Creativity Needs Silence

I’m sorry I’ve lost the attribution for this quote — if anyone can help me here, I’d be grateful.  Meanwhile, I thank the nameless writer for some important thoughts about what we need to start paying attention to.

Hello chatter, my old friend.

The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.

As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Photo by Coral Jewell

 

 

Poetry is a Presence

From John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos:

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out. Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry words are presence before they are a means of communication.

Yet poetry uses the same words, and more or less the same syntax as, say, the Annual General Report of a multinational corporation. (Corporations that prepare for their profit some of the most terrible battlefields of the modern world.) How then can poetry so transform language that, instead of simply communicating information, it listens and promises and fulfills the role of God?

That a poem may use the same words as a Company Report means no more than the fact that a lighthouse and a prison cell may be built with stones from the same quarry, joined by the same mortar. Everything depends upon the relation between the words. And the sum total of all these possible relations depends upon how the writer relates to language, not as vocabulary, not as syntax, not even as structure, but as a principal and a presence.

The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.

If poetry sometimes speaks of its own immortality, the claim is more far-reaching than that of the genius of a particular poet in a particular cultural history. Immortality here should be distinguished from posthumous fame. Poetry can speak of mortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present, and future.

To speak of the promise of poetry would be misleading, for a promise projects into the future, and it is precisely the coexistence of future, present, and past that poetry proposes. A promise that applies to the present and past as well as to the future can better be called an assurance.

During the 18th and 19th centuries most direct protests against social injustice were in prose. They were reasoned arguments written in the belief that, given time, people would come to see reason, and that, finally, history was on the side of reason. Today this is by no means clear. The outcome is by no means guaranteed. The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality. All this means that the resolution – the coming to terms with the sense to be given to life – cannot be deferred. The future cannot be trusted. The moment of truth is now. And more and more it will be poetry, rather than prose, that receives this truth. Prose is far more trusting than poetry; poetry speaks to the immediate wound.

The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity, even a term of endearment; the word is impartial: the usage is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience – everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable. In this sense one can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man. For prose this home is a vast territory, a country which it crosses through a network of tracks, paths, highways; for poetry this home is concentrated on a single center, a single voice, and this voice is simultaneously that of an announcement and the response to it.

One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god. Yet it’s very openness can signify indifference (the indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiques, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and to incite this caring. How does poetry incite this caring? What is the labor of poetry?

By this I do not mean the work involved in writing a poem, but the work of the written poem itself. Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of this unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be lessened or stopped only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of asuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered. Three thousand five hundred years ago an Egyptian poet was writing:

O my beloved

how sweet it is

to go down

and bathe in the pool

before your eyes

letting you see how

my drenched linen dress

marries

the beauty of my body

Come look at me.

Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not to make comparisons (all comparisons as such are hierarchical) or to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the individual totality of existence. To this totality poetry appeals, and its appeal is the opposite of a sentimental one; sentimentality always pleads for an exemption, for something which is divisible.

Apart from reassembling by metaphor, poetry reunites by its reach. It equates the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe; after a certain point the type of extremity involved becomes unimportant and all that matters is its degree; by their degree alone extremities are joined. Anna Akhmatova:

I bear equally with you

the black permanent separation.

Why are you crying? Rather give me your hand,

promise to come again in a dream.

You and I are a mountain of grief.

You and I will never meet on this earth.

If only you could send me at midnight

a greeting through the stars.

To argue here that the subjective and objective are confused is to return to an empirical view which the extent of present suffering challenges; strangely enough it is to claim an unjustified privilege.

Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.

From where does Pain come to us?

From where does he come?

He has been the brother of our visions

From time immemorial

And the guide of our rhymes.

. . . writes the poet Nazuj ak Nak’-ika.

To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course at the origin of prayer, and prayer – as well as labor – was probably at the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.

Every poem that works as a poem is original and original has two meanings: it means a return to the origin, the first which engendered everything that followed; and it means that which has never occurred before. In poetry, and in poetry alone, the two senses are united in such a way that they are no longer contradictory.

Nevertheless poems are not simple prayers. Even a religious poem is not exclusively and uniquely addressed to God. Poetry is addressed to language itself. In a lamentation, words lament loss to their language. Poetry is addressed to language in a comparable but wider way.

To put into words is to find the hope that the words will be heard and the events they describe judged. Judged by God or judged by history. Either way the judgment is distant yet the language, which is immediate and which is sometimes wrongly thought of as being only a means, the language offers obstinately and mysteriously, its own judgment when it is addressed as poetry. This judgment is distinct from that of any moral code, yet it promises, within its acknowledgment of what it has heard, a distinction between good and evil – as though language itself had been created to preserve just that distinction!

Photo by SSH

 

 

 

 

Inspired by Stephen Hawking . . .

From The Universe in Verse

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

(after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

This Hubble image gives the most detailed view of the entire Crab Nebula ever. The Crab is among the most interesting and well studied objects in astronomy. This image is the largest image ever taken with Hubble’s WFPC2 camera. It was assembled from 24 individual exposures taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and is the highest resolution image of the entire Crab Nebula ever made.

Words as Camera: Erin Van Rheenen at Four Corners

Lower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster SmithLower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster Smith

On a trip to the famously photogenic Four Corners, a traveler chooses to leave her camera behind.

How many of us have thousands upon thousands of trip photos on our hard drives, waiting to be sorted and shared? And who among us hasn’t wondered, in this age of any and all images available at the click of a mouse, why bother to take pictures at all?

On a recent trip to the outrageously scenic Four Corners, I chose to leave my camera behind.

Without a machine clamped to my face, I figured, I would have time to think and write. And sketching with sentences would give me something to do while my traveling companion set up his shots.

*            *            *

“The guy in Escalante is deluded,” says David, my fellow traveler, one warm October afternoon at Calf Creek Falls. “That definitely wasn’t the most beautiful waterfall in the world.”

I have to laugh. We’re on the return hike from an idyllic falls in southern Utah. We splashed in the pool at the base of the 200-foot cascade, mist hydrating our sun-cracked skin. While maybe not the most beautiful in the world, the falls had looked and felt pretty damned good.

David’s vision may have been colored by the fact that for the better part of an hour he’d fiddled with his camera, trying – and failing, in his estimation – for the silken effect of falling water caught on a long exposure. My vision had been colored, too, by the roar of the falls, cool water on chafed feet, the smell of sunscreen and the chatter of other hikers claiming 20-minute miles. I recorded my impressions not with a camera but with pen and notebook pulled from my day pack.

David tried to stop time, to freeze flowing water. I tried to extend time and expand focus, searching for words to convey the beauty but also noting context, like that we’d arrived in a deserted clearing but left behind a group of more than 40, including 23 hikers of a certain age on a Road Scholar tour of the Southwest. In my notebook I described the vertical stripes of desert varnish and the Fremont granaries tucked high in alcoves, but I also posed questions. (Can you do that with photos?)

What does it say about us, for instance, that of the dozens of people arriving at the falls, the vast majority did one thing: pulled out a camera, first thing, before even turning to a companion to share the moment?

In the face of this overwhelming tilt towards the visual, another question arises: what can writing do that photos can’t? Why photograph, or describe in words for that matter, landscapes that have already been nailed down by hordes of fellow travelers? (Google Calf Creek Falls for a small taste.) Is beauty diminished by having to share it with crowds of people, as if each gaze leeches away a little bit of the gorgeousness?

In the Southwest, there may be enough gorgeousness to go around. The variety is astounding, and often seen in the same landscape. A scrubby plain falls away under your feet, exposing the steep-sided howl of a canyon. Palisades jut skywards. Mountains are the buried rib bones of a fallen giant, exposed by wind.

Some places are especially crazy. Think of all that water can do – swirl and eddy, surge and crest and crash – then imagine rock doing all that, but caught mid-action. If you judge by geological time, the rock actually is in motion. It’s only in our split second of human time that we see the landscape as static. We make it even more so with photos, grasping at a permanence that doesn’t really exist.

At the end of Desert Solitaire, when he’s leaving the Southwest for New York City, Edward Abbey writes, “Five hundred and sixty tumbleweeds roll toward the horizon, herded by the wind; may they, too, never come back. All things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment.”

But we want the eternal moment to abide, and the timeless furniture of that moment is there for us to try to capture: peaks and domes and spires and Seussian hoodoos, in colors that come especially alive at sunset and sunrise. Comb Ridge rears up like the 100-mile spine of some prehistoric lizard. East of sunset-hued Capitol Reef National Park, ashen monoliths look like where Darth Vader has his summer home. Loopy hieroglyphs — ATV tracks — scar barren foothills. Irrigation makes for the occasional neon green field hemmed in by red rock sentinels. Towns huddle in the shadow of cliffs scrumptious with lollipop swirls of color. Dirt and gravel tracks lead who knows where, branching off from curving one-lane highways. Up at 9,000 feet, the sun supernovas though aspen leaves quaking like sheets of gold leaf.

Did I stick to my no-photo plan in the face of such splendaliciousness? Not exactly. I pulled my phone out more than once to snap shots of scenes I didn’t have the time or inclination to get down in print. Try describing the landscape as it’s whizzing by outside your rental car window. Sometimes you just have to snatch away an image, however blurred or partial.

But is that so terrible? I’m not sure. I do know that at its heart – and despite Facebook and Instagram privileging one over the other – the photographic impulse is not so different from the desire to describe a scene in words.

Both are attempts to hold on to beauty. Even more, both are tools to let us sift through a world that’s far too big and varied to take in at a glance. Whether we chose to hone our gaze by narrowing down in words or images, both methods let us see more deeply, if less widely.

The process is the same whether we’re using camera or words: focus, capture, edit and enhance. Sharing is the final step, whether it gets you a “like,” a nod, or nothing.

They say that travel broadens us. The vacation frame of mind lets in more than our workaday blinders. But that very broadening calls for a way to focus and take hold. Trying to get even a fraction of it down in words or pictures is not just a grabby exercise; it’s a way of going deeper, of really noticing, and of doing the processing work – both mental and technological – to help make sense of this crazily beautiful world we pass through all too briefly.

A version of this article appeared in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

Erin Van Rheenen writes travel narratives, profiles of prisoners, philanthropists, scientists and filmmakers, and fiction in which place is as important as character. She has won awards for her fiction and nonfiction, worked as an editor and staff writer, and taught in high schools, universities, and at the San Francisco Women’s Jail. She is also the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica. See more of her work at http://erinvanrheenen.com

 

Letters from the Pacific: Five-star Review

Because of the way the author tells her story, the details, the descriptions, I felt as if I had taken the voyage aboard the Louise with her. In addition to her adventures, the reader learns of the places she visits, information about the ships, the functioning of the ports, etc. For example, the amount of fuel burned a day and its cost, and the importance of weight distribution in the loading of the cargo. Perhaps these seem unnecessary or frivolous details, but they add flavor and pleasure to the narration; they entertain.

Apart from the details that make the story so interesting, she includes her opinions, thoughts and personal feelings, written in italics, which establishes more intimacy with the reader. One feels that the author is speaking to you directly, sitting over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. I loved some of the personal observations, for example: “Fantasy is nothing more than our interpretation of other people’s behavior in terms of our own desires.” Excellent!

My favorite thought: “It makes me sad to leave the ship, but I have another life to find again . . .” I felt the same when I finished the book: It made me sad to leave the ship and finish the book, but I have another life and another book to find.  — Enrique Venegas