of our age, situation or mood-o-meter? Of course we are! Birthdays are our guaranteed one special day of the year. And I don't think it's selfish to demand recognition for them; it's our right.

Lots has been said about 'birthday blues', the accompanying twinges of sadness that come with getting older, but I prefer to focus on the 'pinks' of birthdays - ie: the cake, the greetings, good and real candle wishes, presents, blushing attention and all the sugar-sweet malarkey. I quite like being the centre of attention for one day out of 365, doesn't everybody? 

And if you ask me, birthdays should get to have gift-lists too, as well as just weddings and the like. Birthday gift lists would be a lot more exciting for one thing - no domestic  essentials for the birthday boy/girl nooo!  Our wish gifts would be in the realm of the exciting, impractical, fun and maybe just that tad bit fantastical (well, if you don't wish, you don't get!) Mine this year goes something along the lines of a trip to Paris (the ultimate gift ever), a pink-iced cake, a bouquet of peonies (but they're not in season yet!), a tattoo (all in the name of self-declaration and the marking of a new decade...), a publishing deal would be nice (as would a lottery win), a stack of coloured macaroons (possible, very), and topping it all off right now as I'm looking out the window to a dull and grey day (groan) - a sunny day. Yes, a big smacking smiling sun, that would be nice (ye gods, if you're listening...) *Excuse the self-indulgent listing here, but all in the name of if I write them, they may just materialize thinking...

Nah really, all anyone wants for their birthday I think is not even to be the centre of attention (eh-hem, well...) but just to know that they matter. Hence all the heartbreak that ensues when birthdays are forgotten, dismissed, fall under the radar etc. Their specialness diminished, and somehow, in the process, your specialness too. That's where the real birthday blues lie, not in the silly aging phobia.

Speaking of age.... well, as Mark Twain pointed out - it doesn't matter if you don't mind. Some people blow the aging process all out of proportion. They see birthdays merely as clocking up the years, the dreaded digits, rather than affairs of celebration and existential exuberance.  I don't get this. I don't do age-grieving. I don't dwell on the 'the years clocking up.' And I don't get people who do. Ok, you may suddenly wake up one day and think - "heck  I'm ____ age already! How did that happen??!!"  But then I look on the flip side of it.

Everything I've learned in those years. Who I've become. All the moments I've experienced that have taken their place in the gold of memory, priceless and timeless. Because time isn't measured in years, or days, or by clocks. It's measured in moments. One of my favourite writers Jeanette Winterson has the perfect line to explain this: "the continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative,  there are only lit-up moments and the rest is dark." And there is only now to concern ourselves with, the here and the now, the present, which is indeed a gift we are continually unwrapping. 

As  Gertrude Stein said, 'we are always the same age inside.'  We are indeed. If you feel young, you'll always remain so. And another wise comment from Henri Frederic Amiel, 'I'm not interested in age. People who tell me their age are silly. You're as old as you feel.' Never a truer word said. The people who complain about getting older in numbers are usually those who are getting older inside. Woe are they. As Picasso once said 'it takes a long time to become young.' It does.

And now on the eve of turning thirty (yes, the big 3-0, imagine!!!), I'm looking at Billy Collins poem below and thinking that the aging despair, the sadness, the regret should be multiplied to the power of 3. The nostalgia for all the years that have passed. But no, I refuse to look back, I'm an eternal optimist and its all fronts on forward. (But I've included the poem anyway for all those with a predisposition to the birthday blues...)

Thirty to me, means consolidating those flighty feelings I discovered in the flingsome twenty-something years. It does not mean old. It means maybe something more akin to maturity (yeah right, my inner daredevil spats!), but yes, it almost feels like a mellowing out. And by no means, do I feel the panic stereotype of my age-bracket that has afflicted thousands of peers - to settle down, get married, get a mortgage, get monotonous. Heck no! I'm too free-spirited for that. Thirty is just the beginning of more,  'everything I know I learned after thirty,' (- George Clemenceau) and I get the sense that the best is yet to come. More wingspan.

Indeed, 'we turn not older with years, but newer every day' (-Emily Dickinson.) We are continually learning and renewing.  Besides, if you're young-at-heart, like all Ariens are anyway, you never grow old. We're still the babies of the zodiac and children at heart, waiting for the next adventure around the corner, measuring time in heartbeats, not heinous years. 

On a last note, birthdays to me are more than anything else, a chance for new beginnings. With all the planets behind you, you have more chance of making a fresh start in your astrological new year than the calendar new year. Birth days are like standing on the edge of the past, about to tip into the future, a horizon up ahead, a blank slate, and everything and anything you want to be beckoning ahead. Your future in front of you like a great ribboned gift. That definitely calls for some celebration and cheer.

Now I'm off to 'whoop it up/and tell the world that I'm alive', woo-hoo!!!

(And a Happy Birthday to all other April babies out there!)

~ Siobhán :)

A poem for the birthday blues...

On Turning Ten - Billy Collins 

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

And one that gets at the real meaning of birthdays...

A Birthday Poem -Ted Kooser 
Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

It's April (yes, april; my darling)

"it's april(yes,april;my darling)it's spring!" ~ ee cummings

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything. ~ William Shakespeare

April prepares her green traffic light and the whole world thinks Go. ~ Christopher Morley

Whatever TS Eliot said, April is not the cruellest month - au contraire! Everyone loves April. It swishes in, all yellowed in sunshine and ribbons of Easter gifts. 

Did you know that April's birth stone is the diamond, the worthiest of all the jewels? Or that it has a full moon called a pink moon? (I hear Nick Drake chords... ) And legend has it that its name could have come from the Roman goddess of love, Aphrodite. Or also the Latin word 'aperire', which means 'to open,' a reference to all the budding and blooming of the time.

And because it's my birth month, I especially favour it. (And lots of other birthdays too - I know around 20 friends and family whose birthday occurs in April, making it a real 'birthday' month in every sense of the word! - May explain the newborn picture I have...)

But it seems I'm not that biased; hell, even old Willy himself praised it. (maybe it was because he was an April baby too; the 23rd). EE Cummings was a big fan too - 'the sky a silver/dissonance by the correct/fingers of April.' In the poem posted below, he really captures the playful, flighty, free, feel-good spirit of the month, 'and breathing is wishing and wishing is having...and wishing is having and having is giving...and having is giving and giving is living...'

Shakespeare is right too. It does put a spirit of youth in everything. A spring in your step. The earth coming back to life and beaming in blooms. A real new beginning (even if it's not your birthday, it is the astrological New Year...) 

And the  universe with its green light of Go beckoning everywhere. How can you resist its charm?

Happy April! 

~ Siobhán.

when faces called flowers float out of the ground - ee cummings

when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it's april(yes,april;my darling)it's spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)

when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive;we're alive,dear:it's(kiss me now)spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)

when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it's spring(all our night becomes day)o,it's spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
all the mountains are dancing;are dancing)