Introspection has not been much in vogue for, well, the last four or five centuries, at least in the West, anyway. The man of thought has become the man of action, the one who changes the world, makes things better. As we head pell-mell into the post-digital, post-handwritten, robot-manufactured world, the question of just where we might be going should give us pause for thought. Certainly the notion that the very act of thinking could itself alter the world, build its complexity and beauty, and of course its wisdom, would meet with a sceptical response these days. Yet RT suspects that something like this understanding lies close to the heart of Eastern religion and art. This is the world we dream of, the world which heals us and in which we have our true place. It is not magic, but a sense of a broader connection to our surroundings.
Du Fu seems to have started his career as a gifted poet, but one who had not met with profound suffering. The collapse of China in the mid-8th century forced him to flee the capital, and to confront in a basic way his life and the unfolding of history around him. Out of his despair he refashioned the possibilities of Chinese poetry, the Chinese people, and RT would argue, the possibilities of humanity as it today struggles with overwhelming change.
Winding River 1
a last petal falling marks the close of spring;
trees shed their 10,000 tears in contentious winds.
I’ll drink my wine, then, and examine
blossoms lying trampled in the mud.
and yet, in the abandoned riverside pavilion,
kingfishers flash and mate. At the foot
of high tombs in the park, stone unicorns
rest in conjugal silence.
all things live in their joy—
exiled from the palace, I wander,
Photo: Statues in the Imperial Tomb of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Zingaro. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.
The Muse has been fickle of late. RT is continuing onward with his writing/reworking of his mother’s childhood memoir, A Daughter’s Song and Dance, which has been making surprisingly good progress of late, subject to the odd bad signal or two on his emotional railway. But then, a couple of days ago, one of RT’s friends demanded to know how Gilgamesh is coming. Then someone else asked the same thing a little while later. Well, RT doesn’t receive too many requests for status reports on his years-long project to turn the ancient story into English verse, so he allowed as how he was honored by the questions. But the report itself was rather brief: no progress in the last several months, mainly as a result of the memoir showing signs of falling together into a coherent story.
Where does the strength come from to finish the race? This quote, from Chariots of Fire, RT believes, has haunted him over the years of his struggle with absent-mindedness, and now he has to admit that he has been feeling nostalgia for the decades of his 20s and 30s. The past is with us always, but we can never return to it. Songs that were once brand new on the radio are now being covered as classics by emerging artists, all of them born after RT’s graduation from college, in hopes of attracting more attention to the current hip generation.
I could talk about the unbearable lightness of being, but that would only make matters worse. And seriously considering why RT never became a mega-phenom like, say, Don Henley, is only going to poison his pen. In the midst of this bluesy moment, maybe better help is available from another old classic, the novel Dune. RT has borne with him these unmentionably numerous decades the image of holding back your hand, waiting for the right moment to reach out and grasp the long-desired object. Mastering this art, the art of using time wisely, is one of the chief signs of adulthood. Life isn’t about success; it’s about getting what you need.
Some things are leaving; some are waiting patiently. Knowing where they are and when to engage them is a part of what makes a person greathearted. We’re still in the game. RT
Photo: Don Henley. Author: Steve Alexander. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 attribution/share alike.
Reading a book is like visiting a city you’ve never been to before. The city must be glamorous in some way, if not overtly, than in the details of its construction and history, the beautiful building or courtyard that reveals itself via a quick glance aside from the street, and the story that glance implies of the building’s occupants. The city may be dirty, crime-ridden, a den of vice, but it must be intricate. It must be a navel of the world.
You are being born again. Forget whatever has come before; it’s been reduced to a reference chart, an album of old photographs. This is the best kind of culture shock; you chose it.
Reading a book is always true. You the child progress through the pages. You learn and you grow, you marvel and you despair. Situations arise that you can’t understand or even comprehend. The woman who tells you she runs the large school you attend may be your mother. The man wearing the jacket of a naval captain may be your father. He may be going to his death. He gives you a silver coin.
Reading a book is like falling in love. Serendipity. Somebody is waiting for you, someone who stops you in argument or conversation. Outside the chocolate shop, at the old library, in an empty room. Someone calls out from an open window, asking about the bicycle you’re riding or offering to take you where you’re going in their boat. They are the person you can’t believe is interested in you, so different, so crazy you wonder how they can exist at all. They are the one who brought you here.
You are dying. You have no family, no friends, no work. You have only this passion.
RT notes with sorrow the recent shooting at the Washington Naval Yard. He hopes that the United States will find a way to finally end the long string of mass shootings that has plagued the country for decades.
It’s easy at moments like this to think that no solution to pressing problems can be found. Things seem cut and dried and the forces opposing reasonable reform stronger than those working for constructive change. Then, at least in RT’s experience, you run across a bit of information or news that makes things seem less bleak.
Pushkin’s story itself is remarkable. Generally considered to be the greatest poet that Russia has produced (and Russian society reveres its poets), Pushkin was born into an aristocratic family, but was himself one-eighth black–a great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), was a Black African page rescued from slavery in Istanbul, educated, and raised by Peter the Great. APG went on to become the General en Chef, in charge of building forts and canals in Russia.
The great-grandson’s story is just as unusual. By the time he was a teenager, Pushkin’s literary talent was recognized, and he graduated in the first class of the prestigious Imperial Lyceum. But Pushkin’s writings acquired a political bent. The Imperial government exiled him from Moscow; during this period, he became a Freemason. The poet was active in the Greek Revolution, but upon his return to Russia was exiled, this time to his mother’s estate. He was released from exile by Czar Nicholas I, but his time in Moscow was nearly as restrictive: he was unable to publish or travel at will (in fact, Pushkin’s play, Boris Godunov, was not published in its original, uncensored form until 2007).
Pushkin was famously sensitive about his honor, and died as a result of wounds inflicted in a duel over his wife’s honor.
Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, written in Onegin Stanzas, has been hugely influential in Russian literature and cultural life: an opera, a ballet, a play, and several movies are based on it. But Pushkin’s dense language has proven difficult to translate into English, and he has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world.
Here, then, is the form for the Onegin Stanza: iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, where the lowercase letters represent feminine endings (i.e., with an additional unstressed syllable) and the uppercase representing masculine ending (i.e. stressed on the final syllable).
And a sample from Eugene Onegin:
My uncle -- high ideals inspire him; but when past joking he fell sick, he really forced one to admire him -- and never played a shrewder trick. Let others learn from his example! But God, how deadly dull to sample sickroom attendance night and day and never stir a foot away! And the sly baseness, fit to throttle, of entertaining the half-dead: one smooths the pillows down in bed, and glumly serves the medicine bottle, and sighs, and asks oneself all through: "When will the devil come for you?" (translator: Charles Hepburn Johnston)
Portrait: Alexander Pushkin; Painter: V.A. Tropinin. WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.
RT has finished his brisk stroll through Van Gogh: The Life, by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, The book plunges its readers into the fine detail of Vincent Van Gogh’s life while keeping an eye on the larger issues at play in Van Gogh’s philosophy and work. It is those larger issues that have drawn RT back to the keyboard to discuss what happened to this extraordinary man.
To begin with, Naifeh and White’s book offers a different conclusion to Van Gogh’s story than many people may be familiar with: it makes a plausible case that Van Gogh may not have died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Other than exonerating VG from the charge of suicide, what difference might this make in the understanding of his life?
It seems that the three things that were missing in the artist’s life are 1) acknowledgment; 2) support; and 3) protection.
Acknowledgment. Van Gogh’s artistic gift and, later, genius were never acknowledged during his life. He was a member of the unofficial Post-Impressionist group (whose members included Paul Gauguin and George Seurat), but his work was never shown at any major exhibit or salon during his lifetime. He sold just one painting before his death: The Red Vineyard (purchased in 1890, the year of VG’s death, for roughly $1,000, current value). Until near the end of his life, both the public and his family (with the exception of his brother, Theo) refused to acknowledge his status as a practicing and gifted artist (and this despite an enormous output of work–a lifetime total of 2,100 artworks, of which 860 were oil paintings). In January 1890 (VG died in July), a major (and enthusiastic) review of VG’s work did appear in the Mercure de France.
Support. Van Gogh’s financial support during his prime years as an artist was provided by his brother Theo, The stipend he received was enough to cover basic expenses and the costs of his art supplies (an expensive item). Until the year of his death, he earned no money from his art, and there were no public or charitable funds available to support his work.
Protection. Most of Van Gogh’s last ten years was spent alone (though there were significant interludes with Theo and others). He was often harassed and heckled by boys, who would shout insults, throw stones, and destroy his art supplies as he worked. Many of the communities in which he lived regarded him with suspicion and hostility. Partly, VG’s quarrelsome and abrasive nature drove people away, and his descent into self-loathing despair (signaled by his mutilation of one of his ears) resulted in his commitment to an asylum, but surely his status as a near-vagabond without official sanction or place in society contributed to the feelings behind his ostracism.
Without question, things have improved for practicing artists today. Around the world, college-level training and MFA programs have proliferated. There are many sources of funding for artists available from government at all levels and a large number of foundations. Major museums around the world display the work of the great artists throughout history (including of course Van Gogh) and help educate the public about art and the struggle that artists endure as they create their work. Success as an artist carries not only considerable monetary reward with it, but also the prestige of creating beauty in the world.
But RT has to wonder.
In many places, not least the United States, there is little practical support for artists or writers. Art is often seen as a cop-out, an excuse for failing to undertake the burdens of earning a living via a regular job and paycheck. People openly wonder if such a thing as art or even beauty exists–and point to the beginning efforts of young artists as evidence for their claims. Even older artists with decades of experience have trouble selling their work. How, after all, does one establish a standard for enduring art?
This is not true everywhere, however. RT points out the work of Art Council England, which between 2011 and 2015 will award £1.4 billion in public money and £1 billion in National Lottery funds to support working artists in England. In contrast, since its founding in 1965, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts has awarded about $4 billion.
What needs to be done to help working artists and writers?
1) An increase in art funding for practicing artists and writers, generally. This strengthens local communities not only economically, but by encouraging the spread of culture and beauty in areas lacking local resources.
2) The creation of a funding mechanism/organization outside the control of Congress. The politicalization of the grants process will be diminished if grant decisions are made by local councils of artists and citizens (with appropriate financial oversight).
3) The creation of a national Independent Artists/Scholars Network. Such a network would administer tests and peer-reviews of scholars’ and artists’ work independently of government, higher education, and grant-making organizations. The IAN would aim to be self-funded by artists and writers and would be almost completely under their supervision.
From RT’s perspective, such changes are desperately needed. To his knowledge, no organization, at least in the United States, aims to acknowledge, support, and protect artists and writers throughout their careers and lives.
Painting: Bridge at Arles (Pont de Langlois); Vincent Van Gogh (March 1888). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT’s latest book recommendation is Mark Strand’s 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century; he has just started reading, but has been impressed by the range of styles and content in the anthology.
By this point, readers may have gathered that one of RT’s poetic criteria is integrity, a term that he freely admits is difficult to define. If pressed to give a definition, however, RT will say that integrity is the degree to which a poet is personally involved when writing a poem. Many masks are available at the moment of composition, and while some may be useful or necessary to the poet’s goals for a particular poem, it is all too easy simply to hide behind them. Urgency (another abstract term) may be a trustworthy sign of when a poet is delivering the best he or she can.
Consider the story (perhaps recounted in these pages before) of a Russian poet who was so angry at Stalin he had to sit down and write out a satirical poem. Stalin, upon learning of the offensive act, threw said poet into the Gulag for some years. When he got out, an interviewer asked if it had been worth it; the poet said yes.
That’s integrity. (And would that we all had the strength for it.) But whether or not any particular poet can get all the way there and speak truth to power (or just to share how he or she is feeling), we should all strive for the courage that will allow us to.
Here is RT’s brief poem on the subject:
Strategy has been their entire study
i see no life
i feel no heart;
poets do not exist
until they share
the dangerous business
of being themselves.
© 2013, The Rag Tree.
Photo: Cluny, remaining pieces of gothic architecture; WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic; users: Rotatebot and Ziel.
Writing a poem is a serious thing. Whatever forces are called on to help the poet as he or she summons the act of writing, they are not trivial. Chance, luck, and fate, binding and love, are some of the deep tidal pulses that people wish to influence. The course of a life is at stake.
All this was clearer to people living more immediate lives than we do; as knowledge grows, the imagination dwindles. If poetry is a form of healing, then poets must seek to restore a civilizing balance in our hearts.
Below RT offers a poem based on an Anglo-Saxon charm.
A couple of notes, however, before proceeding. First, “fierce wives” translates an Anglo-Saxon term that literally mean “victory women” and is related to the Valkyries of Germanic myth.
Second, the text below from the Wikipedia article on swarming should help the reader:
“A new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees, a process called swarming. In the prime swarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the original hive location with the old queen. This swarm can contain thousands to tens of thousands of bees. Swarming is mainly a spring phenomenon, usually within a two- or three-week period depending on the locale, but occasional swarms can happen throughout the producing season. Swarming is the natural means of reproduction of honey bee colonies.”
Against a Swarm of Bees
sit down, fierce wives:
forget the tangle and terror
of trees–remember me;
be tender in my need
and forsake your dark nest
for hearth and home.
© Copyright 2013, The Rag Tree.
Tarot Card: The Moon; Charles VI (or Gringonneur) Deck (15th century). WikiCmns; Public Domain.