Osip Mandelstam, “The Poem”

With a sluggish gait, my mind moves from half-formed thought to half-formed thought. Looking through older work of mine, I see more clearly where I failed to fully explain what I wanted to say. Real writers, well, I imagine their minds spring into wakefulness. They start saying what needs to be said and make amends for bad sentences. My brain instead decides to shut down. Not only pretend that I didn’t write trash, but that I couldn’t possibly write any better.

So now I’m staring at Mandelstam’s “The Poem,” wondering about Wiman’s beautiful gloss. Wondering, too, about all the not-so-good sentences out there. Do terrible lines merit white meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word painwaking particular earth? If the word creates, do bad words create abominations? Or can they not create at all?

The Poem
Osip Mandelstam (translated by Christian Wiman)

White meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word
Painwaking particular earth...

Supplicants, tyrants, it doesn’t matter.
It is matter: unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself.

I’m partial to an answer of a certain subtlety. The heavily romantic vision of “The Poem” doesn’t discount verbal failures. White meteorite, for example. It can speak to the enthusiasm sensed behind an overwrought analysis or a writer trying to jam in everything that engages them. I’ll confess some things are a pain to read until they aren’t. In a few cases I’ve found myself asking “What is the author striving for?” after wanting to stab his draft. Somehow, the answer to the question became apparent and compelling.

Infinity’s orphan. Orphaned, unrelated, unable to engage the whole as it truly is: a flux beyond measure or definition. Perhaps there’s no greater slight on bad writing than arguing it shouldn’t exist. But then one could ask whether good writing should exist. Good writing can be horribly misleading. I can’t count the times I’ve been seduced by a few words into denying the obvious. I can’t count the times good writing aided me in failing to recognize my own interest.

Whatever makes writing necessary, important, and good for humanity has to do with “orphan.” The finite, the particular, the individual, the specific. These things begin with the pain of difference, rejection.

A vision of a meteorite striking a planet—word painwaking particular earth. It’s beautiful to witness, but no one thinks of their own writing as awakening entire worlds. However, everyone who loves to read has something they worship. I feel, at this point, like bad and good are not terribly relevant terms, though they can be helpful in certain situations. What takes precedence: infinity’s orphan, with whatever pained distance it has from beauty and completeness, describes the worst literary experiences we have and the best.

Mandelstam’s poem about poetry concludes with a comment about the audience themselves. Poetry does not suffer supplicants or tyrants. It is beyond them and holds them in irrelevance. If they read and find it relevant, that is peculiar to them as individuals; their excessive subordination or desire resists painwaking. This much I think I understand.

More complicated is the claim that poetry is matter—unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself. I can make a smart sounding comment about the Greek word poesis, which means “making” and refers to the activity of Homer and the tragedians. They built worlds, they brought life to the gods. But that doesn’t help address the immediacy of unbudgeable, unjudgeable. Those words sound personal, alluding to the experience of moving and being moved. Poetry doesn’t move, but we want it to speak exactly for us. Nor does it need our judgment, even though we’d like to say some poems better describe us and others not so much. It just is, a building more than the activity of building. It gives life, but its objectivity is in focus for Mandelstam/Wiman. It’s an organic object we find ourselves resting against or upon.

Emily Dickinson, “Experience is the Angled Road” (910)

Watch Tom Brady at his peak throw a football low and away to a receiver who has yet to turn around and dive for it. It isn’t a misplay. That’s the actual play. The cornerback covers the other side of the receiver; when Brady throws low and away, the corner would have to run through the receiver to interrupt the pass. Because the ball is thrown low, the receiver doesn’t take a direct hit.

That’s what I imagine Dickinson means when she says Experience is the Angled Road. I mean, she’d probably hate the Patriots. She’d probably take especial pleasure in Brady’s Buccaneers losing to a Bears team where Nick Foles underthrows his receivers by 15 yards, but hey, my expertise on poetic matters is limited. Experience is the Angled Road because it is a way that works, allowing at times for spectacular achievements. It has been tested, and the way through obstacles is not to attack them at their strongest, to meet them head on, but to approach from different angles. Gradual inclines, paths that lean away from the shortest distance, safety over shortcuts.

No wonder Experience… [is] preferred against the Mind. The Mind itself makes the preference, as it would like Experience to lead. It presumes Experience actually does lead. Mind believes that when Mind is left to its own devices, it is hopeless.

Experience is the Angled Road (910)
Emily Dickinson

Experience is the Angled Road
Preferred against the Mind
By — Paradox — the Mind itself —
Presuming it to lead

Quite Opposite — How Complicate
The Discipline of Man —
Compelling Him to Choose Himself
His Preappointed Pain —

Dickinson’s first stanza recalls a problem I left outstanding in my dissertation. Xenophon depicts Socrates arguing with an experienced soldier who wanted to be a general. That soldier, eager to show off his scars, fumes over the Athenians picking a wealthy man over him to be general. Socrates defends the choice of the wealthy individual. He had used his money before to find the best for the city when it came to choral competitions, even though he knew nothing about music. Why wouldn’t he find the best to compose and direct an army?

I dealt with the episode as a Socratic depreciation of courage. Obviously, there’s a lot more happening. To what degree is Socrates like the wealthy man, able to find who else might be an expert while not being an expert himself? Can wealth substitute for what we might consider knowledge about knowledge? And what if someone could defraud the wealthy or the philosophic? (Regarding that last situation, the implication might be knowing who to trust is more important than knowing who is the best.)

Xenophon’s little story about Socrates points to two substitutes for experience. First, does experience matter if you have the means? What if someone else can do what you need done for you? Second, what about your own knowledge of the means? If you yourself actually know how to do something, why does it matter if you have done it before?

With regard to football and a host of other activities, we speak of muscle memory. There’s discomfort in doing something that feels new. We’d like our bodies to feel comfortable with the actions we’d like them to take. This, not incidentally, is connected with the mind feeling comfortable with what has to be done. Experience is the “Angled Road,” Experience is “Preferred,” experience is comfort.

The problem of experience being a kind of comfort was perhaps best seen by Kant. When we speak of ethics, we have to speak of the possibility of doing your duty even though you feel especially uncomfortable doing so. When it comes to friendships and relationships, there are many moments of discomfort, usually because of miscommunication. The duty to love, to treat others as ends-in-themselves, can mean putting aside one’s strongest feelings in order to think and act clearly regarding what people actually need.

Mind displaces experience with regard to more than ethics, though. What if you solve a scientific problem as though you had dreamed the answer? Now your actions have no precedence, your hands might be shaking and sweaty, and yet you’re conducting the experiment or demonstrating your reasoning as if you were absolutely certain. And you have every right to be so certain. Our weighting of experience, in this case, can serve as an obstacle to the acceptance of truth.

It almost seems Dickinson wants us to conceive this last example when she declares that the truth is “Quite Opposite” Mind’s own preference for Experience. Mind chooses prior to Experience, she claims. But she makes the claim in such a way that the poem changes from a philosophical comment to something much more personal. How Complicate / The Discipline of Man —  Compelling Him to Choose Himself / His Preappointed Pain. Mind is prior to any actions taken. It understands and chooses a “Preappointed Pain.” I can’t help but imagine that Dickinson speaks of why she bothered to fall in love again. There’s more than a cynical joke at play here, I believe. 

Experience can make one better at relationships, but only to a degree. Learning how to love another person, I’ve learned, entails starting with no presuppositions. How exactly experience helps is a mystery. Each person, each relationship is different. That Mind seeks to defer to Experience is Dickinson’s real joke: Mind will give up everything to feel loved. The trouble is that being loved depends entirely on the experience and judgment of another.

Tanya Holtland, “seven.”

The visible war, it says. In the visible war / we look. War carries distinction, division, and destruction. It should be difficult to look at, to contemplate. We look for things to improve / the invisible faculty.

Rejection feels a morbid exercise of the imagination, like driving by a car wreck. Things are mangled, disfigured, hard to separate. Rejection isn’t limited to crushes that aren’t reciprocated or breakups. The same feeling comes from family members who must have all the attention and will give none. Political and religious cliques where you’re never quite welcome no matter how much you do. Rejection is a way of understanding “the visible war.” Through its violence, it places a self in opposition to an other.

We look for things to improve the invisible faculty. How does studying hurt, embracing “the visible war,” improve us? Can it improve us?

seven. (from Requisite. h/t Hannah Vanderhart)
Tanya Holtland

In the visible war
we look for things to improve
the invisible faculty

hold to the heart of the matter—

we may love
each other
and the oceans 
may go on forever and a wave
is still a thing that runs out.

Even now, I think of how much fun playing general is. I’ll put in place a strategy, a set of ends and directives which can be rendered in rough outline. But they can’t be made fully visible until resources are committed, until things actually happen. A silly example: the gaming moments I’m most proud of recently are from Skyrim, where I thought up an archer build to try and one-shot opponents before they see me. I was sure I would die a bunch with light armor, no magic resistance, low health, and a bow which takes time to fire a shot. But because I was aware of those things, I’ve barely died as the archer has become more and more powerful, reaching near invincibility if played correctly. Strategies involve an awareness which makes you feel like you can deal with anything.

From pain, we hope to know and become strong. But the poem breaks this idea with what seems an imperative. Hold to the heart of the matter. This sentence dangles in the middle. It doesn’t speak to improvement necessarily, but to commitment. I want to know so I can feel empowered, but this is a trap. I am prone to forget that I feel powerless because of what must be done. Empowerment only matters if I am loyal.

The emotional basis of the development of an intellectual power makes me wonder what’s truly at stake. The invisible faculty doesn’t concern awareness or control. Even rejection doesn’t feel as fundamental. We must learn from pain because that’s all we can possibly know. That’s where love resides. We may love each other and the oceans may go on forever. Love is infinite, the universe is infinite, knowledge is infinite. But a wave is still a thing that runs out. Our lives and loves are just that wave, which will cease. Learning from pain is the only true faculty we have, and it’s tempting to think it can be improved.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Growing with a poem seems a quaint triviality. More pressing matters must receive attention. Employment calls for competence, not reflection; the love given to family should be immediate, felt. To tell the truth, I don’t know that I have grown with Hopkins’ devotional below. It’s an amazing simile, maybe a perfect expression of knowledge of God being analogical. As creation sings itself in vibrant ways, as it draws attention to itself and gives memories, we act justly and gracefully and reveal who we are. We hope we will be seen and remembered:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Hopkins imagines the Spirit at work in all Creation. Kingfishers catch fire… dragonflies draw flame. Pentecost was no mere encounter with the divine, for the divine allowed humanity to receive inspiration, to use it. Dragonflies draw flame, and I find myself thinking of people who manipulate fire. Fire-breathers at the circus, blacksmiths at the forge.

There are others who manipulate fire. The news has been full of reports of looting and arson, but the news exaggerates to draw the attention of a specific audience. What troubles me are the fires we don’t hear much about. Fires caused by drone missiles and incendiary weapons on civilian targets. Fires because forests and grassland have become drier, become tinderboxes, as global temperatures rise. One might say that imperialism and industrialization are the natural enemies of religious truth. One might say the spirit Hopkins depicts is purer, only sullied by our sin, our estrangement from Creation and Nature.

But if I am to partake in justice and grace, then I need the truth. Not the spirit I would like to witness, but the spirit I must witness takes precedence. And Hopkins’ marveling at Creation, while it rightly takes a darker turn, is used by some to dodge moral complexity where it is most needed. I remember a philosophy professor assigned Hopkins’ poems as a devotional in the readings for his class. I confess it felt strange to see this, because it seemed to promise answers exactly where one had to learn to articulate doubt. The class concerned material about the origins of science, but it ended up talking significantly more about proofs of God’s existence. (Not that these are unrelated topics, but you understand where I’m pointing.)

The animate—kingfishers, dragonflies—give way to the inanimate, and therein lies one aspect of Hopkins’ moral subtlety. He ceases to speak of fire, but continuing to articulate Pentecost, focuses on voice. As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name. Stones ring, bells find tongue to say their name. Anything, not just anyone, can make a noise and announce itself. Spirit need not be unambiguously good. It enables us to grow, to become, but we can choose to be selfish. We can choose to be apart from the Maker; He has given the ability to be an individual. Each mortal thing does one thing and the same… myself it speaks and spells.

There’s something about religion and wanting to fit in as an immigrant which can be especially problematic. You’re always going to try extra hard to fit in, to understand your country better than anyone else. To show you love that much more and truly belong. There’s already zealotry at work. Adding religion to the mix can create quite the conflagration. Not simply being aflame with gratitude, giving as much as one can, but burning up with insecurities and anxieties. Wondering if God actually did bring you to this strange land, or whether you are an outcast no matter where you go. I can’t emphasize enough that there are a number of people who must learn to speak and spell themselves, who must make sure their names are pronounced properly and with respect. If they don’t insist on that respect, no one else will give it to them, and no amount of talk about gratefulness and piety can help them overcome the guilt and shame they feel in asking for that respect. The religious tendency is at direct odds with the tendencies needed to survive, with the dignity that must be asserted.

Morality can’t be reduced to a question of selfish or unselfish attitudes. It’s far too complicated for that. A lot of times seeing a selfish attitude can help me judge whether a person is going the right direction or not. But it’s a general indicator, not an established criterion for a good soul.

I should say I never recently believed anything as simple as “all selfish behavior is wrong.” What’s changed for me since I first memorized this poem is the awareness that even characterizing correct behavior as walking with God is too specific. I’m not trying to say “what is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God” is necessarily wrong. I think, rather, that the separation made in that verse is of profound importance.

It’s Hopkins humanism—not his Catholicism, not any sense of religiousness—that makes the moral ideas of the poem resonant. The first stanza leans heavily in the direction of “selfishness is bad, don’t forget to always obey God.” The second opens with a restatement of Paul’s “Christ shall be all in all,” perhaps made more radical: the just man justices; / Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — / Chríst. You are no less than Christ for being just and graceful. God bears witness to you. There is virtually no tradition in these lines, no hint of obeying authorities human or divine. Justice and grace are about your judgment, how you keep all your goings graces. You are seen, it does not matter if you see God. I still am not entirely comfortable with this language, as it seems to me that being a moral person entails having a righteous anger. That tough moral decisions can feel uncomfortable and involve ugly sentiments. Hopkins dresses everything in beauty; the just man justices sounds perfectly vague. It is the hope that we can all be Christ—that genuine moral being entails a near supernatural unity—that finally grounds his moral vision. In striving to be truly moral, we find each other, we find we can communicate in ways we could not before. Through the Father, we are not only seen, but speak to each other: Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his /To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Rick Barot, “During the Pandemic” 1; Jackson Pollock, “Red Composition” (1946)

for Ariana

“During the pandemic,” Rick Barot informs us, “I thought of abstract art.” Deadly sickness and artistic style can appear a strange combination, but perhaps no more strange than repeatedly checking a phone during a boring date. But Barot aims to provoke, as his thoughts must occupy those who compose the body politic, whether they are formally welcome in it or not. His next sentence: “Abstract art, the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art because it allowed for anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings.”

During the Pandemic 1
Rick Barot

During the pandemic, I thought of abstract art. Abstract art,
the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art
because it allowed for anyone's interpretations, anyone's
feelings. You didn't have to know anything to get it. For
instance, the canvas that was painted uniformly black could
be open-ended and be a consensus at the same time. Like a
plague.

When plague struck during the Middle Ages, the authorities, even without the benefit of science, could have still progressed against it simply by addressing poverty and public hygiene. Not allowing rats to breed en masse should have been policy regardless of whether a city was afflicted by the plague; citizens should not be so neglected they can only dwell in filth. Those societies and governments, many hold, were in the grip of a litany of superstitions and stereotypes. They didn’t have science, they did not proclaim “all men are created equal.” Yet here we are, dominated by COVID-19, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, most deaths entirely preventable.

We have abstract art, democracy, and catastrophic failure.

“Anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings”—I’ve learned that these are not necessarily characteristic of democratic practice. What fascism is, properly speaking, is a “hack,” an exploit. A way of abusing a weakness in a system to get power. The system says people can say what they want. So what if you use that privilege to attack the existence of other people? What if, in attacking their existence, you find allies? Your speech is violence, your gaining of allies is political power. The ends of the system were rational discourse and peace among men. Both those ends have been completely destroyed because of the cynical, cruel use of your “interpretations” and “feelings.”

Barot gives us a “canvas… painted uniformly black,” one that “could be open-ended and be a consensus at the same time. Like a plague.” His picture calls to mind a quote of Arendt’s. “Anyone’s interpretations, anyone’s feelings” not only fails to guard against hate, but also fails to prevent lies. Arendt: “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore.” A society tired of the truth cannot resist dictatorship and, in truth, breaks down. Individuals lose their capacity to judge, she says, and one might wonder whether society may even exist if everything feels like manipulation, war, or death.

*

When reading “abstract art, the art historian claimed, was the most democratic kind of art,” I confess I felt guilt. This is the kind of crap I say as a teacher, I think. I say it to make the material sound important. Also, to try to sound smart. How to introduce abstract art, an entire genre, a world unto itself? The word “democracy” shouldn’t even enter the argument, but it does. The very idea of introducing people to abstract art seems democratic. Access to multiple modes of expression, to understanding not just how to have a voice, but to project and develop it.

A friend shared with me Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946), and I’ve been staring at it each time I’m online. The red and yellow are strangely calming; the painting demonstrates a specific understanding of how their warmth works. Red, always present, like tacky Valentine’s cards from grade school (“Optimus Prime autobots his way to your heart”)—not blinding, not an obstacle, but happily ubiquitous. And then, those thin yellow lines and inky splashes. They don’t look messy but necessary, hinting at an unrealized order. They are literally brighter than the red, black, and blue dancing across the painting. The yellow serves as light on the canvas, as if one only sees the rest because of it.

Jackson Pollock, "Red Composition" (1946). An abstract painting primarily red, with streaks of blue, black, and yellow on canvas.
Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946). Image from Christie’s.

In teaching, I try to prepare for the rudest reception. “So what. You’ve got some fancy words about two colors. Who cares?” —Well, the colors may have a calming effect. That effect can be described through a particular sort of color theory where there are warm colors such as red or orange and cool colors like blue or white. In this case, the warm colors, by evoking ideas of love and light, create a sense of home.— “What does that have to do with anything? That’s entirely how you feel. What if I see this painting and see violence?” —It may be the case that abstract art is “the most democratic kind of art,” that anyone can say anything about it. But it does seem like some interpretations are better than others, some feelings fit better. What matters is how one justifies oneself, and that process can’t be neatly removed from consideration of the artwork. You have to look at it, explain what you’re feeling, explain how the elements strike you, and begin to tie it together. Inevitably, some interpretations are more convincing, others less convincing. As if the opinions hover around a greater truth.— “What does that tell us about abstract art?” —I’m not sure, but maybe that the freer form of abstract art hides a more difficult calling. The freedom on the audience’s part is akin to learning a language. Some meanings will strike other users of the language as wrong. We don’t dismiss their objections as merely subjective. Rather, we hold the opinions of knowers of a language authoritative.—

I can only deal with the rudest reception to a degree. Once in a while, someone will ask why books matter at all, even after I’ve explained what I learned from a book and how it changed my thinking. Or I’ll describe an issue in depth and walk through the sources that helped me understand a situation. Immediately I’ll be recommended something off-topic that I should consider, not because it’s relevant to what I described, but because someone needs to feel they too have done the work (they haven’t). I realize now why I have to say stuff like “abstract art is the most democratic sort of art.” The problem is how to introduce the problem, how to indicate how there are questions. That canvases full of paint are not just decorations in The Sims; democracy isn’t just a synonym for “I like my life in my country.” You have to bring those two concepts together, concepts barely thought about in one’s mind, let alone related, in order to bring each to life. It’s nearly as crazy as staring at an orange and asking if it were a rocketship. But if you did this to the nth degree, and wondered why oranges fall and what speed rockets have to achieve to leave Earth, you’ve recreated the universe.