Borges on poetic inspiration

February 10, 2012

In the preface to his poetry collection The Unending Rose, Jorge Luis Borges writes about the romantic notion of the Muse (“what the Hebrews and Milton called Spirit, and what our own woeful mythology refers to as the Subconscious”) and says the process for him is more or less unvarying:

I begin with the glimpse of a form, a kind of remote island, which will eventually be a story or a poem. I see the end and I see the beginning, but not what is in between. That is gradually revealed to me, when the stars or chance are propitious. More than once, I have to retrace my steps by way of the shadows. I try to interfere as little as possible in the evolution of the work. I do not want it to be distorted by my opinions, which are the most trivial things about us. The notion of art as compromise is a simplification, for no one knows entirely what he is doing. A writer can conceive a fable, Kipling acknowledged, without grasping its moral. He must be true to his imagination, and not to the mere ephemeral circumstances of a supposed ‘reality’.

Much of this is, I think, equally true and valid of other kinds of creative activity: the vague beginning; the patient waiting; the getting out of one’s own way; the elusive, unpredictable development of the work. The importance of faith in a good idea. But Borges is talking specifically of writing and poetry, and a little later he goes on:

The word must have been in the beginning a magic symbol, which the usury of time wore out. The mission of the poet should be to restore to the word, at least in a partial way, its primitive and now secret force. All verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presence of the sea does.

Putting language to sleep in Finnegans Wake

June 16, 2011

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot. – James Joyce

Ezra Pound was tirelessly interested in, and supportive of, original and imaginative literature, but with Finnegans Wake he reached his limit, complaining to Joyce that ‘Nothing so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp, can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.’

He dubbed it Joyce in Regress, a pun on Work in Progress, as FW was known before publication. Unfair, perhaps, but we can recast the charge of regress as an evocation of return rather than retrogression and degeneration. Where Ulysses was Joyce’s daytime novel, the Wake was his work of the night and its sleeping mind – a restorative regression into which we all slide cyclically, more or less.

Every night we fall out of the familiar world, and every day we awake from our adventures with little or no recollection of what has gone on. Yet in sleep we are just as authentically ourselves; guilty and guileless, paralysed, periodically telling ourselves stories in dream-fragments of promiscuous trivia and significance that take some unravelling. A bit like Finnegans Wake.

To the American writer Max Eastman, Joyce said:

In writing of the night, I really could not . . . use words in their ordinary connections. Used that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes, of course everything will be clear again. I’ll give them back their language. . . . I’m not destroying it for good!

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Tolkien on language invention

May 24, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien’s deep interest in language is evident to his readers and to anyone familiar with the broad facts of his professional life: as well as being a famous and well-regarded author, he was a professor of language and literature, a philologist, a poet, and a translator. He once wrote in a letter that his work – all of it – was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration”.

Tolkien was also an avid and prolific conlanger: a creator of conlangs, or constructed languages. Though he liked Esperanto, and approved of the idea of a unifying artificial language for Europe for political reasons, his interest in conlangs was primarily creative. It was an artistic urge rather than a practical or commercial consideration.

He placed great stock in the authenticity of the languages he invented. This made for painstaking work, “an art for which life is not long enough”, as he put it. Christopher Tolkien described how his father would proceed

from the ‘bases’ or primitive stems, adding suffix or prefix or forming compounds, deciding (or, as he would have said, ‘finding out’) when the word came into the language, following it through the regular changes in form that it would thus have undergone, and observing the possibilities of formal or semantic influence from other words in the course of its history.

Arika Okrent, in her book In the Land of Invented Languages, writes that for Tolkien, “language creation was an art all its own, enhanced and enriched by the stories”. The book’s last chapter includes a memorable excerpt from Tolkien’s lecture A Secret Vice that shows how strongly language invention affected him – even when it was someone else’s, casually overheard. Here’s the anecdote in full:

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Cautious gropings

May 10, 2011

I liked this short description of the hard work of writing poetry:

From such records of the workings of the poetic imagination as we possess we have learned that poems do not, as a rule, arrive in a flash of inspiration but derive from much hard, stubborn, even somewhat prosaic work; drafts of poems are full of false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends as well as of cautious gropings, humble glimmerings, and dawning realizations.

– Janet Malcolm, In The Freud Archives

[more poetry posts] 

All ways from the artist’s chair

March 30, 2010

While browsing an online gallery of works by visual poets from Australia, this image caught my eye and held my gaze. I don’t know its title — I’m guessing “always” — but I do know it’s by Alex Selenitsch, an architect, poet, and sculptor.

It reminded me of several things at once, but something about the angles and relative lengths of the lines (or letter-strings) gave the lasting impression of a chair. Maybe it’s no coincidence that when I searched for more information about the artist, I found a piece he wrote for Haiku Review called “The artist’s chair”. The chair, writes Selenitsch,

has the pivotal place in an artist’s studio. It’s where the artist sits and gazes at what’s just been done, or maybe what was done yesterday, maybe what was done some time ago. . . . Hours were spent confronting the canvas, working out what to do next, momentarily doing it, then more time confronting the results, presumably over and over until some-one took the painting away. The chair is at the centre of this meditative use of the imagination.

Granted, some artists rarely if ever use a chair as a base for their activity. When I make collages, I tend to inhabit the floor, and when I write poems, I’m more likely to be outdoors or sprawled on the bed than squinting at a screen. But a lot of creative work in various media, be it painting, writing, composing or designing, is done from a chair, and I like to see this humble item get credit for helping to prop up the arts (I leave the obvious pun to your imagination), and I wonder if its structure was deliberately evoked in “always”, or whether this similarity emerged by chance.

What do you see in Selenitsch’s visual poem? And do you have a creative relationship with your chair?

Artful things

September 4, 2009

In some of my spare time I make art. Had I more spare time (or the power of bilocation or biological fission), I would make more art. Lots of all sorts of it. These days, when I can, I mostly create collages or set my colouring pencils loose on a sketchbook, but it would be gratifying to have the luxury of a weekend, a month, or a decade to play around with charcoals, clay, paint, pipe cleaners, and other willing materials. And I’d like to try my hand at stop-motion animation, and stained glass.

Stan Carey - Harry Clarke window

(Window by Harry Clarke, about whom more below.)

These days, though, I am too busy with editing work, volunteer work, writing, and countless other activities, online and off, to afford art more than a few evening hours at a time. No doubt many of you can empathise. The business of a busy world is to become busier in spite of one’s efforts to simplify.

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